“This is a human story and that is what continues to draw people here today”, said our guide, Larry Korczyk, as we began our tour of the Gettysburg battlefield. We stood on Seminary Ridge, looking out toward McPherson’s farm, where heavy fighting broke out between Confederate infantry and Union calvary on the morning of July 1, 1863. Union Major General John F. Reynolds was killed near here that morning, the first of three days of the costliest battle of the American Civil War. Reynolds was one of the earliest of 50,000 casualties of this bloodiest clash and turning point of the war.
Korczyk led us chronologically and geographically through the three days of fighting during our day-and-a-half tour. The sprawling battlefield comprises 25 square miles and endless human stories of courage and sacrifice. It is truly hallowed ground.
In retrospect, we barely scratched the surface of the stratagems and complexities of the Battle of Gettysburg. But you have to start somewhere, and, for me, it was transformative to see Devil’s Den and the Wheatfield and The Peach Orchard.
A visit to Little Round Top is a pilgrimage for any student of the Civil War. We were surprised to learn that the assault of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s position there came from the rear rather than the front. Chamberlain was ordered to hold his position “at all costs!” Short on men and ammunition, Chamberlain elected to fix bayonets and charge down the hill, catching the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments off-guard and effectively saving the Union’s far left flank.
The fighting on Day Three sealed the hard-won Union victory at Gettysburg. It was especially meaningful to view the “The Angle”, which is remembered as the “high water mark” where Confederate troops suffered a crushing defeat during the ill-fated Pickett’s Charge.
As we toured the battlefield at Gettysburg, it almost seemed that the hundred and fifty intervening years between the Civil War and today somehow dissolved. It was truly an opportunity to re-live, and learn from, the history of “The Lost Cause”. On our last evening, we sat in Lincoln Square and watched flocks of swallows dart overhead, just as they did after the great battle. “Toward evening, writes Freeman Cleaves of the aftermath of the battle in Meade of Gettysburg, “swallows in search of food flew low over the ground – a harbinger of rain – and songbirds seemed to be hunting their shattered nests.”
If anything, I am further from understanding the nature of war after this visit, but a bit closer to understanding the Battle of Gettysburg. In addition to the books we read before our visit, I’ll pass along these suggestions we were given for further reading:
Gettysburg: The First Day by Harry W. Pfanz (496 pages)
Confrontation at Gettysburg: A Nation Saved, a Cause Lost by John David Hoptak (283 pages)
Twilight at Little Round Top: July 2, 1863 – The Tide Turns at Gettysburg by Glenn W. La Fantasie (336 pages)
Pale Horse at Plum Run: The First Minnesota at Gettysburg by Brian Leehan (264 pages) recommended as an add-on to Last Full Measure: The Life and Death of the First Minnesota Volunteers by Richard Moe (367 pages)
Plenty of Blame to Go Around: Jeb Stuart’s Controversial Ride to Gettysburg by Eric J. Wittenberg (456 pages)