After leaving Shanksville in early afternoon, I drove along the Pennsylvania Turnpike and headed south toward Gettysburg, located in the central part of the state near the southern border with Maryland. I made good time on the highways and arrived at my hotel, The Day’s Inn-Gettysburg, in late afternoon. This gave me several hours of daylight to drive across town to explore the National Military Park. I left the comfort of my air-conditioned room to venture out on my odyssey during a scorching heat wave.
During the Civil War, General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army won strategic battles in the south. Union generals were replaced frequently by a frustrated President Lincoln who urged more engagement and action by his northern army. Lee executed a plan to draw the Union army out of and away from surrounding the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia. Under cover of the mountain range in Virginia, Lee marched his generals and corps northward. His goal? To reach Harrisburg, deep in northern territory in Pennsylvania to hasten the surrender of President Lincoln and end the Civil War hostilities.
Realizing Lee’s vast Army was on the move, newly appointed General George Meade also began to march his generals and corps north to engage his Union Army of the Potomac with the enemy. Lee’s army crossed Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Meade converged on the Confederate corps. Nestled in the middle of the meeting of destiny was a small community–Gettysburg. It happened to be located at a major crossroads and its strategic location led an unknowing and heretofor unblemished town’s involvement in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. With no warning, the townspeople lived in the bull’s eye of both armies about to engage in fierce battles that would forever change their lives as well as the nation.
Even now, Gettysburg is a small town. In 2002, population was listed as 7,000. If the Civil War battles were never fought here, it may be just another dot on the map. Due to the infamous battles fought in the area for three days in July, Gettysburg is awash with tourists–and their spending money. Close to the Park entrances, traffic is congested and driving along narrow streets is a lesson in watchfulness and patience.
I visited the Gettysburg National Museum. For a curious history buff, I enjoyed the detailed displays and articles presented. The Civil War lives inside that museum. They have the battles detailed for every troop movement and fallen officers that occurred within the National Military Park grounds. They have the guns, bayonets, ammunition, knives and anything military-related on display. I was particularly fascinated by the shelf containing local farmers’ items pulled from the ground after plowing their fields. For years after the July, 1863 battles, farmers dug up bullets, shells, lost soldiers’ utensils, nails, etc.
This Park is vast. Thousand of acres of what had been farmland outside of town is now under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The roads are well-paved and I headed out on a self-guided tour equipped with a detailed map and audio tour CD. Every skirmish, every shot fired between opposing sides, every fierce battle that made the ground settle into pools of blood was marked with a monument. If they could erect a memorial in the exact location of a killed in action general–it was on that spot. Consider how many brigades, regiments, divisions, and corps were brought together in this area on both sides.
Well then, they have a monument in the Gettysburg National Military Park. Or they have the honor of a life size statue raised above a granite base. If not a granite and bronze memorial, there are thousands of plaques erected to honor those who fought battles here on July 1, 2, 3, 1863. Or there are stone markers about the size of a tombstone placed in strategic spots all over the battlefield.
I started my tour of the grounds by stopping and leaving the comfort of my air-conditioned car to run up and read the memorial and if I liked it, took a picture. I did this at every place right inside the Park until I realized, (1) I had probably only driven two miles into the Park and (2) at this rate, I’d be here for a month and (3) it’s darn HOT! I left the hotel to travel around the Park when I could be enjoying a swim in the hotel pool by now.
I regrouped inside my car by reviewing what I intended to accomplish here on my odyssey. With only a few hours left before sunset this evening and needing to leave tomorrow afternoon to drive to Philadelphia, I couldn’t waste a minute of my time visiting inside the Park.
Ok–I’m in Gettysburg, because…
It happens to be the anniversary of the dates the battle of Gettysburg took place in 1863. I’m here exactly 139 years later. It’s July 2nd. I looked at an article of the timeline of the battles over those three days and where they happened. I coordinated names like Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top with a location map of the Park. I could go visit those spots and reflect on the long ago history of the event. I also planned to be standing on the Confederate side of the battlefield tomorrow, July 3rd. Seminary Ridge was the staging area for over 15,000 soldiers to line up under the shadow of trees at the edge of an open field.
Pickett’s Charge was the coordinated effort to achieve General Robert E. Lee’s plan to cut the Union line in half–right in the center of their fortified line. Lee targeted a copse of trees in his binoculars. About a mile away, he was determined to send thousands of his troops across open land to concentrate and wedge into one unit and storm the Union line at a place called the Angle.
