top of page

Mythic History: Visiting Battlefields and Feeling History

Updated: Feb 20

Mythic history is history with horsepower; it triggers feelings of Wonder and motivates us to live with Vigor,. Mythic history is the history you feel.

“A crucial aspect of how history is understood, and in a sense consumed, is as myth.”

-Tom Holland, Best-selling author of Rubicon and Persian Fire

As a kid living in Virginia, my parents often drove my brother and me to Revolutionary War and Civil War battlefields. We’d climb the earthworks at Yorktown, straddle the dormant cannons of Petersburg, and imagine ourselves in battle – my brother in confederate gray and me in union blue. Twenty-plus years later as a Marine Captain stationed in Norfolk, Virginia, I visited those same battlefields, except this time, I’d bring along fifty Marines from my platoon. I still recall one memorable trip to Gettysburg. In preparation, we packed sleeping bags, charcoal grills, and coolers filled with enough beer and meat to feed an Arm… well, a platoon of Marines.

Rising early from our Gettysburg campsite, we drove to the right flank of the Confederate line, where elements of General John Bell Hood’s division began their attack on the Union’s left flank. From Hood’s assault position, we trekked east on foot as his men did under heavy fire, snaking through the 20-foot-high boulders at “Devil’s Den” and climbing up the rocky face of Little Round Top, where the union left flank made its stand.

Cresting Little Round Top, we looked back down the hill towards the Devil’s Den. I told my platoon to “take a knee and feel the ground with your hands. You’re defending this hill, this dirt, just like the men of the 20th Maine did 143 years ago as waves of Confederates attacked this very spot.” Then I whispered, “now smell the horse dung, the pines trees, and the morning dew. Smell the musket fire and cannon smoke. Hear the bugles blare, the rebels yell, and screams of shattered men. See the men in gray -- thousands of them, thirsty and emaciated -- charging towards us with utter desperation to kill us. Now feel the sweat pouring down your back, the fear pitting your stomach, and the rage igniting your courage.”

“Fix bayonets!” I yelled. When the 20th Maine ran low on ammunition, I told them, their commander, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, ordered his men on this very hill, around these rocks and trees, to fasten 18-inch blades to the end of their rifles and charge down the jagged slope before you. “A thousand Men from Maine,” I said, “charged with pointed spears, impaling a human wall of faces, necks, and stomachs. After hours of breaking teeth and spilling guts,” I continued, “more than 1,700 southerners lay dead on the ground before your eyes. It all happened here. Right here. Feel their energy. Let their courage inspire you.”

I call this “mythic history." It’s the romantic telling of history to inspire more than just inform. Mythical history excites us into action. When we walk the ground at Gettysburg or the Roman Coliseum, and momentarily escape the crowd to take a few meditative breaths, we can feel something billow inside. We feel an energy that lingers in spots where human beings reached the emotional and physical apex of the human experience. The harder those human engines burned long ago on that ground, the more exhaust they leave behind for us to feel whenever we visit those sacred sites. Mythic history is history with horsepower; it triggers feelings of wonder and motivates us to live with mission and verve. Mythic history is the history you feel.


The Barbarian in You is awakened by mythic history – history that ignites a fire in your belly. When feeling uninspired or unexcited about life, read a passage that moves you, watch a clip that excites you, or visit a site that stirs you. When you lift weights, you can be Alaric the Goth swinging his broad sword. When you write, you can be a subversive 18th Century pamphleteer scribing dangerous ideas by candlelight. When you laugh, you can be a Norse warrior drinking mead with his tribe. You can find mythic history in books, movies, and most all, actual historic sites. Feeling history, can inspire us into action -- or at the very least, leave our hearts swirling with wonder.

bottom of page