NEOSHO, Mo. —
Standing on Cemetery Ridge and looking west into the blazing sun on Wednesday toward Seminary Ridge brought tears to my eyes.
I was standing in the exact location that my great-great-grandfather had been 150 years ago with the rest of his battery, while firing canisters at the thousands of Confederate soldiers that rushed toward him in Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
“We made awful havoc among their rank. We fired 5 rounds of canister at one time the last time when the rebels were in 8 feet of the muzzle of the guns,” he wrote in letters that he sent home to his family, letting them know that he made it through the carnage of the worst battle of the Civil War. His battery fired 40 rounds of canisters and lost 10 of its men — and all of its horses — in the worst day of fighting.
Yet, somehow, Charles Arad Gates survived, and all I could find myself asking on July 3, 2013, was why would a farm boy from New York have wanted to go to war in the first place?
His home in West Monroe, N.Y., was unlikely to ever be touched by the violence of the war. The Gates family didn’t own slaves and, from what our family records can tell us, didn’t seem to be active abolitionists. When opportunity presented itself, Charles enlisted in the 1st New York Light Artillery Brigade and joined the Union Army in 1861.
Maybe it was his Puritan heritage that instilled values of providing for the benefit of the community, or his belief in the value of independent land ownership and of free labor that couldn’t necessarily compete with the economy of slave labor. Whatever it was, it drove him to volunteer for a cause greater than himself to help bring our country back together, and it truly hit home for me this year on the 150th anniversary of the battle as my family and I toured the battlefield.
My father, Steven Gates, has spent a majority of his life researching our family history and Charles’ military life. I’ve grown up with books of maps of Civil War battlefields on the bookshelves and “The Killer Angels” always within easy reach. The Gettysburg Address was considered a holy mantra in my household, and the Library of Congress was a common research destination, either in person or via the web, to find out more about Charles and his service. However, it’s only recently that I’ve begun to understand why Charles is so important to my family. He is our personal connection to help us understand the unbelievable that seems to be the Civil War today. Charles’ letters, experiences and stories give us a way to begin to understand, and to relate to those soldiers who risked everything for North and South during July 1, 2 and 3 of 1863; without them, we could never begin to comprehend the horror of those days when thousands of men were killed and horses lay slaughtered on the field.
And thankfully, my family is not alone. During our visit to Gettysburg, we met numerous men, women and children who were there to visit their ancestors’ monument to commemorate all they did on that great field of battle. We also saw thousands of people who had no personal connection to the battle but felt that Gettysburg was something to be remembered and that the men who died there 150 years ago deserve our nation’s respect forever.
My trip to Gettysburg is now over and I’m heading back to Neosho for the remainder of the summer. But I already know where I want to be next year on the day before the Fourth of July: Walking through Gettysburg and thinking about why that 19-year-old farm boy from New York risked his life to save our country.
Megan Gates lives in Neosho and is a Missouri State University graduate. She was named journalist of the year at the 2013 Missouri College Media Association awards ceremony in April.