Alabama road trippers find living history at Gettysburg

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(AL.COM) For many Alabamians, the July 4 weekend involved little more than spending time with friends and family, grilling up some food, shooting off some fireworks and shooting the breeze about off-season football.

But a few Alabama residents instead hit the road this year and celebrated America's founding with a trip to the Civil War battleground at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Robert and Phyllis Rollan are two such people. The Montgomery residents were walking near Big Round Top and Little Round Top - the sites of many Alabama casualties - when AL.com caught up with them on Monday, the 154th anniversary of the third and final day of the battle at Gettysburg.

It was the couple's first time visiting the hallowed place, despite the fact that Robert Rollan is a history teacher at Pike Liberal Arts School in Troy.

"It's been good. We've enjoyed it," he said. "Coming to see history that you've taught for 25-plus years firsthand has been a big highlight for me."

Remembered as the site of both the deadliest battle of the Civil War and President Abe Lincoln's most famous speech, Gettysburg may not often be associated with Alabama.

But history tells us that about 6,000 Alabama soldiers were under General Robert E. Lee's command during the battle. Alabama sustained the sixth-most casualties of any Confederate or Union state at Gettysburg, with about 2,250 of the state's sons dying on its blood-soaked fields.

Kristen Warr and her family live in Huntsville, but they were in Gettysburg for the day on Monday. Warr said it was important to her that her children - aged 11, nine and six - get "a sense of the history" there while learning a valuable lesson about the impact of war and the sacrifices of Americans who came before them.

Before they arrived in Pennsylvania, the Warrs' road trip took them to Washington, D.C., where Kristen Warr said her kids learned about modern government as well as Lincoln's assassination at Ford's Theatre. After leaving Washington, the family discussed the Gettysburg Address and the reality of war while en route to Gettysburg, Warr said.

"Our two oldest are boys and we talked about what it would be like to be a few years older than they are and to have to go off to war like they did in the Civil War," she said.

"At first they thought it was cool, but when they started to think about someone shooting back from the other side it was a little bit sobering for them."

An imposing, 12-foot-tall monument to Alabama's Gettysburg casualties now stands in the place where the Alabama Brigade, under General Evander Law's leadership, launched its attack on the strategically important Little Round Top.

Dedicated in November 1933, the bronze and granite monument features a female figure representing the "spirit" of Alabama showing two wounded Alabama soldiers the way forward in the battle.

Every year, re-enactors from around the country descend on Gettysburg for the anniversary of the battle. They set up camp in a field just outside the town and spend July 1 through July 3 reenacting the three days of bloody battle for spectators who flock there - there were visitors in attendance Monday from as far away as Romania and Australia - for the occasion.

On Monday, dozens of re-enactors acted out a cavalry battle in the morning. They shot blanks from their rifles, sword-fought one another and demonstrated how vicious close-quarters fighting was during the showdown. The mock cavalry fight was followed by a mortar competition, in which re-enactors took turns firing Civil War-style mortars to see who was the best shot.

The day was fun-filled, but it was also an educational and chilling experience for visitors to come face to face with the bloody history of America's most trying time.

"It was really good for [my kids] to really make history alive and see that," Warr said.