Thursday, January 08, 2009


In which we visit the site of the battle that turned the tide

Winter is, I think, the best time to visit the site of the great Battle of Gettysburg. Though the battle took place on a hot summer's day, the Pennsylvania wintertime, with its slanted light that gleams through the spidery branches of the slumbering trees, offers the hallowed feel of the inside of a great cathedral. One cannot help but feel reverence here, especially at this time of year.
Of the 165,620 men who fought at Gettysburg, on both the Union and Confederate sides, between July 1 and July 4, 1863, 7,863 were killed outright, 27,224 were wounded (many to die of their wounds later) and 11,199 went missing or were captured. The National Park Service's Gettysburg National Military Park is a fitting memorial to their sacrifice.

You enter the park through the spiffy new Visitor's Center, where helpful park volunteers show you the various tours and educational offerings available. Be sure and see the multimedia film presentation and by all means don't miss the Gettysburg Cyclorama. This is a massive, 540-foot long circular canvas painted by the French artist, Paul Philippoteaux, in the 1880s. It depicts the battle at the time of Pickett's Charge and includes more than 20,000 painted characters. A brief but moving presentation of changing light and sound takes viewers through the battle and the painting, highlighting many of its details. Apparently, cycloramas like these were a popular form of entertainment in the 1800s -- the iMax of the Victorian age, if you will. It was said that when veteran survivors of the battle first viewed the Cyclorama, many broke down and wept. I can see why.

After the Cyclorama presentation, visitors are ushered into the museum, which takes you through the political issues at stake, traces the saga of the war and then goes into detail about the battle and the lives of some of its key participants. Both the multimedia presentation at the beginning and the opening exhibits in the museum stress, rightly, the centrality of the slavery issue as the lead cause of the war. It's very fashionable today among some to say that the Civil War was not really about slavery; that there were other issues more pertinent, such as tariffs. But, as I once heard historian and documentary film maker, Ken Burns, say during a radio interview in which he was asked this question (and I paraphrase): "The Civil War was absolutely about slavery. It was the central issue of the time and the thing that tore the Union apart. In order to preserve the Union, slavery had to end."

But one can only see so many Sharp's Carbines, cavalry sabres and sets of epaulets before one grows weary, so we sped through the latter half of the museum and headed out to the battlefield, recently restored "as closely as possible" to its 1863 appearance. The Battlefield at Gettysburg is huge, stretching for miles. You would need days, a backpack, a tent and a good pair of hiking boots to see it all on foot. The self-guided auto tour is best. This snakes around some 14 miles of road to all the various points of interest -- Little Round Top, Devil's Den, Culp's Hill, the Bloody Wheatfield and so on.

Be sure to stop at the Lee statue. There, you can you can look directly across to where General Mead sat his horse -- and see the depression in the ground across which Lee flung his men in the gambit that would one day come to be known as Pickett's Charge, Lee's last, desperate -- and ultimately futile -- attempt to win the day for Old Dix. You can see what a horrible cauldron of death this shallow little depression in the ground must have become that day as Pickett's doomed men trudged slowly through the smoke and heat into the withering fire of Union rifle and canon. Food for powder.

Along the route, each unit, Blue and Gray alike, has its own monument, a tribute to the honor, courage and sacrifice of the men who fought and fell.

So moving in the eerie winter's twilight.


Blogger Mike said...

Traveler --
I really liked your report on Philly -- especially on Gettysburg. I have a friend who lives near there and he keeps asking me to come on back -- I guess I'll have to really think it. Also, yer report on Irish pubs brings to mind a new "Irish" pub is opening soon in Sactown and it will be interesting to learn if it's the real blarney and just some Irish hype.

10:27 PM  
Blogger Mike said...

My friend, that picture of the cannon is excellent. Sunrise or sunset?

7:24 PM  
Blogger M2 said...

Sunset. I'm usually still drunk at sunrise.

11:17 AM  

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