A couple weeks ago, I visited Gettysburg, PA, on the anniversary of the great Civil War battle that took place there 154 years ago. The town was rocked as the armies of Lee and Meade clashed in a three-days battle that would change the tide of the Civil War. It would also be one of the bloodiest, with 51,000 reported casualties in total. To say that Gettysburg is significant to our nation's history would be an understatement. It very well may have saved our nation from crumbling all those years ago. I spent two days in this historic area: the first day I biked around the battlefield and the second day I walked around and explored the town. But before I get into my experiences, here's a little background info on Gettysburg and the battle itself.
Gettysburg's history precedes the Civil War considerably. The settlement was founded in 1761 when Samuel Gettys, for whom the town is named after, established a tavern in the frontier country. By 1800, the town grew into a bustling community. Over the next 60 years, Gettysburg would be a hub for industry and education in the state of Pennsylvania. All of that would come to a halt July 1863. Below is a description of the events that followed during the Battle of Gettysburg.
The battle opens on McPherson Ridge at around 8 am on July 1, 1863. Union Cavalry Brig. Gen. John Buford engaged the mightier force of Confederate Brig. Gen. Joseph Davis, outnumbered nearly 2:1. While they were unsuccessful in stopping the enemy advance, they did manage to buy enough time for reinforcements to show up and assist their defense of the town. In only an hour of fighting, 2000 men were dead or wounded.
Below Oak Ridge, Major General Robert Rodes and 8000 Confederate troops prepared to advance. At noon, when the cannons fired, Brigadier General Alfred Iverson's North Carolina brigade marched toward Oak Ridge. Unbeknownst to them, Union troops were lying in wait behind stone walls lining the fields they were walking through. The Union troops caught the Confederates off-guard, capturing, killing, or wounding 800 of the 1470 North Carolina troops in the surprise attack. Despite heavy losses, the Confederates were able to force the Union to retreat back to Cemetery Ridge by the end of the day.
By mid-afternoon, over 5000 Union troops belonging to the 11th Corps formed a defensive position at Barlow Knoll. Confederate cannons opened fire and infantry emerged from the woods to charge the line. The Confederate force overwhelmed the Union, forcing them to retreat with haste and confusion. In total, the 11th Corps suffered nearly 3,000 casualties from this encounter. Major General Francis Barlow, whom the ridge is named after, was among the wounded. Confederate General John B. Gordon witnessed Barlow get shot while trying to rally his troops from retreat. After the scene of battle was over, Gordon came to Barlow's aid: "Quickly dismounting and lifting his head, I gave him water from my canteen, asked him his name and character of his wounds...I summoned several soldiers who were looking after the wounded, and directed them to place him upon a litter and carry him to the shade." Surprisingly, Barlow and Gordon would meet again fifteen years later at a dinner in Washington D.C., striking a friendship that would last the rest of their lives.
At the end of the first day, Confederate artillery and infantry occupied Seminary Ridge, in direct sight of the Union forces that occupied Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill.
Major General Daniel Sickles, commander of the 10,000-man Union 3rd Corps, moved from his position near Little Round Top to the Peach Orchard. Union artillery repulsed Confederate attacks during their advance by rapidly firing canister and grape shot into the enemy troops. At the end of the day, however, Confederate infantry successfully drove Sickle's army from their position and reclaimed the orchard.
By mid-afternoon, Brig. Gen. G.K. Warren dispatched troops to defend Little Round Top after discovering Confederate troops amassing in the woods. Union infantry of Col. Vincent's Brigade and the 140th NY out-rushed the Confederates to the position. Major General John Hood's Texan and Alabamian infantry were repulsed, but renewed the fight later in the afternoon. During the fight, both commanders of the Union infantries succumbed to mortal wounds, quite the price to pay to keep the high ground at the end of the day.
Confederate General Longstreet noticed that Union defenses along the Wheat Field were rather weak, and rallied his troops that afternoon to break their lines. For over two hours, a relentless battle raged on this ground. Union reinforcements quickly came to the aid of their counterparts and occupied the ready-made defenses lining the field. However, the Confederate forces soon surrounded the Union troops, who eventually sounded retreat. Over the course of the battle, the field changed hands six times, leaving over 4000 dead and wounded.
Late in the afternoon at the Peach Orchard, the Union line had a significant gap in its defense. Confederate infantry made haste to converge on the weak spot. The 1st Minnesota was the only regiment able to halt the rebel advance. Major General Winfield Hancock ordered the Minnesotans to fix bayonets and charge the Confederate line. This desperate move was successful in delaying the Confederates long enough for Union reinforcements to arrive, but at the cost of over 250 casualties (over 80% of the regiment).
