Welcome to The Gettysburg Files.
If you're here, then I imagine you were already aware that I took a four-day trip to the Gettysburg National Military Park from the 10th of September through the 13th, 2009.
Ever since my first two trips to the battlefield as a young child, I've developed an intense interest in the Civil War and specifically the Battle of Gettysburg. I find it profoundly amazing that armies consisting mostly of volunteers could give such incredible efforts and participate in such awe-inspiring slaughter.
It's my belief that the Civil War was the fulcrum upon which this nation's history turned. Prior to the War, we were a loose collection of States. After the War, we became a true nation. And it is from that seminal moment that we've grown into the greatest country in the world.
And if the Civil War represents that turning point for America, then the Battle of Gettysburg represents the turning point for that war.
As an adult (a label which I know some will dispute), I've greatly desired to go back to Gettysburg. To see and study the ground which I've read so much about in the intervening years.
This trip was my chance to do just that.
What follows is my best recollection of said trip. The good, the rainy and the sobering, they're all here. I hope it gives you at least a taste of what I experienced, and perhaps even inspires a few of you to make the trip yourselves.
(My guiding services are available and quite reasonably priced, if I do say so myself!)
My plan is to create a post for each of the four days I spent on the trip. I'll post them one at a time, in concert with my Sports Take posts. That way those of you who don't want to take the whole thing in at once can experience it piecemeal.
For those of you who'd rather sit down with a couple of cups of coffee and spend the better part of your day cranking through the whole trip? Give it til next Monday and you'll be able to do just that!
We begin with the first day...
Thursday, September 10th, 2009
Thursday was 95% a travel day, so there's not a ton to tell, but I'll do my best.
I flew from Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport to Baltimore-Washington Thurgood Marshall International Aiport and met up with my parents who'd flown in from Phoenix.
From the airport, we shuttled over to the rental car facility to pick up the vehicle we'd reserved. I'm not sure about your experience with rental car agencies, but I honestly can't remember the last time that I've been party to a car rental, where the agency actually had the car we'd reserved ready for us when we arrived to pick it up.
In this case, it turned out in our favor as we were upgraded to a 2009 Chrysler Aspen. In addition to having plenty of room, it had satellite radio and backup cameras. Interestingly it also had an analog clock in the dash. I guess with all the technology involved, it was important to have a touch of old-school there too.
My Garmin GPS did an excellent job of guiding us from Baltimore northward for about an hour and a half til we reached our hotel in Gettysburg.
The only landmark of note on the trip was the sign that marked when we crossed the fabled “Mason-Dixon Line”.
I was so focused on navigating, that it didn't even occur to me that we'd be crossing that line until I saw a sign much like the one above.
Though the Mason-Dixon line represented the cultural divide that was at the heart of the Civil War, the Line itself was actually surveyed in the 1760's to settle a border dispute between the various states whose borders it now represents.
We arrived at our hotel early in the evening, checked in and went out to dinner.
That was really all there was to Thursday.
“So you're going to make a single post out of that?!”
Oh no, dear reader. You should know me better than that by now!
Instead, I'll use the rest of Thursday to give you a synopsis of the battle itself. Hopefully that will give you background enough to fully appreciate the rest of my posts.
(And selfishly, it will allow me to use plenty of shorthand in those posts without having to stop and explain every term! Additionally, my apologies for a lack of brevity. There's a lot of points to hit on, and this may take a bit. So settle in.)
In late June 1863, General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began their invasion of the North. The first six months of 1863 had seen Lee and his Lieutenants wage a stunningly successful campaign in Virginia. Victories at Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville had damaged the health and spirit of the Union's Army of the Potomac.
But Lee couldn't afford to simply try to repel the Union armies from Virginia. The Union had more of everything it takes to sustain an army, and if Lee sat still and waited, eventually the Union would wear his army out.
So with President Jefferson Davis' permission, Lee embarked on a bold plan to take the fight to the North. He believed that a defeat of the Army of the Potomac on Northern soil would bolster anti-war sentiment in the North to the point where President Lincoln would be forced to sue the Confederacy for peace.
Whether that was actually true or not, we'll never know. But Lee had little choice. The farmlands in Virginia had been decimated by the presence of two armies and their foraging. The South was running short of supplies, the North had plenty. It only made sense to head North and hope for the best.
It is believed that Lee's intended target was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, but he never got there.
