Retracing History: The Gettysburg Battlefield

“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.

This monument in Herbst Woods marks the place where Union General John F. Reynolds was killed on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.

This monument in Herbst Woods marks the place where Union General John F. Reynolds was killed on the first day of fighting at Gettysburg.

Generals Reynolds and Buford are depicted on the first day of battle at Gettysburg, shortly before Reynolds was shot from his horse and instantly killed. (image from explorepahistory.com)

Generals Reynolds and Buford are depicted on the first day of battle at Gettysburg, shortly before Reynolds was shot from his horse and instantly killed. (image from explorepahistory.com)

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.

On the first day of fighting, the Confederates drove the Union troops back into the town of Gettysburg, where combat spilled out onto Baltimore Street.

On the first day of fighting, the Confederates drove the Union troops back into the town of Gettysburg, where combat spilled out onto Baltimore Street.

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.

Devil's Den, described by historian Stephen Sears as

Devil’s Den, described by historian Stephen Sears as “one of the wildest fiercest struggles of the war”.

View of Devil's Den from Little Round Top

View of Devil’s Den from Little Round Top

The Bloody Wheatfield, where it was said that the

The Bloody Wheatfield, where it was said that the “wheat was tinged red” from the more than 6,000 casualties.

Part of the National Park's Service commitment to restoring the battlefield to its original state included re-planting peach trees in The Peach Orchard, where the Confederates collapsed the Union line on the second day of battle at Gettysburg.

Part of the National Park’s Service commitment to restoring the battlefield to its original state included re-planting peach trees in The Peach Orchard, where the Confederates collapsed the Union line on the second day of battle at Gettysburg.

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.

A view of Little Round Top

A view of Little Round Top

The wooded back side of Little Round Top where Chamberlain led his charge.

The wooded back side of Little Round Top where Chamberlain led his charge.

This monument marks the center of the line held by Chamberlain's 20th Maine regiment during the defense of Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

This monument marks the center of the line held by Chamberlain’s 20th Maine regiment during the defense of Little Round Top on July 2, 1863.

Joshua Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo)

Joshua Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo)

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.

“The Bloody Angle” where the Confederate Army was decisively defeated at Gettysburg.

No visit to the battlefield is complete without paying respects at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

No visit to the battlefield is complete without paying respects at the Gettysburg National Cemetery.

Markers commemorate unknown soldiers who fell at Gettysburg.

Markers commemorate unknown soldiers who fell at Gettysburg.

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)

The CE pays respects at the monument to the  fearless First Minnesota regiment at Gettysburg

The CE pays respects at the monument to the fearless First Minnesota regiment at Gettysburg

About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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6 Responses to Retracing History: The Gettysburg Battlefield

  1. Jean Gutsche says:

    Beautiful tour of Gettysburg. So glad it has been preserved. What a horrific 3 days….but the logic of the Dred Scott decision had to be challenged…that slaves are not citizens. Also the notion that slavery was a positive good. We human beings are wretched.

    • polloplayer says:

      Another tragic thing about it was that with increasing industrialization, slavery was soon going to make no economic sense anyway. I know that state’s rights was a big part of this war as well, but for all that blood to be spilled over the debacle of slavery is just heartbreaking.

  2. Barb Maloney says:

    Enjoyed your blog regarding thus battle. Have been a student of the Civil War for many years. Also have been fortunate to be able to tour many battlefield parks over the years. Another interesting novel on Gettysburg is The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara told from the perspective of some of the men who fought there.

    • polloplayer says:

      Yes! I loved The Killer Angels – it was the book that began my interest in the Civil War and I think I should probably re-read it now that we’ve been to Gettysburg. Thanks so much for commenting, Barb.

  3. I found your blog through the Fodor’s Travel Forum and have loved reading about your travels in the US as well as Italy. Your narration and photographs are wonderful, and we share many of the same interests. I haven’t yet visited Gettysburg, but we did visit Fredricksburg last year, and felt the pull to see more Civil War sites. Thank you for sharing your experiences. I’ll be following along!

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