There’s been a lot of travel press focus on Washington DC and Gettysburg recently, thanks to the Lincoln effect (two films – Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter and Lincoln – have recently been released), propelling American politics and the man with great taste in hats back into the travel spotlight. I started to think about the time I went to Gettysburg, during a sixth form college Politics trip to New York and Washington DC, which saw us stopping off at the famous battleground with absolutely no knowledge of its significance.
Yes, we were bloody ignorant, but we also weren’t even studying American politics on the A Level curriculum, so it wasn’t really surprising that none of us had done extra-curricular research before we arrived. The previous year’s intake had gone to Russia, but this was vetoed for our year group, due to one boy’s previous exploits with Russian ladies. Enough said. So we were off to America, armed with our sterling knowledge of socialism and Marx’s Communist principles and not much else, apart from a useful analogy from one of our teachers who insisted that conservatism is like a wicker basket. Hence why I drew a wicker basket in my notes.
There are several reasons that I have only one photo of Gettysburg to look back on: firstly, I was in a group of tired, freezing cold and grumpy Brits who didn’t know who the Confederates were or what they were doing there at the time (yes, in retrospect, I am looking back and cringing, but a 17-year-old has different priorities).
We were being lectured by a very experienced tour guide on where each side was positioned in the town and what happened during the battle, but he kind of assumed we knew the fundamental aspects of it, so he gave us some seriously advanced blow-by-blow account of the events of the Civil War, which was a bit heavy after a few days of shopping and sightseeing in New York. I mean, I knew more about bargain hunting at Forever 21 than I did about this conflict. We all sort of stared blankly and shuffled our feet and tried to grasp what was going on, but it was nothing we could relate to in the same way as the tour guide did.
Added to all this, I was really into emphasising the fact that I’m a pacifist, in that very strident 17-year-old way, which meant that I stomped around the Gettysburg Museum moaning about how I didn’t want to look at a load of bloody guns and ammunition. If you’ve never been, the main word of warning: there are a hell of a lot of weapons and there’s also plenty of accounts of brave soldiers, men dying for the greater good, etc., without much acknowledgement of the brutality and the loss that goes with all of that action. It’s all very patriotic and important, but it does sort of feel a bit hollow if you’re looking at what these men went through. We’d also recently been to the UN and I had a nice little collection of pacifist postcards in my luggage which I kept being reminded of – the twisted barrel of a gun, the dove of peace, suddenly contrasted with bullet holes in a building. I guess I struggled to digest everything.
The other reason I only have one photo? I had a crap camera and I didn’t really know much about photography either. Hopefully I’ve improved since then, if only in the quantity of photos and the ability to actually use different modes and settings. If I could go back now and shoot some landscapes then I would, along with some of the buildings in the town that are permanently scarred by the conflict.
So, what are the morals of the story?
1. Always do a little bit of research before you travel. Know what you’re going into, especially if it involves going on a tour.
2. Even if you’re a pacifist, don’t let that stop you learning from a battlefield. In fact, you should probably learn more than the war enthusiasts.
3. Take photos of everything, as long as photography is permitted. You’ll be able to recapture the spirit of the place afterwards.
4. Before you go to this particular battlefield, read Lincoln’s address. It’s powerful and engaging.
Apologies to Gettysburg – you were worth a lot more than one photo.