We left Lancaster on a beautiful Fall day headed for Gettysburg. A mere 60 miles southwest along a two lane highway, past rolling farm land and small hamlets. Our first impression of Drummer Boy Camping Resort was very favorable. That impression has not changed one iota since our arrival. The campground is just lovely at this time of year. Lots of trees in the midst of changing colors, huge boulders lying exposed amongst the campsites, ponds reflecting their surroundings upon their waters, and rustic cabins scattered here and there.
We have a full hookup pull-thru site toward the back of the campground, and this is a very big campground with over 500 campsites. Being parked on an end site, Tucker has an ample grassy area to romp and play. We truly enjoy just sitting outside and breathing in the crisp, woodsy air.
After setting up our campsite and having a bite of lunch, we drove into downtown Gettysburg to get a feel for the area. We had two destinations in mind, first, the Gettysburg Visitor Center to gather information and a town map. Second stop, the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center.
The Gettysburg Visitor Center is housed in the old Gettysburg Train Station, also known as the Lincoln Train Station. Built in 1859, President Lincoln arrived here via train on November 18, 1863 to deliver a dedication speech at the Soldiers National Cemetery. That speech would later become world renown as the Gettysburg Address. The station also served as a field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg. Inside there is a replica under glass of what the station looked like at that time. It has not changed much over the years.
The visitor center at the military park not only holds the information desk but includes the Cyclorama, a museum, gift shop and eatery. We picked up a schedule for the ranger led battlefield talks, then proceeded to the gift shop where we purchased five battlefield books and an auto tour cd with tour booklet. One can never have too much information.
The following morning, we were up and moving early. We wanted to be at the Gettysburg Diarama when it opened. The Diarama is a layout of the entire battlefield in detailed miniature. There is a 30 minute light and sound show with dialog. It helped to put the battle into perspective. Next, we made our way back to the Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center to view the Cyclorama, the film “Birth of a New Nation” and tour the museum. I can not convey enough how spectacular the Cyclorama is. A painting by French artist Paul Philippoteaux, titled The Battle of Gettysburg, shows the climactic Confederate attack upon the Union Army.
The painting, completed in 1883, is a 360 degree painting, 22′ high and 279′ feet in circumference, larger than a football field. It immerses the viewer into Pickett’s Charge and is truly astounding to see. The detail is extraordinary. It is said that when survivors of the battle viewed the finished painting, they were moved to tears, so realistically is the battle of the third day portrayed.
The film, “Birth of a New Nation” is narrated by Morgan Freeman. It is a very moving explanation of the battle and of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The museum is a display of battlefield artifacts and personal items. It gives insight into the leaders on both sides of the battle and personal glimpses into the lives of the soldiers who fought here. After taking in all of this, we felt we were ready to tour the battlefield. But first a stop for lunch at a tavern that was recommended to us by our old minister, Steve. The Blue & Gray Bar & Grill on historic Lincoln Square. (I should note here that the food is so good, we’ve been back three times thus far,) The food is ample, delicious, and shall we say, interesting? All the food that we’ve seen pass by us on their way to other tables have looked very tasty but we came here for the burgers and that is what we’re sticking with. The Blue & Gray offers 16 different burgers, they call them Battlefield Burgers and each one is named after either a Union or a Confederate General. Some of the burgers are very unique. Take The General James Longstreet for example, a half pound beef patty topped with bacon, caramelized onions and creamy peanut butter on a ciabatta bun. Or how about the General John Reynolds, this patty comes topped with corn fritters and warm honey bacon dressing on a pretzel roll or a General Jubal Early burger with cheddar cheese, bacon, a fried egg and maple syrup. Are your taste buds watering yet?
Fully sated, we were ready to begin our self guided auto tour of the Gettysburg Battlefield. We made only three tour stops before calling it a full day. First stop on the tour is McPherson Ridge. It is here that General John Buford received reports of Confederate activity in the area. Recognizing the importance of being on the high ground in the event of a confrontation, it is here he ordered his men to dismount. This is also where the famed Iron Brigade entered into the battle. Comprised of soldiers from Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin, this formidable fighting force is of deep interest to Don, and here too is where Union General, John Reynolds was felled by a bullet to the back of his head while urging the Iron Brigade into battle.
The second stop is the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, but before reaching it we stopped at the famous Railroad Cut. During the battle, the unfinished railroad bed that cut through the ridge was the site of a fierce gunfight. Union troops charged the cut, capturing hundreds of Confederate soldiers in the ravine.
The Eternal Light Memorial on Oak Hill was dedicated in 1938 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. It serves as a reminder of reconciliation between the men who served in the Union and Confederation. The eternal flame burns continuously 24 hours a day. Oak Hill afforded us a view of the vast battlefield below.
Oak Ridge was our final stop for the day. It is the location of another fierce battle that took place on the first day, July 1, 1863. The nearby McClean Farm was the site of one of the biggest ironies of the battle. The story goes that soldiers from the 45th New York Infantry were ordered to the barn to flush out enemy sharpshooters. One of the Union soldiers present was a corporal named Rudolph Schwarz, a German immigrant. As he was heading to the barn, he spied Confederate captives being taken to the rear. One of the men was his own brother, a soldier fighting for the South. Immediately, the two men embraced, then parted. Later that same afternoon, Rudolph was killed in action.
