Reel Life: Gettysburg
One last post about Gettysburg, and then I’ll stop. Promise.
If you’re keen to see the battlefields of Gettysburg, but can’t make it to Pennsylvania in person, you might consider watching the 1993 film Gettysburg. I recommend the film only because it was shot on location at Gettysburg, so it gives you an accurate look at the landscape and physical layout of the two battle scenes featured in the film: the defense of Little Round Top and Pickett’s Charge.
The film was made pre-CGI, using real cannons to reenact the artillery barrage that took place on the morning of July 3, 1863. Even when using only quarter rounds, the cannons in that scene are far more impressive than any blow-’em-up scene I’ve seen in recent years.
Other than the principal actors, the cast consists entirely of Civil War reenactors ― some 13,000 of them. These guys take their roles pretty seriously, living and sleeping as Civil War soldiers did, wearing the same type of wool uniforms, and carrying the same type of weapons.
I saw the film Gettysburg in the theatre the year it was released and it motivated me to one day visit Gettysburg for myself. However, I recommend the film only if you’re really, really interested in the story of the battle. At four and a half hours, it taxes the attention span of most casual viewers.
Armchair Traveller: Hallowed Ground
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract. — President Abraham Lincoln
Last post I wrote that you couldn’t tour the Gettysburg battlefields on foot ― not in an afternoon, that is. But should you be motivated to attempt it, I highly recommend taking along James M. McPherson’s book, Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg.
Professor emeritus of Princeton University and author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning book Battle Cry of Freedom, McPherson is considered the finest Civil War historian in the world (according to his book’s flap copy). Hallowed Ground takes its title from the words Abraham Lincoln spoke in his Gettysburg Address (quoted at the top of this blog post).
As a guidebook on its own, Hallowed Ground lacks maps and precise details about how to navigate the park. But as a means of providing context, I found Hallowed Ground invaluable reading prior to my tour of Gettysburg. McPherson explains in simple lay language how the battle changed the course of the Civil War, and its significance in American history. The book includes anecdotes of the author’s walks around key positions of the battle, such as Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, and Little Round Top, as well as stories about the various monuments and statues.
McPherson has led countless tours for students and others at Gettysburg; with a little imagination, reading his book is like being on one of his tours.
As I was planning my trip around the Eastern Time Zone last summer, I knew that one of my must-sees was going to be Gettysburg. I’m a history geek, and my pre-trip research quickly led me to the conclusion that it would be worth the drive from Baltimore, where I was planning to spend the better part of a week.
And so, I booked a car rental, enlisted my sister as navigator, and off we went for a drive through the Pennsylvania countryside. Both of us came away rather impressed with what we saw and learned. Since this week was the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I thought it would be a timely blog post for the Fourth of July.
There are a number of ways to tour Gettysburg National Military Park. We opted for the Self-Guiding Auto Tour, where you are supplied with a map showing the location of more than a dozen stops throughout the park, each one of which has a viewpoint and a marker explaining its significance. If you lack a capable navigator such as I had, the Visitor Center sells CDs you can pop into your car’s stereo system while you drive, or you can take a guided bus tour.
What you can’t do ― not in an afternoon, that is ― is tour the battlegrounds on foot. At 6000 acres, the park is massive and completely surrounds the town of Gettysburg.
Now, if history isn’t your thing, you should skip on to the photos at the end of this post. But if you want a little background, read on.
In June 1863, General Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. He’d spent most of the month moving his 93,000 soldiers north into Pennsylvania so they’d be in a position to push the Union forces out into the open and into battle. Once he decimated them (so he figured, based on his recent successes), it would bring about the end of the war.
The 75,000-strong Union Army of the Potomac shadowed Lee’s movements, but at a slower pace to make sure they were always in position to protect Washington DC from the Confederate forces. On June 28, 1863, General George G. Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac.
Both generals were angling for a favourable spot for a battle ― what is ironic about when they finally met is that the Confederate Army was moving south and the Union Army was moving north. Neither army was aiming for Gettysburg, either. But when Confederate soldiers chanced upon and were attacked by Union soldiers on July 1 ― an attack the Confederates successfully defended ― Lee realized if he acted fast he could fight the Union forces before they had finished assembling. He decided to use the chance meeting as an excuse to start a major battle.
By the morning of July 2, the Union forces had retreated from the northwest of Gettysburg, where the previous day’s fighting had occurred, to the southwest of Gettysburg. Despite their retreat, their position was good ― they occupied a series of hills and ridges in a semicircular position. The Confederate forces had no choice but to attack from below, which they did at both ends of the Union line. The Confederate forces gained a bit of ground, but losses were high and on the evening of July 2, the Union forces still occupied the high ground.
Because the Union forces had successfully repelled the Confederate attacks at either end of their line, Lee was convinced that Meade had concentrated his forces on his flanks. On July 3, Lee ordered an attack on the centre of the Union line, which he thought would be the weakest point.
The Confederate artillery fired on the Union position for several hours. The Union artillery answered back with its own volley, but eventually went quiet. Lee assumed the Union guns been knocked out. He ordered the advance of some 12,000 Confederate soldiers toward the 7000 waiting Union soldiers. This attack, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, required the Confederate forces to march across almost a mile of open ground. While they were in the open, Union artillery ― which had not been destroyed after all ― again took up their firing.
Union losses that day were about 1500 killed or wounded, but the Confederate casualty rate was much higher ― almost 50 percent. Total losses from both armies over the three-day battle was more than 50,000. Lee admitted defeat and began his retreat from Pennsylvania the next day. By the time Meade realized Lee was retreating all the way to Virginia, not merely heading back into the mountains, it was too late for him to catch up.
Most historians consider Gettysburg to be the turning point of the Civil War ― and the battle that saved the Union. Pickett’s Charge is called the High Water Mark of the Confederacy because it was the furthest line of advance made by the Confederate Army, but the Union victory at Gettysburg ensured that Lee’s invasion of the North was over.
If you’re still with me, all I want you to take from what I’ve written above is that it immediately becomes clear as you drive around Gettysburg Park what role the terrain this corner of Pennsylvania played in the outcome of the battle. The establishment of the park in 1895 (initially maintained by the War Department, now by the National Park Service) means that the entire battleground still looks, for the most part, as it did in 1863.
And so, you can see (just barely through the trees) the cupola of the Old Dorm of the Lutheran Theological Seminary, which provided a crucial observation post on the night of June 30 as the Union generals surveyed the landscape and chose where to place their troops. You can stand at the rocky summit of Little Round Top and imagine the fierce battle that took place on its slopes as Confederate soldiers tried to overtake it on July 2. You can survey from various viewpoints the hilly terrain that frames either side of the fields the Confederate soldiers marched across during Pickett’s Charge on the afternoon of July 3. And you can stand where the Confederate soldiers stood, and look across the same fields they looked across, and see the copse of trees where the Union soldiers were waiting for them.
And now, as promised, here is a photo tour of Gettysburg National Military Park. (Click on the first photo at top left to open the slide show.)