My pilgrimage to the site of the biggest battle of the American Civil War
28.05.2013 21 °C
I learnt a lot about the history of the American Civil War from wargaming it as a kid with the small plastic soldiers from Airfix. A visit to Gettysburg, the site of its biggest battle which happened 1st - 3rd July 1863 (2013 is its 150th anniversary) and involved more than 160,000 soldiers, was therefore a bit of a pilgrimage for me.
In addition to commemorating the battle, the Visitor's Center also had lots of references to US President Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address he made at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on the battlefield four and a half months later - including a rather nice life size statue out front which was just begging for me to sit down beside it!
One of the most impressive features of the Visitor's Center is the 377 feet (115 metre) long Cyclorama of the battle at the time of Pickett's Charge (the climax of the battle on the 3rd day). Cycloramas were very popular in the late 1800s and were massive paintings displayed in special circular auditoriums enhanced with landscaped foregrounds to give a three-dimensional effect of the historical event they were depicting to viewers on a central platform. The Battle of Gettysburg Cyclorama took the French artist Paul Philippoteaux more than 18 months to paint in the early 1880's and was originally displayed in Boston.
We were then taken on a 3 hour tour of the battlefield starting with a drive through the town of Gettysburg itself. The battle began on the first day with the Confederate advance guard stumbling into the Union cavalry west of the town and the Union troops then doing a fighting retreat through the town itself to a defensive line on the hills on the other side. Because of their historical significance many of the buildings from the time of the battle have been preserved and have commemorative plaques on them.
We were then driven along McPherson Ridge and Oak Ridge north west of Gettysburg which is where all the heavy fighting took place on the first day. The battlefield is now a National Military Park treated as hallowed ground with over 1,400 monuments scattered all over it commemorating units, states and individuals who took part. One of the first monuments we saw was to John Burns, a local who picked up his musket on the first day and went to fight alongside the Union soldiers and as result became somewhat of a national hero.
The first place we actually stopped and were able to have a walk around was the Eternal Light Peace Memorial on Oak Ridge which was dedicated by US President Franklin Delano Roosevelt on the 75th anniversary of the battle in 1938. Here we got a flavour of what the rest of the battlefield was going to be like - lots of plaques, memorials and canons lining every road.
We were then briefly taken through the town again, passing the Railway Station (vital for evacuating the wounded after the battle and where Abraham Lincoln arrived the evening before he made his famous Gettysburg Address) and then through the main square (now remained Lincoln Square). We also passed Jennie Wade's House, she was tragically shot by a stray bullet while making bread and thus became the only civilian killed during the battle (although she didn't know it at the time, her fiancée Jack Skelly had been captured by the Confederates at the Battle of Winchester a fortnight earlier and later died of his wounds).
Having left town again we drove along West Confederate Avenue on Seminary Ridge which was the Confederate front line for much of the battle. It was proving difficult to get the pictures I wanted from the moving coach so I was snapping at everything! We circled the State of Virginia Monument topped by a mounted statue of the Confederate Commander-in-Chief Robert E. Lee which is the largest Confederate monument on the battlefield.
It was from here that Pickett's Charge set out for the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge at the climax of the battle on the third day; of the 12,500 soldiers who set out less than 50% made it back afterwards to the Confederate lines.
We then crossed the battlefield to the Union side through the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield and Devil's Den, which were the scene of heavy fighting on the second day of the battle while the Confederates tried to outflank the Union positions to the south. On the Union side of the battlefield there is a much visited small hill called the Little Round Top which has terrific views of the battlefield.
The Little Round Top was undefended at the start of the second day until General Warren (the chief engineer of the Union Army) realised the danger and had troops rushed to it just in time to repel a surprise attack by the Confederates, a key moment during the battle.
We then drove back along Hancock Avenue which was the Union front line for much of the battle. We passed several farms which had been the scene of heavy fighting and then been used as field hospitals, many of them were totally destroyed or were never occupied again.
We then reached the top of Cemetery Ridge and the High Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument marking the climax point of the battle. This is where Pickett's Charge, the event from the battle depicted in the Cyclorama we saw in the Visitors Centre, reached on the third day and considered the furthest point the Confederate invasion of the North ever reached.
We then returned to the Visitors Center, passing the statue of General George G. Meade (the Union Commander-in-Chief) mounted on his famous horse Old Baldy located on the ridge just above his headquarters at Liester Farm. We also skirted the edge of the Soldiers' National Cemetery were Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address at its dedication; 8,900 men died at the battle of Gettysburg and the Union dead were reburied here.
Back inside the Visitors Center in addition to the Cyclorama there is also a very good Museum filled with artifacts explaining the battle and why it happened. The 150th anniversary of the battle was only 5 weeks away when we visited so everything was in tip-top condition with many new exhibits. The anniversary of the battle has become a magnet for re-enactors dressed in the Blue and Grey of the two armies and with 2013 being the 150th anniversary 35,000 were expected to descend on Gettysburg.
As we drove back to New Jersey we passed the Pennsylvania Turnpike exit for the Valley Forge National Historic Park where George Washington withdrew his army for the winter of 1777-1778 during the American Revolution after being defeated by the British at the Battle of Brandywine Creek. However there is a limit to how much history even I can do and Valley Forge will need to wait for another time! (Oh by the way, US President Dwight D. Eisenhower's Gettysburg Farm is also next door to the battlefield - certainly a lot of history around these parts!)