This post is about civil war history, but it’s also written as a memento for my youngest son to remember our trip by.
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream.
— Joshua Chamberlain at the Dedication of Maine Monuments, Gettysburg, PA, October 3, 1888
This past October 29, 2016, my friend Rich, my youngest son and I, visited the Gettysburg battlefield. It was a beautiful fall day for being outside. The temperature was perfect and the skies were clear. The autumn colors were near peak. It was a lovely day “to ponder and dream.”
Like with any meaningful place, there’s a unique spirit-of-place to Gettysburg that stills the soul and leaves a lingering presence, haunting the corners of your mind long after you’re gone.
The impetus for this particular trip had three things behind it:
First, my love for history and biography. I’ve read and learned a lot about the Civil War and the leading characters of this epic historical drama. The battle of Gettysburg was the biggest, mostly costliest battle ever fought in this hemisphere. At the end of 3 days of savagely intense fighting, there were upwards of 51,000 casualties between the two armies. Consider that just for a moment. Over an approximately 72 hour period, there were almost as many casualties incurred at the Battle of Gettysburg as there were U.S. troops killed (59,000) in the entire 10 years of the Vietnam War. For any student of American history, you can’t learn enough about the Civil War or what happened at Gettysburg and how it changed the direction of American history and the shape and trajectory of our nation leading up to the present. There are many great books out there, but I suggest you begin with the best. The Civil War historians Bruce Catton, Shelby Foote, and James M. McPherson have produced some of the finest literary histories ever written. Stephen Sears wrote one of the best, most comprehensive histories of the Gettysburg campaign. And who can forget the absolutely absorbing, pulitzer prize winning, historical novel by Michael Shaara, The Killer Angels, and the movie based on it. There’s a lot of great literature about the Civil War. Any aspiring writer can learn his or her craft just by reading Catton, Foote, and McPherson alone.
The study of war is so much more than a study of strategy, maneuvering, and the calculated application of violence. The history of warfare (as does all history) teaches us many things, but it’s an especially good tool for teaching leadership, whether it’s for the personal or professional domains of our lives. Violence, to be sure, is the shroud of war. But within this covering fabric is the vast interweaving of human qualities, both base and noble. To study and learn from this collision of circumstance and character is one of the best educations in human nature, human excellence, and human folly you’ll ever get. “History is,” Lord Bolingbroke once said, “philosophy teaching by example.” Hopefully this type of liberal education, as it was intended, inspires each of us to emulate the virtuous and the noble; to be guardians of civilization and civilized values. An education in any of the Liberal Arts is ultimately about improving the heart and mind, but historical study in particular provides the best laboratory for examining what human beings have actually done, said, and suffered. Literature, historical or otherwise, has the potential to greatly expand our empathetic and intellectual horizons. It’s a never ending journey of discovery. It has the potential to positively transform your life.
This brings me to a brief aside. I think it’s important to remember the great teachers of our life, those who helped form who we are today. I date the beginning of my lifelong fascination and love for history to my time in Donald Fuller’s history class at Kempsville Junior High School (now Kempsville Middle School) in Virginia Beach, Virginia. Don Fuller was a retired Naval Officer and teaching was his second career. He had a real passion for teaching and he really knew how to make history interesting and relevant to my understanding of the world. I can still remember how I’d approach him after class to get more details about a famous person, battle, or event that he’d discussed during class. He would take his time with me and often draw on the chalkboard to illustrate his point. I can still remember him drawing the details of Hannibal’s “bending bow” strategy at Cannae. He knew so many interesting things about the battle and the characters involved. I remember being fascinated by the depth and breath of his knowledge, and thinking to myself how I’d like to be that knowledgeable about history one day. I can still recall the sound of his unique voice. About a decade or so after attending his class, I visited him at Kempsville Junior HS, where he was still teaching. He remembered me at first sight and was glad to see me. We had a good long talk standing in the hallway. He was still the teacher, and I was still the admiring student. He was a big influence in my early life and certainly a big reason History has been one of the passions of my life. In its original Latin derivation, the word inspire means “to breath into,” and that is what Don Fuller did for me. He inspired me. I really admired him, and I will never forget him.
