The Gettysburg gift shop at the Visitor Center has hundreds of books for sale, dealing with the battle and the war generally, but up front, right where you walk in, is Michael Shaara’s “The Killer Angels,” the book that more than any other has shaped the way many people view Gettysburg.
The novel, published in 1974, won the Pulitzer Prize. Shaara’s masterpiece — which inspired Ken Burns to make his acclaimed Civil War documentary and then served as the basis for the movie “Gettysburg” — helped rehabilitate Longstreet’s reputation and made Chamberlain one of the superstars of the battle.
Shaara had the wisdom to understand that the quiet moments are as important as the violent ones, that much of warfare involves waiting — and not knowing what’s happening next or who exactly those soldiers are in the distance or how many columns of infantry may be coming up behind them.
Today you can walk the battlefield with your GPS-equipped smartphone, with an app that tells you exactly what happened in the place you’re standing.
The government has managed over the years to expand the boundaries of the park and restore much of it to the way it used to look. Gone is the Home Sweet Home motel, and the Stuckey’s restaurant and the privately owned observation tower. The Park Service is replanting orchards where they were during the battle. The goal is to make the battlefield like it was.
And yet a Civil War battlefield is always going to be fundamentally different in the modern era. Gettysburg today is breathtakingly serene. Plus there are informational signs and restrooms and parking lots and a museum and a gift shop.
“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground,” the great man said that November, dedicating the national cemetery. “The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”
Lincoln was onto something. There are moments in history that cannot be packaged in a container of words. The words fail us. All we can do is stand there, in awe. And think: This was the place. These were the rocks. This was the view. And the rest — the smoke and dust, the chaos and noise, the violence and the gore — we struggle mightily to imagine.