Can Not Hallow

The President Abraham Lincoln 12″ poseable action figure in period attire and equipped with a display stand, available for near-on $30 at the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Centre, is saying something. Staring out beyond the transparent acrylic, painted black eyes focussed to a point somewhere just beyond your left shoulder, his face is moulded to exhibit the same patient stoicism with which he looked into Mathew Brady’s camera in the dark days of 1864, and with which, we would like to imagine, he signed the 13th Amendment. While this particular model does not contain the standard Read Only Memory voice box from which the Gettysburg Address may be transmitted at the customer’s will, the face is reassuring, the expression looks authentic. Those lines of fatigue carved by four bloody years are etched very nicely here: they’re just like the daguerreotype, just like the five dollar bill, just like the original man. Who wouldn’t want to take an Abraham Lincoln home from Gettysburg? Who wouldn’t want to collect another likeness from the very place those furrows in his brow got deeper, the very site on which he charged the American nation with a curious kind of living commemoration? 

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. 

It is a kind of rehearsal, a dedication to memory in the everyday act of living life. Of the people, by the people. A commitment to memory that enables participation, narration. It does not include a Read Only Memory voice box; it is not a monument set in stone, sepulchral. For the people. They learn the Gettysburg Address off by heart, varying the intonation, the speed, a personal dedication. The customer takes the President Abraham Lincoln 12″ poseable action figure in period attire and equipped with a display stand home, to play, to display, and to consider. For the people. With 30 different bodily articulations for around $30, the poseable action figure can be shaped before it is displayed. It is a memento of Gettysburg National Military Park. It is a difficult memory to explain. We can not dedicate, we can not commemorate, we can not hallow. That ground is a difficult memory to explain. It is a difficult memory to say. The customer can try to. Hallow this ground. The customer can try to explain Gettysburg with the poseable action figure. It’s a way of taking home a portion of that field. For the people.

It is a difficult memory to begin to acquire, especially for a British citizen without blood ties to a portion of that American field. I had been to, and wept at, Ypres and Arras where my great, great uncles had their names carved in stone. But no, this is different. American Civil War battle sites are not about stone, nor are they especially about tears. They are about the visceral stereoscopic photographs-cum-national-memories of men strewn among boulders and lost in the tangled thickets of the Wilderness. They are about fighting in places like the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field, places which remind you how you map and name your home landscape. And then, yes, places whose familiar names make you picture how your home landscape would look under fire, after fire, under the weight of thousands of bodies of men and horses. The American Civil War is about bullets in your wall and in your bedstead, that kind of physical witness which you can’t really remove unless you decide to rebuild and be done with it. And even then, bullets lie dormant in old attic boxes, lodged in modern homes which, despite their modernity, are not quite yet recovered. Bullets shot by brethren. These places are about the past speaking through the present, to the present, with the present.

I wanted these battlefields to speak to me as they seemed to speak to American visitors. To my mind there was no way they could fail to speak, no way I could fail to commune with these scarred and saturated places. I wanted to take a portion of each field away with me.

We can not dedicate, we can not commemorate, we can not hallow. 


At Spotsylvania, the ground was thick with bullets and abandoned knapsacks.

In 1866, J.T. Trowbridge travelled the southern states with the aim of recording the war’s aftermath for posterity. He visited battle sites and saw the burial parties move in, watched the burial parties become accustomed to their job, watched the burial parties learn how to eat lunch while conducting their business. The ground was thick with bullets and abandoned knapsacks, and that is all that was left once the dead were moved. At Spotsylvania Court House, between interviews, J.T. Trowbridge spotted a woman and two girls making their way through the battlefield’s undergrowth. They lived on the battlefield, and he assumed they were gathering berries. In fact, they were gathering bullets, probably to make money to repair their property. Picking minié balls from the ground like vegetables. Grasping the ball briefly in the hand before placing it into a bucket prolific with shot. These women walked as if in a dream. Trowbridge noted that, on asking them what they planned to do with the shot, they stared at him, dumbly. Trowbridge noted that, on enquiring about the battle itself, the women seemed not to know anything of it, as if their memories had been lost, as if it had never happened.