Secondly, I also wanted to visit Gettysburg because my good friend Rich had never been there, and he wanted to take some pictures (I didn’t know at the time, that another motive for Rich wanting to go was his secret mission to help get me out of the house so my lovely wife could prepare for my surprise birthday party, that afternoon, when we got home!). And lastly, but most importantly, I wanted to go to Gettysburg so I could spend some quality time with my youngest son, Seth. This would be his first trip to Gettysburg and hopefully one among many to historically significant places over his life.
Our first stop that morning, after touring the visitor center (where I bought my son a toy musket and canteen), was the federal army’s position along Cemetery Ridge. Union or federal army troops had retreated to this position (the high ground) and formed defensive lines during the 1st day of battle (It was a 3 day battle, July 1-3, 1863).
The battlefield, especially the federal army side, is replete with monuments and memorials. The largest and most impressive is the Pennsylvania memorial. All around the outer edge of this massive stone structure are large bronze tablets with the memorialized names of approximately 34,000 officers and soldiers from the Pennsylvania regiments that fought in the battle.
While walking around the Penn memorial, Seth and I discovered that it had an upper level for viewing the battlefield, so we headed up. My son was nervous about being up so high. He leaned against me protectively and held my hand tightly, as we climbed the narrow spiraling stairwell. As we continued up I heard his shaky voice, slightly strained with fear, say “I’m afraid of heights dad.” I’d never heard him say this before, so I pulled him closer and we continue up. We emerged onto a circular viewing platform and a magnificent view. From this position we were near the center of the federal army line. To our south the line runs to Little Round Top—the far left end of the federal army line— and then turning our gaze northeasterly, we saw Culp’s Hill, which is the far right end of the federal army line. Directly to our West was the confederate army position in a tree line along Seminary Ridge.
We lingered a little while and I took some pictures. We waved to Rich who was still in the parking lot below getting his camera equipment together. He took a picture of us waving from the top of the memorial. My son didn’t want to linger, so we walked around the memorial dome, taking in the view from all sides, and then headed back down.
We moved from the Penn memorial to another part of Cemetery Ridge known as the “bloody” Angle. This is the point confederate General Robert E. Lee focused his main attack on the afternoon of July 3rd at about 3 p.m. Known as Pickett’s Charge, it was comprised of between 13,000 and 15,000 men, mostly Virginians, and was ultimately repulsed (with over 50% casualties), but not before a brigade of Virginians led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead breached the federal line at the Angle. Armstead’s men fought bravely, but there simply wasn’t enough of them to exploit the breakthrough. There’s a plain stone marker at the spot where Armistead was hit and fell during the close quarter fighting. That spot is known as the High Watermark of the Confederacy.
I stood there staring at Armistead’s memorial stone, my glance moving from the stone to the vast distance beyond it, where Armistead’s men would have started out from, and imagined what Armistead must have been thinking and feeling that warm afternoon. Certainly Armistead had talked to his commander, Lieutenant General Pete Longstreet, who’d told General Lee during the planning of the assault, “It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”* Longstreet thought the attack was doomed from the start. Those feelings would have been hard to hide.
