ORONO – Jack Cosgrove climbed the slope of Little Round Top. He clambered over the rocks at Devil’s Den. He was alone, except for the thousands of souls who fought the three-day battle at Gettysburg, and his new bride.
Cosgrove paused as he walked and let his imagination go. How did the officers and common soldiers face their fears of what was ahead? How did they prepare for the battle’s fury?
The same questions are asked today. This week is the 150th anniversary of the battle that shaped the Civil War and America. For three days, the two great armies of the North and South struggled for the upper hand. All battles are horrific, this one especially.
It was July of 1988 and Jack and Marilyn Cosgrove were on a month-long honeymoon. He was an assistant football coach at the University of Maine then and a former history teacher. The newly married couple had the whole month to be together. They had no real plans.
They were already in Pennsylvania and heading to Florida when Cosgrove turned to his wife and asked if she minded stopping at Gettysburg. “She knew my interest. She didn’t say no.
“We were there from sunup to sundown. It got as hot as 107 degrees but she was there, trudging beside me. We weren’t with a group. It was just the two of us.”
Cosgrove has been the head football coach at Maine for more than 20 years. He understands the difference in fighting for your way of life, a cause or to defend your country and strapping on your shoulder pads.
“I never use the ‘we’re going to war’ when I talk to my players because it’s not. It’s a football game.”
That day at Gettysburg has stayed with him. He tries to put himself in the shoes of the men who fought and the generals who watched. “In our world (of football) I don’t step onto the field. I put my players on the field but only after preparing them in the best ways I can.”
At spring practice this year, Cosgrove divided his 60 returning players into teams of six. Each team stepped onto a large mat and followed rapid-fire instructions to do basic, physical actions in a brief period of time.
If their discipline is perfect, they step off and it’s the next team’s turn. When six are on the mat, the other 54 are watching and yelling support.
If one player, on say, the fifth team of six makes a mistake, the exercise begins again with the first team. The exercise continues until all 60 have done it perfectly.
“We had an ex-Navy SEAL at our practice this year and afterward he got pretty emotional telling me he didn’t think that stuff happened anymore outside the military,” said Cosgrove. “I told him we weren’t the only teams doing this. Discipline helps prepare your players for anything.
“So much of it is mental. You’ll go further mentally if you’re prepared physically. If you’re tired, you can’t make those decisions that quickly.”
Cosgrove can’t know how the Scots under Sir William Wallace won the Battle of Stirling Bridge in 1297. Yes, he’s watched the epic movie “Braveheart” again and again but can’t trust Hollywood to show how common men and a charismatic leader could prevail.
In another movie, Cosgrove watches the 54th Massachusetts Volunteers, the so-called Glory regiment, march to their positions at the front of the attack on Fort Wagner in 1863. Many will be killed or wounded.
He wonders how battalions of the 7th Cavalry Regiment fought the battle of Ia Drang Valley against a much larger force of the North Vietnamese Army as written in the book “We Were Soldiers Once . . . And Young.” They faced the unknown and won.
As Cosgrove walked the Gettysburg battlefield he wasn’t thinking about bullets and blood. It was all about men facing men after facing their own fears. It was about looking at your brothers and rediscovering your own strength or weakness.
Cosgrove and his family didn’t make it to the 150th anniversary this week. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t there.
Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: