The Ghosts of Gettysburg
Almost one hundred and fifty year later, I too stood at the tree line on Seminary Ridge where General Robert E Lee, the brilliant tactician of the American Civil War, and one of most popular generals in history, directed the most vital battle. I looked out over the same wheat field towards Cemetery Ridge. The same ridge he sent 12,000 Confederate troops to attack, in what later became to be known as Pickett’s Charge. 5,000 men became casualties in less than an hour trying to cross these one and a half kilometres of open field into a hail of cannon fire and against a smaller but well-fortified and well-armed Union Army. This wheat field became the site of one of the bloodiest battles of that most tragic of wars, and the battle that marked the first major defeat of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia and ultimately led to the fall of the Confederacy.
The valley is now peaceful, save for the breeze stirring the trees and quiet reverential murmur of pilgrims. Most are pilgrims, and not tourists, for Gettysburg Battlefield has become a sacred site. A site where military buffs, and school children on excursions, arrive excitedly, but soon fall silent, quickly overcome by the quiet significance of where they are, and by the spirits of their ancestors, the 51, 000 men from both sides who were killed or wounded in three days of fierce fighting, in a war where brothers and cousins and best friends were often on opposite sides. Many of the opposing officers had been cadets together at West Point Military Academy under its commander, Robert E Lee, only a few short years before, and now witnessed acts of immense bravery and absurd courtesy being played out against the most appalling savagery of relentless cannon fire and bloody hand to hand combat.
General Lee’ army was headed north after a decisive victory at Fredericksburg and almost by accident came across the Union Army of the Potomac, lead at this time by General George Meade, at the small village of Gettysburg, in rural Pennsylvania. Lee’s cavalry, his scouting corps, lead by General JEB Stuart, was away raiding and Lee had no way of knowing the Union Army’s whereabouts or strength until they met on June 30th. The armies formed their forces into two long rows on opposite sides of the valley at the edge of the town; the Confederates on Seminary Ridge and the Union on Cemetery Ridge. They began fighting the next day and for three days the areas known as McPherson Ridge, Little Round Top, Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Culp’s Hill, Devil’s Den, Plum Run and Oak Ridge echoed to sounds of cannon and gunfire as scenes of horrendous slaughter unfolded.
On the final day, General Lee, who had been extremely unwell with heart problems, made one of the few poor decisions of his long and distinguished military career. He and Confederate Lt. General James Longstreet argued over the wisdom of attacking the centre of the Union lines across the open field, but Lee won out, confident they could achieve success after a sustained cannon battery. The Confederate artillery pounded Cemetery Ridge for two hours and then Lee’s force of 12,000 Confederates marched in long lines into what became a dreadful massacre in the open wheat field. They fell, still in line, as if being were mown down by an giant invisible scythe. Some of his men did manage to cross the killing field, even reached the Union lines, but they were repeatedly driven back by the 7,000 well-established Union soldiers. From his position on the ridge General Lee could do nothing but watch helplessly as countless troops, hundreds of officers and even several generals fell like so many sheaves of wheat on that decisive day.
The National Park Service now maintains the battlefield as close as possible to the way it was at the time. Many original cannon, fences and buildings have been replaced and restored and the original stone barricades built by the Union Army are still visible.
The local farmers who lease the fields are restricted as to how they bale the hay and work the land, and modern roads are situated so that the landscape as seen by General Lee, General Meade and by the soldiers who fought on this very ground would still be recognizable to them.
The Park Service also runs a Visitor Centre and the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War, an engrossing museum of artefacts, uniforms and weapons from the war. It is here that visitors can book licensed battlefield guides who are available to drive your car for a tour and explain in detail the history of Gettysburg. My guide, Kurt, a retired Pittsburgh cop, and a man obviously born in the wrong century, had an infectious appreciation for his new chosen profession and filled two hours with endless enthusiasm and an encyclopaedic knowledge of the landscape, the commanders, the men and the conditions.
His tour went by in what seemed like minutes and left me with a quiet and overwhelming sense of sadness. It took little imagination – for all you need do is squint and to look out across the golden landscape toward the lines of restored cannon on the horizon to see the long, long lines grey uniforms once again advancing through the rolling wheat field into the smoke, and to hear the pounding of the guns, the roar of the rifles and the squeal and sickening thud of the minnié balls. And you just know for certain that all the soldiers would have been too young to be there amidst such carnage. And you are convinced you can feel that the ghosts of so many of those young men still there on the tranquil rolling slope.
At the National Cemetery directly across the road from the Visitor’s Centre stand neat rows of blackened tombstones of the six thousand soldiers buried beneath the green lawns and shady trees. Another stark reminder that you don’t need for the whole area is a constant homage to those young men.
Close by is the Lincoln Speech Memorial, the site where later in 1863 President Abraham Lincoln’s delivered one of the most famous speeches in the English language. Though only two minutes long, his moving, “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent… and … government of the people, by the people, for the people,” Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the cemetery is still regarded a classic declaration and has been recited by countless American school children every year since.
With casualties of 28,000 men and his troops too badly devastated by their losses to fight on, Lee’s forces retreated from Gettysburg on the evening of 4th of July under the cover of darkness and a rainstorm. General Meade’s Union forces were too exhausted and weakened to pursue them, having themselves lost 23,000 in the three days of fighting.
Although the Confederates fought on for another two years, Lee only fought defensive battles from then on and it was simply a matter of time before the losses and shortages of men, food and equipment lead to him surrendering to General Grant at the Appomattox Courthouse in 1865.
After the war, General Grant became President of the USA, General Meade stayed on in the army and died of pneumonia in 1872 and General Lee, still enormously respected by both sides and with his reputation reaching legendary status in spite of this disaster, served as Chancellor of Washington College before dying of heart disease in 1870, seven years after Gettysburg,
The most imposing monument on the edge of the battlefield and the one that attracts more pilgrims than any other is a huge statue of General Robert E Lee astride his horse, Traveller. He is a figure in stone, proud and defiant, gazing forever down into the valley where in three days his beloved Army of Northern Virginia, now the ghosts of Gettysburg, achieved heroic glory and bitter defeat in America’s most costly war.