The attacking force would have to reach a fortified enemy position across roughly a mile of open ground under constant fire. I’m sure many southern boys looked out across that distance and thought: “WTF!” The task had to have seemed almost impossible to any observer, who could even roughly calculate the tons of subsonic flying lead that would abruptly penetrate the same space as thousands of men made of soft flesh, standing upright in the open, and marching in close columns directly towards a crescendo of increasing hot lead. But orders are orders and soldiers follow orders. Some might have argued, rightly, that up to this point Lee’s army had been consistently outnumbered in every battle and yet Lee continued to beat the yankees. Lee’s tactics, as costly as they might have been at times, had been working. True. And damn it, winning is something hard to argue with. Even so, I’m sure Longstreet felt the odds and the costs were too great to roll the dice on this one. So when Major General George Pickett asked if he could commence with the attack, Longstreet couldn’t muster a spoken word, he could only regretfully nod his assent. And so Pickett gave the order. His division (and elements of 2 others, Generals Trimble and Pettigrew) stepped out of the tree line, forming a battle line a mile wide, and began marching, flags and drums at full, over those gently undulating, but murderously menacing, fields toward an enemy waiting and prepared for them. The war’s most famous attack was now under way.
There was a small group visiting the Angle at about the same time we were. As I stood there looking at Armistead’s memorial, Seth leaned in toward me and whispered “Hey dad, that group is just standing there not moving, not saying anything. Look.” The entire group was standing completely still in meditative silence. I quietly explained to Seth that they were “paying their respects and honoring those who had given ‘the last full measure’…you know…gotten killed in the battle.” Seth and I joined the silence. For that brief time, we could only hear and feel the gentle breeze on our faces. Most of us, I’m sure, were imagining the chaos and emotions, the suffering and death, the sacrifices made, on that hot July day in 1863. We were letting history and our imaginations take us there. Remembering what happened here helps us to stop and reflect about what’s important. For those brief moments, the ghosts of Gettysburg communed with our reverent souls.
As we walked around the memorials at the Angle, Seth suddenly decided he wanted to sit in the grass and just talk. In that little guy voice came, “Come on dad let’s just sit down right here and talk and look around. I’m having such a great time with you.” Who could resist that! So we sat down in the grass and he talked, like little boys do, about what a good time he was having with me touring the battlefield. It was a precious moment I wanted to capture it in this post.
We finished up at the Angle and headed into town for lunch at the Appalachian Brewing Company. We were on a time schedule and couldn’t visit all the sites on the battlefield, so I decided our next stop would be the confederate army position on Seminary Ridge, which would be the position directly opposite of where we were just at. It’s good, I told Seth, to see the opposing view (in battle and in life) when you’re trying to understand a debate, battle, or conflict.
Seminary Ridge runs through a wooded area. The ridge isn’t a steep or high ridge, but a gentle rise. Of the many advantages the high ground provides, one of the best is that it extends the range of artillery. The first thing you come to along Confederate Avenue is a number of artillery pieces positioned behind a stone wall. From this position, and all up and down their position along the ridge, the confederate army launched the largest concentrated artillery attack in history up to that point. 150 artillery pieces fired on the federal forces at Cemetery ridge for about 2 straight hours. The barrage was intended to soften up the federal defenses in preparation for Pickett’s assault. (It didn’t work as expected, because the confederate artillerymen were mostly overshooting the federal position.)
We moved further down Confederate Avenue to the Virginia Monument. It’s a big statue of General Robert E. Lee on horseback facing the federal lines. Lee appears to be staring (regrettably) at the Bloody Angle in the far off distance. It’s the largest of the confederate memorials as far as I could tell. Let me note here, the confederate army doesn’t have that many memorials in comparison. As it was during the war, so it is in memorial, the Confederate Army remains outnumbered.
We saw a lone confederate reenactor walking along the road. I asked if we could get some pictures with him. The guy really played up the part. He seemed almost like the ghost of a confederate soldier wondering the field. He didn’t talk at all, he just nodded to our (and others) requests and stood silently for long periods while tourists took pictures.
