TAKE 5: Gettysburg's resonance remains 150 years later

Jun. 29, 2013 @ 05:02 AM

This week, we Take 5 with David Spivey on the eve of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg about the battle and visiting the battlefield. Spivey, a native of Lee County and co-owner of Jones Printing, is a Civil War re-enactor who's made numerous trips to Gettysburg and other battlefields. Earlier this year, Spivey was named “Lee County Man of the Year” by the Lee County Community Foundation and “N.C. Senior Citizen of the Year” by the North Carolina Jaycees. He and his wife, Carolyn, have three children and four grandchildren.

What got you interested in the Civil War, and in Gettysburg in particular?

I became very interested in the American Civil War when I was in elementary school during the Civil War Centennial in the early 1960s. I collected “Topps Civil War Cards,” which were like baseball cards with a battle description on each card, bubble gum, etc. I still have my complete set of more than 80 cards. During the summer between the third and fourth grade, I created a Civil War scrapbook that I still have today. For Christmas in 1961, I got a Civil War toy soldier set. I've been hooked ever since.

When I was older, I researched my ancestors and found that I have three Confederate great-great grandfathers and one Union. I also have a great-great grandfather who worked at the Endor Iron Furnace near Cumnock, which supplied iron for the Confederate armies.

The Gettysburg battlefield encompasses almost 25 square miles, and most of it is very well preserved. There are more than 2,000 monuments there. A personal connection that I have to Gettysburg is through the Robert E. Lee Society. Members of the Lee Society from Sanford travel to Gettysburg every spring and fall to clean and maintain the North Carolina and General James Longstreet Monuments as volunteers through the Adopt-a-Site program with the National Park Service.

In an age where so many people don't know the names of elected officials or have a sense of historical events from even a decade ago, why is the Battle of Gettysburg – the 150th anniversary of which is next week – so important to our nation?

July 1-3 will mark the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which is generally recognized as the turning point of the Civil War (along with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th, 1863). More than 50,000 casualties combined for both armies (killed, wounded, captured and missing) defines Gettysburg as the largest and most costly battle of the war. Those staggering numbers are difficult to relate to in this day and time, especially when you think about the fact that it was American fighting American.

Gettysburg as a major turning point in the Civil War is important for several reasons. First, the Civil War defined what and who we are as a nation more than any other part of American history. Like it or not, the power of the federal government over the individual states was established as a result of the war (a battle that continues today). Of course, slavery was abolished, and the country was eventually united and became stronger, but after much suffering and hardship.

A favorite quote from Robert E. Lee, written before the war, is, “They do not know what they [politicians] say. If it came to a conflict of arms, the war will last at least four years. Northern politicians will not appreciate the determination and pluck of the South, and Southern politicians do not appreciate the numbers, resources and patient perseverance of the North. Both sides forget that we are all Americans. I foresee that our country will pass through a terrible ordeal, a necessary expiation, perhaps, for our national sins.”

Secondly, I think that it is our duty as citizens to know about and appreciate the sacrifices that all veterans have made in all wars so that we can live freely and enjoy our blessings in this great nation. History seems to be taking a back seat in our schools, and I strongly disagree with that. A family trip to Gettysburg, or any battlefield from time to time, is a great way to learn and develop an appreciation for who we are as Americans.

What is the experience of going to Gettysburg like for you? And what can first-timers anticipate if making the trip there, and what advice would you give them?

There is an aura about Gettysburg that a lot of visitors feel. My advice for someone visiting for the first time would be to read at least a synopsis about the battle and plan to spend at least two days there if possible. The battlefield is huge, and to make the visit worthwhile, it should not be rushed. It would also be advisable to hire a professional tour guide, or at least purchase a driving tour on CD. A good place to start the visit would be the visitor center/museum to purchase a map, etc.

My favorite Gettysburg quote from Union Gen. Joshua Chamberlain is, “In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass, bodies disappear, but spirits linger to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

That quote is right on the mark; you can feel the presence there.

Do you have one particular Gettysburg memory – either from your own experience or from your study of the battle – that stands out?

The first time that I walked Pickett’s Charge from the North Carolina site to “The Angle” is most memorable for me. I cannot imagine what it truly was like for those soldiers on both sides. I also think that the first day's battle is somewhat overlooked by most visitors. The 26th North Carolina suffered more than 500 casualties (out of 800 men in the regiment) on July 1. The 26th also participated in the Pickett/Pettigrew/Trimble Charge on July 3. Only 80 men were left to muster after the battle. That is the highest casualty rate in a battle for any regiment North or South during the war.

A central figure in the battle was Gen. James Longstreet. Talk about your role in the Longstreet memorial, and your feelings about him and how his legacy is perceived …

I am proud to say that the Gen. James Longstreet Monument would not be at Gettysburg if it were not for Lee County. It was our own Robert C. Thomas who led and chaired the project. Many other locals, such as Bill Johnson and Lewis Lawrence, worked for nine years to plan and raise funds. Our company donated the printing over that time span, and one of the most memorable days of my life was July 3, 1998, when the monument was unveiled.

Gen. Longstreet is my favorite general. Unfortunately, he became a scapegoat after the war and was blamed for the Confederate loss at Gettysburg. Many of this peers turned against him, and many untruths were written into history.

Within the last 30 years or so, his reputation has been vindicated thanks to books such as “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara and “Lee’s Tarnished Lieutenant” by William G. Piston. In Longstreet’s personal recollections, he wrote, “I do not fear the verdict of history on Gettysburg. Error lives but a day, truth is eternal.”