Eisenhower’s Farm

This Memorial Day, Mr Pict and I decided to go out for the day without the kids. They were invited to join us but declined so we thought we would take the opportunity to do something they would find tedious. We have been to Gettysburg many times since emigrating to the US. However, because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd, our focus has always been on the battlefield. This time, therefore, we decided to approach Gettysburg from a different angle and visit Eisenhower’s home.

We arrived a little too early for a tour so we had a wander of the exterior of the property. We saw the limousine the Eisenhowers would take from the White House to Gettysburg and I was imagining this fancy car bumping along the uneven roads for two or three hours. Popping into the barn, I ended up chatting to one Ranger about Scotland generally and specifically about Eisenhower’s suite in Culzean Castle. It has been a long time since I visited Culzean so I had forgotten the Eisenhower connection. It is, therefore, pretty weird that I have ended up visiting two places where he lived given he is not exactly of interest to me. Adjacent to the barn, we saw the cramped cinder block hut that was the base of operations for the Secret Service Agents.

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We lucked out when it was time for our tour as we were assigned to a very informative and engaging Ranger. I only possess general knowledge of Eisenhower so I found it all very educational. I learned that the farm house was purchased and extensively restored by the Eisenhowers as part of their retirement plan but Ike kept being called back to serve his country in one way or another so it took many years before they could use the property as their permanent residence. They did, however, use it as a weekend bolt hole and to entertain visiting Heads of State. Only one – Nehru – stayed overnight and we saw the guest bedroom where he slept.

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My major takeaway from my visit was that, while Eisenhower was a man of extraordinary achievements in public life, in private life the Eisenhowers were massively ordinary. Since I am much more interested in social history than I am military or political history, this actually led me to engage with the tour much more than I anticipated because the home was a time capsule of mid-century taste rather than being a grand home. For example, the Eisenhowers loved to dinner eat off of tray tables while watching TV so we saw the sun room where they used to relax and their wonderfully cuboid TV cabinet. We saw the bedroom where Ike took naps and recuperated from his various acute health complaints and the master bedroom where Mamie would issue orders to staff while still in bed in her nightgown.

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After leaving the Eisenhower farm, we headed into Gettysburg. The centre was packed because of the Memorial Day celebrations so we ended up parked a few blocks away. As it happened, we were near a brewery so we decided to pop in for a grown up lunch and some day drinking on my part since I had a cider. That repast then gave us the recharge required to do some extensive wandering in the blistering heat. Most of the historic buildings were closed because it was a holiday but we took in the exteriors and browsed in some fun stores. Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the house where Lincoln had slept the night before he delivered the Gettysburg Address and was also in nerd heaven in a store selling board games and another filled to the gunnels with Civil War antiques. We strolled back to our car along the route of the Memorial Day Parade so we could take in some of the festivities as we went.

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It was a fun day out and we are hopeful for more day trips – preferably with our kids – now that we are officially in Summer.

Flaming June

June started with a bang.  We had a few days of raging storms.  My kids enjoyed it when it was at the torrential rain stage.  They love summer rain storms because it is warm and they can run around and get soaked without it being uncomfortable.  The rain was soon joined by thunder and lightning and high winds.  Trees came down all over our neighbourhood and wiped out power lines with them.  Amazingly, given our past luck with such things, we didn’t lose power, suffered no damage, and didn’t experience any flooding.  We were very grateful.

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How is everyone faring with wearing masks?  Back in March, I never thought I would get used to it.  I have a more robust one with filters that I use for when I go grocery shopping and am in a confined space and I must admit I am still pretty wimpy with that one.  It still makes me feel a bit claustrophobic – and gives me even more admiration for those on the front lines wearing PPE all day every day.  If we are out walking, we use lightweight neck gaiters as we usually don’t have to come within even 10 feet of other people but it gives us the option of quickly pulling it up if we have to pass someone on a narrower trail path.  I am otherwise getting used to wearing masks.  I read some time ago that it takes 6 weeks to develop a habit and I guess that holds true for this experience.  We also now treat them as accessories.  I got the boys some masks in fun fabrics and I even bought myself one with thistle fabric on it.  Thistles are my national flower, of course, so it seemed apt.

