American Road trip, Brian Moore, Cemetery Ridge, Civil War, Confederate, General Lee, General Meade, General Reynolds Re-enactors, Gettysburg, Lancaster PA, McPherson's Ridge, Novel, Pennsylvania, Seminary Ridge, USA, Writing, Yankee
When I was planning this trip, Gettysburg was the point at which I started.
There’s something very special about this small Pennsylvanian town. Aside from the tens of thousands that died here, the town seems to have been created with its history in mind.
You couldn’t ask for a better place to fight a 19th-century battle.
When General Robert E. Lee decided to take the fight into the heart of the Union, all the roads, literally, led to Gettysburg. While the Confederate and the Federal generals never set out to fight at the Pennsylvanian crossroads town, history and fate seemed to draw both armies to this small patch of rolling land just north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
Now, I’m not going to go all history geek on you but to tell you about my experiences at Gettysburg we have to set the scene.
First some stats; this was, in every sense, an epic battle. General Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia arrived with nearly 72,000 soldiers.
Three days later, when his battered army limped back into Virginia, over 23,500 men were dead, wounded or missing.
With the Union army under the command of newly promoted General George Meade, who took the field with almost 94,000 men of the Army of the Potomac, there were over 165,000 soldiers facing off on a battlefield where you could see from one end to the other.
Union losses amounted to more than 23,000 dead, wounded or missing.
That’s a total of some 46,500 casualties.
Let’s put this in perspective. The current strength of the Irish Defense Forces stands at 16,200. This includes the army, navy, air corps, plus the reserve army and navy personnel.
Can you see in your mind’s eye the carnage the people of the town of Gettysburg witnessed when they returned to their homes?
It took many years for the town to be cleansed of all the death and destruction. Imagine this if you can. The number of dead soldiers lying where they fell was truly horrific so they were buried as quickly as possible. Every time it rained, these mass graves would be exposed to the elements again (in their haste to dispose of the bodies, the grave diggers didn’t dig too deeply). It was long after the battle by the time all the bodies were exhumed and properly buried in cemeteries.
There were 6,000 horses killed at Gettysburg.
These were gathered up and burned. Can you imagine the smell?
So, my story begins at the Travelodge Motel where I was staying for three days. I parked the car and decided that I would walk from the motel to McPherson’s Ridge, where the first shots were fired on 1 July, 1863.
The distance is about two miles and the terrain is very flat, except for the slight rise as you get to Seminary Ridge. That’s the topography of Gettysburg, and the battlefield, if you look at it side-on, is like a line of waves. These dips are bordered by two ridges: Seminary Ridge held by the Confederates and Cemetery Ridge held by the Federal forces.
I set off on this two-mile trek armed with my notebook, pen, small camera and a bottle of water. About 150 yards into the journey, I remember thinking ‘Boy, it’s hot…’
The temperature was in fact 31C, or 88F if you prefer. This was almost as hot as 1 July, 1863.
Almost, but not quite; when the first shots were fired, the temperature was a toasty 35C (95F).
I walked on. At about the half-mile point, I was covered in sweat and fading fast. My water was gone and I started to leap-frog from one shady spot to the next.
I found a shop and bought two bottles of water, took a deep breath and headed out again.
After what seemed like a marathon (I have never run a marathon so I’m only guessing here), I arrived at McPherson’s Ridge just in time to see a group of Confederate re-enactors marching by in full uniforms, flags flying; with bayonets shining in the sunlight, they looked every part the invading army.
I had to rest. I could hear my heart in my ears and I must have looked like someone who had just stepped out of the shower. I saw a park bench and sat down.
I wish I hadn’t.
It was like a hot plate. I could have cooked on it. I sat there. I wanted to get up, but I needed to sit down. I must have looked like a piece of bacon on a frying pan jumping about in the hot oil.
Then one of the Confederates asked me if I was ok.
‘I’m grand,’ I said, in my best Irish brogue. ‘It’s just this heat, how do you function in a climate like this with that, what is it, woolen uniform and all that equipment?’ I asked.
My rebel friend just smiled and said, ‘Yeah, it’s all wool, including the trousers. And it gets as hot as hell, but you get used to it. You take care now,’ he said as he returned to the ranks and his waiting comrades.
This got me thinking. I followed the route taken by the 1st Corp of the Union army as they raced to stop the rebels at Seminary Ridge. That is, I did two miles of the route; the Union soldiers marched, not walked, 20 miles in full uniforms, carrying 15kg (33lb) packs, rifles and ammunition.
And then, after that forced march in this heat, they fought and died for over twelve hours.
I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts and carrying two bottles of water, and all I wanted to do was curl up in a shady place and sleep.
In fairness, they were litre bottles of water and very awkward to carry.
Of course, there is another factor to consider; a fact that I have my re-enactor friends to thank for. Later that day, as I was discussing how amazed I was at the abilities of the soldiers on both sides to march and fight in this heat, one confederate from Georgia told me that with the woolen uniform you sweat like ‘ a stoker on the Titanic’. Still, that wasn’t the worst of it.
What happens to wool when it gets wet?
That’s right…it gets heavy.
How did they do it?
As my first day drew to a close, I knew I had to walk back to the motel. At least the sun was beginning to lose some of its heat now and the shadows were much longer giving me more shade on the way back.
But before I left Seminary Ridge, I walked out into the middle of the field between the two lines.
Standing there, in this spot where so many men fought and slaughtered each other, it suddenly became very quiet. I could see the people and traffic on either ridge but here in the middle, in one of the dips, it felt peaceful and safe.
I can’t explain it. It was as if I had entered a sacred place. Like a church or a grave yard. And I suppose, in a way, this place could be regarded as both.