I recently discovered that my great-great-grandfather served in the Civil War and although he was not at Gettysburg, his brother was. My two-times-great-uncle’s name is listed on a plaque affixed to the base of the Pennsylvania monument located on the Gettysburg battlefield, along with his regiment and all the men from the state who fought there in those early days of July 1863.
My husband and I went to Gettysburg, and as my finger traced the letters of my relative’s name, I felt like I was on an episode of Who Do You Think You Are? I teared up, I felt proud and as I had been doing all day since we arrived at the National Park, I imagined what it was like for him and the other 165,000+ men on the very ground where I stood. One of the most surprising things I learned that day was that the fighting went on in the dark, soldiers shooting and stabbing at each other blindly, the north and the south indistinguishable.
It was a beautiful day after a long winter and cars were continually pulling to the side of the road, their passengers getting out and climbing the steps to take a closer look at the impressive structure. As I slowly walked past the 34,530 names listed on the bronze tablets, I realized if the other visitors had an ancestor who fought here, their soldier had survived the horrific battle. If they hadn’t, there would be no future generations on their family tree. I have always loved history and in that moment, it came alive for me in a new way. Our country was forever changed in all the ways that only a war can, and I’m not referring to the outcome, who won, who lost. If you are reading this, your great-great direct lineage made it through all the struggles and strife that grew this country. And that is pretty sobering to comprehend.
In the coming weeks I will visit the graves of my great-great-grandfather and his brother. I will pay my respects, think about the days and nights they spent fighting for my life, and leave a small American flag by their headstones. And the pointer finger of my right hand will once again follow the letters of their names, with great revereance, appreciation and yes, love, for two men I never met but got to know on a battlefield called Gettysburg.