Seth and I walked to the edge of the tree line, and I stood for a few moments looking out from roughly the spot where Pickett’s men would have emerged from the trees and into that gale of death. Lee had the exact same view. So again I asked myself, as I always have when visiting this spot, What the hell was Lee thinking? Lee pointed, we’re told, at what he called “a clump of trees” in the Angle on Cemetery Ridge and told Longstreet that Pickett’s troops should concentrate their attack on that point. We know what Longstreet was thinking. The odds were not good at all. Longstreet, in his post war memoir, says he desperately tried, on more than one occasion, to dissuade Lee from the attack. Longstreet didn’t think Gettysburg was the place to fight. He argued that the best plan would be to move around the federal army’s left flank, getting between the federals and Washington DC, and thus forcing the federal army to attack Lee’s position. Longstreet preferred to be on the defensive instead of the offensive. Longstreet had little confidence in being able to break the federal army’s position on Cemetery Ridge: “That’s [General] Hancock out there and he ain’t gonna run. So it’s mathematical after all…I don’t believe my boys will reach that wall.” Longstreet had seen this movie before—the federal army had made a similar charge against his Corp at Marye’s Heights, in Fredericksburg, VA, and it was a humiliating defeat for the federals. But destiny couldn’t be avoided. Pickett’s men would make that charge and the tide of the war, the momentum, would be turned on this decision.
As the remnants of Pickett’s (Trimble’s and Pettigrew’s) battered and broken division began a disorderly retreat back into the confederate lines, Lee is reported to have said “It’s all my fault.” And indeed it was all Lee’s fault. Lee knew Longstreet’s concerns were valid. But war, in Lee’s defense, especially if you’re the underdog, is about audacity and high stakes gambles. Lee certainly knew the odds, but decided to roll the dice anyway. Command is a weighty and very lonely responsibility. It was Lee’s decision, and his alone, to make. Lee had been winning with risky tactics and a good bit of audacity so far. He was hoping the run would continue. But it didn’t. It was, as Shelby Foote said, the stuff of Greek tragedy:
We go back to Greek tragedy now; the gods were leading him to destruction. That’s not an overstatement. He [General Lee] never would have made this greatest of all errors without these greatly encouraging things that were happening one after another. He was facing much shorter odds than he had at Chancellorsville, where he won a great victory. He was just being pulled along. I don’t claim that the gods made him mad in order to destroy him, but they did suck him in to committing this most grievous of all errors. It’s almost unbelievable that it can be so in tune with Greek tragedy, but it is.
After such a costly defeat, the only thing left for a good leader to do is take sole responsibility for what happened. And so Lee did: “I alone am to blame,” he told Confederate President Jefferson Davis, “in perhaps expecting too much of its [his army] prowess & valor.” As a number of historians have said, the failure of Pickett’s Charge—the Gettysburg campaign—was the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. This battlefield is the most visited battlefield in the nation, because it marks a major turning point in American history. Shelby Foote captured (And I’m quoting this from memory now) the essence of the Civil War: “The American Revolution was fought to decide what the nation would be, an independent republic. The Civil War was fought to decide what the nation would not be, a nation of slavery.”
We left the area of Pickett’s charge and continued (south) down Confederate Avenue, looking at a number of smaller monuments. My son was interested in all of them and kept pointing them out as we drove by. “There’s one dad, and there’s another small one in the woods dad…”. There aren’t any spots to get an imposing view of the battlefield from the confederate side, so the park service has built (one of many) the Longstreet Observation Tower. Seth and I slowly climbed the stairs to the top to get a good look. From this position, 75 feet high, you get a better picture of the topography and the tactical challenges that each army faced. Looking out, I pointed to and traced the federal army lines for Seth and for some others looking on. I then did the same for the confederate army lines. What’s drawn from this observation, besides the having the tactical advantage of higher ground, is the added advantage of better strategic positioning. Geography is often fate in war. The realization from this was how long the confederate lines (about 5 miles) were compared to the federal lines (maybe 2 miles).
Considering that the federal army (93,700) outnumbered the confederate army (70,100) that says a lot about what “staying on the offensive” can do. Lee attacked and attacked and kept his larger opponent on his heels. The big advantage for the federal army, beside having the high ground, was the ability to operate within those shorter, interior lines. The federal army could quickly reenforce positions under attack. Lee’s men had more ground to cover when repositioning or reenforcing. In war it’s celeritas, speed and swiftness, that gives critical advantage and often a glorious, sudden victory.
