Four score and seven years…

For four years, from April 12, 1861 to May 9, 1865, this nation sought to tear itself apart through war. More American soldiers died during the Civil War than during World War I and World War II combined. By the end of the war, approximately 750,000 soldiers were dead, the South lay in ruins, slavery had been legally abolished, and southern states that had declared independence from the union were brought back into the U.S. governmental system. One of the most important battles was fought a mere three hours from my home. This past Friday, a friend and I set out to visit this national landmark.

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania and the surrounding countryside. The Confederate Army, under the command of General Robert E. Lee, had recently won the Battle of Chancellorsville, and Lee sought to press his advantage by invading the north, possibly to reach Philadelphia, and force the United States government to negotiate a peace treaty to end the war. Instead, the Confederate Army was met by Union soldiers led by General George G. Meade. 104,000 Union soldiers engaged 72,000 Confederate soldiers, and over the course of three days a pitched battle was fought, the result being a defeat for the southern forces and the turning point of the war. At the end of the battle, an estimated 50,000 total casualties were either killed, wounded, or missing, and Lee’s forces were in retreat (via Wikipedia).

Despite living within a few hours’ drive of the battlefield, I had never visited. We decided that Gettysburg would be the first stop on a long road trip, and so we planned to spend Friday afternoon touring the national park. However, as we left on Friday morning, I was pessimistic about what we would see. Rain was in the forecast for the afternoon, and the skies were overcast. We encountered traffic, slowing our progress further. We also drove through several sudden downpours. It seemed like we were not destined to see Gettysburg that day. Instead, we stopped for lunch at a local Italian restaurant and tried to re-plan our trip. Instead of mirroring my pessimism, however, my friend remained hopeful that the weather would hold out, and insisted we at least stop by the park.

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Fighting traffic through Philadelphia at the start of our trip.
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Darkening skies boded ill for the trip.
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One of several downpours on the PA Turnpike.
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Eating, and feeling more than a bit aggravated by traffic and weather, at La Bella Italia, a really good restaurant on the outskirts of Gettysburg. I spent much of my lunch certain that the trip would be a washout.
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Driving through historic Gettysburg. A very pretty town, but more traffic.
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Arriving at the park, with a suddenly brightening sky.

To our surprise, when we arrived at Gettysburg National Military Park, the clouds broke and the sun came out. With temperatures in the mid-80’s, we were treated to a beautiful day. We parked DH in Lot 1 and skipped the visitor’s center to go straight to the battlefield. And we discovered something: it was completely unplanned, but we had arrived on the anniversary of the first day of the battle. The Battle of Gettysburg lasted from July 1, 1863 – July 3, 1863, and we had arrived on July 1, 2016. The 153rd anniversary of the battle. To be there on the anniversary of such a historic event added to the solemnness of the visit. Rather than driving, we decided to walk through the paths and farmlands, tracing the steps of countless soldiers who had stood on this ground over a century-and-a-half ago.

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Markers such as these commemorate the units who fought in the battle. Many of the units took heavy casualties, with several ceasing to exist as fighting units after the battle, so high was the injury and death toll.
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Both northern and southern military units are commemorated by these large stone markers.
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The Leister Farm, which was the headquarters for General Meade during much of the battle.
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Statue of General Meade. near Cemetery Ridge.

We walked to Cemetery Ridge, location of the deciding encounter on the third day of the battle: Pickett’s Charge. After a sustained volley of cannon fire from Confederate Forces, over 12,000 men charged the Union lines. During the Confederate cannonade, Union forces had kept their guns silent, causing the southern troops to believe the northern guns had been knocked out of action. Instead, as the Confederate soldiers closed on the hill, they encountered a withering barrage of Union gunfire. The Confederate forces pressed the attack, resulting in an infantry battle that saw the southern army units suffer a 50% casualty rate. This battle marked the end of the Battle of Gettysburg (via Wikipedia).

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Battlefield panorama heading toward Cemetery Ridge.
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Cannons on Cemetery Ridge.
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This spot marks where in 1883 Paul Philippoteaux painted the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 365-degree portrait of Pickett’s Charge. You can see a copy of it in the Visitor’s Center.

Looking at a map, we realized that the battlefield spanned many, many square miles, and we had seen but a small part of the park. We decided to spend the rest of our time in Soldier’s National Cemetery, which honors the fallen soldiers from the battle. Near to the cemetery is also the location where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg address, although as we discovered thanks to a kindly park ranger, the officially listed locations for the speech are incorrect. Lincoln’s short speech, which reframed the Civil War as a conflict defining this nation’s purpose and provided a clarion call for universal human rights, was long thought to have occurred where Soldiers’ National Monument now stands. As you will see below, there is agreement among scholars that another place, which is not marked, is the most likely location for the speech.

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Walking to Soldier’s National Cemetery.
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Rows and rows of tombstones, many of them unmarked, as many of the soldiers had been hastily buried without identification after the battle.
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As my friend remarked, it was like the soldiers had lined up in formation one last time, for all eternity.
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A grim reminder of the horrors of war.
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The Lincoln Address Memorial is not where President Lincoln gave his famous speech in dedication of this war cemetery. Nor is it by the Soldier’s National Monument, despite this plaque’s assertion.
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A bronze of the Gettysburg Address in front of Soldiers’ National Monument. The monument, however, is also not where Lincoln gave his speech.
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Utilizing photo analysis and 3D rendering, modern scholars agree that the pavilion where Lincoln spoke was actually in the private Evergreen Cemetery adjacent to Soldiers National Cemetery. The pavilion was most likely located near where the flagpole and statue of Jennie Wade stand (in center of photo).

We walked back to our car in silence, both of us overwhelmed a bit by the magnitude of what we had seen. Once we had collected our thoughts and began driving to our next destination, we began talking of war, of humanity’s seeming inability to learn from its past, and of the specialness of this visit.

Indeed, there was a further adventure this past weekend, but I felt that this visit deserved its own post, that there was something unique, and somber, about this place. In a few days, I will post the rest of the trip. For now, however, I hope you have enjoyed this very special journey of DH.

‘Til next time.

5 thoughts on “Four score and seven years…

  1. This was a very fitting and very through history lesson for all of us on Independence Day! Thanks for sharing your experience. I would love to get out there and visit some historic sites like this.

    Liked by 1 person

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