With a little imagination, the power of place is palpable. Looking out over the tranquil fields today, a visitor to Gettysburg National Military Park can see the long line of gray soldiers moving forward and hear the pounding of the cannon. The sweeping field of Pickett’s charge, the bold gamble on the part of Confederate General Robert E. Lee that failed utterly, is a stirring sight in any season. I was there recently, three or so weeks removed from the anniversary (151 years), the landscape rich in summer colors. The copse of trees, focal point for Pickett’s charge, sits protected by an iron fence. The only trees in the vicinity, the grove had to be fenced in for protection from souvenir hunters after the area became a symbol for the high water mark of the Confederacy at War’s end.
One great price of the War is illustrated in friendships ripped apart, as told in the saga of Pickett’s Charge. Near the copse of trees is the monument to Confederate Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, mortally wounded in the charge, but successful in leading his troops against amazing odds to the Union line at the stone wall. Nearby stands a monument to one of his best friends, Union Major General Winfield Hancock wounded as he defiantly rode his horse along the lines.
I grew up an hour or so from the battlefield, so every visit conjures up layers of memories from past visits. The ugly tower no longer ruins the view, the ugly visitor center has been replaced by a large one that blends into the landscape. The cyclorama painting of Pickett’s Charge has been restored to its former glory and depicts the power of the moment. Devil’s Den, that small section of massive rocks that heave up from the Earth at the base of Little Roundtop, was a nest of sharpshooters during the battle and the interpretive panel with the mesmerizing photo of the staged bodies that captured my attention as a boy still holds the same fascination.
Several years ago I went to the annual Gettysburg reenactment. I tell of my experience in my new book A Grizzly in the Mail and Other Adventures in American History. I witnessed a battle reenactment of the storming of Little Roundtop, performed in a flat field. I watched a camp demonstration in the hospital tent. The staff carried in a wounded soldier, his leg bleeding profusely. The doctor explained the wound and decided he needed to amputate. As I recount in Grizzly, “to the horror of the crowd, he took out his dirty saw and began sawing. As the blood spurted, his saw stopped briefly at what sounded like bone. He kept sawing. The leg dropped off, with blood gushing and appropriate screaming from the soldier. The action had a grand effect on the crowd, which gasped and stood riveted. As the program wrapped up and the soldier stood up all in one piece, I decided that including a little blood and gore proved an effective way to teach history.” Then I as I was walking through the concessions tent, I passed a reenactor who looked like General Grant. Any astute history student knows that Grant was in Vicksburg during the Gettysburg campaign. I whispered to him “General Grant you’re not supposed to be here!” He grinned and responded, in a whisper, “I’m not.”
Reenactment stories aside, the very earth at Gettysburg pounds with bravery and sacrifice, if the visitor cares to listen.
Have you been to Gettysburg? What was your experience there?