Happiness Highlights: Gettysburg

As I sit down to write this, I am not in a happy mood. We’re parked steps away from a gorgeous beach on Long Island, but I’m afraid I won’t get the opportunity to enjoy the cool waters or hot sand as I work to get everything done before I head to San Diego for BlogHer on Wednesday. Earlier this afternoon we found the local grocery store and picked up two cans of black beans and a package of Ramen noodles – lunch and dinner for the remainder of the month. We’re at the end of our monthly budget and have spent every dime of our food dollars, a fact that makes me feel both scared and resentful, although I’m not sure of whom.

But these happiness highlights are important to me. They’re a crucial part of maintaining on overall attitude of happiness, and so, here we go…

Gettysburg 093 We went to Gettysburg last week. I’ve been a little obsessed with learning about the Civil War over the last two months, and I was prepared for an intense experience at the sight of our country’s bloodiest battle. We picked up a CD in the gift shop of the visitors’ center to help guide us through the auto tour, and headed out into the Pennsylvania countryside.

It was… interesting. I felt like it was interesting because I was so familiar with the three days of fighting that would become known as “Gettysburg”, but I struggled to relay that significance to the rest of my family. All these years later, what’s left is miles and miles of hay fields and rocky hills strewn with memorials of various shapes and sizes. Old artillery resembling miniature cannons dot the hilltops, pointed at what would have been enemy lines 150 years ago. But again, unless you know the story, it’s as interesting as any outdoor museum to war in general would be. After four hours of retracing the footsteps of both the North and the South, we pulled into the parking lot of the Gettysburg National Cemetery to finish the tour.

Gettysburg 144 We were met first by rows and rows of uniform tombstones marking the final resting place of veterans of World Wars I and II. It was sobering, but not what I expected.

We walked a little further down a paved path.

Gettysburg 177

Gettysburg 169

Gettysburg 172And there I wept.

I wept at the slow realization that this was the ground in which Civil War veterans were buried, and at the sudden realization that these numbers marked graves.

No name. No “unknown”. No sufficient space between square marble blocks to allow for a coffin of any respectable size. My eyes watered and my soul sobbed for these boys who died in the name of a country divided, these boys who could not be honored at death with the names their mothers had given them at birth.

And what, you may ask, does this have to do with happiness?

I was most alive this week standing in that solemn graveyard. I was alive with grief, connected to a past that is very much mine, connected to the family of Humanity in a way we rarely are during day to day life. I was grateful. I was humbled. I was momentarily saddened and forever changed.

And that might not be joy, but it is, I think, a kind of happiness.

It’s also a good reminder to quit feeling pissy about stuff like money and beans.

Update: It’s officially August and we did not starve! And I got to spend yesterday at that beautiful beach. I even got to enjoy it with a friend. In other words, all that stress over temporary circumstances was for naught. Of course it was.

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  1. Sheila says:

    a can of black beans, a cup of rice, chili powder (or taco seasoning), water and a chicken boullian (spell check wants to change this to “Bolivian”) cube = really awesome, really cheap soup

    Cemeteries always make me cry – seeing the babies’ graves or trying to trace out the markings worn out by age, etc…..so I have a feeling I would be an absolute mess at Gettysburg.

  2. you rock and I adore you.

    I grew up 30 minutes south of Gettysburg (in Thurmont/Frederick, MD) and we visited it every year. It wasn’t until I was a young college student/adult and saw the premiere of “Gettysburg”, in Gettysburg, that my heart exploded with the realization of it all. It is a humbling place. Perspective allows comes into proper focus when standing in that place.

    • Miss Britt says:

      I still haven’t seen that movie, but I read the book it was based on before visiting and that really put the place into perspective for me.

      • the book was better than the movie, but the movie was still very well done. (my biggest struggle with it was Martin Sheen’s bad southern accent.)

        Funnily enough – I got word this morning that my 4 kids are in Gettysburg today. They’ve been spending the last week with my parents in MD.

