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"They Will Come Booming"
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“They will attack you in the morning, and they will come booming – skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until supports arrive. The enemy must know the importance of this position and will strain every nerve to secure it, and if we are able to hold it, we will do well.” – Brig. General John Buford to Col. Thomas Devin, Gettysburg, June 30, 1863

 

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 McPherson’s Ridge, Gettysburg. Buford’s

troopers defended this ridge on July 1, 1863.

 

The rolling farm fields west of Gettysburg are some of the prettiest landscapes in the country, but on the morning of July 1, 1863, they became a killing ground as Confederates moving east toward the town slammed into stiff resistance by General John Buford and his Union cavalry division. Over the next three days, Gettysburg and its 2.400 residents would be engulfed in the midst of a swirling battle that would see some 160,000 men engaged and 51,000 become casualties.

 

I have been drawn to the story of this battle my whole life, even spending two summers working at Gettysburg National Military Park during and after college. As I was heading out for my first post-COVID vacation, Gettysburg was my first choice of destinations, which led many of my friends and parishioners to ask, “Why?” Why not go to the beach, to the mountains, to any place other than one in which so much suffering and death took place? Why do you keep going back there?

 

The answer is complicated and one that I am hoping to flesh out more in print in the future. I’m so drawn there that Jennifer and I have even considered relocating back to that area in retirement where I harbor the fantasy of becoming a licensed guide and spending my time out on those fields every day.

 

Suffice it to say that I did go earlier this month and spent the week with my foster brother, Chuck, on a journey tracing the entire route of the Gettysburg campaign from Fredericksburg, VA, northward. We love hunting for obscure monuments and we found many in the mountain passes and fields of northern Virginia and Maryland all connected to movements and skirmishes leading to the decisive encounter of two armies in south-central Pennsylvania.

 

We planned to spend several days in Gettysburg itself and used much of our time going to places the tourists don’t normally go–Benner’s Hill, East Cavalry Field, and many others. Perhaps the most interesting obscure monuments, however, were found in a part of the park that is rarely seen by anyone: Neill Avenue, or as it is better known, “Lost Avenue.”

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Lost Avenue (Neill Avenue)

 

 

Lost Avenue is really no avenue at all–just a grass-covered strip of land bordered by a stone wall in the middle of a farmer’s field. This small piece of park property is surrounded by private land and thus requires special permission to visit. Thanks to one of Chuck’s connections we were able to get that permission and headed out there one morning.

 

Lost Avenue has a row of monuments that few see in person–monuments to regiments from Neill’s Brigade in the VI Corps of the Army of the Potomac that was sent out there to guard the Army’s extreme right flank. On July 3, Neill’s brigade splashed across Rock Creek and took up a position along the wall, where a short but sharp action took place with some Confederate skirmishers who were probing the Union position. These lonesome monuments tell the story but most often the cattle grazing nearby are the only ones who get to see them.

 

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 Rock Creek. I took my stone from a private section of

land along the creek, not from National Park land,

in case you’re wondering!

 We took a short hike down to Rock Creek to get a better view of the position and to hunt for another obscure location–the ruins of the Zephaniah Taney farm. But while we were down by the creek it occurred to me that that here would be the perfect place to pick up a stone for one of my annual rituals.

 

Every year, I put a new stone in a bowl on my office desk to mark another year of ordained ministry–a tradition I picked up from traveling to the Abbey of Iona in Scotland. Given the difficulty of 2020-21 with the pandemic and all the leadership challenges it presented, I thought this little black stone, tinted green with algae, and lying in a place that was between two contesting armies, was a perfect metaphor for the year just past–my 31st in ministry, my 24th as an ordained Elder, and my 11th as Lead Pastor at Tri-Lakes UMC.

 

To borrow from General Buford, the pandemic came “booming” down on us like the waves of Confederates who confronted his small cavalry division on July 1, 1863. Pastoral leaders everywhere soon had to fight like the devil (er, like angels?) to keep their congregations together and navigate the constantly changing guidelines, conflicts around masks and meeting spaces, the divergent expectations of members, and a host of other issues all while learning to be televangelists with online worship services. It was a battle that surged back and forth seemingly every week.

 

blog 4I think in many ways, the Enemy knew that holding the church together was an important position and “strained every nerve” to secure it from us through attrition, closures, and despair. I found myself saying often something akin to Buford’s aspirational order to Devin: “If we are able to hold it, we will do well.”

 

On this July 1st, the 158th anniversary of the opening of the Battle of Gettysburg and the 11th anniversary of my appointment to Tri-Lakes, I am happy to say that we have been able to hold our position, and we have done well. Buford would eventually have to fall back in the face of superior numbers on the first day of the battle, but it wasn’t the end. We’ve had to pivot, give ground, make multiple adjustments, make stands, and even take some casualties in the form of people who have moved or moved on to other churches. But we’ve also been reinforced by new people, new energy, and new vision on the other side of the pandemic. We have executed our mission well, and I am proud to have stood with this great congregation during this time of testing. It’s a year I will never forget.

 

This little stone isn’t shaped like the others in the bowl. It’s squared off, flat black, smoothed over by years of water rushing over it. It no doubt was there in Rock Creek on the day Neill’s Brigade splashed across. It will always remind me of a year of battle…but a year in which we did well to hold our vital position as a church in the Body of Christ.



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