Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Vacations are meant to pull folks away from the subject matter that dominates their professional lives, so when my wife Lisa and I set out for our getaway, I put sports on the back-burner and immersed myself into the fascinating domain of Ameican history.

First we went to Gettysburg, Pa., where voices of the pivotal Civil War battle July 1-3, 1863 can still be heard if you pay close attention. We stood among the graves where Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. We contemplated his words and marveled in their profound meaning.

We stayed at an inn adjacent to Gen. Robert E. Lee's headquarters. We thought about the agonizing decisions he was forced to make. When tensions rose before the war, he had to decide whether to fight for the preservation of the union that he grew to love during his time at West Point, or for the tenets of his native state, Virginia.

We absorbed the strategy he configured as he led the Army of Northern Virginia through Maryland and into Gettysburg. A Southern victory surely would have altered the course of the war, and how close he got.

We dined in an old building -- the Farnsworth House -- which still bears the scars of bullets that ricocheted off brick. From where one stray bullet killed Jennie Wade, the only civilian to be slain in the battle, while she baked bread for Union soliders.

I stood on the "Angle," the very point where Confederate General George Pickett led his ill-fated charge at the Federal's center on the battle's third day, Lee's last gasp. We ascended Little Round Top, where General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his 20th Maine regiment used raw courage to beat back a Confederate attack when their ammunition had run out.

"... from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave their last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain ..."

Lincoln's words still ring clear 200 years after his birth. Every American should have the chance to absorb his spirit at the spot they were issued.

From there, it was on to Colonial Williamsburg, where the history of the days leading up to the American Revolution come alive before your very eyes. We took part in a debate in which Virginians of the 1780s wrestled with the choice of seeking independence or standing by England's King George III.

We witnessed a 1706 witch trial where the prosecuting attorney delivered such a strong case that we were wondering just how the accused woman could be anything but a witch.

An agitated re-enactor comes running down the street to inform the Williamsburg populace that a British regiment over 1,000 strong is on the edge of town. A short time later, we are given a forceful address by famous turncoat Benedict Arnold on why we should place our loyalty behind our king instead of a rag-tag group of rebels with no chance to succeed.

We made a side to nearby Jamestown, the site of the first English settlement on North American soil in 1607, where archaeologists have unearthed thousands of revealing artifacts that display the hardships encountered by the brave people who left the relative comforts of England to settle a new world.

But perhaps the most compelling aspect of our journey was another side trip to Yorktown, where the troops of British general Lord Cornwallis laid down their arms at the feet of George Washington in the battle that signalled the end of the American Revolution.

The redoubts (small, heavily armed forts) over-run by the French and American troops remain in tact on a pristine field just outside of town. A self-guided auto tour of the battlefield reveals the essence of strategy employed by Washington's colonials and their French comrades in tightening the vice on Cornwallis, whose plan to escape across the river was thwarted.

The very field where Cornwallis' men, overcome with despair, tossed their weapons in a pile with the victorious American and French lined up on either side, remains untouched. But Cornwallis wasn't there that day. He lie in a Yorktown rooming house, reportedly too ill to attend the proceedings.

Standing alone, next to Surrender Field, left me with a feeling of inspiration, pride and eternal appreciation of what the men who fought there accomplished.

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