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Our county moved from red phase into yellow phase in early June which gave us more freedom for getting out and about.  We remain cautious so don’t want to be around people as much as possible.  We, therefore, went for a trek around Gettysburg since the National Park covers such an expanse of land and we were familiar enough with it to be able to predict which areas might be busier.  As you will know, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd so he likes to visit Gettysburg every couple of years at least.  We have some places that we always return to but he tries to introduce us to a new area of the battlefield each time we return.

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This time, the new area for exploration was Pickett’s Charge.  That is, of course, the famous culminating action of the Battle of Gettysburg when an infantry assault by the Confederates ended in defeat.  We have actually seen Pickett’s grave because we are history nerds and I like cemeteries.  We were led to the Copse of Trees which I thought was just a copse of trees without the capitalization.  Turns out the Copse is of such historical importance that they are protected by a fence.  From what I can recall from Mr Pict’s lecture, as a distinct landscape feature, the copse was a focal point for the charge and also ended up marking the high water mark of the confederacy in this battle.  There is a monument to commemorate this fact at the spot.

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We then walked the field to gain a sense of the distance of the charge.  Or at least we attempted to cover the expanse.  We gave up about half way and turned back because we were getting covered with ticks.  Between the six of us, we picked off over a dozen ticks just while walking in that field.  We would have been exceedingly wimpy Civil War soldiers since we could not even handle parasitic insects.  Retreating from the field, we had a moment of rest and shade at the Pennsylvania Monument.

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As I mentioned before, there are areas of Gettysburg that we always head to: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  As we had suspected would be the case, Little Round Top was far too busy for our liking.  There were far fewer people than we have ever encountered there before but, of course, those previous visits were not during a pandemic.  We managed to maintain an adequate distance from everyone but it was too stressful an experience since some folks were not observing social distancing guidance and were also not wearing face coverings.  Devil’s Den was less busy but we were having to pass people at too close quarters for comfort so we didn’t stay long.

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June also meant we arrived at the end of the school year.  It has definitely been a memorable and challenging school year.  I absolutely commend my sons’ teachers for doing the absolute best they could with the resources they had and all at short notice.  However, distance learning was a bit of an ordeal to say the least and I am certainly relieved to have at least a break from it.  Goodness knows what school will look like in September.  I have to trust that the school district will strike an appropriate balance and shore up the resources for whatever option they decide to pursue.  Anyway, two of my children completed their final grades in their present schools and are moving on to pasture’s new in September – whether physically, virtually, or a hybrid.  Instead of the usual festivities, celebratory trips, and promotion ceremonies, they had car parades and virtual ceremonies.  I confess I think I actually prefer the car parades to the usual ceremony where we bake in the heat.

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Now that we don’t have distance learning to create structure and routine and keep everyone occupied, we have a long summer stretching ahead of us.  My boys are all at such a wide spans of ages, stages, and areas of interest that I can no longer impose unified summer projects on them as had been the case in summers past.  Instead, each kid has had to pick a project they are working on over the summer.  The three older boys are actually continuing with distance learning – taking courses on coding, cinema history, and Latin – and my youngest is going to work through a number of different projects, some with me and some solo.  Meanwhile, I have written myself a lengthy To Do list of domestic projects to tackle, some larger than others, and I always have my ongoing hobbies.  Most of our activities won’t be worth blogging about but our intention is to keep busy, productive, and stimulated during this socially isolated summer.

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June marked the 45th anniversary of the cinema release of my favourite movie of all time – Jaws.  I have written before about my fanatacism about this movie, including when I drew an illustration of the protagonists.  My 13 year old has inherited my love of the movie and an obsession with sharks.  You might recall that we took a trip last summer to visit the sites of the 1916 shark attacks that inspired the novel that was the basis of the movie. I have several Jaws items around the house, a Jaws board game, and a Jaws tea mug.  We, therefore, had to mark the occasion with a family watch of the movie on the anniversary.

