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If you let your imagination go, and it’s hard not to in this quaint Civil War town, you’re forced to examine yourself. Standing amid the weather-beaten graves, confronted with memorials to such staggering loss, you’re not behind the scenes of history. You’re in it. You, and what you bring to the life of this still indivisible nation, are why they died.
Looking for ghosts
Despite all the bloodletting, the town of Gettysburg survived the battle surprisingly well. So did all but one civilian, a 20-year-old woman named Jenny Wade. She was struck by crossfire as she kneaded bread in her kitchen. Her house, with its blood-soaked floorboards, is now one of the many private museums and souvenir shops along Baltimore Street, the main thoroughfare connecting the present-day town of 7,622 to the battlefield park.
A stroll down Baltimore Street recalls the civilian side of the equation, with period buildings that once housed the wounded now serving as bed-and-breakfasts, antique stores and restaurants — some, if you look closely, are still pockmarked with shell bursts and bullet holes.
But for the epic battle, present-day Gettysburg would still be “a small hick town in the middle of Pennsylvania,” according to our rapid-fire battlefield guide, Howie Frankenfield. A retired Navy veteran, he bought one of the historic brick homes on Baltimore Street and makes a living leading private car tours.
A couple nights’ stay in the historic Brafferton Inn, with its Victorian charm and luxury jet bath, convinced us it would be a shame to come just for the battlefield. The Brafferton is the oldest deeded house in Gettysburg, with uneven stone walls to prove it. But like a lot of historic towns that celebrate 19th-century Americana, Gettysburg has its fair share of schmaltz — not the least in about a dozen lantern-lit ghost tours.
“Fifty-thousand casualties. That was a lot of suffering and death,” said Brafferton proprietor Brian Hodges, explaining the town’s burgeoning new industry. “Now a lot of people come here looking for ghosts.”
But the authentic spirit of Gettysburg still inhabits the valley of monuments outside of town, where solemn inscriptions tell the story of men like those in the First Minnesota. Had it not been for a well-timed bayonet charge that averted a Confederate breakthrough, Lee might well have rolled up the Yankees by the end of the second day.
Lt. William Lochren’s 1897 dedicatory address still invokes the chill. With a speck of sun finally breaking through the gray, we read his words in the shadow of one of the two Minnesota monuments.
“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant,” Lochren wrote. “Death or wounds to us all — the sacrifice of a regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position, and probably the battlefield.”
Kevin Diaz • 1-202-383-6120