Local Color

The downfall of empire is always the epoch of romance.

—Albion W. Tourgée, 1888

I had been in Gettysburg barely over a month when I was asked, in my capacity as an official “local,” to help decorate the cemetery’s 3,512 graves for the battle’s anniversary, a week of lectures, reenactments, battlefield tours, and ranger programs during which the town’s population tripled and residents themselves fled for their own vacations in Rehoboth and Ocean City. All week, out my kitchen window, I’d watched double-decker buses scuttle across Culp’s Hill. All week traffic had been gridlocked, family minivans caked over with the earnest mantras of the amateur historian—“Gettysburg or Bust,” “Party Like It’s 1863.” On Steinwehr Avenue the sidewalks brimmed with kitsch, souvenir shops peddling everything from Constitution-themed boxer shorts to Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels to bullets ostensibly recovered from battlefield “witness trees.” That Tuesday a fully costumed Stonewall Jackson had ridden bareback across the college lacrosse fields.

As I walked beneath the cemetery’s brick archways, a battlefield guide handed me a crate of miniature American flags. Among the concentric rows of gravestones, the real locals were already at work, crouching or kneeling to place a single flag at each of the flat granite stones, moving expertly through the graves like gleaners in a Millet painting. The work proved surprisingly wearying, like gardening—the constant kneeling, the forcing of flags into the hard subsoil of central Pennsylvania. I rested often. I eavesdropped on the locals’ recondite conversations about “PennDOT sabotage” and “bedroom buyers” up from DC. I checked my phone. After fifteen minutes of desultory effort, I was approached by the guide who walked over with a countenance one might plausibly describe as Aristotelian in its concentration of pity and terror. “You must be new to town,” he said. “Welcome to Gettysburg.”

There was, he submitted, something of an art to the work. Instead of placing the flags an inch or two from the gravestone, as I’d been doing, one could work twice as quickly with half the effort by placing them flush with the stone itself—“imagine poking the fellow below,” the guide offered.

And it did come more easily after that. Pleased with my newfound dexterity, I moved swiftly down one row and up the next, my crate lightening, the line of flags unfurling behind me like an ellipsis. Gradually the entire grounds transformed under our collective labor. From the Soldiers’ National Monument, wreathed Liberty threw her shadow across the rows of graves. Bunting swayed. The flags shirred like wheat in the evening breeze.

Per federal guidelines, burial in Gettysburg National Cemetery is reserved for Union soldiers who “gave their lives,” as President Lincoln phrased it, “that the nation might live.”

It is also the final resting place for eight Confederate soldiers buried there by mistake.

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