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Also, am I the only person who is still doing a ridiculous amount of baking during this pandemic?  I am a really pretty good cook but I am no great shakes as a baker.  When it comes to the former, I use my experience to eyeball a lot of ingredients and I treat recipes as mere suggestions and make up meals from scratch.  The latter requires precision in measuring and actually following a recipe step by step.  It is too much like science for my Arts and Humanities brain.  I can bake things like cookies, brownies, banana bread, and basic cakes, but I am not great at anything more complex.  But for some reason I have been baking non-stop during this past few months and even more so since the kids’ distance learning wrapped up.  Like Pavlov’s Dogs, my kids now pretty much expect a freshly baked sweet treat.  This is not a good state of affairs.  I am gaining pandemic pounds for sure.  My youngest son is helping me with baking.  We recently made brownies topped with cookie dough.  We need an intervention.

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I have created a long list of home improvement type things I want to accomplish over the summer break.  It didn’t look like much on paper but already I think I might have been over-ambitious.  Our house ended up rather chaotic after the basement flood, then we switched rooms around with having created a new bedroom in the basement and my husband having to work from home for however many months.  Multiple rooms in the house, therefore, have to be reorganised and – quite frankly – ruthlessly purged.  I started with my youngest son’s bedroom.  I thought I would get it done in a day, maybe two.  Nope.  A week.  It took an entire week just to clean, sort, and organize his bedroom.  It generated five bags of trash and two large boxes of items to be donated.  Now my To Do list that once looked like a sprint now looks like a marathon.

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Annual Gettysburg Trip

As I have related on the blog many times before, Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd.  As such, we end up visiting Gettysburg at least once a year.  This past weekend was time for our 2016 pilgrimage to the battlefield.  It seemed apt to have a family day trip as a last Summer outing since the climate switched almost overnight from muggy summer days to chilly Autumnal ones.

What we try to do when we visit Gettysburg is to balance out revisiting favourite haunts – namely Little Round Top and Devil’s Den – with visiting new areas of the battlefield so that eventually the children gain a fuller understanding and experience of the history of that particular battle and its place in the context of the War.  So, for example, over the past couple of years we have visited McPherson’s Ridge, the National Cemetery, and the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This time we decided to visit the Museum housed inside the Visitor Centre.

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Mr Pict specifically wanted the boys to see the Cyclorama.  I had last seen it in 1995 when it was basically lining the walls of a barn somewhere on the battlefield site and it had very little impact on me.  It is much better displayed now, with good quality lighting, and lighting effects that complement the audio narrative.  The cyclorama – a 360 degree painting – was completed by a French artist named Philippoteaux in the 1880s and has been on display at Gettysburg since the early 20th Century.  The painting depicts Pickett’s Charge, a climactic moment in the battle.  It is a wonderfully detailed painting with its attention to detail, its use of perspective and scale, and its immersive qualities.  It made much more of an impression on me this time.  The kids, not so much.  They preferred the video narrated by Morgan Freeman that we watched prior to seeing the cyclorama.

The cyclorama tickets also covered the Museum so we headed there next.  It is actually a very impressive museum.  There is a lot crammed into a reasonably compact space but the flow was well engineered and the artifacts and displays thoughtfully organised.  I particularly enjoyed seeing the furniture from some of the homes in Gettysburg that bore the marks of bullets and shells and spoke to how the ordinary people of the town experienced the battle.  Unfortunately, the boys did not engage in the museum at all.  They had been dragged around the National Civil War Museum just over a year earlier so in some ways it was fair enough.  With the exception of Mr Pict, we all have a limit to how much we can absorb about that particular period of American history.

