The lasting appeal of Gettysburg

“We had an almost mystical visit to the cemetery,” said Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer about his recent trip to Gettysburg with 19 Hunter College students.

“We walked in via the route Lincoln took and visited the soldiers’ monument plus the now famous rhododendron bush [recently identified as the spot where Lincoln stood to deliver his speech]. Then after arcing along to the speaker’s stand and Lincoln bust behind it, thunder started erupting like artillery outbursts and we barely got to the bus before a surreal downpour overtook the town. Another great memory for our participants,” he said.

hunter students

What makes a president of a university with 18,000 students, within a few months of retirement, bring a group of 19 college students for a 2-½ day visit to Gettysburg? And what makes a group of college students with no course requirement or assignment give up several precious days of spring break to make that trip? Why does someone with funds to “take students to historic places” pick Gettysburg first? What is it about Gettysburg, 160 years after the battle and speech, that continues to attract pilgrims, historians, student groups, and families?

Hunter College President Jennifer Raab provided some ideas. “The trip was made possible by a generous gift from Dick Gilder. He made a fortune on Wall Street and decided to invest in a better understanding of our history. Toward the end of his life, he came up with this idea, to take students into the field to see where our history actually happened.” This wasn’t a ‘class trip.’ It’s not about courses, or grades, or credit,” Raab said. “The students are volunteers; they saw something in this trip that made them willing to give up spring break.”

But why Gettysburg first? “It’s been on my bucket list for a long time,” said Raab. “It’s about our history, our ideals, our democracy, who we are. I tell our students it’s about our ideals and our democracy, about the struggle to preserve it. If you don’t understand that, then we as a people are doomed.”

The students had a daunting schedule, and one that wouldn’t necessarily be available to every visiting group: – a private after-hours visit to the Cyclorama, dinner at the Visitor Center, and a crowd-free hour to wander through the museum; a private look at some relics of the Lincoln assassination on the 158th anniversary of his fatal wounding; a tour of Spangler Farm; a whirlwind three plus hour battlefield tour led by Gettysburg College professor Peter Carmichael; a pre-opening private tour of the new Adams County Historical Society; and, on their last morning, a storm-defying visit to the National Cemetery.

The students were a diverse group, including students born in the USA and many other countries, sophomores through seniors, and both history majors and non-majors. At least seven of the group planned to become history teachers after graduation.

A few random comments reflected the students’ individual thoughts. “My dad was a history fanatic and he brought me when I was little. I didn’t pay much attention and now I want to learn about it. … Lincoln redefined our whole national purpose here … I wanted to get out of New York City … So many sacrificed so much. … We can’t understand the present without understanding the past … I wanted to understand why these men were ready to die in battle and what they fought for … I don’t know much about history and I want to know more. … It’s heartbreaking. There were so many casualties and it could have been avoided. … There were so many heroes. … I wanted to see where it happened, to walk over the ground where these men struggled. … It’s the greatest battle in our history. … Seeing where it happened is so important for understanding it.”

Holzer concluded, saying “I think our Hunter College students left Gettysburg convinced of the power of place to bring history alive. Seeing the spots where Pickett and Pettigrew launched their fateful charges—where photographers encountered dead bodies strewn along boulders near Little Round Top—where Lincoln delivered his famous address—and where “our own” Franklin Roosevelt dedicated the peace memorial on the 75th anniversary of the battle—made the ongoing contest over freedom and memory more vivid, important, and urgent than ever.” We are so grateful to the Gettysburg Foundation, the new Beyond the Battle Museum, and all the professionals who hosted us. Above all, kepis off to Prof. Peter Carmichael for the best battlefield tour ever, Unforgettable!”

Leon Reed, freelance reporter, is a former US Senate staff member, defense consultant, and history teacher. He is a seven year resident of Gettysburg, where he writes military history and explores the park and the Adams County countryside. He is the publisher at Little Falls Books, chaired the Adams County 2020 Census Complete Count Committee and is on the board of SCCAP and the local Habitat for Humanity chapter. He and his wife, Lois, have 3 children, 3 cats, and 5 grandchildren.


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Bill Serfass
Bill Serfass
11 months ago

Money well spent by a rich person! Thanks for writing this story and thanks to Gettysburg Connection for printing it; otherwise, no one would know about this and the reactions of the students! Of all the comments, this one stands out: “Lincoln redefined our whole national purpose here”.

Terry Castonguay
Terry Castonguay
11 months ago

This is what it is all about… to learn from our history. Because if we fail to learn from our history…we are doomed to repeat our history!

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