My eldest son and I just spent a day-and-a-half exploring the Battlefield at Gettysburg, PA. This was a very typical Guys Weekend, doing the things we enjoy or simply find interesting and provocative. We spent Saturday in Washington, D.C. witnessing the Phillies loss to the Nationals on our first visit to Nationals Park. On Sunday we drove out to Gettysburg.
Historic-type excursions were not something we did much when the kids were young. It’s difficult to justify dragging three children through an age-old battlefield when you’re the only one who finds it interesting and provocative. The kids and the wife get bored; you feel rushed and a more than a tad selfish; and it ends up not being a very enjoyable time for anyone. Yet I was embarrassed by the fact that I had never visited Gettysburg, despite living in Pennsylvania my entire life.
Recently Mike Jr. started reading up on Civil War history; something I did somewhat intensely around 10 years ago. Suddenly we had a new and fascinating subject on which we could talk and share opinions, insights, and information. A few months ago, we agreed to visit the Gettysburg National Military Park together.
The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest land battle ever fought on the North American continent. Fought during the Civil War, it was a major turning point in Abraham Lincoln’s heroic efforts to preserve the Union of the United States. Over 165,000 men converged on Gettysburg in late June 1863 in a dance of movement and counter-movement with which both armies were well acquainted. Although there were no plans to engage at Gettysburg (Jubal Early’s Confederates had raided and left Gettysburg days earlier.), the vagaries of war, where many men under different commands spread out over a wide area of northern Maryland and southern Pennsylvania, resulted in a dramatic confrontation that lasted three days. All that was needed to set off the conflagration was the rumor that Gettysburg had a supply of shoes, a cherished commodity for the often shoeless men of the Southern Armies.
General George Gordon Meade led the Union’s Army of the Potomac despite having been promoted from his Corps command to replace General Joe Hooker just three days before the battle.
The combined engagements were the bloodiest of the Civil War. Over 7000 men were killed, over 33,000 wounded. And almost 11,000 were listed as missing or captured. Yet despite fighting that surrounded a well established town of 2400 people, only one civilian was killed. Mary Virginia Wade died when a stray shot ripped through the door of her sister’s house.
When we arrived at the National Park, we headed out to visit the sites of the first day’s battles, all the while reliving scenes from the well-known historically based movie Gettysburg. When you begin to get an overview of the battleground, you begin to realize the size and scope of the event. Those of us without military experience fail to appreciate how much ground is involved in a major military engagement. The depth and breadth of space required to accommodate major armies is truly impressive.
But the true magnitude of what occurred in Gettysburg in that hot, humid July in 1863 does not hit home until you visit the sites of fighting that occurred on Day 2 and Day 3. Since we were saving the bulk of the Day 2 fighting (particularly Little Round Top and Devils’ Den) for our second day, we decided to take the walking tour of Pickett’s Charge (also known as Longstreet’s Charge), as provided by a National Parks Ranger. If you ever have the opportunity, this is a great way to get both an overview of events as well as insights into the small individual feats and personal stories that underscore the drama.
As we stood on Cemetary Ridge looking west towards Seminary Ridge you suddenly realize the difficulty of that final charge made by elements of Longstreet’s First Corps (Pickett in charge with Andrews’ and Pettigrew’s Divisions). Across roughly a mile of wide open ground, exposed to artillery and then musket fire along the entire route. Nowhere to hide, few places to take cover, against Union forces behind low reinforced battlements on high ground with undisputed command of the field and unobstructed fields of fire. The dedication, courage and sense of honor necessary to march into that Field of Death is – simply put – unimaginable!
Regardless of your views on the Confederate struggle, you cannot help but be awestruck by the bravery demonstrated that day by those wearing the ragtag uniforms of the Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee. At times I have found myself embroiled in heated discussion about the legitimacy of the South’s struggle. Not from the viewpoint of defending slavery, but in trying to place into perspective the role of everyday Southern farmers, artisans, college students, and back woods folk who did not own slaves themselves, but believed they were fighting to define their Right to Self-Determination. Their allegiance was to their State as their Country at a time when the U.S. of A. was still trying to define itself as a Country of States.
Too many people want to boil it down to the preservation of slavery as the only motive behind The Civil War. But that’s an over-simplification. There were other issues at stake … a strong centralized government vs. a weaker national presence in favor of strong, independent States; the economic interests of the agrarian South (slavery) in the face of a more populous, industrialized North; the Right of individual States to come and go as they chose, depending on their agreement with National policies and actions; and the State Nullification of Federal Laws when States disagreed or were disadvantaged by said laws.
Both sides in the conflict were pushed to war by fiery speeches and political posturing that portrayed “the other side” as threats to the existence of the other. In the end, it was mostly the common man who paid the price on blood-soaked fields defending their homelands or in not-so-distant sister States.
Our second day was spent on a paid two-hour car tour led by an elderly gentleman named John Everude. For a reasonable $65 (not including tip) we received an interesting and enthusiastic overview of the entire three-day battle as well as events leading up to the largest land battle on American soil. This is well worth the price should you ever decide to visit Gettysburg. (Reservations must be made at least three days prior to your visit.)
We spent the rest of the day exploring the sites of the Day 2 battles at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard. We visited the site of the 20th Maine’s heroic stand and bayonet charge down Little Round Top as made famous in the aforementioned movie, Gettysburg.
When you walk and gaze upon a terrain broken by boulders the size of cars piled atop and massed together in the low-lying Slaughter Pen and along the heights of Devil’s Den, you acquire an appreciation for the hardships both sides faced as they struggled to control the far left segment of the Union line, as it was attacked by Longstreet’s Corps.
Mike and I marveled at the terrain held by the Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine and over which it executed its bayonet charge against John Bell Hood’s 15th Alabama Regiment. You cannot imagine how the 15th charged up that rugged hill, let alone how the 20th Maine could possibly have charged down it!
It’s only when you walk this ground that you realize it’s impossible to comprehend the Bravery needed to Honor one’s Commitment to Country and to comrades. Yet these men did it to the ultimate betterment of us as a People and as a Country.