Sunday, December 17, 2017

Gettysburg battlefields whisper key Civil War history


Standing just past the trees that line Seminary Ridge, I set off across wide, fence-crossed fields toward high ground about a mile away. Just short of 30 minutes later, I reached the far crest.

A century and a half ago, more than 12,000 much younger men walked the same fields, and a handful reached the crest in about the same amount of time. They wore gray and took the last stretch at the "double quick.'' I wore a white Tampa Bay Buccaneers windbreaker and over the last stretch did the best imitation of the double quick my 63-year-old legs could muster.

The soldiers paused several times along the way. So did I. One difference: I stopped to shoot pictures. They stopped to reform lines shot to pieces by Union cannon. A few cannons still guard Cemetery Ridge today. As I approached, I felt I should be quiet, as if entering a church.

That was a surprise. Like many other Americans, I have an interest in Civil War history and have read a fair bit about the war and specifically about Gettysburg. Seeing the battlefield, I thought, would be interesting. But I did not expect to learn much, nor did I anticipate that the experience would be emotional. At the top of Cemetery Ridge, I discovered I was wrong on both counts.


Gettysburg and the Civil War will get extra attention this year.

Jan. 1 marked the 150th anniversary of the final Emancipation Proclamation, President Abraham Lincoln's order that transformed the war into more than a struggle to preserve the union — and the focus of the Spielberg movie Lincoln. July 1-3 marks the same anniversary of the war's pivotal battle.

Gettysburg is a small town in the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania, east of the Blue Ridge mountains, about 80 miles from Washington. The town was not Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's objective when he launched his invasion of the North in June 1863. In fact, he had no territorial objective.

Some of his goals were short-range. His Army of Northern Virginia could feast on the livestock and crops from the rich Pennsylvania farmland; an invasion would forestall any Union initiatives and might take pressure off rebel forces under siege at Vicksburg, the South's last major outpost on the Mississippi.

History is a bit murky on the question of Lee's larger goals. But Lee knew the reality of his situation: Although he was winning most of the battles — including spectacular victories that year at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville in Virginia — the South was not winning the war. The North, more populous and more industrialized, would only get stronger.

As he led his men out of Virginia, Lee clearly had more on his mind than food and Vicksburg.

He planned to lure the Union Army of the Potomac into battle and crush it on its home ground. Victory might destroy Northern morale, boost Confederate hopes of gaining diplomatic recognition from England and France and perhaps force Lincoln to let the South go.

Lee got the fight he wanted — but not the result. North and South engaged in a titanic struggle at Gettysburg, in what became the costliest battle ever waged on the North American continent. Total casualties were roughly 50,000. On July 4, Lee began his retreat to Virginia. That same day, Vicksburg surrendered.

Lee lost a third of his army at Gettysburg. More than that, he lost any real chance of winning the war, begetting the hoary high school cliche "high water mark of the Confederacy.''


That phrase refers most specifically to the small stretch of Cemetery Ridge toward which I marched.

A modest stone monument there marks where Union fire mortally wounded Gen. Lewis Armistead. He was one of the few Confederates to penetrate, for a few bloody minutes, the Union defense during what became known as Pickett's Charge. His monument is flanked by two of the Civil War's least imposing yet most significant landmarks: One is the "Copse of Trees,'' a reputed aiming point for the Confederate attack. Steps away is "The Angle,'' the junction of two low stone walls behind which Union troops fought.

I think it a forgivable exaggeration to argue that on this small patch of ground, the fate of two nations was decided. One would disappear. The other would, generations later, put a black man in the White House.

Anyone can learn all about Gettysburg from the history books (perhaps most notably that arguments rage to this day on almost every "fact'' of the battle). I can tell you it is another thing altogether to stand right where it happened.

And there's something else. Many people go to Gettysburg to learn about the battle. But having been there, I think that's backward. You'll get a lot more out of your visit if you do your reading first and then go to Gettysburg to really understand what happened. My college-age daughter came to the same conclusion. The battlefield, she said, "is just too big for the history books to explain.''


Pickett's ill-fated Charge is the best example of what she meant. The basics are well known: Confederate soldiers marched in almost parade-ground precision across a mile or more of open ground under intense Union fire.

Those facts took on new meaning when I stood on Cemetery Ridge and looked across the fields they crossed. So far. So open. So terribly exposed. No picture, no wide-screen movie and certainly no book can capture that vista or how the sight can at once fire your imagination and evoke a sense of sadness.

