I woke up a bit late, the damn radiator was banging all night. The restless night melted into a sleep-in morning and by the time I got going I missed the 10:00 tour by eight minutes. The next one was at 11:30. Didn’t want to wait but did want to see the Eisenhower house, so I decided I’d take in the museum.
Gettysburg is a very beautiful place, rolling hills and farm land, a quietly moving place and rightly so when you consider what happened here a hundred forty four years ago; three hot July days in the war that pitted brother against brother.
The battle began on the north side of town. The Confederate troops pursued the fleeing Union Army through the streets of Gettysburg to Cemetery Ridge on the south end of town. There were 30,000 casualties over the three days, yet miraculously there was only one civilian life lost. Her name was Jennie Wade. She was baking bread for the Union soldiers in a home adjacent to Cemetery Ridge, when a snipers bullet shattered the kitchen window and ended her life. Ironically her fiancée, a soldier in the Union Army, who lay wounded and dying a few miles away, sent his best friend to find her and inform her of his imminent demise. At precisely the same moment that Jennie Wade collapsed onto the floor of the small kitchen, her fiancée’s friend was cut down by enemy fire barely two hundred yards away. Those three days in July of 1863 yielded dozens of stories like this around Gettysburg.
I stroll past the uniforms, camp gear and muskets in the museum, but one of the smallest and most powerful objects drives home the reality of those three days. On a shelf in a glass case are two musket balls that had been fused together in mid-air. The signage says there were thousands found. The reality of the thick and heavy fighting, the closeness of the moment of battle gives me pause. I smell gunpowder and find a place to sit for a moment. As I continue I find a display of medical cases, small saws with brass ribs running along the top of the blade recline in silence on the top shelf of each case; state of the art medicine of the time, cut it off, cauterize it and move on the next one. Near the medical field hospital tents were piles of arms and legs on July 4th, 1863.
There is a wall of photographs taken at the 75th anniversary of the battle, a lot of ninety year old men. The caption on one amused me. When asked how he liked the celebration the ancient veteran with a broad smile quipped, “I’m havin’ a hell of a lot more fun today than I did 75 years ago.”
Across the street from the museum is the cemetery. I walk to the place where Lincoln spoke along a path lined with old maples, oaks and long-limbed sycamores, every now and then a row of spoke-wheeled cannons. “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here,” the words echo in my ear and I smile. As I near the tall white marble obelisk I wonder where the tombstones are. The thought is barely formed in mind when I notice the low curb-like stones, barely protruding above the new grass and fanning out in large semi-circles. “Illinois, 419 Bodies,” is the inscription on the nearest. My spine shudders in similar fashion as it did on first viewing the Vietnam memorial; appearing suddenly from nowhere and growing to great proportions.
Gettysburg always moves me deeply, but never in conventional ways or in ways I expect. It creeps upon you at the most unexpected moments and in surprising ways. I find it impossible to be comfortable at the Devil’s Den; the physical place, the pile of enormous carelessly scattered boulders haunts and keeps a tense readiness in the muscles along my spine. From the top of Devil’s Den the field that extends over to Little Round Top is littered with large rocks that resemble a disorderly collection of tombstones, but they’re not, they’re just stones. Then there is Little Round Top.
Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, a teacher in private life, arrived at the far left end of the Union line on the afternoon of July 2nd 1863. With him were the 386 men who comprised the 20th Maine. Upon his arrival Colonel Vincent instructed him, “Hold that ground at all hazards.” “That ground” was the down sloping end of Cemetery Ridge at Little Round Top.
Spying a stone wall about a hundred yards down behind the ridge bottom, he sent several men to it with instructions to stay under cover until his signal. Within twenty minutes Colonel William C. Oates and the 15th Alabama Infantry attacked. Five times the 15th Alabama attacked and five times Chamberlain’s men repelled. Chamberlain’s men were nearly out of ammunition. He set a line of men along the lower left side of the slope parallel to the ridge line and told his men to fix bayonets.
When the sixth charge came Chamberlain signaled the line of men on the left slope to swing out like a hinged gate from the lowest hill point. At the same moment he also signaled the men behind the wall and they began to fire. Oates and the 15th Alabama fearing a new company of fresh troops had come to reinforce Chamberlain, and being low on ammunition themselves, retreated over Big Round Top. This was arguably the turning point of the battle of Gettysburg. Had Chamberlain’s men not held their position the union Army would most certainly have lost the high ground and with it the battle.
Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his courage that day. He once wrote, “Courage is vitally belonging to a cause nobler than one individual can imagine. Being vitally aligned with other men to do things they thought they would not be capable of doing by themselves.”
Dressed in a Union uniform a guide passes near where I sit followed by his tour of a dozen men and women. With great skill he describes the events of the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863. He stands near the monument erected to honor Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. He points to a small promontory of rocks about thirty yards up the hill behind me.
“Do you see that point,” he asks. Everyone nods.
“Several years after the battle, Chamberlain attended an anniversary commemoration here at Gettysburg. Standing on this point on July 2nd Chamberlain noticed a pile of stones on that point up there. He asked what it was and was informed that veterans of the 15th Alabama had placed them there that morning. “Remove them,” Chamberlain ordered. When asked why, he replied, “The 15th Alabama never reached that point and too many of my men gave their lives keeping them from advancing to that point.” He gestured down the hill, “They can put a monument down there if they like, but not up there.” The pile of stones was removed.
Every year, to this day, on the morning of July 2nd someone from Alabama erects a pile of stones, a small monument if you will, on that upper point and every July 4th the park rangers remove them.
We’ll visit the Gettysburg home of Dwight and Mamie Eisenhower next time From The Road.