“Our days are as grass; we flourish as a flower in the field. The wind passes over it and it is gone, and no one can recognize where it grew.”
This stanza from a poem read at Yizkor, Jewish memorial services, came to mind as we stood last week on the pastoral farmland on which the Battle of Gettysburg took place 150 years ago this July. The temperature had plunged 40 degrees, the wind blew, and the grass in the fields rippled with every gust.
Perhaps nobody would recognize where a flower once grew, but there is no danger that the tens of thousands of soldiers and the one civilian who perished in this Civil War battle will be forgotten.
Millions of people have made the pilgrimage to this tiny town in southeastern Pennsylvania to bear witness to the horror that took place here, in a war of brother against brother that nearly tore our nation apart. They reenact campaigns. They climb Little Round Top and gaze out at the positions held by Confederate troops. They look out from Cemetery Ridge and the Copse of Trees, trying to conjure the image of a mile-long phalanx of men in gray marching toward them during Pickett’s Charge.
The battlefield is studded with square white stones that mark the left and right flanks of every platoon — from both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line. And dozens of monuments — beautiful sculpture and even a tower from which to view that bucolic farmland — honor the regiments from every state that participated in the Battle.
They tour the David Wills House, where Abraham Lincoln spent the night before delivering his Gettysburg Address, an amazingly brief speech of only 272 words that has stayed with us for a century and a half.
And, they visit the first national military cemetery established in this country. Magnolias in full bloom and trees leafing out make it a beautiful place, silent but for the birdsong and distant hum of traffic. It is a most fitting resting place for the more than 3,500 Union troops who gave their lives to ensure that slavery be abolished.
The countryside around Gettysburg is spectacular, but it haunts me. That so much carnage took place in such an idyllic spot seems impossible. But it did.
May we never forget where the grass grew and where the people died.