My wife was more analytical. Looking back toward the adjacent Seminary Ridge, from which the Confederate soldiers began the charge, she instantly concluded they were on "a suicide mission.'' Interestingly, Lee's chief subordinate, Gen. James Longstreet, had come to a similar judgment on the day of the attack when, according to his account, he warned Lee, "It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position."

Here, a brief digression: Perhaps the most widely read ''history'' of Gettysburg is a work of fiction, Michael Shaara's Pulitzer Prize-winning The Killer Angels. Many will disagree, but I think it's probably the best ''first'' book one can read on the battle. (Just keep in mind that some of Shaara's interpretations of events, while widely held, are also much in dispute.)

Angels popularized Union Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a 34-year-old college professor turned soldier. Chamberlain and his 20th Maine established a defensive position on a tactically critical hill, Little Round Top, just minutes before a Confederate force charged up the slope.

Had the attackers succeeded, the position of the entire Union Army might have been jeopardized.

The fight for Little Round Top raged until Chamberlain's men, almost out of ammunition, fixed bayonets and charged down the slope, routing the surprised attackers.

Some knowledgeable folks huff that Shaara overstates Chamberlain's role. But there's no doubt that a desperate struggle took place on Little Round Top, and for a long time I had wanted to see it for myself.

The spot is well marked, right down to the small stone markers that indicate the left and right side of his defensive line. I walked between them — and looked down. The rocky slope up which the Alabama troops attacked seemed impossibly steep. And they had to fight at the same time? For me, the climb would have been an on-my-hands-and-knees affair.

I have zero sympathy for the Confederate cause. But I have some, now, for the soldiers who tried to take that hill.

Gettysburg National Military Park can satisfy the curiosity of everyone from the casual visitor, who knows little more than that it was the site of an important battle, to the Civil War obsessed.

We ran into one man who said he had been coming to the park for 25 years.

You'll need more than a day to do justice to the place.

The museum at the visitor center is alone worth at least half a day. Displays, exhibits and movies detail the war from beginning to end and give a good overview of the battle.

The well-read history buff may be drawn by small detail: the wagon train of Confederate wounded streaming south after the battle was 17 miles long; a huge map, drawn by a contractor hired to bury the thousands of dead, which locates where he found each body; an interactive display you can use to look up units by state and see where on the battlefield they fought.

If it wasn't included in the price of admission ($12.50 for adults), I wouldn't have bothered with the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360-degree painting depicting (somewhat inaccurately) Pickett's Charge. I expected it to be cheesy. Instead, having just been on Cemetery Ridge, I found it helped me imagine the scene.

Then it was off to the battlefield.

You will need a car to drive around the park, which is in three big sections.

The visitor center-museum and most of the places about which you may have read (Culp's and Cemetery hills, Cemetery and Seminary ridges, the Round Tops) are south of town, where the bulk of the fighting raged. The cemetery where Lincoln made his momentous speech is here too. For casual visitors, this is probably the only stop.

A second section is a quick drive back through Gettysburg and a bit west. This is where the first day of the battle began and is well worth visiting. You can explore some of the parallel ridges on which Union Gen. John Buford's cavalry conducted a brilliant delaying action that allowed the Union army to secure the highly defensible high ground to the southeast.

We didn't have time to visit a third section, 3 or 4 miles east of town, where George Armstrong Custer helped repulse Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's cavalry thrust intended to support Pickett's Charge.

Good roads connect all the important sites. Numbered maps make it easy to find spots you want to visit. In fact, some people never get out of their cars. They buy a book or audio CD, keyed to the numbered landmarks, which explain in detail what happened at each.

You can also hire a licensed guide who will drive around with you ($65 for two hours). By reputation, they do a good job. Bus tours are also available.

To do it right, though, you need to get out and walk around. We spent a lot of time roaming the fields and trails, going up the several elevated lookouts and taking in some of the 1,328 monuments, memorials and markers. Little is off limits. You can prowl all the bloody hot spots: the rocks of Devils Den, the Slaughter Pen, the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard. And you can walk, as I did, the path of Pickett's Charge.

Every section of the battlefield offers a concrete lesson on the military value of holding the high ground.

You should stand on this ground, where so much was decided, at a place Lincoln said the world "can never forget.''

If you're like me, you'll feel what he meant.

Michael A. Moscardini can be reached at [email protected]

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