He sits facing the camera, legs crossed. A stripe runs down the outside of the pants leg. His left hand cradles a revolver while his right holds a Bowie knife against his shoulder. A jaunty striped collar sets off a strong head with dark, wavy hair and a fringe of beard. I notice the eyes, intent and knowing. They are different sizes, the left slightly smaller than the right. I have the same eyes.

This is my great grandfather, John Thomas Dixon. Most of his life he was a tobacco farmer in Charlotte and Prince Edward counties in Virginia but from June or July 1861 to April 23, 1865 he was a Confederate soldier, 56th Virginia Infantry. He fought in many well-known battles but his greatest claim to fame, if only in our family, was that he was wounded in, and survived, Pickett’s Charge.

I grew up hearing this story and caught on early, before I knew anything about the Civil War, let alone Gettysburg, that to have survived Pickett’s Charge meant something. The story stayed in the realm of oral history most of the time, talked about at family reunions when someone wanted to muse about the “War Between the States.” My father would tell the story, or my uncle. I often thought I should write it down.

As a southern ex-pat living in the north, I tried to embue my children with a sense of their southern heritage, with mixed results. When she was in 7th grade studying American history, my daughter was given an assignment to write an essay from the point of view either of a Union soldier on Sherman’s March to the Sea or a Confederate soldier in Pickett’s Charge. When she chose the Union soldier, I intervened.

“Not Sherman’s March to the Sea,” I said. “Not in my house.”

So she wrote her essay on her great-great grandfather but though what we learned satisfied the requirements of a 7th grade essay I still knew little about the man and his military record.

All that changed this summer when my friend Mark, an historian of the Civil War, learned of my ancestor. I realized how little I actually knew, so I consulted my cousins, one of whom located a written account of our great-grandfather’s life, along with his picture. The military details – Company I, 56th VA Infantry, Garnett’s Brigade, Pickett’s Division, Longstreet’s Corp – meant nothing to me but everything to Mark. He sent pictures showing me the path Garnett’s Brigade had taken, how far they had gotten, and where they had been repulsed.

Last week I went to Gettysburg myself and Mark met me there. He showed me monuments, rocks, trees, and where things happened. He took my picture where Garnett’s brigade crossed the wall. My great-grandfather was not with them, for he had been wounded in the shoulder and perhaps also the leg somewhere in the field. There is no way to know how close he came to the stones I chose to sit on.

All through the day I tried to reach through the intervening years. There was a part of me that had hoped to see a ghost or at least to feel an evocative shiver, but I did not. I studied the paintings that recreated the ferocity of the battle, then looked up at the same landmarks and saw beauty and tranquility. That is the mystery, that such a land could have seen such horror. But I did not dwell there. I was born because my great-grandfather survived that day. I had not seen Mark since high school. The day was for the living.