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It was, therefore, time to burn off some energy, let the kids clamber and climb, and basically return to their feral ways.  We headed first to Devil’s Den where they always love to climb and jump from rock to rock.  They also have some favourite nooks and crannies where they like to hide.  For the younger boys, there are lots of opportunities for imaginative play.  My oldest meanwhile found a rock to perch on and then read a novel while his brothers played.  Then we moseyed our way up to Little Round Top where they could do more climbing, including of the tower, and take in the views.  The boys were completely happy and eventually had to be dragged back to the car so we could head home.  The lesson learned was that all trips to Gettysburg need to involve freedom of movement and the ability to be wild things.

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Gettysburg – Again

On the second day of our trip to the Harrisburg area, we took a jaunt to Gettysburg.  It seemed apt given the previous day’s visit to the National Civil War Museum but in all honesty we largely went because Mr Pict is a Civil War nerd and because the boys love galloping around the landscape of the battlefield.  This was our third family visit to Gettysburg since we arrived in America almost two years ago – Mr Pict’s fourth.  I would like each trip to be a little different so in addition to returning to some favourite areas we try to visit at least one new area each time.

On this particular trip the new area we added was the location where the battle actually began, around McPherson Ridge, not far from the Lutheran Seminary.  Mr Pict explained the lay of the land, the rationale behind the defensive positions and how the battle began.  He pointed out Chambersburg Pike was the place where the first shots of the battle were fired by a Union soldier named Marcellus Jones.  The boys were not much captivated by this chatter about strategy and topography and instead were far more interested in studying some ants who were covering a dried up earthworm.  Meanwhile, I went to look at the statuary in the area.  One was a statue of General Buford who had been the chap to recognise the importance of holding the high ground on that spot until reinforcements arrived; the other statue was of General Reynolds on horseback in the spot where he was shot and killed on the first day of the battle.

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I like memorial statuary so, back in the car, I kept having my husband stop the car so that I could leap out and take a photo of one I had not seen before and wanted to go and study.  One such statue was of a man named John Burns, not a soldier but a citizen from the town of Gettysburg.  This 69 year old man decided to fight alongside a Pennsylvanian regiment, functioning as a sharpshooter.  When he was wounded for a third time, the retreating Union troops had to leave him behind on the field.  He cleverly got rid of his weapon and ammunition so that when he was discovered by Confederate soldiers he could convince them he was a noncombatant, a lie that saved his life.

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Among my other new statues for the day were the North Carolina monument and the Longstreet statue.  The North Carolina monument was sculpted by Gutzon Borglum who was also responsible for the presidential heads of Mount Rushmore.  As might be expected, therefore, the faces were particularly skilfully rendered, expressive and evocative.  The figures are shown advancing as part of Pickett’s Charge.  According to an inscription nearby, a quarter of all of the casualties of the Battle of Gettysburg hailed from North Carolina.  The statue of James Longstreet is set among a grove of trees and depicts him on his horse Hero.  I love the movement of the horse.  It’s a really dynamic sculpture.  It is notable also for being a statue of a General placed at ground level rather than on a plinth.

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I had driven past the State of Virginia Monument before but had never stopped to look at it.  This time I hopped out and had a good look.  It is a very tall and imposing monument at 41 feet.  It is topped by an equestrian statue of Robert E Lee.  Apparently the sculptor, Frederick Sievers, was so intent on getting Traveler the horse right that he studied horses who were the same height and build as Lee’s horse and even Traveler’s skeleton.  Virginia contributed more soldiers to the Confederate army at Gettysburg than any other state and these soldiers are represented at the base of the statue, different types of men and boys who constituted the army.

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We happened upon a reenactment group as we were flitting around between monumental statues.  While one chap explained about the equipment the soldiers used and the things they had to carry, a troop – complete with drummers – marched around the field and then demonstrated firing their weapons.  Our 6 year old really enjoyed watching the reenactors but we did not stay for their entire performance because we were slowly melting in the midday sun.

