It was her worst nightmare. And it came true.
Thirty years ago, my new wife and I stood in an open field in the Virginia countryside, mesmerized by the scenery around us, which included cannons, picket fences, and monuments dedicated to those who fought in the first major engagement of the Civil War, the First Battle of Bull Run.
Actually, I was the only one who was awed by the historical significance of the ground I was standing on. My wife? She was pouting. There wasn’t a shopping mall in sight.
I wasn’t long before we spotted a man decked in Confederate gray, complete with all of his reenactor accoutrements, walking the field across from us. I smiled when I saw him. My wife frowned. “Don’t even think about it,” she warned me.
And I didn’t. For three decades. But at three decades + 1 month, that all changed. That’s when word reached me that a number of descendents of Union soldiers who served in the 154th New York Volunteer Regiment, better known as The Hardtack Regiment, were forming a reenacting company to participate in the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Why the sudden interest, you ask? Because my great-great granddaddy was in that regiment and fought at Gettysburg. He survived the war and actually returned to Gettysburg on the 50th Anniversary of the battle.
Now the 150th Anniversary was upon us. It was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I wasn’t about to miss it. Not only that, I wasn’t about to let my two grown sons miss it either (to tell you the truth, my two boys, both small town native Texans, were reluctant at first to don the Union blue, but since they had Union ancestry in their blood, they acquiesced).
When I broke the news to my wife, I’m sure her initial thoughts went something like, “What will the neighbors think?” or “My god, he’s really doing it” or “I’ll be damned if my two boys are gonna fight for the North”. Eventually, though, she resigned herself to the inevitable and began to probe me with questions.
The conversation went something like this:
Her: “So, where are you going to get your costume from?”
Me: “For starters, it’s not called a costume; it’s called a uniform. And I have a friend who can loan me one.”
Her: “Fair enough. Are you going to have to wear it when you practice?”
Me: “Actually, it’s called drilling and yes, I will be in full uniform when we drill.”
Her: “I bet those wool costumes are gonna be hot as hell…”
Just in case you missed the coverage on Fox, CNN, and other major news channels, the 150th Anniversary Gettysburg Reenactment was quite the spectacle, with nearly 15,000 reenactors participating and over 80,000 spectators filtering through the camp and grandstands during the four day event. It was indeed hotter than the Dickens in those wool uniforms, but we survived unscathed (unlike the tens of thousands of Americans who perished during those 3 fateful days 150 years ago). I know my boys haven’t stopped talking about it. And as you can see, neither have I.
But there is a point to all of this. Actually, there are three of them I want to make. Here they are:
Point #1: History Is Important
Even if you’re not a history aficionado (aka my wife), history is important. Even more so than you realize. You see, history teaches us lessons, lessons about success and failure, lessons about good and evil, lessons about faith and folly. We learn from history. At least we should.
As a society, it’s obvious we tend to fail in this respect. And we have to keep learning the same, painful lessons over and over again. Afghanistan is a prime example. It’s a land that’s never been conquered or “controlled” for very long. Study ancient history. Study British history. Study Russian history. And now, study American history. We must have skipped over that chapter in the book.
Every time history repeats itself, the price goes up. Anon
And up. And up…
Point #2: Family History Is Important
If you really dig into your family’s history (a piece of cake with the online resources available these days), you’ll find it damn interesting. This history can be a source of pride, or, in some cases, be somewhat embarrassing. Regardless, you can learn from it. Lots.
If you have older living relatives, take the time to get their stories. Don’t let them pass on with these tales still inside of them. That in itself is a travesty. My wife’s grandmother was well into her nineties when she died. Born in 1912, she lived the history I grew up reading about. Prohibition. The Roaring Twenties. Bonnie and Clyde. The Second World War. The list goes on. Can you imagine the first-hand accounts she could have relayed to us regarding this period in history? But no one (including me) took the time to sit down with her and flesh them out. Now she is gone and so are her stories. What a loss.
Don’t let that happen in your family. Take the initiative and get those oral or written histories from your older family members. Shoot, do it over the phone if you have to. With the smart phone apps and software available at your fingertips, getting a quality recording of that oral history will be easier than teaching a dog to eat!
Point #3: Your History Is Important
Don’t wait for someone to record your stories (or forget to do so). You take the initiative and do it yourself. Want to be remembered when you’re gone? Keep a journal that can be passed down through the generations. A tombstone ain’t gonna do it. Your tiny plot of earth may sport the biggest granite in the graveyard, but you’ll soon be forgotten. Don’t believe me? When is the last time you visited your great-grandparent’s graves? Do you even know where they are buried? I thought so.
Your time here on earth is important. It deserves to be recorded. Your first-hand accounts of events in your life, not just about what happened but how you felt about them, are the stuff best-sellers are made of. And two hundred years from now, your descendents will read them with keen interest and actually know who the hell you were.
Much to our surprise, the wife flew out to Gettysburg to join in the festivities. No, she didn’t wear period-correct clothing or talk in some nineteenth century dialect, but she did get some great pictures and even snuck behind enemy lines to capture some gripping footage of her boys in action. And do you know what? I think she rather enjoyed herself.
Just don’t tell her that.