Gettysburg Battlefield driving tour
Apr 16, 2012
|The Gettysburg Battlefield is large and complex. The battle went on for three days, and the positions of the various army units changed continuously. Taking a narrated driving tour is a good way to get an overview, but no one can see the whole battlefield in a day or two. My goal was get that overview and to visit certain places I knew would be of interest.
The battle took place July 1-3, 1863. More than 160,000 men were involved. 51,000 soldiers were either killed, wounded to the point of not being able to return to the battle, or missing at the end of those three days. Today the National Park is over 5000 acres. There are more than 1,400 monuments scattered all over the field.
Anyone who knows about this battle will recognize some of the landmarks in the pictures. The railroad cut figures in the first day's fighting because of the carnage that took place there when Mississippi troops were caught in the cut and either killed or captured.
The cupola on the Schmucker Building at the Lutheran Seminary was shown in the movie "Gettysburg". Union cavalry General Buford used this point to observe the Confederates as they approached Gettysburg the first day of the battle.
Not too far from the railroad cut is a peace monument dedicated in the 1930's by President Roosevelt. At the time there were an estimated 8000 Civil War Veterans still living. Congress paid the way for any veteran who wanted to come to the dedication. More than 1800 showed up. Their average age was 94!
The North Carolina monument was of particular interest. I knew the State contributed many troops to the Confederate armies, but I didn't realize that one in four southerners who fell at Gettysburg were from North Carolina.
In the movie General Lee watched Pickett's charge from his horse on Seminary Ridge. When the charge failed he rode out to meet the men and took responsibility for that failure. Those events actually happened near the Virginia monument's location.
In the movie Colonel Joshua Chamberlain is shown leading his 20th Maine volunteers to Little Round Top to secure the Union left flank. There was fierce fighting, and the troops from Maine finally had to save the day with a bayonet charge down the mountain into the oncoming troops from Alabama. Chamberlain was given the Congressional Medal of Honor for his actions that day. There were other troops on Little Round Top, including some from New York. Their monument is in one of the pictures.
Looking down from Little Round Top you can see the group of large rocks that the troops nicknamed the "Devil's Den" because of the fierce fighting that took place in and around those rocks. The valley to the right of the Devil's Den became known as the "Slaughter Pen", for obvious reasons I'm afraid.
The largest monument on the battlefield is the Pennsylvania Monument. It's near the "high water mark" for Picket's charge.
The general on the horse is Union General Hancock. His forces faced the forces led by Confederate General Armistead. Armistead is the one who led the Confederates through the Union lines at the "high water mark". The real irony is that Armistead and Hancock were life-long friends from their days at West Point. Armistead was in Hancock's wedding. These two close friends facing each other on the field of battle, that close together, is a metaphor for the whole Civil War. It divided the country, families, and best friends.
It's impossible to write about Gettysburg in a few paragraphs. Hundreds of books have been written on the subject. It was a large and complicated military engagement spread over three days. If the south had won, the war might have ended very differently. There were many chances for a different outcome, some literally based on minutes while the battle raged. If orders had been changed or implemented better, any thing could have happened and our history might be very different.
One thing is for sure. While touring the field and considering the events that happened the one thing that stands out is the committment of the individual soldiers involved. They all knew this was a critical point in history, and they were willing to "lay it all on the line". Consider those southern troops waiting to make Picket's Charge. They all had experience, and they knew enough to understand the likely outcome, but they stood up and stepped off into their own personal Hell when the orders came down. At least 6000 of them were dead within an hour. How can we even begin to grasp their willingness to do what duty and honor demanded, even if it meant they would die. The visit to Gettysburg to both humbling and inspiring.