American Road trip, Brian Moore, cannon, Cemetery Ridge, Civil War, Confederate, Devil's Den, General Lee, General Longstreet, General Meade, Gettysburg, Lancaster PA, Little Round Top, Novel, Pennsylvania, Re enactors, Rebel, Seminary Ridge, The Peach Orchard, The Wheat field, Union, USA, Writing, Yankee
I’d learned my lesson.
After yesterday’s ‘forced march’, I decided to use the car today while out on the battlefield.
On 2 July, 1863, both armies had settled on the ground where they would continue the slaughter. The Union lines led from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Ridge down to the Round Tops (two small hills) at the far end of the field.
The Union line looked like a large fish hook and facing this fish hook, from end to end, was the Army of Northern Virginia, ready on this second day to push the Yankees out of their positions and deliver the knock-out blow.
Well, that was the plan anyway.
‘Ol’ Bobby Lee’, as the Confederate General was known, decided to attack the left flank of the line and then, all going well, ‘roll up’ the Union defenses across the top of Seminary Ridge.
To do this, he sent Lt. General James Longstreet and his corps to take the Union position on Little Round Top. And that’s where I headed first.
Little Round Top is a rocky hill at the far end of the battlefield and as General Longstreet got his corps ready for the attack it was completely undefended.
Imagine, if you will, a hilltop covered with very large stones and boulders, not particularly steep but difficult terrain nonetheless. Early that morning, there had been over ten thousand Union troops positioned on this part of the line but their commanding general, Major-General Daniel Sickles, a Washington politician, didn’t like where his troops were. Without orders, he moved his entire corps (all 10,000) out of the excellent positions on the Round Tops and down into the area known as the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard and the aptly named Devil’s Den.
His corps, now completely exposed to the incredible fire of the Rebel guns, was soon decimated and the good Major General’s rash actions cost him a leg.
There were many Irishmen with Gen. Sickles in the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den that day. The famous Union Irish Brigade was there and like all good Irishmen they had a mass before they picked up their rifles and headed out to slaughter their fellow man.
Many of those waiting for the Irish Brigade were their fellow countrymen fighting for the Confederacy: men from Georgia, South Carolina, and Louisiana. In fact, most of the regiments on both sides had large numbers of Irishmen in their ranks.
Most of these men were born in Ireland and had been arriving in America from the early 1840s.
It seems no matter where we go we find it very easy to kill one another.
When I arrived at Little Round Top, I was struck by the size of the place. On maps you get the feeling that the area is large and has plenty of room to manoeuver. In reality, it’s like an open-topped box, narrow and deep. I could imagine the Rebels moving into position below while the Union soldiers could see every move they made.
Today, a bus tour of students from California are occupying the position and are climbing all over the boulders on Little Round Top; chasing one another and laughing, their teacher and guide trying in vain to get them to listen to the story of the battle for this hill over 150 years ago on this very day.
I can see the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den very clearly. While the Irish were fighting and dying down there, up here on Little Round Top, a passing Union General saw how exposed this part of the field was, thanks to Major-General Sickles. He also saw Gen. Longstreet moving his 1st corps into position getting ready to march unmolested up Little Round Top.
This General was an engineer and he knew that this position was the key to the entire Union line. Without waiting for orders, Gen. Warren moved two Union brigades into position on Little Round Top. What followed was described by one Confederate officer as ‘pure slaughter’, as again and again the Rebels smashed themselves against the well-prepared Yankees at the top of the boulder-strewn hill.
I sat on one of the boulders trying to imagine the struggling men making their way up the hill, shots ricocheting off the rocks, bayonets clashing and men clubbing each other to death.
As the sun went down on Little Round Top at the end of the second day, the dead and dying covered the hill top. But the position held.
I then went in search of the Irish Brigade Monument, which is down in the Wheatfield. Each unit has its own monument, placed where they saw action on the field, and each of the States that had men fighting here also have their own monuments. Some are small, a stone with the details of those units involved and perhaps a simple poem. Others are large, very large, with the Pennsylvania Monument dwarfing all the rest. This monument is bigger than most churches back home.
From the Irish Brigade Monument, I headed for the Gettysburg visitor centre and I can only use the word ‘spectacular’ to describe this building. Part museum, part theatre, this building contains everything from actual weapons and uniforms used at the battle, medical equipment, food stores left behind by the army, prayer books and letters to a 360-degree painting of the battle.
This mega painting is 366ft long (112m) and 47ft high (14.5m), and was created by French artist Paul Philippoteaux back in the 1880s. The painting is housed in a dome-shaped room and when you enter you are positioned as if in the middle of the battlefield. It is incredible.
My only regret is that I have no photos of this cyclorama as it is called. Flash photography isn’t allowed and you need the flash to get a good picture. However, here is a link to the Gettysburg Visitor Centre where you can see the painting in all its bloody detail.
Moving on, back out into the ever-increasing heat of the day, it was now touching 40 degrees C, (103 F) as per the thermometre on the wall outside the visitor centre and I had to get over to the other side of the battlefield to meet Gen. James Longstreet and Ranger Karlton Smith who was going to describe the trials the Confederate Lt. General had on that very day back in July ‘63.
I arrived at Gen. Longstreet’s statue to find that a large crowd had gathered. We all took cover out of the heat under the trees that surround the equestrian monument of the General and waited for Ranger Karlton to arrive. As I waited, more and more people arrived, all it seemed very eager to learn about one of the Confederacy’s most loved and sometimes hated characters. It seems everybody here was a fan of this rebel leader; like rock stars, each of the generals, from Lee, Longstreet and Hill to Meade, Reynolds and Buford all have their own fan clubs with a loyal and dedicated bunch of followers.
The lecture began and Ranger Karlton’s first words were ominous. ‘It’s 103 degrees, folks, and I’ve just been given a severe storm warning. So, if you see lightning, don’t wait, head for your car immediately.’
‘Crikey! That’s a bit OTT,’ I thought, as I quickly outlined in my mind the quickest route to my car.
The lecture got underway. All was going well and Ranger Karlton was indeed a mine of information concerning the good General. But the atmosphere seemed to have changed in the last few minutes. The welcoming breeze that was rustling its way through the trees was gone. There was no more bird song. In fact, the only sound now was Ranger Karlton as he described the moments before the battle for Little Round Top ignited.
‘First Corp was in place finally, and the Texas Division under General Hood stepped out and began to climb the hill. Suddenly, the cannonade began…,’ Ranger Karlton said with a sweep of his hand towards the horizon.
There was a blinding flash and a clap of thunder, the likes of which I have never heard before. I swear I felt the ground shake.
‘Ok, ladies and gentlemen, that’s it, head for your cars now, please,’ Ranger Karlton said.
The lecture was over. One joker called out ‘But, who won?’ I laughed along but when another flash of lightning struck and thunder echoed across the battlefield, I decided it was indeed time to go.
It was apt, really, that my second day on the battlefield ended like this, with flashes of light and a thundering roar. Tomorrow I would be back again for tales of more slaughter and heroism and to stand at the site where General Lee and his army rolled the deadly dice one last time.