The Ghosts of Gettysburg

The Ghosts of Gettysburg

July 27, 2012

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.  ImageI 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,Image 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 Imageargued 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. ImageSome 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.Image

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. ImageHe 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.

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A Good Read: My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira.

ImageI read a remarkable book last night called My Name is Mary Sutter by Robin Oliveira, about a young midwife in the 1860s who wants to become a surgeon years before women were accepted into medical schools. It is not until she serves as a nurse in the American Civil War and learns the trade through overwhelming, ghastly necessity that she is eventually accepted.

It was a fascinating but increasingly difficult book to read, as page after page had descriptions of the horror and suffering of the war wounded on a scale unimaginable.  Her mental images of squalid, disease ridden hospitals, where doctors had no idea that filth and squalor caused disease and infection, and where most patients died long, lingering and painful deaths are graphic and detailed, but her hero, the strong and determined Mary is a gallant, gutsy role model for everyone.  Robin Oliveira’s research has obviously been meticulous, but she has not let that overwhelm decent, page-turning storytelling. I couldn’t put it down.

I had read somewhere that Louis M Alcott, the author of Little Women, had also worked as a Civil War nurse in  Georgetown, D.C, where she, not surprisingly, contracted typhoid fever. It wasn’t until last night that I had some understanding of how traumatic that experience of being a nurse back then must have been, and how her whole life must have been distorted by those times. Image

Here are some reviews I took from Robin Olivera’s website.

MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER is a remarkable book, one of the most assured first novels I’ve read in a long, long time. Robin Oliveira brings the Civil War era vividly alive, and her heroine is a character who, once encountered, few readers will forget. Bravo!

— Ron Rash author of Serena, Saints at the River

In MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER it seems as though Robin Oliveria brought Mary Sutter back to life rather than imagined her. With her description of the Sutter home, the reader becomes a guest at the dinner table. This is a finely written novel of the medical failings and opportunities presented by the war. But it is really the story of a woman who lives her life with the passion and stubbornness needed to take her through the strains of battlefield hospital work, through her grief for family loses and the war wounded; it is the story of the extraordinary need that propels her to become a surgeon. Even in the darkest days, Mary’s enormous compassion and healing touch shine forth. Thank you so much for sharing it with me.

— Mary Gay Shipley, owner of That Bookstore in Blytheville

Oliveira’s voice is urgently compelling in its detail and so authentically pitched, she might have been transported directly from the tumult of Civil War Washington to report this story.

— Debra Dean, author of The Madonnas of Leningrad

“MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER is a magnificent Civil War epic, a saga of female liberation and a gorgeous love story. Mary Sutter’s quest to become a surgeon when women were barely allowed to be nurses is one of the great untold stories of American history. She is indomitable, fearless and captivating. From Ireland’s Corners, New York, to the over-crowded hospitals of Washington to battlefield surgeries to a meeting with Abraham Lincoln himself, Mary Sutter’s progress is gritty and passionate–a riveting read.”

— Douglas Glover, author of Elle

“There’s more than a whiff of the classic in Robin Oliveira’s charming, compulsively readable historical tale about Mary Sutter, a young midwife and aspiring physician making her way through Lincoln’s war–a new iconic American heroine.”

— Janice Lee, author of The Piano Teacher

“MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER is a powerful debut – equally compelling for its portrayal of the horrors of surgery during the Civil War as it is for its human drama. Mary Sutter is unforgettable, not just because she’s quirky, odd and persistent in her quest to be a surgeon, but also because she is alive inside anyone who knows what it is to dream.”

— Xu Xi, author of The Unwalled City

I am deeply impressed by MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER. Oliveira weaves the strands of civil war history, history of medicine into a novel with dynamic and believable characters. Mary is a wonderful heroine, with extraordinary gifts and weaknesses too. That every man is in love with her is no wonder. A thrilling debut.

— Carla Cohen, Politics and Prose Bookstore

“A vivid, dramatic novel about love, medicine, and the Civil War, MY NAME IS MARY SUTTER features an indomitable, memorable heroine whom the reader will root for until the very end.”

— David Ebershoff, author of The 19th Wife and The Danish Girl

“Historical tale among best… enthralling and well-researched debut novel…”

— Atlanta Journal Constitution

“…This impressive historical epic deserves a large readership.”