        (glad to see you were able to decipher my awkwardly worded last sentence in that first comment. :)

  3. It really is heartbreaking and humbling to think of what our country went through and the men that served and the women they left behind. Much of our country’s history doesn’t really gets the attention it deserves. And oh that we could some how learn from the past to create a better future for our children and their children.
    Thank you for sharing Britt. I hope you enjoyed your beans and noodles!
    Creating our perfect path

  4. the muskrat says:

    Did y’all ever watch the film “Gettysburg” based on “The Killer Angels”? I know you read the book, but perhaps the kids would like to see the movie, since it was shot at the battlefield and would likely help them put all the pieces together.

    See you soon!

  5. Getting perspective IS a happiness “thing.” Love this – thank you.

  6. Rita says:

    I’m discovering through my own gratitude practice that it is not about feeling good/happy all the time. More and more, my moments of deepest gratitude are also those of deepest sadness, grief, fear. The more I do it (make myself think about and pay attention to that for which I can be grateful), the more I see it is not about babies and flowers and stopping to smell either of those things. It’s not about looking on the bright side. It’s about looking straight into the darkness and shining a light. Or seeing the one that someone else left behind.

  7. Megan says:

    Funny how life throws some perspective your way just when you need it.

    The remainder of July, not August, right? If you need food $$, let me know.

    • Miss Britt says:

      You are such a doll. The remainder of JULY. Yes. We have the money, but it was budgeted for August, so I was NOT going to use it in July, if that makes sense.

  8. daniel says:


    Been “stalking” your travels a while, don’t post much. Just wanted to mention how … i don’t know, affected(?) I was by this post. I “get” where you’re coming from here, with the budget, the stress of family, the power of life, the profound depth of the place, how life (and LIFE) suddenly creeps up on you, all that stuff.

    keep going!

  9. Kailyn says:

    I have driven through Gettysburg on my way to Harrisburg from Williamsburg. And my first thought was why are there so many burgs.

    And then I thought about how at the time Disney was trying to open an American history themed park outside of Fredericksburg. Really? Like there wasn’t already enough actual history to the surrounding land?

    When I was in grad school in the area and would feel totally stressed out, I would hit the road for a couple of hours with camera in hand. Over most drives I would pass countless Civil War markers. And it would all put things in perspective for me.

  10. Nanna says:

    Alive with grief. Now that, my beloved, is the thought that jumped out at me. Because we spend so much time avoiding grief and sadness at all costs, and yet true, connected-to-each-other grief is a sure sign that the soul is awake and alive and, um, connected to each other.

    Thanks for that.

  11. martymankins says:

    While budgets are tight, your road experience and the sights you are seeing almost make up for that. Almost. One needs food to enjoy those sights.

  12. Leesha says:

    What an experience. I would love to visit that area someday and really absorb what happened those many years ago.

    PS: Glad you didn’t starve! ;)

  13. i hope we are still friends in 30 years and that your children tell me about taking their kids to places such as gettysburg. it is fascinating to me how we each process an experience such as visiting gettysburg…i think age and gender and life experiences are such a massive part of what we feel while there and what we take away. will be interesting to hear them tell the tale of when they were little and experienced gettysburg compared to the second time.

    also, it is going to be really neat to watch them mature, seeing what destinations they travel to time and again. i have a feeling this trip is going to impact so much of their future travels…

  14. Liane says:

    First…beans and noodles sounds really good to me!
    Second…when we think we have enough…we usually do. :-)

    We also recently visited Gettysburg on our Blue Ridge Mountains walkabout. Going there was a spontaneous choice. I was as moved as you were. I felt myself connecting to our past and those soldiers in a inexplicable way. My eyes welled up at the thought of their willingness to fight for what they believe in. I also reminded myself we have soldiers still doing this for us. It amazes me at how blessed we are for the freedom we have and so often take for granted.

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