Civil War 150th anniversary: Is Gettysburg America’s most tragic little town?

For this 150th anniversary of the Civil War, which begins in April, Gettysburg is offering visitors a far better time than the Blue and Gray soldiers had in this Pennsylvania town. The Battle of Gettysburg (1863) was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, a turning point that transformed General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate forces from the chasers to the chased. But today, as the sesquicentennial approaches, the only chaser I find in Gettysburg is the water alongside my scotch at the Dobbin House Tavern.

The old Dobbin House offers lodgings as well as dining, so between this place, the 19th-century Gaslight Inn (fab breakfasts, Yorkie bellman), the Gettysburg Hotel (a member of Historic Hotels of America), and more, this walkable town is a swell place for a romantic weekend. Or for family visits, what with the Land of Little Horses Farm Park, anniversary events that include re-enactments, American Civil War Museum (good wax figure tableaus, bad hairpieces), and General Pickett’s All-You-Can-Eat Buffet (“KIDS PRICES TOO!”). Or for offbeat sightseeing, thanks to various ghost tour operators, segway tours, the Victorian Photography Studio (you’ll look swell in a bustle), and shops like The Horse Soldier, where I’m tempted by a flintlock pistol that costs $41,250. Mind you, it’s a beautiful pistol.The What-if Questions
But amid this mix of antiques and kitsch, let us not, as Abraham Lincoln put it in his Gettysburg Address, forget what they did here: In July 1863, an accidental encounter escalated into a bloodbath with 165,000+ troops. After three days of thunderous fire and hand-to-hand combat, 23,000 Union soldiers were dead, wounded and maimed, or unaccounted for. Lee’s formerly victorious Confederate Army of North Virginia lost at least 28,000 troops — one third of its manpower – and, in effect, the war.

So despite its pleasures, Gettysburg strikes me as a somber place, one where a modern traveler whose idea of discomfort is a flight delay can contemplate the real suffering and courage of the men who fought here. Gettysburg inspires what-if questions, too; e.g., if the battle had gone the other way (and it almost did), when/how might slavery have ended?

The town is almost surrounded by Gettysburg National Military Park (pop. 8,100), with its split-rail fences and gently rolling farmland. How to imagine this peaceful expanse covered with noise and corpses? Start at the park Museum and Visitor Center, where a Gettysburg How-To film offers a solid orientation to the town and battlefield. The Visitor Center will also arrange tours of the battlefield as well as visits to the nearby Eisenhower National Historic Site.

Shackles and Knapsacks
But first spend a few hours at the Visitor Center museum. Paul Philippoteaux’s cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge (1884), a 377-foot(!) painting in the round, is famous for both its size and its excruciatingly detailed portrayal of the climax of the battle. The best part of the museum, though, is its 12 galleries, which employ weapons, posters, photographs, uniforms, voiceovers, computers, and maps to tell the story of this battle and the entire war. You lift a set of shackles, and later, a soldier’s knapsack. Heavy, everything was heavy.

Much of the gear was rudimentary, too; not for nothing were the hastily made uniforms called sack coats. A soldier’s tent reveals what a poor shelter it was. And the rifles: It took nine steps to reload some of them, so once a soldier had shot one bullet, his rifle was, in effect, a club or a bayonet holder. Desperate troops shot, stabbed, and clubbed other Americans here. I read a sentence from an 1863 newspaper: “Every name [of a fallen soldier] is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some home and falls a long black shadow upon some hearthstone.”

After visiting the museum, you might pick up a (free) map for a self-guided auto tour of the battlefield, but do that after you’ve gone around with a licensed guide. The two-hour $55 private tour with a guide is the best deal in Gettysburg. You get your own historian, someone whose knowledge and anecdotes will not just make sense of this chaotic battle, but leave you wanting more.

The Accidental Battle of Gettysburg
It was west of the town, near the Lutheran Theological Seminary, that Rebel brigades stumbled upon Union troops on July 1, 1863. Hard to believe that there was fierce fighting around this quiet, brick seminary, but it was fierce indeed. Suddenly suffering heavy casualties, both sides used the building as a hospital that day. General Lee was no fan of Union General Sherman’s scorched earth tactics, which is why Gettysburg’s buildings were not destroyed when the Confederates chased the Federals through the streets. Eventually, the Blue line retreated to Cemetery hill, southeast of town.

Reinforcements arrived for both sides, so heading south through the battlefield on Steinwehr Avenue aka Emmitsburg Road, you see cannon — and plenty of them – that the Rebels had in place by July 2nd. Look to the northeast, and there’s Cemetery Hill; pan to the southeast, and you’re following Cemetery Ridge to a hill called Little Round Top. This was the Union line.

When you drive to Little Round Top, stand on its boulders, and peer down at the fields, you understand that General Meade’s Federal troops, forced to retreat, had lucked into a more defensible position. Even so, on July 2nd, Union defenders lost thousands of men in the wheat field and peach orchard below Little Round Top. Standing watch at Little Round Top is a bronze statue of General Gouverneur K. Warren, who saved the day for the Union by moving reinforcements from behind the line to shore up the exhausted troops. That night, both armies were kept awake by the moaning and crying of wounded men in the fields that separated them, just yards away.

Pickett’s Charge: a Rebel’s Gamble
Midway along the Union line looms the largest of the 1,400 monuments in the park, a dome-topped temple erected by Pennsylvania. But a smaller monument honoring one Philadelphia regiment is more dramatic: A bronze soldier, protecting a comrade, holds his rifle like a Louisville Slugger and swings for the fences.

Pickett’s Charge is often viewed as a high-risk dash across open ground by southern troops who, by July 3rd, felt frustrated by their failure to have dislodged Federal troops from the high ground. Standing north of the Pennsylvania monument and looking west across the fields, you’re reminded that this is actually undulating land, so the Rebels had some protection. Besides, Pickett’s 12,000 troops were attacking the weak belly of the Union line, just 7,000 northerners near a copse on the ridge. Even so, Pickett was gambling, and the Federals shot thousands of Confederates in these green fields before the inevitable hand-to-hand combat. In two hours Pickett lost half his men, the farmland was covered with the dead and dying, and the Confederates had to retreat.

Further north lies the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where 6,000 graves are arranged in sweeping arcs. Some of the dead are forever nameless, but I notice the marker of an Ohioan named George Nixon, father of nine children. I wonder what became of that orphaned family. Guide Wayne Motts tells me that one descendant was Richard M. Nixon.

The Gettysburg Address — But Where?
An obelisk indicates where Lincoln stood when he dedicated the cemetery on Nov. 19, 1863, but historians believe it is misplaced. You see, his Gettysburg Address was so short (ten sentences) that the photographers never got a chance to document exactly where he stood.

The president’s beloved son Tad was dying of yellow fever, and Lincoln, who had a fever, may have been fighting the disease. His wife had begged him not to travel. Yet he went, because he needed to urge a war-weary nation to stay the course, so “these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.” That it did, but not before this young country had lost 602,000 soldiers. (In World War II, the U.S. lost 417,000.)

And so we go to Gettysburg, not only for its gracious inns, shops, and such, but to remember the brave men who struggled here, without whom this nation, and probably this planet, would have been a very different place.