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A great-great ghost at Gettysburg

December 5, 2012 

— It must have been a long trip, from the foothills of North Carolina, Rutherford County more precisely, to the rolling hills of South-Central Pennsylvania, by horse or wagon or foot. The journey was made no less easy by the heat of late June and the anticipation of what lay ahead in that summer of 1863.

Robert E. Lee was pushing his Confederate troops North, in hopes that driving the Union troops into their own territory would lead to an end to the Civil War. And so the rebels came from all over to follow the lionized “Marse Robert,” to fight it out in Gettysburg.

The battle was to last from July 1-3. In its wake would be history told and retold for and by generations past and those to come. History ... in the form of documents and photographs of the dead in the field and later, in the legends as portrayed on film, most lately in “Lincoln.”

On this day in late November, a frigid one much different from that first day of battle long ago, snow is falling and I’m on the battlefield looking into the “railroad cut,” a place where Confederate soldiers on the march sought temporary refuge, only to be captured by Union troops because the cut, a deep trench prepared for the laying of track, wasn’t much of a place to defend. Some died there. One of those was a man who would have turned 27 about two months later, James Madison Runyan of North Carolina. I heard of him only because he appeared in my grandmother’s obituary many years ago now: “Her grandfather died at Gettysburg.”

He’s been listed as a corporal of the North Carolina 55th Regiment, and the spelling of his family name has had several variations over the years. He was on my mother’s side, as we say. No great stories of heroism have passed through family lore. He was, I’d suspect, like most of those poor lads at Gettysburg fighting for the Lost Cause. Certainly he was no plantation owner. And in coming generatiions, including the current one, his descendants would be respectful of him for his personal bravery but not ones to glorify the role of Confederate secessionists fighting for a cause that included slavery.

The boys in blue were much like the boys in gray, in that they weren’t rich and were following duty more than political ideology. Here, on the vast battlefield of Gettysburg, where the tide of war changed, that human sacrifice is tangible. There are 1,300 monuments of one kind or another, several connected to North Carolina, which suffered one of four casualties in Gettysburg. Some 50,000 total were killed or wounded in the battle.

Standing on the field, which seems to stretch in all directions as far as the eye can see, it’s easy to call up the ghosts, of the Union troops on Little Round Top, of the Confederates making the deadly strides in Pickett’s Charge, an ill-fated strategy in which so many were slaughtered. John Buss, a guide for 20 years, takes me and a buddy all around the field and the town, where buildings of the era still hold stray bullets in their walls. He can name all the farms from the Civil War era, explain where the troops of both sides were on any given day.

He said, “Now here, we call it the Civil War. We don’t call it, as some in the South have, the War Between the States ... or the War of Northern Aggression.” Buss asks the name of my great-great grandfather and promises to provide more information; it will come in the mail about three days later.

While the field can be captured in photographs and descriptions, the atmosphere must be breathed. For this is where, in that hot July, a war that might have split the country in two turned about. It was, some say, the beginning of the union’s restoration. Less than two years later, Lee would surrender to U.S. Grant. No matter from where one’s ancestors came, or on which side they fought, every American who wants to understand how close the country came to destruction, and how fortuitous was the outcome of the Civil War, should come to Gettysburg.

The day after the tour, I stood high on a hilltop looking over that breathtakingly vast expanse. My gaze kept returning to the railroad cut, thinking my blood was spilled there, in a manner of speaking. A man fell. He was lost to his wife and chldren. His cause died two years later. But a country, his country, survived.

Deputy editorial page editor Jim Jenkins can be reached at 919-829-4513 or at jjenkins@newsobserver.com

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