On the following two days, Wednesday and Thursday, we completed our two and a half hour self guided auto tour. I can’t imagine how anyone can really complete it in the the allotted time and still say they honestly experienced the Gettysburg Battlefield. Wednesday we visited the North Carolina Memorial. Dedicated in 1929, it was one of the earliest memorials representing a southern state. It is located in the area where Pickett’s Charge first emerged out of the woods on Seminary Ridge. Appropriately so, as North Carolinians participated in the ill fated charge. The Virginia Memorial is positioned nearby as well. Dedicated in 1917, it is the first Confederate state monument to be placed on the battlefield. It’s a very imposing memorial with Robert E. Lee upon his horse Traveller at the top, at the base seven soldiers ready for battle. The bravery of those men involved in Pickett’s Charge is hard to fathom, facing almost certain death or wounding, they gallantly surged forward toward Cemetery Ridge and the awaiting Army of the Potomac.
At Pitzer Woods we paid homage to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, who was affectionately called ‘my old war horse” by Robert E. Lee.
We spent quite a bit of our day upon Little Round Top, at Devil’s Den and the Slaughter Pen. It was hard to imagine the carnage that took place here in a sight so moving and as beautiful as this. It was at Little Round Top where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain led his troops in a desperate bayonet charge, after being given the order to hold his ground “at all hazards.” Running low on ammunition, exhausted and outnumbered after fighting for over two hours at close range, he ordered bayonets and charged the enemy defeating the Confederate forces. He would later be awarded the Medal of Honor for this courageous act.There is a very unassuming memorial placed here honoring Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. Joshua requested no monument be placed here in his honor.
A bloody battle occurred at Devil’s Den between Union Captain John Smith’s artillery and Confederate soldiers from Alabama, Georgia and Texas with the artillery eventually succumbing to the attack. It is at Devil’s Den where what is probably the most recognized photograph of the battle’s aftermath was taken. When photographers began arriving a few days after the battle, they were greeted by a horrific scene around Little Round Top and Devil’s Den. Bodies of men were still lying scattered upon the ground exposed to the elements and critters. The horrors of war was captured for the civilians back home.
Standing in this spot, my imagination must have been working overtime. A felt a deep sadness & a shiver ran down my spine. I did not linger long.
From here we made our way to The Wheatfield. On the second day of the battle, July 2, 1863, the Wheatfield witnessed some of the heaviest fighting of the entire Civil War. On that fateful afternoon, the wheat was untrammeled, tall and golden in the heat of the hot Summer sun. over a period of two and a half hours, this contested ground changed hands six times as General James Longstreet attempted to smash through the Union forces. It was said that by the days end, the bodies of soldiers laid so thickly upon the ground that the living was forced to step on them to retreat and the land was soaked in blood. We walked from one end of the field to the other and then crossed it at its width trying to visualize what it must have been like then.
From The Wheatfield to the Peach Orchard and Trostle Farm. The peach orchard isn’t nearly as large as it was on that July day, situated on high ground overlooking vast farm fields, it was a strategic location for Union forces. From this position the Union was able to bombard Confederate troops on Seminary Ridge and Warfield Ridge, and fire on the Southern forces crossing the Rose Farm to attack the Wheatfield. However, after a half hour of shelling by Colonel Alexander’s battery, an attack was made by General Barksdale’s brigade and eventually the Confederates overran the Peach Orchard. We again got out of our vehicle to walk this hallowed ground.
The Trostle Farm was once the location of controversial Major General Daniel Sickles headquarters. Located not far from Plum Run where Captain John Bigelow’s 9th Massachusetts with their backs up against the stone wall, were overtaken by enemy forces. This skirmish caused Plum Run Valley to be called the Valley of Death . The still standing farm came under fire from artillery, it was then that a cannonball struck the general’s right leg causing it to be amputated later that evening . You can still see evidence of the cannon fire, the hole in the barn’s gable is where a shell crashed through.
Our last stop of the day was at the imposing, impressive Pennsylvania Memorial. Dedicated in 1910, it is a fitting memorial to all of the Pennsylvania’s soldiers who fought in the Gettysburg Campaign. We stopped at this point of the tour on Wednesday night.
Bright and early Thursday morning we were back at it. We began this leg of our journey at Spangler’s Spring and Culp’s Hill. Spangler’s Spring was the site of an ill fated charge on the third and final day of the battle at Gettysburg. The actual spring is not very impressive today. Once a vital location of free flowing water for the troops, it has been capped off by the National Park Service due to damage by park visitors. Culp’s Hill, another strategic high ground area held by the Union was fired upon by Confederate troops on each of the three days of battle. Led by Brigadier General George Greene, the oldest general on the battlefield at the age of 62, five New York regiments, outnumbered by the South more than three to one, inflicted more than six times the causalities on the Confederates and maintained control of the summit.
From Culp’s Hill we advanced to the last stop on our auto tour, The High Water Mark. Pickett’s Charge is often referred to as the High water Mark of the Confederacy. Never again would Lee have the men and resources to strike a decisive blow to the enemy. This is the site of probably the greatest battle fought at Gettysburg and I cannot describe this fight and do it justice. Suffice it to say, it was a major defeat for the South and the loss of men on both sides was astronomical. Roughly 11,ooo men died at the Battle of Gettysburg. Another 40,000 were wounded,captured or missing.
The four years of the Civil war were the bloodiest in our nation’s history. Some 620,000 men died in the war, a little less than two percent of the population. A loss on the same scale today would equal six million deaths.