Thursday, July 11, 2013

Gettysburg Battlefield Highlights

In my first essay on our "Audio Tour," narrated by Wayne Motts, I simply listed the sights we saw—the auto-tour stops—and I did not take the time to record some of the highlights and my impressions of what we saw.

We took six hours and ten minutes on a tour designed for about two or two-and-one-half hours or less, we were told, depending on how much time we wanted to spend. My wife and I were accompanied by our daughter and her three kids, ages 14, 11, and 10. This is important because the kids have studied about the Civil War in school and, too, because all of them watched the movie "Gettysburg" and were especially interested in all that was "Gettysburg."

It would be easy to characterize the entire battleground area as "just a bunch of fields," but when you have seen "Gettysburg," then the introductory movie at the "National Military Park," then viewed the exhibits at the museum, you easily see more than mere fields—you can actually visualize the men, the uniforms, the horses, the conflicts, the smoke, and you can here the gunshots and the canon. Everything becomes real.

One good, overall observation—to give one reason why this this battle was so important is to understand what was at stake. This was a battle for the soul of America, and the outcome would determine—in no uncertain terms—what this country would look like: Would it be a country of slave owners? Or, would this country be one where, truly, "all men are created equal"?

I liken this battle to the one waged between the Republican and Democrats in the 2012 general election: Will this be a government that represents all people? Or, will this be a limited government where the wealthy are protected, preserved, and honored and the middle class get only what "tricles down" once the wealthy have what they feel is rightfully theirs? —what they feel they have earned and, thusly, deserve?

Union General John Buford, who was in Gettysburg on June 30, 1863, knew what was at stake and ordered his force of 2,900 men to defend the ridgelines west of Gettysburg until the infantry could arrive.

One thing that becomes abundantly clear as you tour the area is the importance of the ridges (like McPherson Ridge, Oak Ridge, Warfield Ridge, Seminary Ridge, and Warfield Ridge), hills (like Oak Hill or Culp’s Hill), woods (like Pitzer Woods), orchards (like The Peach Orchard), and dens (like Devil’s Den), and the place called "Little Round Top"—a low hill from which many of the other ridges, hills, woods, dens, and orchards could be seen.

The ridges and hills were places where sharpshooters (on either side)—expert marksmen—could have the best view and take their best shots. They were desired locations and easily noticeale as we toured the entire area.

One of the places that most inspired me was "Little Round Top." One reason was the stone tower with its circular, narrow, stone staircase that at the top gave us a view of the valley below and, too, a view all the way to Cemetery Hill. A second reason was the bronze statue of Brig. General Gouverneur Warren—the hero of Little Round Top—standing on a boulder with his binoculars in hand, looking to his left, with a serious, concerned look on his face.

Warren was General Meade’s chief engineer and when asked to ascend Little Round Top, he was by himself on this high point and realized quicikly (and sent word to General Meade) that a division was needed to hold this critical terrain.

I asked a tour guide why Little Round Top was left abandoned by the troops of the noarth, and he said General Sickles was responsible and made the decision because he thought he saw a better site to defend.

Seeing, from his elevated position, the glistening gun-barrels and bayonets of the enemy’s (Confedrerate’s) line of battle far outflanking the position of the Union’s troops, he also requested a battery in Devil’s Den to fire into the trees along Warfield Ridge.

Cleared of trees on its western slope (as it is today), Little Round Top was an ideal location for artillery. (Big Round Top, although higher, was fully wooded). Little Round Top allowed Union troops to fire at the Confederates all the way to Cemetery Hill. Can you imagine the advantage if the Confederates gained control of Little Round Top?

Walking the tree line along Little Round Top allowed me to see what Warren saw, appreciate the role Colonel Patrick O’Rorke had on July 2, 1863, when he arrived at the summit just in time to bolster the right end of the Union line as it was being overrun. Even though 500 of his men plunged down the slopes, slamming into the Confederate lines, and O’Rorke himself was killed in the fighting, his quick action pushed the Confederates back down the hill.

Below Little Round Top is Devil’s Den—the second of my most favorite sites on our auto tour. It is one of my favorites not because of its role in the war but because, physically, it is a beautiful place. The rock formations, the contrasts between the green grass and trees and the rocks, and the view of Little Round Top all make this place a delight—a photographer’s dream.

From Warfield Ridge (mentioned above in what Brig. Gen. Warren saw), the Confederates overran Devil’s Den and Captain James Smith’s artillery battery and their sharpshooters used the rocks in the Den for protection as they fired at Union soldiers on Little Round Top above them. This battle (between the Confederate sharpshooters in Devil’s Den and the Union soldiers on Little Round Top) created a place later named "The Slaughter Pen" and "the Valley of Death" along Plum Run, because of the ferocious carnage that occurred there.

Although some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Civil War took place on July 2nd in the Wheatfield, the Wheatfield itself was not much to look at. Today, however, it is dotted with monuments to commemorate those slain there.

I might say, too, one of the most well-known battles of the war, "Pickett’s Charge" (July 3, 1863)—often referred to as the "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy—was designed by Robert E. Leee to blast the center of the Union line with the simultaneous firing of 150 Southern canons. The area where this took place—a bit similar to the Wheatfield—was not particularly distinguishable nor, what I would say, attractive.

What happened during Pickett’s Charge was truly remarkable. The Confederate cannon fire missed the 6,000 soldiers that formed the Union’s front line because the cannon smoke obscured the vision of Lee’s gunners, and when the mile-long line of Confederate soldiers marched forward, Union gun crews "took careful aim and began firing shot and shell into their ranks with deadly imparct" (p. 74, Gettysburg Field Guide, 2nd ed, Travel Brains, 2010).

All 6,000 of the Union troops unleashed a devastating volley into Pickett’s front lines and soon followed with close range canister fire. The Confederates continued to surge forward, even traversing a small stone wall between them and Union troops, but Union troops crowded in on all sides and fired on them at point blank range and with General Lewis Armistead’s (the General in charge of this assault) mortal wound (shot in the arm and leg), the Confederates lost their momentum, began to disintegrate, and retreated as best they could (trying to avoid death!).

To me, seeing the field where General George Pickett attempted to make his charge, revealed insanity—a death wish! The Union soldiers clearly had a superior position along Cemetery Ridge, and despite the 12,500 Confederate troops emerging from along Seminary Ridge, the field between was too wide, the Union sharpshooters were too accurate, and the assault was destined to fail.

As an aside, the stupidity of Pickett’s attempt confirmed what I learned of his "success" at West Point: "His lackluster performance at West Point . . . earned Pickett the nickname ‘goat," a moniker bestowed on the student who graduates at the bottom of the class" (p. 77, Gettysburg Field Guide, 2nd edition).

I didn’t have a great deal of interest in all of this before our trip to Gettysburg—and we went because of our grandkids, not ourselves! But, you cannot escape it when you have experienced it first-hand. Sure, it’s the combination of elements working together. We talked to our older daughter who said about Gettysburg: "It takes about an hour to see it." We don’t think it can be done that quickly, and it becomes immediately clear who has an interest in American history and who doesn’t.

If you take the time—even without prior preparation—the movie, museum exhibits, auto tour (with narration) and the battlefield markers along the well-marked route, make this a total, encompassing experience that all enjoyed—including our ten-year-old grandson who wanted to get out and explore at every auto-tour stop.

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This is the official website of the Borough of Gettysburg, and it has a lot of current information about the place:

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Copyright July, 2013, by And Then Some Publishing LLC

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