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Then it was time to go and visit the boys’ favourite spots: Little Round Top and Devil’s Den.  The great thing about both locations is that it is possible to visually comprehend how that stage of the battle unfolded, the strategies and logistics involved.  The best thing about both locations is that we can permit the boys to become free range.  They enjoyed roaming around, scurrying over the rocky terrain, leaping from boulder to boulder.  They gave three older men dressed in Union uniforms palpitations with their antics.  They particularly enjoyed Devil’s Den because of all of its little nooks and crannies, little caves they could hide in.  They also developed a kind of parkour, bounding and jumping and leaping between rocks, getting higher and higher.  It made me anxious to watch them.

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After a visit to the spot where Alexander Gardner had staged his famous and controversial photograph of the Rebel Sharpshooter, we completed our tour of Gettysburg for the day.  I think next time we return – because a return is inevitable – we should spend some time in the actual town of Gettysburg.

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*Note* You can see my previous blog posts about Gettysburg here and here.

 

Gettysburg with Grandparents

Yesterday we decided to take the Pict grandparents on a trip to Gettysburg.  This represented the second trip the kids and I have taken there since we emigrated to America in October and it was the third trip Mr Pict has taken there since September and at least the sixth trip he has taken there in total.  I think it is fair to say that Mr Pict is obsessed with Gettysburg.  He’s a Civil War geek generally but Gettysburg looms large in his geekiness in particular.  He was, therefore, keen to act as a guide to my parents and share with them the highlights of the battlefield site.

As well as being of particular significance to the way in which the battle unfolded, Little Round Top was an area the boys had especially enjoyed when we visited in April so it was to there that we headed first.   While Mr Pict explained the importance of Little Round Top to the Union’s victory to my parents, the boys scampered off and began leaping from rock to rock.  I have vertigo and also don’t like the thought of my kids smashing their little bodies off rocks so they were making me wig out quite a bit.  The youngest one, for all that his legs are short, was making daring leaps from boulder to boulder.  Meanwhile the middle two were standing on the edge of a precipice and leaning forward to see the slope below.  And all the while the oldest was balancing clumsily on one leg at a time.  Every last nerve in my body was being shredded.  Like Achilles safeguarding my heel, however, I do try to avoid letting my kids know that they are freaking me out lest they take that modicum of success and run with it in order to defeat me entirely.  I don’t need them challenging their strength, balance and even gravity just to determine my breaking point.  I, therefore, avoided even looking at them as much as possible when they were doing anything especially precarious, even turning my back at times, and any time my neurotic dam was in danger of being breached I would just herd them on to the next location where they could seek out new hazards.  Nevertheless they had a lot of fun while  – between Mr Pict and some docents in authentic costume – my parents were crammed full of knowledge about the defence of Little Round Top.

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Having done Little Round Top, it was only natural that we should proceed to Devil’s Den.  This time, however, my husband and children did not scramble through thorny thickets to get from A to B.  Instead we all took the car.  The large rock formations of Devil’s Den – which had provided such excellent cover for snipers – obviously enticed my mountain goat children to leap and bound and scale and scramble once more.  And once more I had to turn my back as they stood on the edge of sheer drops and crawled up steep slopes of rock.  Ironically the only injury happened when my 5 year old – who had just ascended a boulder with a pretty challenging gradient and had then leapt across a gulley between boulders – tripped over nothing on a flat-as-a-pancake footpath.  Among other things, we found the scene of Alexander Gardner’s now controversial photograph known as ‘Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter’.  Since I have an interest in the history of photography and my own interest in the Civil War is mainly to do with photography, that was one of the major highlights of the trip for me.

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After a quick nip around the Visitors’ Centre to use the bathroom facilities and absorb the air conditioning, we headed out to walk to the National Cemetery.  On my previous two excursions to Gettysburg, I had never made it to the Cemetery so I was determined to go this third time.  This was partly because I just happen to like cemeteries but mostly because it was at the dedication of the cemetery that Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address.  All eight of us started off on the trek to the Cemetery but my Mum decided to pause and rest up near the memorial to Maryland’s soldiers.  Mr Pict and the boys made it as far as the Cemetery but then decided to pootle around on the grass.  Therefore, only my Dad and I actually ventured far enough into the cemetery to see the monument that was the site for Lincoln’s profoundly moving and eloquent speech.

