Ghosting in Gettysburg

Posted by Raja Reddy

The 2015s are prepping for their first McDermott experience in Santa Fe, but the 2014s just had our last freshman experience together—the D.C. trip.

Santa Fe and D.C. are the perfect bookends to your freshman year as a McDermott. Santa Fe is all about breaking down boundaries (which happens ten minutes into your first game of Never Have I Ever) and forming the bonds that tie all McDermotts together, all while completing a series of relatively strenuous physical tasks. Those bonds grow stronger as you share your stories and ideas and goals, like sharing electrons in a covalent bond. (That’s an amazing analogy and I’m keeping it.)

The D.C. trip runs on basically the same philosophy. Over the year, as you diverge onto your own paths and interests, some bonds grow stronger and others weaker. D.C. helps you reform all those connections; except instead of taking place in the laid-back Santa Fe, everything happens in the high-momentum D.C., where tours of national landmarks and meetings with congressmen are awesome but also never-ending. Bonding doesn’t happen over philosophical discussions at 2 a.m., but over counting how many times you go through security and rotating sunglasses so people don’t notice the bags in your eyes.

And then you get to a part of the D.C. trip that no one really talks about beforehand. Everyone’s excited to see the Capitol or the Smithsonians or ask what Senator Cornyn thinks about Cruz 2016. But after five energetic and exhausting days in D.C.—after all the broken heels, the sweaty suits–everyone gets on a bus, sleeps for two hours, and ends up in…

Gettysburg, PA is a small town of about 7,000. It has one major road, leading directly from your really swanky hotel down a slew of historical buildings—stores, restaurants, churches, all with their own 200-year-old stories and people. A quiet village where it feels like 1863 was just yesterday.

Hangin’ with the bae. PC: Anishka Kappalayil.

Your immediate urge is to explore. The beautifully ornate library with the Lincoln statue. The tavern that used to be a stop on the Underground Railroad. The candy shop with vaguely racist rubber ducks and candy cigarettes that probably expired in the ‘50s. After four days of willful martyrdom in D.C., strolling around Gettysburg was practically cathartic.

On our first night there, the bravest of us (i.e., those who could actually stay awake and Nicole) went on a ghost tour. Most people in our group thought it was pretty lame and cheesy—an old woman in 1800s clothing led us around town, while Nicole frantically took pictures trying to find UGOs (unidentified ghostly objects). But it was my favorite part of the week thus far. Stories of generals’ personal vendettas, widows of fallen soldiers going mad, mutant shark-pigs digging up corpses (not really, but pretty close)—however embellished, for the first time, the history of Gettysburg came alive for me. I could imagine armies clashing over the parking lot next to us and nurses tending to the wounded in the ice cream parlor. I didn’t see ghosts rising from the ground (though there were a few jump scares), but it was almost like the past was superimposed on our present.

And that was only the beginning. The next day, we took a day-long journey on the actual Gettysburg battlefield in an experience that was distinctly McDermott. The Gettysburg Foundation has a program called In the Footsteps of Leaders, in which our awesome guide, Sue, traveled with us on the battlefield as we recreated the three days of the battle through the eyes of the generals. And you literally walk in their footsteps; we lined up like a regiment, we roleplayed a cannon team, we marched Pickett’s Charge. Before this, all I knew about Gettysburg was what I had read on the Wikipedia page, but Sue made each of those stuffy historical figures into a living, breathing, thinking person who we could understand. General Lee’s overconfidence but trustworthiness, General Meade’s lack of charisma but clarity of vision, General Sickles’ stupidity on the field but role in Gettysburg’s legacy—every general had flaws and talents, just like any leader, any person, any of us. And all have taught us incredible lessons about the importance of leadership, respect, and teamwork, in a context where every choice a leader makes doesn’t just cost time and money, but lives, families, and entire nations.

Never trust Ximone with a cannon. PC: Anishka Kappalayil.

That sounds cheesy, I know—I’m not usually into these broad discussions on “leadership,” a word that is thrown around far too easily (as evidenced by this post alone). A lot of the McDermott experiences—Leadership Dallas, Austin, and now D.C.—are meant to evoke this sense that all of us scholars are the leaders of tomorrow and the brightest of our generation and all that good stuff.

But leadership isn’t just about climbing the ladder or networking with important people. Those are components, but the part of leadership we most overlook is the humanity behind it. What makes a good leader, on the inside? Talking about it helps—LD, Austin, and D.C. are all about asking questions and getting answers. But for me, in Gettysburg, the more abstract and philosophical ideals of leadership clicked. Someone can’t just tell you what leadership is, it’s something visceral; you have to experience it yourself, by walking in the footsteps of leaders.

This obviously isn’t some treatise on leadership—I’m not an expert in any way. But I hope this gives a sense of why D.C. and Gettysburg is such a memorable experience. D.C. is amazing—unlike other capitals, you get the sense that this is a place where decisions are made and things get done. But in Gettysburg, you understand who the people behind those decisions are—the thoughts, emotions, and choices, good or bad, that go on to change history.

You may not see ghosts, but you can definitely feel them.

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