November 19 is Remembrance Day in Gettysburg, the day that Lincoln dedicated part of the battlefield as a cemetery for the Civil War dead in 1863. That year in July the dead lay on the battlefield, on the farmers’ fields planted with crops and in the summer-green woods where they had taken positions behind boulders and tree trunks. Some lay covered with dirt, and others just lay bare to the weather. When land for a cemetery was set aside, the townspeople moved the dead to proper graves.
As a citizen of Gettysburg more than a century later, I carry no responsibilities as burdensome as moving thousands of dead bodies for burial. My children and I climb the steep trail of Round Top, scaling the hill’s crowning boulders and dropping down behind them, pushing leaves off of low plaques to learn which soldiers fought where. We acquaint ourselves with the town’s history—I was impressed to hear that the main building on the Gettysburg College campus had been a Civil War hospital. Later I realized that nearly every building standing in 1863 had been, of necessity, a hospital, too. A colleague who commuted here from Maryland once asked, “How can you live in that town? You’re living on the most blood-soaked piece of ground in America.” But this place doesn’t feel blood-soaked. The former hospital buildings are bed-and-breakfasts, or dormitories, or offices. The battlefields roll out like velvet, their hems bordered with silent cannons and marble monuments. Although there was so much death, to my mind it’s safely tucked into the past. [excerpt]
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Rhett, Kathryn. Conception: A Personal History. River Teeth (Fall 2006) 8(1):21-30.