Near those trees, low stone walls about two feet high met at a 90 degree angle. It was where the Union forces massed as a stronghold line ready and waiting for another Confederate attack. Soldiers had protection from bullets behind the wall. Artillery cannons lobbed shells almost a mile distant toward enemy positions.
For the southern men, battle-weary soldiers, to gather in ranks and be led across open fields by their generals to almost certain death seemed to me to be the ultimate bad idea for military strategy. I couldn’t understand why the obvious flaw in this directive wasn’t grounds for mass desertion of the troops. How could so many soldiers march for a mile toward an enemy who could pick them off like shooting ducks in a barrel? What mindset for a human being allows him to willingly fight for a lost cause? Pickett’s Charge that fateful day couldn’t have been a more obvious bad decision.
So I wanted to be on the “other side” and experience something, anything that would make sense to me in 2002. I wanted to figure out on the July 3rd anniversary of Pickett’s Charge why they did it. Why did so many men march closer and closer to the enemy knowing they walked to their own deaths?
I did reach the area know as the Angle just before sunset on my first night in Gettysburg. Yep-total tourist trap. The adjacent parking lot was crowded and sneakered kids in tee-shirts and shorts ran around the markers while their sandal-clad parents in baggy shorts and tank tops snapped photos of themselves standing next to a memorial. This wasn’t pleasing me. I came to Gettysburg to show my respect for the history and tragedy of fallen soldiers and it was too noisy and crowded.
I parked and took a few photos in the area. It was flush with markers and display plaques describing the action of the battle on July 3rd. Slowly working my way to the low, stone wall, I patiently waited until the crowds thinned and drove off. Dinnertime.
I knew the Angle was marked as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy”. It was noted and analyzed in history as the turning point of the Civil War. I walked up to the corner where low walls joined at a right angle under a lone tree, full with summer’s green leafy shade. I just stood there for the longest time. Letting it all sink in.
I stood in the spot considered the turning point of the Civil War. As I gazed across a mile of open fields to the Seminary Ridge hill, I could recognize faintly a large monument of a bronze statue atop a full size horse. Later the next day, I would stand under it’s shadow and know it was a memorial to General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virgina CSA who fought gallantly alongside him.
I was alone with my thoughts now. I inched closer to the wall under the tree and decided it wouldn’t be sacrilegious to sit on the top of the wall and let my legs dangle on the other side. I stayed at the Angle until the sun dropped over the horizon. I wrote in my notebook and contemplated the meaning of it all. I was excited to be in the same area that was a turning point in American History. We’d be a completely different nation if the Confederate assault on the Union line had succeeded here on July 3, 1863.
My overall impression as I sat there on a Tuesday evening? I gazed around at the numerous monuments to the loss of so many lives during the battles of Gettysburg. It seemed like some states tried to outdo other states by building the most elaborate and ornate memorials they could possibly pay to have an architect design. But I wasn’t in awe. This ground was a place of slaughter and horror 139 years ago. Remnants of my anti-war and hippie youth attitude of the 1960s vomited to the surface of my mind. I hate war. I don’t see why this place turned into a yippee yo romp for tourists to bring their kids and have no clue to the historical importance of where they’re standing to take family photos.
Yeah, I got an attitude about Gettysburg National Military Park. Maybe because I was tired from the emotional response this morning back at the Flight 93 crash site, or perhaps the long drive over unknown roads, being hungry and tired, or I could blame it on the heat–but I just did NOT get it. Respect for the dead, sure, I know thousands were killed or wounded or captured on both sides all over these grounds. I just don’t get war. It’s the most futile of reasons to settle ideology and political differences. And it makes me angry that the best of America’s young men are led off to their untimely deaths by officers and generals in the name of the battle plan. I recognized the importance of standing in the area of the turning point of American History. That was a huge deal for me.
I didn’t get it–until the following afternoon of July 3rd.
After returning to my hotel room on the evening of the 2nd, I relaxed and went to bed early. I had a long and busy day ahead of me. I visited more battle sites, like Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. Then I swung the car around and headed to the “enemy” side of the Park. Born and raised in Ohio, history about the Civil War is slanted to the fact that you live in a Northern state that sent of regiments of volunteers to fight. You’re on the side that won the war. Ohio, your home state, claims Generals Grant, Sherman, Sheridan, Garfield, Armstrong and highly decorated officers and soldiers. About two hours from my home was a Civil War prison for Confederate prisoners of war, located on Lake Erie-Johnson Island. Am I biased? (Shrug).
