A Beautiful Day at Gettysburg

The 96th PA monument on Wheatfield Road

The 96th PA monument on Wheatfield Road.

It was such a gorgeous day yesterday that I decided to drive down to Gettysburg and walk around the battlefield. I was especially interested in following the bed of the old trolley that once circled around Devil’s Den. I’ve been researching battlefield history for an article I’m writing for a special Gettysburg publication, and one of the things that really intrigued me was the story of this trolley. The Gettysburg Electric Railroad Company started blasting and excavating the trolley bed in 1893—and they even blew up rocks and boulders around Devil’s Den. This so infuriated Daniel Sickles, then an aged Congressman from New York, that he introduced a bill to make the battlefield into a national park. In the meantime the U.S. government used its powers of eminent domain to try to condemn battlefield land and stop the trolley. The case went all the way to the United States Supreme Court, which ruled that the government could condemn land for preservation purposes. It was too late to stop the trolley, though, and it carried passengers over the battlefield until it ceased operations in 1916.

The 40th New York monument in the Slaughter Pen opposite Devil's Den. The 99th PA monumet is in the background..

The 40th New York monument in the Slaughter Pen opposite Devil’s Den. The 99th PA monument is in the background.

The rails were taken up in 1917 but the old bed still remains as a hiking trail. I followed the old bed around Devil’s Den, climbed up a hill to see the remains of a quarry that had operated here (and was probably the source for the big boulder on the grounds of Prospect Hall, outside Frederick, Maryland, where Meade met with Joseph Hooker on June 28, 1863, to exchange command of the Army of the Potomac). Then I followed the bed to the Wheatfield and walked back up to Little Round Top until I returned to my car near the 20th Maine monument.

The view from Round Top looking over towards Devei's Den. You can see the trails of Ski Liberty in the distance.

The view from Round Top looking over towards Devil’s Den. You can see the trails of Ski Liberty in the distance.

After that I visited the visitor center to make sure they had Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg (they did) and then drove down Baltimore Pike to Powers Hill. During the battle Henry Slocum, commander of the Union’s XII Corps, made his headquarters here. When the shelling on July 3 made Meade’s Leister House headquarters on Taneytown Road too dangerous, Meade rode over here to establish new headquarters but he headed back when he discovered that the signalmen who were supposed to remain at his old HQ were not there. He rode back and reached Cemetery Ridge just after Pickett’s Charge had been repulsed. (You can read all about it in the book.) The park service recently finished cutting down a lot of trees here to restore the area more to its 1863 appearance. There are a few monuments to Union artillery batteries on top of the hill, along with some newly cleaned and painted cannons and carriages, and you can get some nice views over towards Culp’s Hill. I have to believe that the landscape was even clearer during the battle because there’s no way now you can see through the trees to the Leister House.

Monuments on Powers HIll. Battery M, 1st New York Light Artillery, is in the foreground, then Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery (Knap's Battery) and Battery A, 1st Maryland Light Artillery (Rigby's Battery).

Monuments on Powers HIll. Battery M, 1st New York Light Artillery, is in the foreground, then Battery E, Pennsylvania Light Artillery (Knap’s Battery) and Battery A, 1st Maryland Light Artillery (Rigby’s Battery).

It was an absolutely beautiful day and once again I was struck by the incongruity of how much enjoyment I can get walking around a place that has been preserved because of the horrors it witnessed. So many men were killed and wounded here yet it now offers visitors like me a place of picturesque beauty. Then I thought about the Victorian garden cemetery movement, which created attractive places not only to bury the dead, but also to give living visitors places to visit and picnic and enjoy. Laurel Hill Cemetery, Meade’s final resting place, is one product of that movement. Perhaps Gettysburg isn’t too different. It’s a place to remember the dead (aided by the profusion of statuary) but also a place for the living to enjoy.

Which is what I did at Gettysburg yesterday.

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