Gettysburg National Military Park...
Oct 31, 2007
|As a student in high school, I had often seen the name Gettysburg printed on the pages of lifeless history books that attempted to communicate the importance of one of the most significant Civil War battles.
But, the Gettysburg Battlefield assaults with a sense of atmosphere and history almost immediately after exiting the confines of the Visitor Center. While the park's Visitor Center offers ranger guided tours for $60, we opted to go on a self-guided auto tour of the site using a CD/booklet package that we purchased for $20. That turned out very well for us. It was supposed to be a 3 hour tour, but it actually took us about 5! The history behind Gettysburg is commemorated through a series of statutes and monuments that comprise the 15-stop auto tour through the battlefield. With over 1,300 monuments, memorials & markers & over 25 miles of scenic roads covering the battlefield, it is a true shrine to the Union and Confederate soldiers who fought here.
The order of the stops located on the CD/map are meant to mimic the three-day trek that soldiers took through the fields of Gettysburg that eventually culminated in a series of bloody battles, where many say the turning point of the Civil War occurred from July 1 - 3, 1863. In case you are a bit fuzzy on the details of this battle, some brief info for you:
Almost 150 years have passed since the army of Virginia under the command of Robert E. Lee & the army of the Potomac under the short lived leadership of General Meade converged on a small crossroads town just a few miles north of the Maryland border. Nestled between the mountains to the north & west & Maryland to the south, the fertile hills & valleys of Adams County (Gettysburg) drew the attention of Lee's confederates as they foraged for badly needed supplies.
They were followed by the Union Army, but Lee had no way of knowing his adversary's whereabouts.
On July 1st the Confederates attacked Union troops on McPherson Ridge west of town. Though outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until afternoon, when they were finally overpowered & driven back to Cemetery Hill south of town where they spent most of the night digging in and preparing their defenses while the bulk of Meade's army arrived and took up positions.
On July 2nd the battle lines were drawn up in two sweeping arcs. Both armies were nearly one mile apart on parallel ridges. Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, Confederate forces on Seminary Ridge to the west. Lee launched attacks on both ends of the Federal line. On the Federal left, the attack was unsuccessful and left the WHeatfield strewn with dead and wounded. On the north end, the attack on the Federal right at East Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, though successful, could not be exploited to Confederate advantage. The next morning, Union forces retook the hills.
July 3rd opened with a two-hour bombardment of the Federal lines on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. The cannonade was so intense that the noise could be heard as far as Harrisburg & Philadelphia. Following that, some 12,000 Confederate soldiers advanced across open fields toward the Federal center in an attack known as "Pickett's Charge" with more than 5,000 casualties in ONE HOUR! With that defeat, the Battle of Gettysburg was over and the Confederate army retreated, physically and spiritually exhausted.
Statistics from the battle are staggering. There were over 165,000 troops combined & between 46,000 and 51,000 American casualties in the three-day battle! And over 7 MILLION shots were fired! There was only one documented civilian death during the battle, Mary Virginia (Jennie) Wade, 20 years old, shot by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen in town while she was making bread for the Union soldiers.
Where many national parks are based around the idea of a place being a national treasure or a landmark, Gettysburg is different, not because it is commemorating a moment of joy in America's history, but because it is honoring the deaths of thousands of soldiers. Throughout the auto tour, it was evident even from a distance that many visitors were well aware that they were standing on land where thousands of soldiers had given up their lives. The silence is deafening. We all stood motionless, admiring the architectural beauty of the monuments and contemplating the significance behind them— a task that is daunting at best.
After visiting the 6,000-acre battlefield located in the Gettysburg National Military Park, I have concluded that history books, although efficient in communicating facts, do not do Gettysburg justice. The best way to sense the land and the past is to walk the battlefield as thousands of soldiers once did, providing you an opportunity to ponder & try to understand what really happened here. It was a sobering, but interesting day indeed.