I try to make the trip to Gettysburg for each Remembrance Day anniversary weekend each year. The past five such events in November have been for me (and I’m sure thousands of others) very inspiring. Five years ago, the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg in conjunction with several other groups have sponsored a Luminaria in the National Cemetery. It’s similar to the one held at Antietam. At Gettysburg, small white bags holding candles are placed at each Civil War grave throughout the cemetery, as well as along the walking paths and the Soldier’s National Monument. This past Saturday night had a pitch-black sky, and the candles were something to behold. Besides giving one a tangible reminder of how many hero dead are in the cemetery, the sight is quite inspiring – it always gives me a feeling that, for just those few brief hours, each of the Gettysburg dead have life in those flames. Each of them has identity, especially the hundreds that have only the word “Unknown” upon their final resting place.
I have to admit that each Luminaria has inspired my research and writing, giving my creative batteries a boost each year. I do much of my writing over the winter months, so the timing is fortuitous in that respect. Seeing those flames and each of those lives snuffed out by the hand of war inspires my efforts to memorialize them in my own small way by writing about their deeds. For me, that’s what it’s all about – my writing has never been about my own recognition or ego… it has always been about putting down on paper what they did. In the vast majority of cases, those soldiers and civilians did what I could never do. They were much braver, clever, and experienced than most of us could hope to be, just like the thousands of heroes today who wear the uniform.
I’ve always felt the same about my reenacting and living history portrayal – I believe that reenactors and historians, if they do it right, are some of the most unselfish folks around. We portray souls of the past, and try to bring them to life for others. We all know living historians who seem to pretend to be the person they’re portraying – almost as if they are them. Sometimes they seems to have a problem separating themselves from their persona. When they have this attitude, in my opinion, they’ve taken it too far and simply don’t have a clue how to properly memorialize the person they’re portraying. Those who portray individuals of history with respect, humility, and a proper sense of place have it right. In other words, if you bring respect to the memory of that individual, regardless of who they were – Meade, Forrest, Sickles, Hancock, Lee, you name it – then you’re on the right track.
Perhaps, I’ve thought for some time now, the flickering flame of a candle brings as much or more light and respect to all of those heroes than we could ever hope to, whether it’s by donning a costume or putting pen to paper.
If you haven’t yet been able to attend a luminaria at a battlefield or cemetery, consider doing so. Even on a chilly night, the warmth from those little flames will warm your heart and your own soul. And spend it with best friends like I did… there’s nothing more inspiring in the world.