At around 6 pm that evening, Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi Bridge charged the Federal position at the Peach Orchard and overwhelmed the Union in dramatic fashion. But the victory was short-lived, as the Union infantry mounted a counterattack which drove the Confederates back, killing Barksdale in the process.
At 1 pm, Confederate cannons on Seminary Ridge fired on the Union artillery line. For nearly two hours, 270 cannon from both sides fired relentlessly. At 3 pm, Confederate Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew, and Major Gens. Isaac Trimble and George Pickett organized their troops for a frontal assault on the believed-to-be weakened Union line.
With a battle line a mile long and 12,000 troops, Confederate troops advanced towards Cemetery Ridge across an open field. This began what is infamously known as Pickett's Charge. The Union line wasn't as nearly weakened as previously thought, and Union artillery opened up a hellstorm of canister shot and musket fire. Scores of Confederate troops were mowed down, but they kept on advancing. Some troops reached Cemetery Ridge, where vicious hand-to-hand combat ensued. While Confederate troops managed to occupy some positions along the ridge, casualties quickly mounted and they were forced to retreat back to their original position on Seminary Ridge by 4 pm. The failure of Pickett's Charge halted the Confederate tide and gave the Union a distinct advantage that would ultimately win them the battle.
One of the men in Pickett's Charge, Lt. Thomas Holland of the 28th VA Infantry, was severely wounded after being shot in the cheek on Cemetery Ridge. Out of the 88 men in his company, he was one of 81 listed as killed, wounded, or missing. Fortunately, Holland made a full recovery at a Union field hospital, and fifty years later, it is reported he met and shook hands with the Union soldier who shot him.
With the failure of Pickett's Charge, Lee's army was in tatters. On July 4, General Lee ordered a retreat from Gettysburg. In a heavy rain, the Confederate troops marched back to Virginia. And with that, the Civil War's bloodiest battle was over.
That's your basic summary of the battle. Believe me, for as long as you think that description might be, people have written books and directed movies on this stuff. There is much more info out there on the battle than what I'm providing, so if you have an interest in learning more, I urge you to check those resources out. And with that, here's my account from my two days in the town.
I started my biking journey early in the morning of July 1 without much of a game plan. I really just wanted to explore as much of the battlefield as possible, so I decided to follow the roads in and around the park . I began my trek from the Pennsylvania State and 1st Minnesota monuments, pedaling south along Hancock Avenue past the New York State Monument. On a side note, if you like monuments, then Gettysburg National Battlefield is the place for you. There are probably thousands scattered around the town and battlefield, lining the roads, marking the sites of historic encounters, and labeling the positions of numerous regiments.
I turned off of Hancock Ave. back onto the main road, passed by the Soldier's National Cemetery, and somehow wound up on the other side of the battlefield after about a half hour of pedaling. Like I said, I had no road map or route planned out...just went where the road took me. The place I ended up at is called Barlow Knoll, the site where Confederate General Jubal Early broke the Union defense on the first day of the battle to take the town.
I followed the road up to Oak Ridge and the Eternal Light Peace Memorial. Oak Ridge was the site of another Union position that crumbled on the first day of battle. The Peace Memorial was dedicated on the 75th anniversary of the battle in 1938. Nearly 1800 Union and Confederate veterans and over 200,000 people were present to witness President Franklin Delano Roosevelt dedicate the memorial.
I proceeded down Reynolds Avenue past the McPherson Barn and "The Cut." The Cut was an important location on the first day of battle. Confederate troops drove Union infantry back early in the morning of July 1, but a counterattack led by Lt. Col. Rufus Dawes and Col. Edward Fowler later in the day forced nearly 230 Confederate troops stuck in The Cut to surrender.
I continued to bike down the monument-lined path of Reynolds Avenue, turned onto Hagerstown Road, and then onto West Confederate Avenue. I passed by lots of reenactors on this stretch on my way to the North Carolina Memorial. Further down the road is the Virginia monument, and the site where Pickett's Charge began.
Near Pitzer Woods and Millerstown Road, I biked toward the Peach Orchard, which witnessed some of the bloodiest conflict during the battle. Not too far from there is Little Round Top and Devil's Den, two of the most iconic locations of the battle. By time I arrived at Little Round Top, I had been biking for nearly 5 hours and probably covered 35 miles in total. I decided to take a break and hike around the area. Scattered around the mountain are the remains of Union breastworks and defensive positions, which are very cool to explore. Little Round Top overlooks an area called "The Valley of Death." Thousands of soldiers on both sides fell on this rugged terrain trying to capture the high ground. Hard to imagine that a place like this witnessed such carnage 154 years ago.
