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.
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.
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).
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.
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.