Lee chose Pennsylvania over attacking the Federal capital in Washington, D.C., for one basic reason: Pennsylvania had robust farmland in which his army could forage. Washington, D.C., on the other hand, was built on a drained swamp. There were plenty of supplies in the capital, but they were centrally located, and fairly well protected. So fighting to get them while occupying the capital simply wasn't worth the effort.
Instead, he bypassed Washington, using the Blue Ridge Mountains to screen his movements from the forces which protected the capital.
As they moved into Pennsylvania, his forces found abundant food and fresh water which they eagerly took advantage of.
What Lee didn't know as he traveled northward, was the position of the Union army. In Civil War times, armies relied heavily on their cavalry to provide them with intelligence on the enemy's movements. But Lee's cavalry, led by General J.E.B. Stuart was out of communication for several days.
This lack of communication was crucial because it allowed the Army of the Potomac, led by new commander General George Meade, to closely follow Lee's army without major incident, all the while protecting the capital from any attack Lee might make.
Instead, by the time Lee realized where the Army of the Potomac was, Meade's cavalry was a scant few miles from finding Lee's main body which was just north of a small crossroads town called Gettysburg. Lee quickly realized the danger and set up a division led by General Henry Heth to defend his army from a Union surprise attack.
This is where I'll defer to Ken Burns. The line used in his film, “The Civil War” to describe the beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg is as good as any I've ever heard. So with due credit, I hope he won't mind if I borrow it:
“The greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere began as a clash over shoes.”
On July 1st, 1863, Lee ordered Heth's division into Gettysburg to confiscate a consignment of shoes rumored to be stored there. Instead of finding shoes, Heth's men found a dismounted regiment of Union cavalry led by Colonel John Buford.
Lacking the intelligence Stuart's Confederate cavalry would've provided, Heth believed the forces he faced to be local militia. So considering his orders not to enforce a major action to be inapplicable to local militia, Heth moved his men in.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Buford's cavalry put up a strong fight, and just as they were starting to be forced back, were reinforced by General John Reynold's 1st Corps, Army of the Potomac. That infantry support kept the battle from becoming a rout. Reynolds, however, was killed early in the action, and eventually, the out-numbered Union forces were forced to retreat south through the town of Gettysburg to a set of hills which they swiftly occupied.
Lee hadn't desired a battle with the Union at this point. His forces were still scattered and to attempt a major action without his men concentrated was a tremendous risk. Circumstances forced his hand, however, and the battle was joined.
Not only was it joined, but the early goings were fairly successful for the Confederates. As July 1st came to a close, Lee's army held the town, and all that was left was to force the Union off of those hills (Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill) and to occupy that high ground.
Unfortunately for Lee, his Corps commander in the area was General Dick Ewell. Ewell had earned a reputation for being a bold, ferocious fighter early in the War. But after losing his leg to a wound at the second Battle of Bull Run, Ewell's reputation turned to one of indecision and cautiousness. These unfortunate traits were in full display during the late afternoon and early evening on July 1st.
Lee's orders to Ewell were to “take that hill (Cemetery Hill) if practicable.” Lee's mistake was to leave that decision in the hands of Ewell. Ewell's mistake was to decide that resting his men took precedence over forcing the enemy off of the high ground.
So at the end of Day 1 of the battle, the Confederates had forced the Union to retreat, and occupied the town of Gettysburg. But Union forces held the high ground south of town and spent the night fortifying their position.
As July 2nd dawned, both armies had brought up reinforcements. Approximately 60,000 Confederates faced nearly 80,000 Federals.
The Army of the Potomac occupied Cemetery and Culp's Hills as well as Cemetery Ridge which extended south from those hills and ended in two rocky heights called Big and Little Round Top. This is what's referred to as their "fishhook" formation. Look at the map below. If you trace the blue lines to the north on Cemetery and Culp's Hills and then follow it south to the Round Tops, you can see how the Union lines took on the shape of a fishhook.
The Army of Northern Virginia controlled the town itself and the ridge opposite of the Union forces, called Seminary Ridge.
Lee's troops had been so successful on July 1st that he felt compelled to continue the battle on the 2nd. His most trusted Corps commander, General James Longstreet advised against it. Longstreet knew the Union had possession of the best ground on the field and that any attack would be difficult and costly to the Confederates. His advice was to maneuver the Army of Northern Virginia around the Army of the Potomac, take up positions on better ground between the Union army and Washington, D.C., and fight a defensive battle.
At this point in the War, Lee had come to believe his army superior to any army that the Union could put in the field. He knew that lengthening the War would be costly to his efforts, so when he saw what he believed to be his chance to deliver a knockout blow to the Union, he felt he had to take it. And he honestly believed that his troops would overcome any odds to deliver said blow.