You are approaching a section of America’s most 
hallowed ground. 

On May 12, 1864, during the battle of Spotsylvania Court House, a 200-yard stretch of Confederate earthworks became the focus of a 20-hour period of relentless close combat. Named the Bloody Angle, it is hard to explain without statistics. It saw the longest sustained hand-to-hand combat of the American Civil War. It is hard not to place this memory within its military framework, it is hard purely to suggest the horrific extent of the destruction. The Bloody Angle is slight; it is so slight that visitors can barely make it out. The day saw 17,000 casualties. The Bloody Angle is insubstantial, and the pamphlet tells you that, as wave upon wave of men were sent into the fray, they fought over piles of the dead and wounded who lay trapped there. I looked up from the numbered pamphlet to the markers indicating the location of the Bloody Angle. I could not make it out. 

Site of
22-Inch Oak Tree
Felled By
Small Arms Fire 

The feet of visitors have worn away part of the earthworks over the years, and the place is difficult to read. Several large monuments attempt to mark where individual regiments fell in the combat: standing on the Angle’s edge, they peer into the now shallow trench and cast their shadows upon it. A trail leads around the earthworks across a wide, open expanse of scrub- and fern-land. A dog walker speaking on her mobile phone took this route, crossing the small bridge which spans the earthworks and urging her dog on, away from the Confederate lines. The dog rooted in the bracken for a long moment before moving on.

Help Preserve
Please Stay Off 

There were three information boards standing respectfully at the edge of the site. Instead of containing image or text, though, they were empty. The plastic coverings had taken on a dirty black aspect around the edges which framed the metal beneath. The effect was that of a blank daguerrotype, and I lingered for a while trying to make out if there was, in fact, an image present which had faded in the sunlight.


On Gettysburg battlefield in the days following the engagement, Alexander Gardner searched out the dead and took their images. He moved several of the bodies, and supplied them with props that he had brought with him. The dead, like the makeshift rifle Gardner placed alongside them, were perfect subjects. The rifle, a standard against which the dead’s perfect stillness could be measured, was an ideal foil. Often, the rifle conducts the image. Sometimes it suggests action – pointing to the sky it itches to be used – sometimes, though, it cradles a dead man in the arc it makes, lying on the ground above his head. The same July sun that blisters these men glances off the rifle, making us see the metal. The dead are often almost hidden in the landscape, but the rifle’s glint draws our eyes to them. Accompanying one image, of a fallen rebel sharpshooter, Gardner’s narrative tells of how he came to take the photograph of this lonely dead man hidden among the rocks of Devil’s Den. He tells us that, when he returned to visit the location a second time, some months later, he was surprised to find the remains still present. He and his rifle had been the only ones to find the rebel out, to recognise him where he lay unrecognized and alone, between the rocks at Gettysburg, and to arrange him for further eyes.

                                                 A Rifle, propped
Here, a boulder                         on a wall of rocks                                And here

 A                      Rebel                           Sharpshooter

  Foreground                                                                 And further foreground


There was a bright yellow BMW at Gettysburg: it perched on the summit of the Little Round Top, and it caught the sun and caught the eye and it obstructed our sightline down to The Peach Orchard. There was a guide inside attempting to explain the military significance of the Little Round Top to the driver and his two friends, and the two friends got out of the car to clamber over the boulders and into the crevices of the rocky hill face, climbing on down towards the Devil’s Den.

