The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

At Gettysburg, the high-sandwich mark of the Confederacy

The past isn’t dead, as Faulkner wrote once. It’s not even past.

And here in Gettysburg it comes on Texas toast with a basket of chili fries.

Gettysburg, like the other small towns where something remarkable or terrible once happened, has turned into a theme park of sorts. “Make Us Your Gettysburg Address” says a sign on one of the hotels. Hungry after contemplating the rocky area on the side of Little Round Top where hundreds of men fell on a single bloody afternoon? There’s Devil’s Den Deli.

G. K. Chesterton once said that the highest compliment you could pay a writer was to misquote him. “It means that his work has become a part of our mind and not merely of our library.”

If so, all of Gettysburg today is a complimentary misquotation. Thousands of men fell here, many buried unceremoniously en masse, so, well, you can take a ghost tour now, any one of half a dozen, with fancy ectoplasm-sensors or without. The place and those bloody moments between July 1 and July 3 have entered the mind, and T-shirts with Abraham Lincoln rocking out to an iPod or Gen. Lee crossing Abbey Road are what results.

The Confederacy reached its high-water mark here on the third day with Pickett’s charge, whatever that much-used phrase means, and so you can go to General Pickett’s Buffets.

Or you can do what I am about to do. You can go to the Blue and Gray Bar and Grill and attempt the Pickett’s Charge Challenge — a sandwich so large that if you finish it in half an hour, it’s free.

This is America, and this is how we remember.

It is listed on the menu as the Pickett’s Charge Challenge, which is a historically accurate way of saying: No Really, This Is a Bad Idea.

“A sandwich as large as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia combined. Do you have what it takes to finish it? Or will this be your “high-water mark?”

When it arrives, it looks like this.

Their other burgers are things like the General James Longstreet (it comes with peanut butter on it and a small confederate flag) and the General Winfield Scott Hancock (with a Union flag, and cilantro-lime aioli, just like I’m sure he would have wished).

I am the 145th to attempt it. Only two people have prevailed.

It is afternoon on July 3, and it has not yet happened. It seems like a fitting memorial. 150 years ago, to the day, we did not know how it was going to end.

The sandwich is about the size of my head. I have 30 minutes.

When you are trying to devour a gigantic sandwich slathered in cheese sauce, you begin to feel the presence of the past.

Maybe the Battle of Gettysburg was over already by the end of the second day. The Confederates had failed to take the heights. Any attack they could make against the fabled Union fishhook might be a useless gesture. Bitter fighting in the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, on the slopes of Round Top had already sealed the course of battle.

The thing about large, ill-advised sandwiches occurs to you a few bites in: namely, they wouldn’t be $25 challenge sandwiches if they actually tasted good. What you are paying for is the privilege of not finishing the sandwich. You know where you stand.

Possibly Pickett’s Charge was an afterthought. Gen. Longstreet claims he said as much, insisting to Robert E. Lee that he did not know of 15,000 men alive capable of taking the position against which Pickett’s division marched. 

The bar patrons yell encouragement. A woman offers me $50 if I make it through.

“I am being crucified!” Gen. Longstreet told Pickett before the attack began. But he was overruled.

There is so much meat. There is so much cheese sauce. The whole thing is accompanied with a giant basket of chili fries. I get periodic updates in the course of my allotted half-hour with the monstrosity. Twenty-four minutes to go. Fifteen minutes to go. Nine minutes. Four minutes 30 seconds.

E. P. Alexander, in charge of the artillery on the Confederate side, sent message after frantic message to the charging infantry as his barrage of the Union lines concluded, telling them to “Come quick or I can’t support you.”

The cheese sauce is probably worse than the meat. It tastes like shame.  It tastes like hope slowly dying. The bread tastes like a dial tone. Everything tastes like bad analogies. It tastes like sitting on the bus and having someone else sit down next to you and want to make conversation for the remainder of the ride, even though that person smells odd and says her specialty is reading the crystals.

Then the troops surged across the slight rise into the mouths of the cannon, closing ranks as they marched.

The sandwich could not be going much worse if I were being enfiladed with rifle and cannon fire right now.

By the end of the three days of fighting, a huge portion of the Confederate army would have evaporated – taken prisoner, deserted, wounded, killed. Of the soldiers who had marched on an offensive into Pennsylvania soil, one in three would not make it back to fight what from that point on became largely a defensive war. Combine this with the fall of Vicksburg (July 4, 1863), and it was only a matter of time.

At this point in the sandwich I have given up any pretense of enjoyment and am just sitting there paralyzed by the thought that the only thing more disgusting than this sandwich going down would be this sandwich coming back up.

After the war, Gen. Pickett went on to become an insurance salesman. I wonder, after that charge, what his tendency was for assessing risk. Did he start assuming the worst every time? How could you not after you had watched that tide break? When Lee had come telling him to rally his division for the defense, and he had allegedly replied, “General Lee, I have no division.”

Twenty seconds.

“Gen. Lee,” I gasp into the plate of suppurating hunks of onion, “I have no digestion.”

After the sandwich comes the real, official, scheduled remembrance, the kind that will not haunt your digestive tract for years to come. Visitors are invited to walk the path of Pickett’s Charge at the same point in the hot July afternoon when the real charge was made, 150 years ago to the day.

Under the watchful eyes of park rangers, hundreds of people in civilian clothes and military gear go straggling up the slight slope. They scale the small wall. When they have gotten there they stop and stand around and start to walk back home. There is a plan for buses and trolleys to get you there, but you must get back from that point on your own. This is the what-if.

Maybe these hills are only impossible in retrospect. It seems pretty impossible when you are climbing it with a stomach full of the Pickett’s Charge Challenge, but maybe that is just the leaden gut of hindsight. Maybe, at the time, as Faulkner has it in that passage from Intruders In The Dust, “we have come too far with too much at stake and that moment doesn’t need even a fourteen year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose than all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself….”

This is America, and this is how we remember. Stunt eating in restaurants on holy ground. Walking across fields in T-shirts and fanny packs. Words and dates and memories are modified as they make their way through our guts.

All memory is misquoted. That is how you can tell you care.

At 3 in the afternoon, anything is possible. The first bite into this sandwich may be delicious. The chili fries may disappear with ease. In any of the almost infinite tendrils of possibility that stretch out from this moment, I may choose the one where I do not finish an entire eight-inch sandwich and then go staggering out across the field and collapse, seasick, at the approximate location of Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s men. It all beckons — Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington….

It all seemed like a good idea at the time.