Which takes me to our last stop on our tour: Little Round Top (LRT). As we drove up the hill we could see, unlike everywhere else we’d been, the site was crowded with visitors. I parked right at the path leading to the position of federal army’s 20th Maine regiment. It’s here that Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 386 men of the 20th Maine, held off multiple assaults on July 2, 1863. For the federal army, LRT was the far left, the “end of the line,” there was nothing beyond Chamberlain and his men. They were it. They were to hold their position “at all costs.” If the 20th Maine failed, the entire federal army would be exposed to attack from the rear and its survival gravely compromised.
Since the battle was fought in July, the trees on LRT would have been full, providing some cover for advancing confederate troops. The confederate troops, made up of the 15th & 47th Alabama Regiments, had to attack uphill, through trees and over rocky ground, under steady fire. The initial confederate assault actually breached the federal position. A chaotic melee ensued. “The two lines met,” Joshua Chamberlain wrote, “and broke and mingled in the shock…The edge of conflict swayed to and fro, with wild whirlpools and eddies. At times I saw around me more of the the enemy than of my own men; gaps opening, swallowing, closing again with sharp convulsive energy; squads of stalwart men who had cut their way through us, disappearing as if translated.”
Before the war Chamberlain had been a professor of rhetoric at Bowdoin College, and as you can see he was a gifted writer. In this passage, from his essay Blood & Fire, he hits a darkly poetic stride describing a “lull in the mad carnival” on LRT:
All around, strange, mingled roar—shouts of defiance, rally, and desperation; and underneath, murmured entreaty and stifled moans; gasping prayers, snatches of Sabbath song, whispers of loved names; everywhere men torn and broken, staggering, creeping, quivering on the earth, and dead faces with strangely fixed eyes staring stark into the sky.
The initial confederate attack was eventually beaten back. After about an hour an a-half of fighting, a lot of it close quarter, LRT was littered with the bodies of confederate and federal troops. The 20th Maine was getting tired and low on ammunition. Things were getting desperate for Chamberlain and his men, and Chamberlain damn well knew it was make-or-break decision time. Chamberlain wasn’t exactly sure what he was facing in front of him—the strength and resources of the enemy regrouping for attack at the bottom of the hill—but he knew what was behind him: a path to victory for “the rebs.” He couldn’t give ground, he couldn’t retreat, or the entire federal army could face collapse. So considering the situation and that “the rebs have got to be getting tired too,” Chamberlain made a bold decision and ordered a charge down hill. The confederates weren’t expecting the counter-assault. Chamberlain’s counter-assault broke the confederate lines, sending many Alabamians fleeing and causing many others to be captured. This officially ended the confederate assault at LRT. Colonel Chamberlain would receive the Medal of Honor for his leadership and bravery at LRT.
Seth and I walked the position of the 20th Maine. We looked at the makeshift fortifications (low stone walls) that the Maine troops hastily built. We also noticed, via the outline of the fortifications, how the 20th was forced to keep moving to their left, fortifying their position again, as confederate troops kept trying to outflank them. Standing there looking down through the woods, LRT doesn’t seem that high really—it was, tactically speaking, the better position along LRT to assault. But then, I’m sure, the ghosts of those Alabama regiments might remind me that “It was high enough.”
We visited the 20th Maine Regimental Monument. The stone marker sits atop a large rock that served as cover for the defenders. The ground all around Gettysburg is strewn with small rocks and large boulders, but especially so on LRT. On the west side of LRT, the rocks are very large and provided a natural fortress for federal army troops overlooking Plum Run (or what it came to be called, “The Valley of Death”) down below. The south side of LRT (where the 20th Maine was) is lower and more open, but still has some large boulders and natural rock fortifications.