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The final leg of our Gettysburg tour was a quick stop off at the Pennsylvania Monument.  Mr Pict, Grandpa Pict and the 5 year old did ascend to the top.  I not only don’t like heights but I don’t like confined spaces either so the narrow, enclosed staircase wigged me out enough that I could not compel myself to go to the top even to capture some great views on camera.  Maybe next time.  Because being married to a Gettysburg geek means that it is inevitable that there will be a next time.

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Spring Break Day 8 – Gettysburg

We packed up the holiday house in a jiffy in order to head off as early as possible and squeeze another fun day out of our holiday.  My in-laws had arranged to have lunch with friends in Aberdeen so we Picts went on an adventure to Gettysburg.  This was entirely apt because it was last year’s 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg that ultimately led to our relocation from Scotland to America.  Mr Pict is a total Civil War geek and had this idea two summers ago that we could vacation in the US so that he could be at Gettysburg on the 150th anniversary of the battle.  We were just mulling that over when, two weeks later, he casually mentioned late at night that instead of just going on holiday there maybe we could investigate moving to America.  So that was how the seed was sewn: the history of a bloody battle.

My husband decided to take us on tour of the highlights.  He had come by himself before we arrived in the US so that he could indulge in several hours of touring around the vast site using a phone app as his guide.  The only time I have been before was in 1995 and it is very different now with an impressive visitors’ centre and locations much more clearly demarcated.  We went to the visitors’ centre first to use the conveniences after our journey from Virginia.  Mr Pict bought pretzels as K rations for the kids and the boys also bought some things in the shop: the 8 year old bought a cuddly Lincoln and the 7 year old bought a poster showing Union Generals on one side and Confederate Generals on the other.  We also grabbed a photo opportunity with a bronze statue of Lincoln before heading back to the car to start the tour of Mr Pict’s highlights.

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First stop was the Longstreet Observation Tower.  This involved ascending seven flights of metal stairs.  I suffer from vertigo but I also have a recurring nightmare about a child falling – usually one of my own – and I always wake up at the point of impact.  My other recurring dream – which I have had since I was 4 – is about a T Rex stalking me.  That dinosaur turns up in all sorts of dreams.  He was once scary but now he is just a pest.  Anyway, as my boys charged up the pretty open staircase, my anxiety levels spiked.  I felt quite wobbly.  It was all probably just about maybe worth it, however, as the Tower afforded us a good view over the terrain which helped what Mr Pict was saying about tactics and strategy make sense.  We could see and appreciate the significance of Little Round Top in that geographical context.  And in the other direction we could see Eisenhower’s farm which was a little history bonus.

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We then drove over Big Round Top to get to Little Round Top.  We saw monuments to the Maine, New York and Pennsylvania regiments.  The boys loved clambering over the boulders between bouts of actually listening to their Dad explaining how the battle unfolded.  I meanwhile pottered around taking photos (of course!) of such things as the statue of Gouverneur K Warren, who had prompted the defence of Little Round Top, overlooking the landscape and reading poignant stories on the interpretive boards.  It was not actually very difficult to imagine the terrible noise and bloody carnage of the battle.

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Mr Pict and three of the boys then walked from Little Round Top, descending through the scrub, to meet the 8 year old and me (who brought the car around) at Devil’s Den, doing a reverse of confederate troop movements.  The boys thoroughly enjoyed playing on the large rocks and among the crevices at Devil’s Den.

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There are monuments galore all over the place at Gettysburg – well over a thousand of them.  Some are plain with a focus just on the words but others are more elaborate and some are quite intriguing.  Scattered across site as they are, they also serve to emphasise the scale of the battlefield and the huge number of casualties, the largest of any Civil War battle.  I must explore them more some time when we return and I also want to go to the Cemetery as it was at its dedication that Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address which I think is the most perfect speech ever written.