So there I was in the early afternoon, exploring the Confederate encampments and battlements along Seminary Ridge. I was interested to learn their side of the story as the Southerners honored their fallen soldiers. The memorials were fewer and not as elaborate as the Northerners placed across Cemetary Ridge. It saddened me to observe the artillery cannons in need of restoration. Union artillery pieces were painted and shiny, looking as original as the times they were used during the battle of Gettysburg. On Seminary Ridge Confederate cannons need new paint on the spokes and wheels and patches to cover the rusted areas.
I stopped to read all the memorials. Just shook my head when I saw that the date of erecting the monuments by Louisiana and Mississippi states to their honored soldiers was in the 1970s–it took over one hundred and ten years to honor their dead. Maybe because of the lack of ostentation by the Confederate side on Seminary Ridge, I opened up inside to their plight on July 3, 1863.
I planned to be in the area of the Pickett’s Charge, so I pulled into the parking area near the largest monument on Seminary Ridge. It’s placed by Virginia and it honors their great General Robert E. Lee. This memorial to the Army of Northern Virginia is so enormous that it can be seen from the Union line at the Angle. I looked up to study the bronze replica of the statue. No matter that the outcome of the Civil War records for all history Robert E. Lee lost the war, he is still a much beloved man of honor and one of the greatest generals America has produced to fight for his country.
All I had in mind around this time was to take some pictures of the monument and look over the vast field to imagine what it must have looked and felt like to be part of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. Once I determined I’d stayed long enough, it was back in the car and off to Philadelphia!
While I stood near the Virgina monument with a group of tourists milling about the grounds, the most remarkable event happened that finally made sense about why I stopped at Gettysburg National Military Park that day.
About six to ten men dressed in Civil War uniforms (wool jackets on a July day with temperatures in the upper 90s and not a cloud in the sky), carrying their Confederate battle flags joined together near the base of the Virginia monument. Intrigued, I walked closer to the reenactors. They weren’t associated with the Park rangers, they were men who had other lives, but devoted their free time to becoming soldiers and living history. And they were standing in this area to reenact Pickett’s Charge 139 years later.
The leader of the Confederate reenactors gave the tourist group, now including myself, a brief overview of the events of July 3, 1863. Their intent in a few minutes was to line up in formation and walk in the steps of the soldiers, 15,000 strong, who participated in this final battle of Gettysburg in 1863. The reenactors then announced that if we wanted to join them, we could ALL march across the fields to reach Cemetary Ridge and join the Union line at the Angle–which was Lee’s objective when he planned the open field assault.
So I didn’t leave as planned to drive to Philadelphia. Spontaneous decision to delay my trip. I’m excited to actually experience Pickett’s Charge and get the chance to walk over the same ground that soldiers trod so many years ago. The 2002 group tagged along behind the 1863 group of reenactors who took this solemn march with all intention and seriousness to honor those soldiers. A drummer boy, also in uniform, tapped a loud, steady drum beat on a replica drum from the Civil War era. The other men who carried battle flags of Confederate states held the staffs with a firm grip and the silk flags whipped like sails in the hot breeze.
We followed a trail wide enough for vehicle traffic. The dry earth kicked up puffs of dust as we walked along. The fields on both sides looked like a vast meadow with tall grass thick with wheat heads that bent forward in the wind. At the road, where the soldiers in 1863 stacked up to climb over split rail fences, we walked through an opening next to a paved road. Looking both ways, we all crossed over into Union territory. The reenactors continued their steady march, not too slow and not too fast. During the July 3rd assault, the soldiers were ordered to march double-quick as they neared the Angle.
I could see up ahead the tree under which I sat last evening as the sun went down. I was literally experienceing the turning point in American History from another viewpoint. I was surprised to see Union reenactors, in their thick woolen blue coats, standing along the wall at the Angle. Another group of tourists stood around them and waited for Pickett’s Charge to arrive.
I held myself at the end of the line since I planned to walk back and get to my car to drive east. I watched from a short distance to one side as the leader of the Confederate reenactors reached the Union officer at the wall where a small number of soldiers managed to breach the Union line in 1863. I held my breath to see what would happen between “enemy”sides.
