VIENNA, Va., July 3, 2013 — The little Adams County town of Gettysburg, where all the fighting occurred 150 years ago, is just holding its collective breath, waiting for the day when all eyes will once again be on it. Aside from the influx of tourists who come to the town every week of the year, and those numbers escalate on July 4th weekends, the Sesquicentennial Commemoration of the Battle of Gettysburg will be the absolute pinnacle for history buffs everywhere, re-enactors, self-styled experts, and simple tourists in general. And what will they find?
This former small town of probably less than 2,500 residents was the epitome of a bucolic Pennsylvania town back in July of 1863. There was a small central part of town, an old hotel, some old buildings, and a lot of farmland and woodland. There was a small private seminary perched on the top of a hill, known from then on as “Seminary Ridge,” and the rolling fields were full of corn and wheat. Today there is a lovely old theater in town, the Majestic, where on June 28th the latest Civil War movie by producer Ron Maxwell, “Copperhead,” premiered.
No matter what day or month you visit Gettysburg, you probably cannot walk 30 feet without encountering someone in full period attire. Not ball gowns, heaven knows women did not wear “those things” in the daytime, but regular “day dresses” and any man worth his salt has on an uniform, no matter if he still is a private after all these years or if he’s barely 25 and in full general regalia.
The town simply gives itself over to maintaining its appearance in character, and quite honestly, it adds to the attraction that is Gettysburg.
There’s General Pickett’s Buffet, the Farnsworth House and more B & B places than can be enumerated. There are the remains of cannon balls still lodged in the brick and stone of old buildings, and more rifles and other weapons are carried around than the NRA could dream of.
Then July 3, 1863, all hell broke loose, as the historians say. General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Confederate States of America army and a former U.S. general, led his troops there to make his foray into the furthest point north anyone in the war had managed. The war had been basically a defensive one for the South for the prior two years, and it was time now to mount an offensive and set things right. It ended up a slaughter of Confederates, outfought and outmanned by the Federal army.
If anyone has any doubts as to the efficacy of the Confederate charge, then visit the site. Pick up a brochure from the Visitor Center and follow the action yourself.
Or avail yourself of one of the many tours given and the commentary provided by the excellent licensed Battlefield guides. Line yourself up across that now open field opposite the ridge and walk the ground yourself. There are enough signs and information to guide you through the battle.
Then imagine you are in a typical wool uniform of the day and it’s about 95 degrees outside. You are also carrying all of your belongings, your bedroll, your knapsack, and a heavy rifle. Then, in the customary warfare strategy, line yourself up horizontally with your buddies, almost shoulder to shoulder, with barely enough room to load and fire your rifle.
Now imagine marching straight ahead in equally straight lines while coming toward you across that field are Union soldiers, similarly equipped as well as their artillery. Everyone is standing on the same basic level plain and firing directly at all those opposite him.
The carnage was disastrous. There were dying, dead, and injured men on both sides. Horses had been wounded and killed and their bodies were everywhere. When the shooting stopped for a moment, men from both sides tried to get to their wounded moved to safety. The terrible sounds of the minie balls whistling through the air, the roar of the cannon, the screams and calls from the men, an occasional high pitched whinny from an injured animal, and above it all the “rebel yell” of the Confederates. And it went on for hours.
After all the shooting stopped and when the Confederates were driven from the field, men reappeared to collect their injured and dead.
Down the road was what is now Evergreen National Cemetery, where one woman, Elizabeth Thorn, and her pre-teenage children carried bodies by the dozen back to bury, and she was within two or three months of delivering a baby.
Today there are 30 miles of roads through the battlefield park with a total of 1,332 monuments, markers, etc., 410 cannon and 148 historical buildings. Of the 1,332 markers, a total of 173 are Confederate-related.
If you go to Gettysburg, don’t just stop with Pickett’s Charge. Go on over to Devil’s Den, where so many were killed that for several years after the war, towns people were still finding the remains of bodies hidden among the huge rocks. Walk over to the Bloody Angle and see if, by chance, you feel anything when you walk around there. More than a few people report feeling things as they walk over that ground.
You will also see the spot where President Abraham Lincoln came some four months later on November 19, 1863, along with the noted orator Edward Everett, to dedicate the new cemetery. Everett was the invited speaker and Lincoln was just to “make some remarks.” In the spirit of the time, Everett spoke and spoke and spoke. His speech took two hours, and when he finally sat down, one had to wonder what there was left for the President to say. The crowd was silent and then polite applause broke out.
Lincoln stood and walked to the small podium. He probably removed his hat, and straightened out his rumpled suit from riding there on the train. He had written his remarks in the past day or so, (not on an envelope on the train as the myth goes), and he began to speak what has thenceforth been known as the Gettysburg Address:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”?wn7
If one speaks slowly, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address of only 273 words might take five minutes. It is said that when the President sat down, people were stunned; they kept waiting for him to continue speaking. But Lincoln had said all that was needed to be said in that short span of time and that was it. In all honesty, a lot of the critics did not like his talk, thinking its brevity took away from the seriousness of the occasion and the men who had died there.
To all of you who live within an easy drive of Gettysburg, get in your cars and go up there. Perhaps not with the 500,000 who will be there for the actual anniversary of the final battle on July 3rd, but on a less busy weekend, take a drive, park your car and do some walking across the hallowed ground. Head up and down the hills, watch the sunset over Little Round Top, eat at one of the numerous restaurants, and stay at the old Gettysburg Hotel. It shouldn’t take a battle to bring people to this beautiful, historic town, which exists quite well on its own.
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