Going to Gettysburg – Part 2.

By Paul Comrie | November 13, 2018

My Dad mentioned that he’d have to think about Gettysburg now for a long time, now that he’d seen the place. It’s probably impossible to make sense of it no matter how many books you read, how many documentaries you watch, until you see the ground itself, walk it.

Some astonishingly simple facts that I have never heard before: Robert E. Lee was suffering from dysentery – and his doctor had prescribed laudanum, a 19th century ‘over-the-counter’ form of opium. As many as 4 or 5 large tablets a day. Perhaps more. If he slept at all he was getting less than one hour a night – between midnight and 1:00 a.m. After 3 days of this – high, sick, over-confident on a recent win, but desperate for a quick-fix victory at Gettysburg – he must have been almost half crazed.

Ever since reading about Gettysburg I’ve marvelled at the mysterious nature of Lee’s character.

What drove him and why would he make such a rash, brutal decision as Pickett’s Charge? More than almost any historical figure, Lee fascinates me because his motives are almost entirely impregnable.  Impossible to understand but being in Gettysburg at least gives you a sense of the true complexity of the terrain. The terrain must stand as some kind of metaphor for how complicated Lee himself was.

His physical state must be at least one reason for this.  My Dad and I tried to make a statement about what I felt about the place, but on retrospect, it is just too complicated a topic to make light of in a short video. So we scratched it and got on with the heavy business of pushing through what will likely end up being more than 5,000 miles in less than 10 days of driving.

After driving for 8 hours tonight, after spending the morning and afternoon in Gettysburg, we slipped off back to the South. Through the rain and bitter interstates between Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Virginia once more we drove. We stopped finally in a little motel because the Blue Ridge Mountains were so fogged over we couldn’t see ahead of ourselves three feet. Better to rest someplace than die trying to get to Appomattox Courthouse in one single run.

Just as well. This little stop gives me some pause to think about what I’ve just seen in Gettysburg – as mysterious a place as the men who fought there so long ago. There were pocked facades of brickwork throughout the old town, intermixed with modern fast-foods. Straight out of Stephen King. Some history of horror that subtly underlines the place – in the meantime blue-collar America grinds on, working for tips in a Post-Neoliberal order.

Gettysburg was like something out of one of those weird ‘under the dome’ style Stephen King novels: small-town America, just before the horror kicks-off. The old man who drove the tour bus, who had lived there his entire life. The soft-spoken American tourists visiting their own country. Between that – and the grand memory of what had taken place here – I started to think I had entered a time warp of my own.  It was almost as if the modern town of Gettysburg exists only as a fiction – the citizens themselves but ghosts in some mysterious and eternal recreation.

The video below is the typical kind of worthless American scholarship that creates a hagiography of Lee and does nothing whatsoever to provide us with some meaningful commentary about Lee’s character, his motives or the true and lasting forces which drove this man to do so much for such a vile cause.