- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 17, 2008

For seven straight years the Kiely family has gathered at Gettysburg to visit with each other, and pay tribute to the sacred ground of America’s most popular Civil War site. They come from a variety of places - Virginia, Connecticut, Massachusetts - but while they are together at Gettysburg, it’s more than just another family vacation. It’s a transforming experience.

“There were a record 18 of us this year, representing four generations,” said Mo Kiely, a 50-year-old assistant director of campus safety at Randolph-Macon College. “The beauty of it was that just about everybody went, and the excitement was incredible.”

The family has favorite sites they often visit, the high-water mark of Confederate Gen. George Edward Pickett charge, for example, but they always try to locate new places to look at history from new angles.

“We walked up to Little Round Top through the Devil’s Den, just as the Confederates did on the day they attacked. When you go that way, you can almost see the blood on the rocks,” Mo Kiely says.

Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the men of the 20th Maine volunteers made a gallant stand on Little Round Top that turned the tide of battle. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor.

However, not everyone sees Chamberlain as a hero. Mr. Kiely’s father, Maurice, reads extensively about the Civil War and waits every year anxiously for the trip. As an admirer of Chamberlain, he was nearly drawn into an argument at a local Gettysburg watering hole between two others who could not agree on Chamberlain’s role.

“If there’s one thing you can find at Gettysburg, it’s passion,” Mo Kiely says. “Gettysburg is genuine.”

But Gettysburg also raises larger questions about historical truth. How can historians really know which written accounts are more true than others? What was Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee really thinking before Pickett’s famous charge? How did everyone know, including the active participants in the battle, that something nation-changing had occurred?

Many younger children, including nieces and nephews, accompanied parents and elders and were not so concerned about historical truth. Three nephews from Connecticut insisted on outfitting themselves as Confederates and even “captured” several Union re-enactors who were encamped near the family hotel.

One might have considered the children Connecticut Yankees in King Robert’s Court, so to speak. The elders later bought a bucket of chicken for the re-enactors to repay their patience and kindness.

The overarching themes for the entire family continue to be an awe and appreciation of the momentous importance of the historical time period and the fascinatingly complex nature of the battle itself.

“It was brutal,” Mo Kiely says simply, “but it was also generally not vicious or vindictive. The whole Civil War experience is hard to explain. It just fascinates.”

Not everyone will be able to make the yearly pilgrimage, but the plan is to continue meeting. “It’s about respect for our history,” Mo Kiely says. “It’s also about tradition, and now our family has a new tradition.”

During an era of economic and political uncertainty, an old-fashioned vacation into America’s past seems unusually appropriate.

Jack Trammell teaches and administers at Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Va. He can be reached at [email protected]

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