The Little Round Top is a geographically significant part of the Gettysburg battlefield: the smaller of two rocky hills south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, it is a large diabase rise with an oval summit. The summit is fairly narrow, and was held successfully by Union troops throughout the battle. The Little Round Top’s slope is thick with boulders, which would seem to me to make a covered ascent relatively simple, and impede a charge downwards; the Confederates, though, never made it up there, and Chamberlain’s bayonet charge down it is one of the battle’s most famous moments. There are places in between, though, where men were lost. Photographs show these interstices. The landscape is a shock to see after the photographs. Dissociating the daguerrotype boulders from their frames, I found myself trying to piece them together into this larger geography. Perhaps the most troubling thing about it was the fact that the photographs’ secluded spaces became real, then, and accessible to the visitors who chose to clamber down between the rocks. Following Chamberlain’s footsteps, down through these spaces made sacred to me not by blood but by photography, the visitors leaped down towards the valley, towards the regrown Peach Orchard, towards the Group of Trees marking the destination of Pickett’s Charge. The Group of Trees, which were standing still that day as the wind was down, are surrounded by a wrought iron fence, for protection from visitors. But you cannot see the fence from the Little Round Top. 

I did not go down among the crevices, to the Devil’s Den or Slaughter Pen. Instead, I went into a curious chapel-like monument, dedicated to the 12th and 44th New York infantry. It has a spiral staircase and an observation deck. It has a tower, not open to the public, which is topped by a Maltese cross. Its walls marked by years of visitors, it seems to me now a built way of talking about the landscape of the Little Round Top. I did not stay inside it for long because a group of schoolchildren were swarming inside. In the end, I did not climb the spiral staircase and make it to the observation deck.


From the Gettysburg battlefield, Mrs Edmund A. Souder carefully enclosed flower seed and blossom within the folds of a letter to a friend. The wounded, she said, were greatly in need of good Christian women to tend them, to provide them with ‘a little food or a cup of tea prepared in a home-like manner’. The sights and sounds, she said, were beyond description. More help, she said, was urgently needed. Within the folds of a letter to a friend, Mrs Edmund A. Souder carefully enclosed flower seed and blossom from the Gettysburg battlefield.


There had been beehives at the Roulette Farm, Antietam, but it is said that they had been destroyed by Confederate soldiers, who shot at them as Union troops were progressing through the farm yard. Apparently the bees provided a fine natural weapon, incapacitating the Union troops so that they lost sight of the enemy and forgot to shelter themselves from the shooting that ensued. The beehives have not been reconstructed.

Antietam battlefield lies in rural Maryland, in the richly agricultural Antietam Valley. When we visited, the sun was hot on the cornfields, and a spring was singing down through the banks which shelter the preserved Roulette Farm. It sounds perhaps overly simple, but the place is beautiful. It is one of those places that makes you wonder how war could ever come to be there, and just how the land had held such combat. The landscape looks much as it would have done at the time the battle occurred, save for the beehives. The National Park Service consistently works with the land, maintaining its accessibility for modern feet while replanting the lost trees of 1862, making the whole place seem as it was. These layered landscapes occasionally jar uncomfortably, when a car drives past the simple white Dunker Church for instance, or when excavations are under way.

There are groundhogs at Antietam, and a guide told us that they had recently unearthed some remains out in one of the cornfields. A programme of excavation and reinterment had to be carried out by the Park Services. The guide told us that this happened every so often, that they weren’t sure how many bodies remained out there. They deal with the remains as they come to light. Taking a trail out around the Roulette Farm, we happened to glimpse one of these groundhogs in the lane ahead. It moved much like a weasel, slinking through the grass when it caught sight of us. Its paws, like its body, were surprisingly large. Eventually it struck out into a field and we lost sight of it.


I am ashamed to say that, at many of these battle sites, I kept my eyes to the ground. I think I would like to say that I found something, a dull rust-red in the scrub; I think I would like to describe how the natter of a metal detector became the drawn-out wail of peculiar success. The sound of myself connecting with these places in a way which could be dug up, brushed off, kept tight in the palm of the hand until the rust rubbed off and you could smell the iron. I would like to describe taking a part of the battlefield home, putting it on display, playing with it, contemplating it. But all that was left was soil and the leaves of grass and trees and I can’t think how to arrange them, to rehearse them, to make them speak. But all that was left was soil and the leaves of grass and trees, and I can’t think how to say them.

We can not dedicate, we can not commemorate, we can not hallow.