From the 20th Maine’s position we moved to the west side of LRT, where Michigan and New York Regiments held off attacking confederates surging forward from the Plum Run valley below. This area of LRT is more elevated and has a lot of large rock formations that provide a natural, almost medieval castle-like, defensive position. My first thought was “With 2 regiments of armed men behind rocks and elevated above their attackers it was bordering on suicidal to attack this position.” But attack the confederate army did. Texas and Alabama regiments threw themselves at these rocky heights, taking heavy casualties and were ultimately beaten back.
Many of the visitors (and of course Seth) climbed on the rocks in this area of LRT to get a good view of the battlefield. I had Seth sit on a rock for a picture. A spot where I’m sure federal troops stood to view Pickett’s charge, arrayed in those large sweeping columns, advancing across those open fields toward their fate.
During the late afternoon of July 2, the U.S. 4th Maine and the 99th Pennsylvania had an intense fight with confederate regiments from Georgia (2nd & 17th) and Alabama (44th) at what’s called the Devil’s Den, a group of large rock formations located in the Plum Run valley below LRT. Why the federals went down there for a fight is head shaking when you consider the almost impenetrable defensive position they held. But they did it anyway and took a real beating in the process and ended up retreating. I told Seth about the fight at “the Devil’s Den” and pointed to the unique rock formations in the valley below. Later on, he pointed to the Devil’s Den, and not being able to remember its exact name, asked me if we could visit “the rocks of hell.” “Yeah,” I said slowly and with a slight laugh, “that about captures it, son.”
This was our last stop and so we hung in the area for awhile taking pictures and taking in our final view of the battlefield. We weren’t able to see a lot of other places on the battlefield, but we got a good taste of it and, most of all, we enjoyed each other’s company. There’s a lot more to see at Gettysburg and I’m hope to bring my family back here next year. This trip was done and so we headed back home.
As we were leaving LRT we drove up over the peak and headed down the other side of the hill. As I slowed for a stop sign, I looked out over the battlefield one last time before turning toward the exit. Being a father of two sons, I couldn’t help thinking about all the young men who suffered and died here those 3 hot days in July of 1863. So many families would lose their loved ones that day.
I’ve always had a strong imagination. It’s been stocked by the large quantity of books I’ve read on the war and the many civil war movies I seen. I was also, many moons ago (as a teenager), a civil war reenactor—I still have the leather gear, uniforms, and musket to prove it. All during our tour of the battlefield, I could see and hear the battle in my mind. I could see the troops positioning for battle, the army units moving through the woods, forming up for attack. I could see the grayish black smoke filling the air. I could smell and taste the sulfur. I could hear the clanging sounds of metal cups and canteens as the soldiers stepped. I could hear the sergeants and officers barking orders and encouraging their troops, the sounds of drummer boys and buglers, the sudden burst, crackle, and echo of rifle and artillery fire from all over the battlefield.
I thank God we’re not living the reality of a civil war, but have been blessed to live in a great nation forged by the sacrifices of those who fought and died here at Gettysburg. Those “honored dead” who gave their “last full measure of devotion,” gave this nation “a new birth of freedom” which will continue to be our inheritance as long as we return to (and reverently remember) places like Gettysburg. We should “never forget what they did here,” and in remembering, reaffirm ourselves “to the unfinished work which they…so nobly advanced.” Liberty, democracy, equality, and good governance aren’t free or natural historically speaking. That’s one of the big lessons of history. Our history, in many ways, is one long struggle to improve our lives and improve our society. Progress is real, but it’s often slow and difficult and requires long term civic engagement. We have come a long way and done much, but the struggle for a more perfect union continues. Our duty is to stay forever vigilant, least we lose our way.
We come to battlefields like Gettysburg to commune with its ghosts. Because learning from history, feeling its significance in the present moment, allows us to feel those “mystic chords of memory” that bind us all together. It was also, in my case, a chance to create a great memory.