— Booklist

“… This unforgettable novel of the American Civil War should become a classic. I highly recommend My Name Is Mary Sutter to readers who wish to gain a better understanding of the war and its effects on those who lived through it.

— Historical Novels Review – Editors’ Choice

“…Oliveira’s scrupulously factually researched canvass allows its readers to witness through human experience the agonizingly complex relationship of disease, mutilation, death, and healing in war.”

— Journal of American Medical Association

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The voters are never wrong, right?

Here is a truckload of my most popular photographs as voted on by the members from Flickr, the photonerds website that is a lot like Facebook, but without any references to what you had for breakfast, or how cute your dog is, or a poster about striving to get a head. Assuming you don’t have one, of course.

If asked what my favourite toy is,  my Canon 7D digital SLR camera and Tamron lens would always be near the top of the list. I love the way you have to look at the world in a slightly different way as you consider each scene as a potential photograph , and I  especially love traveling with my camera at the ready in case some interesting texture or unusual light shines on a building or a street, and I’ll be the first one to see it. More often than not though, what I see and click and then what appears on my screen doesn’t usually match up as good as I expect, but every so often, about 1 in 100, the screen is better and it makes the other 99 duds worthwhile.

Click on the first thumbnail and you should get the slideshow… Oh, good, I can hear you. What a great way to waste ten minutes.

So here, in no particular order are pics other people thought were worth commenting on…

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The Dangers of Going Back

Yesterday, I went back to Narrogin where I spent a lot of my early years, and as I was looking about the town and thinking how little it had actually changed, it occurred to me the place damn well should have changed a little more  than it has.  It was 50 years ago that we lived there after all. 50 years, my God! How had that happened? We left in at the end of 1964, and it often still feels like it was a few weeks ago.

What has changed, however, was the Narrogin Drive In Theatre, my most special place in the entire town. It has been totally devastated. As a ten year old boy this was my most sacred site, and is still one of the fondest places in my memory.

As I was leaving town I saw it off to take right and for some reason, probably nostalgia, decided to pull in and have a look about. It had been the Melody, I think it was called, but there was no faded sign to remind me, and, in fact, there was now a whole lot of nothing. The entire place looked like Osama had Bin there.  The sloped parking spaces, like a sheet of enormous corrugated iron, were completely pot-holed and overgrown with grass, while the white posts, that once held the sound speakers, stuck up just like so many grave markers.

The brick projection box and kiosk looked like they had been just missed by a 747, and there was no evidence of the swings and slide that were once located in front of the screen. Even the huge white screen had been toppled over and now lay forlornly on the ground like a twisted metal blanket. In the booth three solid stands that once held the projectors, and painted in 1960s green paint ,but obviously too heavy to shift, stood empty, waiting , as if by some miracle , for  the huge 35 mm Bell and Howells to return with their flickering magic.  Huge holes had been kicked in every panel of the building and I noted, with a touch of karma, these were asbestos, so any kick-happy vandals; I’d start watching out for the breathing in a few years.  Wouldn’t that be so ironic? And while wearing an oxygen mask on your face,  you can’t smell the delicious scent of deep frying Chico Rolls. Or much of anything else, and it will be all your own fault, I’m happy to say.

It was perfect weather, like all of my golden childhood, and as I walked about taking photos, I wondered why it was all so much better then. The scratchy old speakers that you hung on the glass of the car window in reality, probably sounded like a $19.95 K-Mart baby monitor, but I remember the  sound of the movies being far, far sweeter than any of that put out by my modern expensive computer sound system, or my stereo CD player with ultra-base.

And the films were better too, to say nothing of the full-blown show that you got at the Melody. As soon as it grew dark it started with advertisements for local businesses like Jeff’s Tyres, the national Anthem ( the British one), than several Loonytoons or Mighty Mouse cartoons, then a serial like  The Shadow or the Adventures of Kit Carson, followed  a Movietone Newsreel , with that followed by a full-length black n’ white B Grade film noir. After this marathon was Intermission, with ice-creams, then came the Technicolour feature. It being 1964 it could have easily been any of these made that year:


Mary Poppins

A Fistful of Dollars

Zorba the Greek


Carry on Cleo

The Long Ships

My Fair Lady

A Hard Day’s Night

Pink.Panther  – Shot on the Dark

Cheyenne Autumn

or Father Goose with Cary Grant

No wonder I was more often than not mesmerized out of my tiny mind with happiness. I ached to go to the movies every night, but we only went every second Thursday, on  pay days.

