Guest post by Mark Spalding
With the festivities of the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg almost upon us, I felt it would be a great time to let you know a little more about the place and time that shaped who we are as a country today.
I’ve been going to Gettysburg off and on since I was a teenager some twenty years ago. Our boy scout troop would make an almost annual trip to the park to hike the “North” and “South” trails of this sprawling National Park and I absolutely loved it. It was hands down my favorite place to hike around and explore. To see Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, The Wheat Field and of course the site of Pickett’s Charge is an emotional thing to behld (even for a 12 year old boy).
It’s difficult know what it was like to be a soldier in those times. What it was like to march over a mile of completely open ground, shoulder to shoulder with your brothers in arms, moving at a parade pace with cannon fire bursting in every direction, bullets whizzing by your head and decimating your friends and comrades, only to finally be able to cut loose and run at the enemy with less than a hundred yards separating you and them. But you may at least have an understanding if you are there, walking that same stretch of land yourself. Gettysburg is like a full access pass to history!
Much is made of the battle itself (over 51,000 casualties, more than the entire Revolutionary War and any other battle fought by U.S. soldiers until the Vietnam War), but it is what happened after the battle which solidified a nation. Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is the gold standard that all other American oratory is compared to. This is in large part due to the eloquence of his words ( a svelte 268), but also the circumstances in which they were spoken. While fighting an unpopular war, mired in a debate with his enemies and his allies alike about the need to emancipate slaves and mourning the death of his young son, Lincoln managed to put into words what it means to be American. His words, spoken at the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery in Gettysburg four months after the battle ended, galvanized a weary north and gave them the strength to persevere through 2 more years of bloody combat.
As with many great events, it was the little things that made the difference at Gettysburg. Here are just a few quick points about the battle which turned the tide of the war;
General Robert E. Lee’s right hand man, “Stonewall” Jackson, died in May, shortly before the battle at Gettysburg. His Corps (pronounced “Core”) was split in two and given to A.P. Hill & Richard Ewell. On the first day of battle, the Rebel army could have easily overtaken the Union lines and had the high ground at the north end of the battlefield for the coming days, but miscommunication between the new commanders and General Lee stopped the advance. This allowed the Union forces to be reinforced and entrench overnight and is considered by many scholars to be a critical and costly mistake by the south.
On the second day, a small Maine regiment, led by Joshua Chamberlain, held off an advance by a much larger Rebel force on Little Round Top that would have flanked the Union line and given the South the high ground at the south end of the battlefield. They did it without any bullets in their guns! Note: To see how this happened, a good resource is the “Gettysburg” movie (1994).
On the third day, Pickett’s Charge did accomplish one thing. For the span of a few seconds, the Southern army was at the furthest point north that it had ever gone in the war. After this battle they would never venture further into the north than they had that day.
I could go on for pages about this subject, but I don’t want to cause too many TLDRs. 🙂 If you’re interested in knowing more about the Battle of Gettysburg or the Civil War in general, let me know in the comments. There are thousands of resources and ways to get information, including our Homeroom At Home website section on the Civil War.
My most recent trip last fall provided my family and I the opportunity to visit all the museums and venture out into the battlefields via double-decker tour bus. Thanks to the Gettysburg Tours, Inc. and Gettysburg Group Reservations, we had plans that suited each of us in our party. Gettysburg Group Reservations helped us (a family of four, not a school trip) with our destination needs and can provide the same assistance to your family, highlighting the hot spots or giving tips for traveling with young children, special needs members or older folks. Our day started with a Battlefield Bus Tour and was perfect for laying the foundation of the land and battle. We made stops at the Hall of Presidents & First Ladies, the Jennie Wade House Museum and Ghostly Images Legends & Showroom (an indoor ghost experience vs the ghost walking tours) all booked through Gettysburg Tours, Inc.
The other highlights of our trip included the Gettysburg Diorama & History Center and the Lincoln Train Museum with a simulator train ride. Please visit http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org as an additional resource to plan your visit to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.