Learning while on location

Published 12:00 am Monday, April 28, 2003

Editor's note: Reporter Michael Caldwell and photographer Howie McCormick traveled with the Ohio University Southern Learning on Location class to Gettysburg, Pa., and the Antietam battlefield in Sharpsburg, Md. This is Caldwell's first-person account of the trip.

As we marched across the rain-soaked fields where 10,000 soldiers were killed or wounded on July 3, 1863 in the massacre that will forever be known as Pickett's Charge, the words of a soldier who survived the attack echoed in my mind.

"We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men," the unidentified Confederate said.

Email newsletter signup

Considered by many to be the turning point in the Civil War, Ohio University Southern history professor Bob Leith called the tragic conclusion on day three of the battle of Gettysburg, Pa., "the most suicidal infantry charge in history."

It gave me goose bumps as I thought of Major General George Pickett and all of the young soldiers who paid the ultimate price at this very spot. The hair on the back of my neck stood up when I noticed that my watch had stopped at nearly the exact time that we started our one-mile trek.

Sunday's experience perfectly illustrated why Ironton Tribune photographer Howie McCormick and I decided to tag along on OUS' weekend trip to two of the key battle sites of the Civil War - Gettysburg and Antietam in Sharpsburg, Md., the Confederate army's only attempts to bring the war to the Northern territory.

While we thought we were going to show the readers instead of just tell them, we probably learned as much as any of the students on the trip.

In all, about 90 people of all ages, backgrounds and occupations went on the trip, each for their own reasons. Some were students, some were local teachers who wanted to further their own education and others were just community members who wanted to see a part of America's past.

In the historic town of Gettysburg we visited battlefields, historic landmarks and the cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address, what Leith considers the "greatest speech any human has ever given."

Lincoln himself, portrayed by renowned impersonator James Getty, joined us for dinner Saturday. He talked about his life before delivering the famous speech in a commanding manner that would probably have made Honest Abe proud.

"The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here," Getty quoted. "…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from this earth."

Before we made it to Gettysburg, we stopped in Sharpsburg, Md., at Antietam National Battlefield whose well-maintained grounds hide the fact that more then 23,000 soldiers were killed in a single day, Sept. 17, 1862.

"This is the bloodiest day in American history," Leith said to the group. "It has no equal in World War II, Vietnam or anything."

The trip was not only about education, but also about helping to preserve the history for future generations. The group helped the park service reforest part of battlefield by planting nearly 150 Tulip Poplars and Hackberry saplings.

"Our goal here is to restore the battlefield to what it was at the time of the battlefield," said Joe Calzarette, natural resources manager.

After everyone got their hands dirty and toured the rest of the park, we loaded up the buses and went to spend two days in Gettysburg that culminated in our walk of Pickett's Charge that had a lasting impression on myself and other group members.

"At this high water mark is where our nation almost crumbled and could have crumbled," said Brian Kelley, history buff and OUS faculty member, standing on the spot where the Confederates collided with the Union lines. "Thousands have fallen dead and will never return. Right here is the whole turning point of the Civil War."

Although the war continued for more than two years after the battle, our time was over as we prepared to return home. Many of us were somewhat torn between a longing for home and not wanting it to end, but the memories are something that will last a lifetime.

"It is something to see, something you are never going to forget," Symmes Valley School Board member John Kelley said. "If you ever get to go anyplace in America, this is the place to go."

For more about Antietam, Gettysburg and the "Education on Location" trip, see next Sunday's edition of The Ironton Tribune.