While one may equate the state of Pennsylvania with the Revolutionary War (it was, after all, where daring American patriots drafted an act of treason against the British Crown, otherwise known as the Declaration of Independence), it was also the site of one of the most important and bloodiest encounters fought during the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Battle of Antietam in 1862 was fought in Maryland, the most northern state to date where fighting had taken place. Until then the Civil War had been primarily waged in the south. The Confederacy (the name of the southern states’ government) had long wanted its army to invade the north in order to deliver a blow against the thriving industrial commerce found there. While strategically speaking Antietam was considered a victory for the North, tactically speaking it was regarded as inconclusive. And so almost a year after the single bloodiest day in American history (it’s estimated that 23,000 soldiers on both sides died), the south had invaded the north again, this time crossing into Pennsylvania.
I had visited Gettysburg as a child with my family and had lackluster memories of that trip. I was a young girl of eight and so touring a musty old battlefield didn’t hold much interest to me. What I do vividly remember is tripping on a stone and scraping my knee near the statue of Major General Gouveneur K. Warren on Little Round Top, and not being allowed to visit the Jennie Wade museum, dedicated to the woman who was the only civilian killed during the battle. My parents didn’t think the museum was worth the cost and now as an adult, having toured enough small, overrated sites, they were probably right.
Thirteen years later I would visit Gettysburg again, older, wiser, and incredibly interested in history. My mom and I visited during the height of summer, only a short time after the 143rd anniversary of the battle. As is the case whenever I visit a historical attraction that is located in an extremely hot and humid area (Virginia’s Jamestown Colony might be the winner for this), I could never imagine wearing the clothing that people did at a certain time, especially soldiers fighting in a battle dressed in wool uniforms.
What is most haunting about Gettysburg is that it was a small town turned into a major battlefield where blood flowed rampant in its immediate aftermath. Areas with names like the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield were agricultural lands owned by the town’s citizens and yet were the sites of horrific fighting. While the war moved on after the battle, the town was forever etched into history, no longer the sleepy place it had been for dozens of years.
When one views the fields where Pickett’s Charge took place, it’s hard to envision this vast open stretch of greenery as being the site where the casualty rate of the Confederate Army was estimated at over fifty percent. Pickett’s Charge was an infantry assault ordered by the South against the North’s positions on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863, the last day of fighting at Gettysburg. The charge is named after Major General George Pickett, one of three Confederate generals who led the assault. Approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers in nine infantry brigades advanced over open fields for three quarters of a mile under heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. The South could not maintain its hold and retreated, thus ending the fighting at Gettysburg. Historians deem it one of the worst mistakes in warfare ever. Compared with how war is waged today, it’s hard to imagine brigades of soldiers, thousands of them, simply advancing to their deaths under volleys of fire, usually accomplishing nothing when compared with the loss of life.
What sets Gettysburg apart from other battlefields is its large number of memorials. In addition to the somber and haunting beauty found at Gettysburg National Cemetery, final home to thousands of soldiers killed during the battle in addition to being the site of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address, there are more than a dozen monuments found throughout the park. While the monuments vary in size and scope, they all honor the men who fought valiantly during the battle. To me it was always sad to see the memorials from southern states like Mississippi and Georgia, men who died so far from home, men whose bodies remained in unmarked graves following the war until decades later when money was raised to bring them home. Many were not the officers or men who came from wealthy families and large plantations, but were simply farmers who fought on the side of the state they lived in. For almost all of them, there wouldn’t have been any other way.
I do want to mention that should you travel to Gettysburg, I highly recommend staying at the historic Gettysburg Hotel (managed and operated by the Best Western Chain) which dates from 1797 when it first opened as a tavern. I stayed there on each of my visits and it’s simply a lovely spot in downtown Gettysburg within walking distance to all of the town’s shops and restaurants.