Adjacent to Little Round Top and Devil's Den is the Wheat Field. This area saw numerous charges on the second day of battle, and mass casualties to go along with them. I finished the trip by looping back around to the Pennsylvania State Memorial. In all, I think I may have bike close to 45 miles in total over the course of 6 hours. As I said before, I didn't really have a set route to follow, although the route for the Auto Tour did aid me. It was hot and exhausting, but a wonderful experience to be able to explore the sights and learn the history of such a significant place.
I spent the second day of my trip to Gettysburg by touring the museums and walking around the town. I began day two at the Cyclorama and Visitor Center. Tickets for the video presentation and museum are $15 and well worth the price. The movie provided viewers with substantial background to the battle, first-hand accounts from soldiers and civilians, and the ramifications war had on a community. Plus, Morgan Freeman does the voice-over, and who doesn't like that?
After the presentation, we were directed upstairs to the Cyclorama: a massive 42' x 377' oil on canvas painting depicting Pickett's Charge. This amazing depiction of the battle was created in 1883 by French cyclorama artist Paul Philippoteaux and his five assistants. The painting is cylindrical and makes up the walls of the Cyclorama room, giving the observer a 360-degree view of the battle, as if they were directly in the middle of it themselves. And to think all of this was completed in about a year and a half's time is nothing short of incredible.
From the Cyclorama, I went to the visitor center museum. It has an insane amount of artifacts from the war. Drums, flags, uniforms...you name it, it's there. It will probably take an hour at least to get through it all, and if you're like me who likes to read the info and see each artifact, try two hours.
After I had seen all the visitor center had to offer, I walked along the pedestrian path to the Soldier's National Cemetery. This was the first national cemetery for soldiers in American history. Before then, it was customary after a battle for civilians to treat the wounded and bury the dead. That burden shifted to the national government after the battle of Gettysburg due to the size of and the destruction caused by the battle. The original 17-acre plot for the graveyard was acquired by David Wills four months after the battle and the cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863. Among those at the dedication was President Lincoln, who delivered his famous Gettysburg Address on that day. The approximate spot where Lincoln spoke can be seen inside the gates of the cemetery today.
Just outside of the cemetery is Cemetery Hill (rightfully named). This is the area where Union troops deflected a Confederate attack on their position at dusk on the second day of battle. About 2000 Confederate troops, aided by artillery fire, advanced up the hill at around 7 pm on July 2. What ensued was some of the most brutal hand-to-hand fighting of the battle. Confederate troops were able to break Union lines, but with the arrival of reinforcements, they had to retreat from the hill.
Down the road is the Jenny Wade house, named after the battle's only civilian casualty. On the morning of July 3, Jenny was preparing biscuits for Union soldiers on the picket line. Suddenly, a stray bullet pierced the kitchen door and struck her dead. It's amazing that a battle of this scale--which left 51,000 dead and wounded--would only claim one civilian in the fighting.
Among the bustling town square is the Wills House. Erected in 1814, this home belonged to David Wills at the time of the war. While Wills is known for purchasing the land for the national cemetery, he also hosted President Lincoln the night before he gave his Gettysburg Address. It is here where Lincoln produced the final draft of his famous speech. Tickets to visit the Wills House are $7. I'd highly recommend checking it out. There are many artifacts on display and you can even visit the room in which Lincoln stayed in.
Just past the square is the Gettysburg Railroad Depot. Constructed in 1858, this was the western-most line connected to Washington DC. When the battle commenced July 1, 1863, the depot was commandeered as an army hospital, and would stay as such for weeks after the battle. Today, the depot serves as a free museum describing Gettysburg's historical and industrial past. In fact, there are many free museums dispersed around Gettysburg, such as the Gettysburg Museum of History and the Schriver House.
The Schriver House was my last stop for the day. I, along with a few others in a group, toured the house, set up as it would have been in 1863. George Schriver enlisted in Cole's Calvary as a Sergeant at the outbreak of war. On New Year's Day 1864, he was captured by Mosby's Rangers in Virginia and sent to a POW camp in Andersonville, GA. He would not return home once the war was over. While he was off fighting, his wife, Hettie, occupied the home. When the battle broke out in Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers used the home for shelter and a sharpshooter position. You can still see the makeshift portholes in the attic to this day.
It was a busy two days, but I made it work and learned quite a lot on my journey! A weekend in Gettysburg really doesn't do much justice to capture the history and culture of the town...you'd probably have to spend a week just to scratch the surface! It was humbling to visit such hallowed ground--where hundreds of thousands of soldiers fought and tens of thousands fell, whose blood soaked the fields I walked in. If you haven't already, please go to Gettysburg at least once. You'll be in awe at how extensive this battlefield is and at the charming character of Old Town. I know this is a rather long post, but no length of words can describe such the place justly. Thanks for reading everyone!