About A Devotion
By Charles Santorello
Religion, a complicated devotion practiced amongst ourselves as human beings, would seem to be an odd subject to detail in this writing forum concerning my own, but where else does a writer feel compelled to do such. It is a subject better left unsaid, and maybe even lose one’s head, so to speak, about religion. Thomas Moore, Copernicus, and poor Salmon Rushdie are but a few, and now nuns are too, victims of being on the wrong side of religious opinion.
So, who am I to speak of my own devotion; to a place 271 miles away, 149 years in the past, on July the 1st, the anniversary of my devotion. Forgive me, but it is my obligation, as they say in theology, to proselytize. Obligated to remind a nation that 149 years ago, its fate was decided when two great armies crashed into one another in 3 days of bitter and brutal fighting. That it is, as Shakespeare reminded us, just a primordial scream away to; “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war.” That honor, and courage, and sacrifice, as plenty as there was, is still a footnote to nearly 54, 000 dead, and maimed, and forgone. When people resolve to speak no more of further resolution, then, as General Buford said, there is the devil to pay.
I am speaking, of course, about the Civil War battle known as “Gettysburg”, which became an honored memorial cemetery for the union dead several months later in 1863 when President Lincoln cemented it in history with a speech little equaled throughout the annals of time. Now there was a true devotee! More than any man could ever be, there was also a man who had found his religion. You don’t put words together like that, you don’t say, “their last full measure of devotion,” unless you have an overwhelming amount yourself. You don’t contextualize an entire meaning for your endeavors to fight on, despite such devastation, unless you believe in something better than yourself. He was definitely the founder of my religion, as he later became a martyr to the cause, as well.
Now the 163 hard working residents of the town ofGettysburgdid not want to become martyrs back in 1863, in fact, they were trying to survive another season of growing crops, and raising livestock, running shops and, can you believe it, running a religious seminary. It’s a great story and I wish I could tell you that it gets better; but the truth is, the worst was yet to come. You see if you come to this cathedral known as the Gettysburg War Memorial I can promise you many monuments, many words attesting to this, and that, field of glory. Statues did not die there though, or inhale blinding gunpowder smoke while dressed in their cotton and wool uniforms in three days of 90 degree plus heat. It was more like an inferno then, but today if you went, the most smoke would be from someone’s barbeque, or reenactment.
Next year will be the 150th anniversary of the battle, and it’s sure to bring plenty of reenactment festivities. Just like other religions observe their holidays, we have our milestone celebrations as well.
“Oh look, there’s General Lee! I think this is where they charge now?” Sometimes it pays to read the small guides available, before watching a reenactment.
Somewhere, sometime, during your visit though, sadness will be-set you. Yes, almost everyone I’ve talked to has admitted it. It just sort of comes over you. You see, no matter how you tell the story, no matter how well the history is presented, there is no getting around the fact that so many died here, on both sides. I had contemplated this for a long time, and I had finally come to the conclusion that, it had never, ever, left.
You can feel it when you read Times correspondent Sam Wilkeson’s dispatch from the field, writing only hours after seeing the dead body of his son, Lt. Bayard Wilkeson on the ground. He writes, in part epitaph, “Oh you dead, who atGettysburghave baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom inAmerica, how you are envied.” In the account of Tillie Pierce’s recollection as a 15 year old girl giving medical comfort to a union soldier she promises to return and see the next day, only to find him not there, and learn later of his death; or the solemn weeping of William Oates, who had retreated behind a clump of trees to the bottom of Little Round Top, leaving his dead brother’s body at the top, unable to save him during the battle.
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