In Gettysburg, the ghastly drama of battle 150 years ago still pervades its open and now peaceful fields.
We decided to start our tour of Gettysburg where it pretty much ended for Robert E. Lee.
At Seminary Ridge, we climbed out of our car and into the same woods that the Confederate general had used to amass his depleted troops for a final lunge at the entrenched Union lines. Beyond the tree line, we took in a sprawling farm meadow that had seen some of the most horrific fighting of the Civil War. Grackles and mourning doves foraged in the rough grass dotted by stands of hickory and springtime redbud blooms. A large red barn perched in the distance, visible over split-rail fences where soldiers might have once huddled for cover.
Visiting Gettysburg National Military Park, my wife and I were on the quintessential American mission to honor the sacrifice of the young men who fought and bled there, none more than those in the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment that helped change the course of the fight — and the war — with a suicidal bayonet charge on the second of the three days of battle. For us, it became all about trying to reconcile the pastoral beauty of this landscape with the unimaginable suffering that turned it into hallowed ground 150 years ago.
Imagining the carnage that consecrated this field, I could feel my heart racing as Judy and I walked into the open pasture. Our walk was made to the accompaniment of songbirds, not the thunder of the biggest cannonade ever on North American soil. But the terrible echoes still reverberate amid these rolling hills in southern Pennsylvania. Our steps matched the cadence of a gloomy poem written a long time ago.
The field sloped up nearly a mile toward a low stone wall and a clump of hickory and chestnut trees grown from the saplings of their Civil War ancestors. We got to the split-rail fence along present-day Route 15, the Emmitsburg Road that was then a no-man’s-land of contested turf. There, we did what the Confederate brigades had done. We pivoted slightly to the left, pointing ourselves directly at the famous copse of trees that marked the center of the Union lines on the climactic third day of the battle.
That place on Cemetery Ridge, on July 3, 1863, was the bull’s-eye of the Confederate attack. It also happened to be where the Northern generals had placed the tattered remnants of the Minnesotans who had survived the bayonet charge the day before. There, with little rest, they would again face the brunt of Lee’s biggest onslaught, some 12,500 screaming rebels commanded by Confederate Gen. George Pickett, whose name remains synonymous with the charge. It would be the high-water mark of the Southern war effort.
Walking in the footsteps of Pickett’s men, Judy and I picked our way through the modern-day serenity of this verdant field. The gathering clouds thickened. The threat of rain had scattered most of the other visitors. About 200 yards from the rock-strewn ridge, the slope grew steeper and unruly under a yellow canopy of mustard weed. Quickening our pace like the boys in gray, we scampered to the stone wall on the crest of the hill. We caught our breath and peered past the rocks. Suddenly we were nose-to-muzzle with the long-silent cannons guarding the monuments to the men who died there.
This peaceful spot of polished marble and freshly mowed grass is now ground zero of a sprawling 6,000-acre park remembering those who fought the defining battle of the Civil War, a place that still inspires the awe and reverence of a graveyard.
Amid the batteries of bronze cannon, still fraught with menace, we met Jeff Sako, the owner of a custom sportswear graphics company in Ohio.
“I can’t believe I’m standing here,” said Sako, feeling the smooth muzzle of a Napoleon cannon. He looked lost in thought among the gray ghosts of those young soldiers, many still in their late teens, who faced the Yankee cannonballs while marching at a prescribed 85 to 110 steps a minute. “I would be crawling on my belly.”
Like Pickett’s bloodied and beaten ranks, we turned back somberly toward Seminary Ridge, where we had started our hike. Just like Cemetery Ridge, its Union counterpart, Seminary Ridge is lined with huge monuments marking the positions of its Southern regiments, making it possible to visualize the 19th-century battle lines.
Historians have spent lifetimes scrutinizing the complicated maneuvers of these two massive American armies, which met almost by accident at a farm borough called Gettysburg. But the monuments brought it home for us. Among the most prominent is the massive equestrian statue of Lee, the renowned Southern mastermind who hadn’t particularly chosen this ground as a place to fight. Still, he blamed himself for the debacle of Pickett’s Charge. Watching the retreating troops, he is said to have muttered: “It’s all my fault.”
Judy and I got back into our car by Lee’s bronze statue a little less than an hour after we had set out on foot — about the same amount of time it took Pickett’s men to make the round trip. That is, the half who made it back intact. We left the battlefield in silence, haunted by the sacrifice on both sides.
Abraham Lincoln, asked to make a few remarks after the battle, kept it short. It was as if the great orator was at a loss for words. “We cannot consecrate … this ground,” he said. That had already been done by the men — and at least one woman — who spilled their blood here.
Lincoln uttered those words at the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, some 40 paces from the present-day urn accompanying a stone marker with the inscription: “Minnesota. 52 bodies.” A mere down payment on freedom.
In the shade of a hemlock tree and a thread cypress, the urn was one of the first of 1,325 monuments erected over the intervening decades to honor the sacrifice of some 50,000 dead, wounded and missing on both sides.
“There’s something about this town that really gets hold of you,” said Arleen Donikowski, who was our guide when we visited the Shriver House, a restored Civil War home in Gettysburg.
If you let your imagination go, and it’s hard not to in this quaint Civil War town, you’re forced to examine yourself. Standing amid the weather-beaten graves, confronted with memorials to such staggering loss, you’re not behind the scenes of history. You’re in it. You, and what you bring to the life of this still indivisible nation, are why they died.
Looking for ghosts
Despite all the bloodletting, the town of Gettysburg survived the battle surprisingly well. So did all but one civilian, a 20-year-old woman named Jenny Wade. She was struck by crossfire as she kneaded bread in her kitchen. Her house, with its blood-soaked floorboards, is now one of the many private museums and souvenir shops along Baltimore Street, the main thoroughfare connecting the present-day town of 7,622 to the battlefield park.
A stroll down Baltimore Street recalls the civilian side of the equation, with period buildings that once housed the wounded now serving as bed-and-breakfasts, antique stores and restaurants — some, if you look closely, are still pockmarked with shell bursts and bullet holes.
But for the epic battle, present-day Gettysburg would still be “a small hick town in the middle of Pennsylvania,” according to our rapid-fire battlefield guide, Howie Frankenfield. A retired Navy veteran, he bought one of the historic brick homes on Baltimore Street and makes a living leading private car tours.
A couple nights’ stay in the historic Brafferton Inn, with its Victorian charm and luxury jet bath, convinced us it would be a shame to come just for the battlefield. The Brafferton is the oldest deeded house in Gettysburg, with uneven stone walls to prove it. But like a lot of historic towns that celebrate 19th-century Americana, Gettysburg has its fair share of schmaltz — not the least in about a dozen lantern-lit ghost tours.
“Fifty-thousand casualties. That was a lot of suffering and death,” said Brafferton proprietor Brian Hodges, explaining the town’s burgeoning new industry. “Now a lot of people come here looking for ghosts.”
But the authentic spirit of Gettysburg still inhabits the valley of monuments outside of town, where solemn inscriptions tell the story of men like those in the First Minnesota. Had it not been for a well-timed bayonet charge that averted a Confederate breakthrough, Lee might well have rolled up the Yankees by the end of the second day.
Lt. William Lochren’s 1897 dedicatory address still invokes the chill. With a speck of sun finally breaking through the gray, we read his words in the shadow of one of the two Minnesota monuments.
“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant,” Lochren wrote. “Death or wounds to us all — the sacrifice of a regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position, and probably the battlefield.”
Kevin Diaz • 1-202-383-6120