He was wrong.
Longstreet couldn't dissuade Lee from his intended course of action, and in fact became the lead commander in the attack which occurred on Day 2.
Lee's plan was to have Ewell demonstrate against the Union's right flank, keeping that portion of their army occupied, while Longstreet made the true assault on the Union's lightly defended left flank. Longstreet would occupy the Round Tops, threaten to roll up the Union's lines and force them to retreat in defeat.
That was the plan. But as the cliche goes, no plan survives first contact with the enemy.
For the Confederates, first contact with the Union came at approximately 4pm on July 2nd. It took Longstreet that long to scout the Union position and maneuver his troops into position for the attack.
For the Union, General Dan Sickles commanded the left flank that Longstreet was about to attack. Sickles was ordered to deploy his troops along the southern portion of Cemetery Ridge and on Little Round Top.
Sickles, however, wasn't enamored with his position, and decided to deploy his troops out in front of his assigned location, along some high ground which we now know as Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field.
The problem with Sickles' new position was that it left his own flanks completely unguarded, and left Little Round Top bare.
So when Longstreet attacked that afternoon, Sickles was a sitting duck. His men fought valiantly, and to Sickles' credit, he stayed close enough to the battle to receive a wound which cost him his right leg. But eventually, they were overwhelmed by the Confederate attack and forced to retreat.
This left the Union with a major problem. The area Sickles was supposed to be occupying was now in great peril. The Union's chief engineer, General G.K. Warren was ordered to the top of Little Round Top which he found to be defended only by a group of signalmen. When he got there, he saw the Confederates advancing through Sickles' men, and realized that if they gained control of Little Round Top, they'd threaten the entire Union position.
He immediately dispatched a messenger for help, and was rewarded with the arrival of four Union regiments: the 16th Michigan, the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania and the 20th Maine.
The 20th Maine was commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and constituted the extreme left flank of the Union army in the battle on July 2nd.
Facing those four regiments were regiments from General John Bell Hood's division of Longstreet's Corps. Hood desperately needed to take Little Round Top for his attack to be any kind of success.
The right flank of Hood's attack consisted of the 15th Alabama, commanded by Colonel Willam T. Oates.
Oates' troops attacked the 20th Maine's position repeatedly. Each time they were driven back, Oates' men moved a little further to their right, forcing the Maine men to extend their line to their left. Eventually, Chamberlain's men were so far strung out, that he was forced to “refuse” his line (turn it up the hill at a 90-degree angle to his original line) or risk losing the ability to reinforce the most beleaguered portion of his position.
Eventually, the 20th Maine's position became untenable. There were too few men to adequately man the line, and those that were left standing had too little ammunition to do much good. It was at this point that Chamberlain ordered what would become a textbook maneuver. He ordered the left wing of his line - the portion that had been swung back at a 90-degree angle – to fix bayonets and charge. They charged as though they were a door swinging on a hinge that was the middle of his line. Once they passed the original line, the rest of the regiment charged with them and swept the stunned Alabamians, who thought the Maine troops nearly finished, right down the hill.
For this action, Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, the highest award any soldier can receive.
But the action on Little Round Top wasn't the only part played in saving the Union position. The area of Cemetery Ridge that Sickles was supposed to occupy was left in danger as well.
General Winfield Scott Hancock commanded the 2nd Corps of the Army of the Potomac and oversaw the position to Sickles' right. When he saw Sickles move his Corps out in front of the Union position, he said, “Wait a while, you'll see him [Sickles] rollin' on back.” And to his horror, he was right.
Once Hancock understood the dire nature of the situation, he went to work to try and plug the hole Sickles had created. Unfortunately, the Confederates were closer than he thought, and there was little time to bring up reinforcements. So Hancock turned to the only men that were readily obtainable: the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry.
At the point Hancock summoned the 1st Minnesota, the 262 men that made up the regiment were in a supporting position behind the ridge. Hancock saw a brigade of over 1500 Alabamians marching towards the gap on the ridge, and needed to find a way to slow them down until he could bring up sufficient reinforcements to defend the position. So he turned to Colonel William Colvill, who commanded the 1st, and said, “Colonel, do you see those colors? [pointing to the battle flags of the Alabama troops] Take them.”
He was essentially ordering the 1st into a suicidal charge, hoping to slow down the Confederate troops long enough to bring up forces to defend the ridge. Colvill obeyed his orders, and the Minnesotans charged.
