Gettysburg: The Battle that Saved the Nation


But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate...we cannot consecrate...we cannot hallow...this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here,
have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
--President Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863

The bronze bust is of Medal of Honor recipient Major General Joshua L. Chamberlain, who is credited with changing the course of the Civil War at the Battle of Gettysburg and who received the formal surrender of Confederate forces at Appomattox Court House on April 12, 1865.







Frank Lloyd Wright

Gettysburg is hallowed ground.

What many people don't understand about the battle is that the entire town and the surrounding fields and farms ARE the battlefield. Union troops withdrew through the town at the end of the first day of the battle. Confederate troops at the height of the battle on July 2, 1863, had wrapped around the southwest (left) and northeast (right) flanks of the Union line, threatening to encircle and besiege McClellan's forces. Ewell's line of battle ran through the center of town.

Gettysburg is hallowed ground.

When you see contemporary lithographs from Gettysburg, quite often you see an arch in the print. The arch marks the entrance to Evergreen Cemetery, whence the name of Cemetery Hill.

The Gettysburg National Cemetery occupies land purchased from the Evergreen Cemetery Society for the purposes of burying the Union dead from the battle; later, it was opened to qualifying veterans of military campaigns through Vietnam and their spouses and dependent children. The only remaining plots available for use are designated for dependents of veterans buried before the cemetery closed in 1972. The picture above is of the Soldiers' National Monument, which occupies the center of a semicircular copse containing the graves of 3,555 soldiers - mostly Union - who died at Gettysburg. The Unknown section contains 979 graves; New York state lost the most soldiers on the field of any Union state.

Confederate soldiers were buried with great respect but no individual markers after the battle. After the war, over 3,000 bodies were transferred to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia for proper interment. Despite the best efforts of the local mortician and his dedicated crew to guarantee that "no Confederates are buried in this cemetery," there are at least 9 known Confederate soldiers in the National Cemetery, including the one below. Apparently, he was originally identified as being from Massachusetts, but a record search in the 1960's or 70's showed no one by the name of J. L. Johnson ever served with Massachusetts troops. There was, however, a J. L. Johnson in a Mississippi unit listed as killed in action at Gettysburg. If you look closely, you can see the MS stenciled in on the unit line in recognition of this new knowledge.

Did you know that Richard Nixon's great-grandfather fought and died at Gettysburg? Me, neither. But he did, and he's buried in the cemetery with the other dead soldiers from Ohio. He left nine children and a wife behind - one of those nine moved to California and had a son who had a son who was Richard Milhous Nixon.

Once I had seen the museum at the Visitor's Center and taken the cemetery tour, it was time to get an overview of the battlefield itself. I decided, given that I was only there for the day, to do the self-guided auto tour. Someday, I'll go back with at least one or two other people and get a licensed guide, but for me this trip, the signs and monuments were enough to get me through.

The tour starts at McPherson Ridge, where the battle started on July 1, 1863. This high ground to the northwest of the town became the first battleground in the area when Confederate forces under General Henry Heth met Union forces under Major General John Fulton Reynolds - the highest ranking officer to die in the entire battle and the first commander to die. Late in the day, General Abner Doubleday (of Ft. Sumter and baseball fame) ordered his new command to retreat fighting as General Richard Ewell's fresh Confederate forces swarmed the Union troops from three sides.

Fighting that day extended to the northeast along Oak Ridge, as well. At the northernmost point of the battle lines, veterans established a peace monument with an eternal flame. The daytime pictures of the monument didn't work, but this view of the battlefield from the north looking down the ridges toward Little and Big Round Tops (behind the trees on the left) shows the extent of the ground covered during those three days:

This picture is taken from the observation tower at Oak Ridge looking back into Gettysburg, roughly along the Union line of retreat. The buildings at the edge of town are on the campus of Gettysburg College.

Coming back along Seminary Ridge (so named because of Luther Seminary), the fighting intensifies on the second day. Individual state monuments mark places where units of militia fought. Being a native daughter of North Carolina, I naturally had to take this picture of their monument, with the main battlefield in the background:

Moving around the lines of battle, you come to a view of Little Round Top (on the left) and Big Round Top (on the right). Heavy fighting on the slope of Little Round Top and in the ravine in front of it, called "The Valley of Death", made this one of the deadliest places to be during the entire battle. In the second picture, taken from Little Round Top, you can see the Devil's Den of rocks where Confederate sharpshooters hid to harass Union forces in and below Little Round Top as well as "The Valley of Death" between.

The most prominent monument on the battlefield is that of the Pennsylvania Militia, situated roughly in the middle of the Union lines and visible from almost the entire southern half of the lines of battle. The center of the Union line held on the second day because of very brave artillery men who fought unguarded while troops all around them struggled to hold ground in the face of the charging Confederate forces.

At the eastern edge of the battlefield, Union forces fought and held overnight an outcropping of rocks. Their actions at Spangler's Spring prevented Confederate forces from penetrating the Union lines and encircling part of all of the Union line of battle.

The Confederate charge on day 2 didn't succeed, but it did force Union troops back for a second day. General George Meade, commander of the Union forces, determined that General Robert E. Lee's forces couldn't sustain another day's battle like day 2. Rather than retreat from the battle, Meade and his generals decided to hold the line and prepare for another assault on their lines

The third day included what has probably been the most famous part of the Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge. My world history and government teacher in high school was a nephew several times removed of General George Pickett, whose men reached "The Highwater Mark of the Confederacy" during the charge. The Visitor Center and Cyclorama occupy that point now. Pickett's Charge failed; Lee knew that he could not justify further fighting and ordered his troops to disengage. Confederate forces retreated for the next two days in cold, pouring rain, leaving almost 28,000 dead, wounded, missing and captured behind out of his 70,000 men. On the Union side, 93,000 men began the battle; 23,000 were dead, wounded, missing, or captured at the end of the day on July 3.

President Lincoln didn't expect his speech on November 19, 1863, to be remembered. He wasn't the keynote speaker at the dedication of the cemetery. He was there primarily for the press attention, knowing that his appearance would further his unflagging attempts to bolster morale around the country as the tide continued to turn toward victory for the Union.

He didn't count on the effect of his words overseas. Foreign journalists made sure to get news of his short but powerful speech to their papers, which printed extensive coverage of the dedication. France and England, which had been ready to side officially with the Confederacy, instead remained neutral throughout the war in part because of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

One of the most moving monuments in the National Cemetery is a bronze reproduction of Lincoln's handwritten address, one part of which is a fitting closing to this site - at least until I go back and do the whole thing in more detail!


Home Tourist Blog The Shrubbery