I was heading back to the office of the evening newspaper where I was the crime correspondent, with a list of the previous night’s misdemeanors in my notebook, when a beat-up old van pulled into the police station parking lot and the back doors opened. Out jumped a group of men dressed in Confederate States of America uniforms, looking a bit bewildered.
My reporter’s instincts kicked into gear: this was, after all, the British Midlands, a long way from Dixie. And more than a century late. The general in the group wandered over, straightening his plumed hat, and asked me if such-and-such a park was nearby. They were due to be fighting the Yankees in a little while, he explained, and they’d gotten a bit lost.
Indeed. The field of battle was, in fact, in another city about forty miles away. I suggested they go into the police station for directions, and then sprinted off to the nearest telephone kiosk to summon a photographer right away.
With the correct route in their hands, the Civil War re-enactors who had invaded from London showed themselves to be good sports, and agreed to pose for a picture before they bundled back into the van and headed off for a delayed shoot-off. I had great fun writing about “the Gettysburg soldiers who lost the address.” And how the men in gray needed some help from the boys in blue, as Brits refer to the police.
The redirected Rebels weren’t the only ones I have come across to have lost their way when it comes to Gettysburg. As a long-time Civil War buff, I was thrilled to get to visit the actual battle site a few years back with my father, himself a lover of military history. We spent three days walking the fields, studying the monuments, visiting the museums.
As we stood by the side of the road looking up over the rising ground of the gallant but doomed Pickett’s Charge, a young family gathered nearby. “Look boys,” the father said, pointing out across where so many had died. “This is where they filmed the movie!”
Quite. I am sure Gettysburg director Ronald F. Maxwell would be honored.
We hadn’t realized it when planned our trip, but our three days in Gettysburg coincided with the actual dates of the fighting. In addition to meaning we got to see re-enactments, it added some poignancy to the visit. I realized that when dawn rose after the struggle, with the blood of thousands of dead and wounded still soaking into the Pennsylvania soil, it was July 4: less than a century after independence, that ideal was being stretched to break point.
As we mark the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg this week, I hope we never lose our way there, or forget what really happened. To do so would not be “fitting and proper,” as President Lincoln observed in what he modestly called his immortal “few appropriate remarks.”