This summer, three incoming history majors got the opportunity to travel to Gettysburg, PA with other incoming students and several upperclassmen as part of Student Activities’ Passages program.
One Thing After Another sat down with freshman participants Jacob Bass, Drew Collins, and Tim Siracusa, as well as senior Kristen Van Uden, who led the trip along with senior Liliana Kane, junior Mike Schmidt, and Dr. Karlea Joiner, Assistant Dean of Students.
The students’ busy itinerary began with a battlefield tour led by two enthusiastic park guides, highlighting the major points of the battle. “My favorite part of the trip was definitely touring the battlefield. Standing on the ground where one of the most important events in American history took place [was] such a surreal feeling” said Tim. The battlefield is extensive, and so the tour could not be entirely comprehensive, but the group focused on Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and the site of Pickett’s charge. Seeing the grounds of these famous events provided the students with a more authentic understanding of the battle. “We were able to connect with the actual place in a way that cannot be achieved through any amount of reading or study” Kristen observed. “One of the most interesting parts was when we were driving through a field that was filled with about 50 vultures. Our guide explained that in the days after the battle, the entire area would have been flooded with vultures, just like we were seeing right in front of us. It makes sense, but you don’t often think about disturbing facts like that when contemplating the more military side of the battle.”
The group then returned to the retreat center where each night they cooked family-style meals as a group, went swimming, relaxed on the porch, and played games on the lawn.
That night, they went on a ghost tour of downtown Gettysburg. The guide lit the way through the narrow streets with a lantern, accentuating the eerie atmosphere. There was even a full moon. . . . So did you see a ghost? The students apparently could not come to a consensus.
The next day the group traversed three states in one hour to see Harper’s Ferry, the site of abolitionist John Brown’s famous 1859 raid. The buildings Brown seized have since burned down, but the students saw the arsenal where he was captured by J.E.B. Stuart who was then only a first lieutenant. In addition to information about the raid, the living history site educates its visitors about 19th-century economics. It is also a little-known fact that there was actually a Civil War battle around the town in September 1862. There were several museums in Harper’s Ferry detailing the stories of the main players in the site’s colorful history. Jacob remarked that these personal stories, as well as the ones featured at the Gettysburg museum, helped him to really connect with the people involved and made him wonder about the stories of his ancestors who fought in the Civil War.
The students finished the day with a lazy tubing trip down the Shenandoah River.
On their last day in Pennsylvania, the group explored the downtown Gettysburg area, spending time shopping and trying to meet the challenge the battlefield guide had set out for them: to locate all nine artillery shells that were still lodged in buildings. They toured the David Wills house, where Lincoln stayed after he delivered the Gettysburg Address. They later visited the cemetery where the Address was given. Kristen describes the impact of visiting the cemetery: “The number of graves, especially of unknown soldiers, was almost incomprehensible. Then you learn that the Union army refused to bury Confederate soldiers in this cemetery, so multiply that number by at least two. It forces you to really come to terms with the scope of the battle.” Some of the students were able to see the grave of Jennie Wade, a young woman who was killed by a stray bullet while baking bread at a friend’s house in downtown Gettysburg. She was the only civilian killed in the battle.
Tim originally signed up for the trip to see new places and learn more about his favorite subject. “The main reason I was interested in the trip was that I am a history major. As much as I enjoy American history, my knowledge of the Civil War era is somewhat weak, so I thought it would be a good learning experience.” What started as a potentially fun adventure and an opportunity to travel and meet new people quickly became an unforgettable and cherished experience. Jacob says that the best part was “being able to meet new people, including one of my best friends.” These shared memories have translated into daily life on the Hilltop.
Having had an encounter with experiential learning has definitely kept these students’ love for history alive. Classes are going great so far, and they are excited for what the semester brings.