Imagine, if you will, you're a strong force of Confederate troops. You're marching towards a significant gap in the Union lines, and expecting to break said lines and win the day for your army. The only glitch in this plan comes in the form of 262 Minnesotans charging at you with bayonets fixed. You have an overwhelming superiority in numbers, and yet these crazy, screaming banshees are charging right for you. You're so stunned that you stop your marching, and form up to deal with this petty threat. Only the threat turns out to not be so petty.
You unleash your first volley of musketry, and the Minnesotans don't stop. So you unleash another, and another, each time expecting to see the Minnesotans having surrendered, only they don't. They get right up close to your position, and then take cover in a small creek bed, and start firing back at you.
The next thing you know, the gap in the Union line you had been marching toward is now filled with fresh Union infantry and artillery and you're starting to take a pounding.
Sounds crazy, but that's exactly what happened. But not without a tremendous cost. Of the 262 Minnesotans who made that charge, 215 fell dead or wounded. The more than 80% casualty rate is the highest of any single regiment in any single battle in the War.
At the end of July 2nd, the Confederates had gained more ground, but the Union still held the high ground, and were now firmly entrenched.
This brings us to Day 3 of the battle, more commonly known as “Pickett's Charge”.
General Lee had been encouraged by his troops' success on Day 1. And on Day 2, believed that he'd nearly won the battle. So by the time he reached July 3rd, he was determined to attack again and finish the job, no matter how earnestly Longstreet still tried to talk him out of it.
It was Lee's belief that his enemy had been attacked on the flanks, had reinforced there and was strongest there. So he determined to attack the center of the Union line, in the middle of Cemetery Ridge.
Ewell would once again demonstrate against the Union right to keep them occupied, and preceding the charge, the Confederates would lay down a heavy barrage of artillery to disorganize the Union center. That being accomplished, the Confederates would march towards that center, break the Union line and defeat the Army of the Potomac once again.
That plan fell apart early.
Before Ewell could mount his demonstration, he was attacked by the Union forces on Culp's Hill. He was so occupied defending his own troops, that he was in no position to force the Union to bring reserves in to help. Those Union reserves that he'd hoped to have occupied would be waiting on Cemetery Ridge for Pickett's troops.
The artillery barrage that was supposed to disorganize the Union center began as planned. But the Union quickly responded with artillery of their own. And the Union's artillery being more accurate and more reliable than the Confederates', whatever disorganization that was supposed to have occurred, was mitigated at best, and at worst, all-together prevented.
But Longstreet had no choice. He had strict orders from Lee to make this charge. So when he was notified by the artillery commander that he needed to send his men in now, or there'd be no artillery left to support his advance, he gave the order to his field commander, General George E. Pickett, to begin the charge.
Approximately 12,500 Confederate troops then stepped out of the trees along Seminary Ridge and began their march over a mile of open fields towards their objective, a small copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge.
Soon after leaving the trees, Union artillery re-opened fire upon them. But now, there was no place to run and no place to hide. They were in an open field with no shelter. It takes between 10 and 15 minutes to cross that distance unimpeded. Under fire it took more like a half hour.
Imagine those troops being under consistent artillery fire for the fist 15 minutes until they reached the Emmitsburg road. Once they reached the fence which guarded the road, they came under musket fire as well as short range artillery fire.
The Confederates never stood a chance.
Those few who reached the stone wall which guarded their objective were led by General Lewis A. Armistead. Armistead was a close friend and confidant of Union General Hancock before the War.
Armistead and his troops reached a crook in the wall called, “The Angle” and succeeded in climbing over it. As Armistead urged his troops to turn the cannon on the retreating Federals, reinforcements charged onto the scene, shot Armistead dead, and captured the Confederates who were smart enough to lay down their arms and surrender.
Over 6,500 of the 12,500 men who made the charge were killed, wounded or captured. All 3 of Pickett's brigade commanders were killed or wounded, as well as 13 of his regimental commanders.
In short, it was a brutal, shocking and total defeat.
After the failure of Pickett's charge, Lee was left no choice but to admit defeat and retreat back to Virginia. Never again would he invade Northern Territory. And for the remainder of the war, Lee conducted a defensive campaign.
So there you have it. I know it wasn't brief, but that should give you a good idea of what occurred during the Battle of Gettysburg.
It will also serve as a reference point for the words and pictures that are to come.
Next up, Friday and our visit to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor's Center and Museum.