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Gettysburg National Military Park

June 30, 2012

At Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

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The reasons for the American Civil War are numerous.  Some of those reasons continue to be argued even today.  This article has nothing to do with politics.  It simply recounts our visit to one of the great battlefields of that war.

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On June 30, 1863, The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, under General Robert E. Lee, advanced toward the Town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  General Lee’s reasoning was that the best way to keep the war out of Virginia was to fight it in Pennsylvania.  Union General George G. Meade was faced with the task of stopping Lee.

On July 1, the three day battle at Gettysburg began.

“…under the eyes of the people of Gettysburg.”

In visiting the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park, and looking at the exhibits, one becomes aware of the emphasis on the people involved in this battle.  The town of Gettysburg suddenly found itself with soldiers in its streets, with the sound of musket and cannon fire.  There are houses here today that still have cannon shells embedded in the outer walls.

And then there were the soldiers.  Throughout the museum, personal items of all kinds, found on the bodies of the dead on both sides, are displayed, not as cold artifacts, but as the possessions once carried by living men: fathers, husbands, brothers, sons.    And there are letters… letters written by young men full of bravado… and by others terrified of what the next day would bring.

I was amazed at just how much literature exists on the battle of Gettysburg, from heavy historic accounts to magazines to comic books.  The museum book store has several racks of literature.  There’s no point in recounting much of the battle in this short blog article.  If one wants to read about it, the information is available.  Because of the shocking revelations recently that many people didn’t know the Titanic was real, it seems sadly necessary to say, yes, there was an American Civil War.  The battle of Gettysburg was very real.

Our first stop upon arrival was the Visitor Center.  I strongly recommend starting there.  We bought a package which included admission to the museum, a short movie, the Cyclorama, and a bus tour.  Total package was $36 per person.  Each of these can be bought seperately, but if you’re going to do it all in one day, this is the best deal.  We spent 7 hours here, and could have spent another hour in the museum, at least.  We’ll return to roam the battlefield at our liesure on another day.  I should note that admission to the battlefield, officially called Gettysburg National Military Park, is free.  There is no admission charge for the park itself, nor for parking.  Maps and other information are available in the Visitor Center, and a self-guided auto tour is mapped out.   We ate lunch in the Visitor Center dining room while waiting for our movie time (the tuna salad sandwich was good).

We first saw a short movie, then rode up escalators to the Cyclorama.  This painting is incredible.  It is a full 360 degree (377 feet around) depiction of Pickett’s Charge, complete with light and sound effects.  The setting is extremely well done.  In the image above, the cannon and other debris in the foreground are real.  The painting begins at the line at the cannon’s muzzle (where the men are shown about to cross over the road).

The painting was done by Paul Philipoteaux, and was completed in 1884

The film and Cyclorama presentations lasted about 45 minutes.  We spent the next hour starting our tour of the museum, and continued in the museum after the bus tour.

The two-hour bus tour was, in my opinion, very well done, and we’re glad we did it.  While the driver drove the Greyhound style bus slowly along key roads, a guide stood facing us and delivered a rapid-fire, but very understandable, description of the battle of Gettysburg.  There were three stops on the tour, one on Seminary Ridge  at the North Carolina Memorial (just out of sight above), a rest stop, and another at the top of Little Round Top.  In the photo above, Big Round Top and Little Round Top can be seen in the distance.  Not quite seen in this photo, across the fields to the left is Cemetery Ridge and the town of Gettysburg.

Of particular interest to us was Little Round Top.  Our guide explained that while Big Round Top (on the right) was obviously higher ground, it was a terrible spot for cannon placement.  It was completely wooded as it is today, and there was no time to remove trees to get a clear field of fire.  The farmer who owned the land on Little Round Top had cleared the trees for lumber not too long before the war.  With a great struggle, the Union troops managed to get cannons up there.

Little Round Top provided a commanding view of the countryside, giving the Union a tremendous advantage.

As a Texan, I obviously had an interest in the actions of the Texas contingent in the Confederate army.  The Texas Brigade played a major role in the battle for Little Round  Top.  Under the leadership of Major General John Bell Hood, they came over the hill just in front of the tree line under heavy fire, and made their way to the where the present-day road crosses below.  They then moved to the left through the area just in front of the trees and assaulted the hill.  That area between the trees to the left of the cannon’s left w heel and the rocks seen here on the other side of the wheel  was called Devil’s Den.  The Confederates did make it to the top of Little Round Top, but Union reinforcements arrived in time to beat them back.

The photo above was taken from the top of Little Round Top, looking down into Devil’s Den.

The last major battle at Gettysburg took place approximately across this open ground, between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge (in the distance).  Late in the afternoon of July 3, 1863, 150 Confederate cannons began firing across this space.  Union cannons answered, and the artillery battle raged for two hours.  When the cannonade stopped, 12,000 Confederate soldiers, in a line a mile wide, advanced across this ground.  One of the men leading this attack was General George Pickett, and the assault became known as Pickett’s Charge.

A surviving Union soldier would later write that the Confederates came out of the woods and marched in a line across the field.  Then they began to step out faster, and finally charged at a run, screaming and firing.  The Union line held, and the next day, July 4, the Confederate army retreated back to Virginia.  They  would fight – and win – other major battles over the next two years.  But the battle for Gettysburg was over.

As one might imagine, in the years immediately following the war, Union soldiers who survived this battle returned to visit and pay homage to lost brothers.  At first, Confederate soldiers had no interest in returning to the scene of such a terrible loss.  But over time, they did return, and joined in joint reunions with their former enemies.

Throughout the years, various groups from all the states which had troops here have funded monuments to be placed at Gettysburg.  Throughout the battlefield, these monuments mark where specific units were positioned at various times during the battle.

Brave men fought here.  They clawed their way up hills and advanced across open fields in the face of cannon shot and withering musket fire.  They defended positions while facing overwhelming forces.  Regardless of whether one looks at Gettysburg as a victory or a defeat, it must be acknowledged that thousands of brave men stood and fought each other on this hallowed ground.  And with few exceptions, every one of them was an American.

May it never happen again.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. June 30, 2012 8:16 pm

    Beautifully written, Ralph. As you might know, the Gettysburg Battlefield is one of my favorite places to paint. It is rife with history, and beautifully preserved. I never think of North vs South, just all of those men and young boys who lost their lives that day – they were sons, fathers, husbands…such a tragedy. It is indeed, very Hallowed Ground.

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