By Phil Hamilton, March 30, 2010 in Pedagogy and Teaching, Outside the Classroom
A few weeks ago, I took a dozen students from my university on a spring break field trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park. We spent 3 days touring the field of action. Although we endured blustery temperatures and tramped through some deep snow drifts (rather than dealing with heat and humidity as in July 1863), I found the experience highly rewarding and satisfying. (By the way, the new NPS museum, which opened in 2008, is especially worth seeing).
Several years ago, when I was the faculty advisor to the history club at my university, I used to lead more trips to historical sites within a day’s drive of tidewater Virginia. Although I’ve pulled back a bit due to other responsibilities, I continue to lead this trip to Gettysburg every year (this is our fourth time up to Pennsylvania in the last five years).
I find the more often I visit Gettysburg, the less I discuss strategies and tactics and the more I relate vignettes about particular officers and soldiers. Many of these stories convey what I think are the most important and interesting questions about the battle (and about the entire war)—why did these ordinary men join the ranks and why did they fight and die in such extraordinary numbers? While historians continue to debate the war’s causes and the ideological motivations of ordinary soldiers (I used James McPherson’s For Cause and Comrades in my Civil War course), as I looked out over the field where Pickett’s men charged on July 3, 1863, I cannot help but be impressed by the dedication of these soldiers to the causes they believed in.
I lead students on these trips in part because I always enjoy visiting this field myself. But I also want the students themselves to gain some sense of the incredible commitment and sacrifice of Civil War soldiers (most of whom were about the same age as these students). And I believe that visiting this historic site is one of the ways they will gain a deeper appreciation of our nation and its values as well as a greater understanding about our shared past.