I stood there feeling just a touch sad (sobbing like a baby, actually)  at seeing a favourite part of my childhood laid to waste and looking  like the desert in Lawrence of Arabia, but the memories soon came flooding back;  of peering over the plastic front seat of my parents’ Morris Major, and not caring that the windscreen wipers could be  going full bore, the car misting up, my mother telling me to go to sleep, because,  above all, over the baby monitor speaker came a wonderfully cynical Scottish accent:

Q: Now this one I’m particularly keen about. You see the gear lever here? Now, if you take the top off, you will find a little red button. Whatever you do, don’t touch it.
James Bond: Yeah, why not?
Q: Because you’ll release this section of the roof, and engage and then fire the passenger ejector seat. Whish!
James Bond: Ejector seat? You’re joking!
Q: I never joke about my work, 007.

Now, until I find me a script writer with that sense of humour, or such a well developed feeling for adventure, I think I might be destined to stay back in 1964, aged ten.  And why the hell not, Miss Moneypenny? Back then people didn’t smash up other folks dream factories and leave them standing out in the sun on perfect days feeling like they had just faced an onslaught of 3,000 Zulu warriors, or an hour and half  with  Mary Poppins, or had just been fired through the roof of an Aston Martin DB5.

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Rottnest Island Defences

This lovely photo by Bill Hatto from Thursdays’ West newspaper is of 100 year old Mrs Rae Hussey, wife of Captain Frank Hussey, commander of the WWII defences on Rottnest Island. In ‘Jacks Island’ I changed his name to Hurley and promoted him to Colonel. In the article that was with this photo I saw that Captain Hussey  was eventually promoted to Brigadier General, without any help from me.

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King Canute, or Cnut, or Knut. (Not more bloody history!)

Viking King Canute the Great, known as Cnut in Denmark and Knut in Norway, was the son of Svein Forkbeard and grandson Harald Bluetooth and great-grandson of King Gorm. I told you last time that Vikings had great names. Harald Bluetooth went on the become saint of techno-nerds.

In 1013 Svein and Canute decided to conquer England, and were extremely successful at it, soundly defeating the army of King Aethelred the Unready. Having lost the battle Aethelred immediately fled to Normandy, probably very quickly indeed considering the Vikings unpleasant reputation. Canute’s dad, Svein died soon after and so luckily for Canute he became king of all England, Denmark, Norway, and part of the Sweden. Result.

In 1017 Canute, being ready, married Aethelred the Unready’s widow, Emma, and they had two children, Harthacnut and Gunhild. Canute was a Christian and very religious-minded, however, like many religious maniacs in history, his religious beliefs didn’t get in the way of him behaving badly, including having two sons, Harald and Svein with his English mistress, Aelfgifu.

Canute had great respect for the old English laws, other than the ones about adultery, obviously, and he tried to repay for the bloody wrongdoings of his Viking forefathers by building churches and making many generous gifts.  He is remembered too for trying to teach his courtiers humility, saying on the beach one morning, ‘not even a king as great as me can hold back the tide’ – then proceeded to get completely soaked.

After ruling successfully over a huge yet peaceful kingdom for twenty years, Canute died in 1035 aged about forty. He was buried in Winchester, where he normally lived when not touring his kingdom, or down at the beach.

Canute’s sons, turned out to be weak and not that sturdy. In fact, Harthacnut died only two years later, remembered for nothing at all except for the huge taxes he imposed. There are few governments who could benefit from that lesson.

None of Canute’s sons had any children so Emma’s son, Edward, by her first husband Aethelred, returned from Normandy in 1042 to become King Edward the Confessor. On his death he became the saint of difficult marriages, and, coincidently, the British royal family.

Canute tended to fade from history for many years, but now his rein is being re-examined by historians as one of the great success stories of British history. He did also stop the Viking raids, even if he didn’t hold back the waves.

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Simply Shocking

Why is it that I can’t think up a single headline for this news clip that is suitable for a family based Facebook? Can you come up with one without exposing yourself as a a puerile, carry-on-esque, smutty, grubby-minded, bennyhillish  sleeze? God, that sounds so much like me, no wonder I’m unable to do it. The poor unlucky bugger (in more ways than one)  being called Mr Frick is not helping either.

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