Rifles and swords were lowered from shoulders. The union officer leaned far over the low stone wall and extended his arm toward the leader of the Conderate reenactors. It was a tearful and heart-warming moment when they clasped hands in a firm handshake. That said everything to me right there. Forgiveness and inclusion. The war is over.
It wasn’t about who “won” the Civil War or who “lost” the war over one hundred years ago in our history. It’s about healing the wounds and scars and trauma of war. It’s about a country no longer divided by opposing idelology and becoming one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.
The other Union soldiers at the Angle came forward to assist the Confederate reenactors over the wall so they were now all fellowshipping on the same side.
I thought this was a wonderful experience to observe. I’m glad I chose to delay my departure for Philadelphia to be able to march with reenactors and see the 2002 results to the end of Pickett’s Charge on July 3rd. I was the only person of tourists in the group to head back to Seminary Ridge. I turned around and started the long, hot walk back to my car.
And that’s when I finally –got it.
I crossed the road and was inside the Confederate side of Pickett’s Charge. I was dirty from marching over the dusty trail that curved through the field of tall meadow grass. A hot wind pushed against my forward progress, bearing no cooling air on my face or bare arms. I stopped to retrieve my plastic water bottle from my backpack.
When I stood up to take a long, welcome drink of cool liquid, I saw it. I heard it. And it kept me frozen in that spot until it was over.
I gazed over the field as the wind blew in a wave of intensity that caused the heavy laden full grass heads that looked like wheat to bow forward as the wind passed over the grass. A continuous forward motion of sea grass bent forward toward the Union line on Cemetary Ridge at the Angle.
Then I heard sighs in the wind. Only the hair raised up on my arms and I knew I was hearing whispers in the field. I heard the souls of Pickett’s Charge marching toward their untimely doom. The wind played across the meadow and I was in the midst of a spiritual encounter. I heard the sighs and whispers in the field. The heads of grass bowed forward, eternally marching toward the Angle.
God wanted to show me something. I needed to be alone to experience the full meaning of Pickett’s Charge.
I don’t remember how long I stood still and embraced the overpowering sense of connection with the reality of the Confederate soldiers who marched across this very field 139 years ago. But I knew. And I finally got it.
They willingly obeyed an order to march. They all started across this field on July 3, 1863. Of the 15,00 men under General George Pickett’s charge, only 5,000 lived to return to Seminary Ridge after that disastrous and failed battle. Pickett sent out 5,000 men of his brigade, but 800 returned. I didn’t understand until now. What I needed to understand was that these were men of honor. They fought for a cause they believed in with full hearts and minds. And for those who didn’t make it back to this side and rejoin Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, their souls remain on these hallowed grounds.
Their blood was shed. And God accepted their sacrifice. Where I walked around Gettysburg National Military Park yesterday and today, I stepped on sacred ground of lives giving their full measure of devotion to fight for a cause they believed in. A cause strong enough to fight for. A cause willing to die for.
God honored that sacrifice. He accepted every spirit of men who lost their lives in the battles of Gettysburg during three days in July. There will always be an aura of connection between our world and the souls who remain here to remind those who are open to listen to the sighs and whispers.
That moment in the field completely changed my attitude of hating war. It’s not about the battles or the wars fought between enemies. It’s always about a man of honor, willing to present his very life a living sacrifice to serve a country he holds dear. And God accepts the blood shed. God is there. Always.
The battle of Pickett’s Charge was a failure for Lee’s Army and the Confederate cause. It proved to be the turning point of the Civil War. Both sides regrouped and fought almost two more years before the war officially ended in April, 1865.
This day, July 3, 1863, is a turning point in American History. I’m very glad I came to Gettysburg National Military Park. It’s hallowed ground, where men fought and died and shed blood and sacrificed their lives. My journey isn’t as much of an odyssey any more as it’s become a pilgrimage. I didn’t expect to experience a deeper meaning than to appreciate the military monuments placed to commemorate the regiments and battles fought in this area.
I stand humbled in the presence of those who fought and died for an America idea–that freedom should include ALL men and women of race, color and creed. After 1865, this country declared it’s might and dedication to be united. Today we are. We are a strong America. Americans can’t lose sight of the importance of honoring places such as Gettysburg. If we have anything that could be considered a holy place, then Gettysburg National Military Park is worthy of all American citizens to visit and appreciate what it took to be the nation we are today. It is truly a turning point in American History and one place that deserves a pilgrimage to say thank you for the sacrifices made here.
The first sacrifice that gave rise to the birth of America is my next stop on this journey—–