On Saturday morning, my wife and I got up early – 6 a.m. We went to an immaculate restaurant across the street from the hotel for a quick breakfast so that we could be at the Visitor Center by 8 a.m., in time to hire a guide. Our guide was David Hamacher, who told us he had to master the history and trivia of the battle and pass a difficult oral examination administered by master guides to become qualified as a battlefield guide. He gave us an unforgettable 2 1/4 hour tour, from 8 a.m. until 10:15 a.m., charging $35.
He took us everywhere, told us everything and let us linger at the Irish Brigade monument. I am an American, an Irish citizen, a Roman Catholic and a former Marine. At the solemn site, I reflected on the bravery under fire and the loss, and said a silent prayer in memory of Colonel Kelly’s heroes.
Our only regret is that we ran out of time. We did not cross the street from the Visitor Center and view the National Cemetery, where 3,629 Union soldiers are buried, and where Lincoln, in November 1863, four months after the battle, gave his Gettysburg Address, paying tribute to the soldiers of both sides who had fought and died and redefining the meaning of America.
My wife and I had read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills, had seen Gettysburg starring Jeff Daniels as Medal of Honor winner Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, the hero of Little Round Top, and had watched The Civil War, Ken Burn’s television documentary. Each is masterful in its own way. But the books, the movie and the documentary are no match for the deeply moving experience of actually walking on the battlefield itself.
When you go to Gettysburg, you trod hallowed ground where incredible courage under fire by Union and Confederate troops enshrined them in honor, glory and history. You do much more than make a trip. You make a pilgrimage.