Day 2 +150 (July 2, 2013)

Meade with rainbowI had a tremendous and exhilarating day at Gettysburg yesterday (July 2). The day began for me when I arrived on South Confederate Avenue to appear live on PCN with Jim Hessler and Tom DesJardin. We had a fun and informative discussion about July 2, 1863, including lively talk about George Meade and Dan Sickles and even a little bit about the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry.

Jim and his wife drove me back to my car. As we were heading up Hancock Avenue, windows down, we passed Meade’s statue and a visitor standing on the side of the road said, “That’s Hancock.”

“No it’s not,” replied Jim, a licensed battlefield, and we drove on. I thought it was an excellent bit of drive-by guiding.

A life-like Civil War surgery at the Seminary Ridge Museum.

A life-like Civil War surgery at the Seminary Ridge Museum.

After that I spent the day on the battlefield. First I visited the new Seminary Ridge Museum, which was quite impressive. The exhibits cover not only the fighting that took place around there on July 1, but also the experiences of citizens, African Americans, and the wounded as well as the role religion played in the Civil War era. One image I took away with me was the photo of Rowland Ward, of Co. E, 4th New York. He stares at the camera, eyes bright and almost challenging. At first I thought he was heavily bearded but gradually–and with growing horror–I realized that his entire lower jaw had been blown away. It was hard both to look and to not look away at Ward’s photo and equally difficult for my mind to grasp the horror of his injury. More than anything else, that one image brought home the horror of the things that had happened on the battlefield 150 years ago and the sacrifices the soldiers had made there.

Visitors peer out from the cupola atop the Seminary Ridge Museum.

Visitors peer out from the cupola atop the Seminary Ridge Museum.

The seminary building, of course, is where John Buford and John Reynolds met on July 1 and Buford used the building’s cupola (the original was destroyed by lighting in the early 1900s) to observe the approaching Confederates. Today you can pay $29 to go up into the cupola. Not feeling quite that flush, I contented myself with peering up from the ground at the visitors who were recreating Buford’s experience.

A happy visitor to LIttle Round Top poses with "Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain" at the 20th Maine monument.

A happy visitor to LIttle Round Top poses with “Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain” at the 20th Maine monument.

After that I set out to explore the battlefield a little. Little Round Top was jammed and traffic crawled all the way down below Big Round Top. I parked my car and walked up instead. A living historian from the Confederation of Union Generals was portraying Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain at the 20th Maine Monument. The people there treated him almost with reverence, as though he really were Chamberlain, or at least his proxy. He and his regiment may have gained too much prominence in the Gettysburg story today but you can’t let that detract from the reality of what they did here.

Ever vigilant, Gouverneur K. Warren stands guard on Little Round Top.

Ever vigilant, Gouverneur K. Warren stands guard on Little Round Top.

The crowds had subsided by the time I left the Round Tops and traveled over to Cemetery Ridge for the Voices of Gettysburg performance. So far the weather had been surprisingly cooperative, despite the forecasts of rain and a large crowd turned out to hear several actors repeat first-person accounts of the fighting on July 2. At the very end of the performance it began to rain slightly, but it came with a surprising bonus–a magnificent double rainbow that arched over the Meade statue (at least that’s the way it appeared to me).

Living history on Little Round Top.

Living history on Little Round Top.

The final event of the night was the ranger-led walk/talk about Meade’s “council of war” on July 2. The program began at the Meade statue at 9:30 and I was flabbergasted by the turnout. I’m not good at crowd estimation but I would not be surprised if there were 1,000 people present. In fact, there were really too many people. It was difficult to handle such a large group (well behaved as it was) and the battlefield sound effects blasting across the fields from a park-owned property on the other side of Taneytown Road made it difficult to hear. As part of the program, everyone in the group was able to go inside the little Leister House, but only 12 at a time. Rather than wait for everyone to file through the tiny building and hear the end of the program, I decided it was time to head home.
What a day!

Little Round Top on the late afternoon of July 2, 2013. One hundred and fifty years ago there would have been fewer tourists; more death and destruction.

Little Round Top on the late afternoon of July 2, 2013, with Devil’s Den in the background. One hundred and fifty years ago there would have been fewer tourists; more death and destruction.

Meade Rainbow2

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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.

The 20th Maine

The story of Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain—the scholar-turned-general who led the 20th Maine at Gettysburg on July 2—is indeed a compelling one. The regiment’s main monument, on the spot where it made its stubborn defense on the right flank of Little Round Top, has become a pilgrimage site, with many people leaving notes and other tributes to the regiment’s men.

In Searching for George Gordon Meade: The Forgotten Victor of Gettysburg, I mention how it’s become somewhat fashionable to disparage Chamberlain and the 20th Maine. For example, in 2011 Gary Gallagher listed Chamberlain as one of the war’s five overrated officers. I guess you could call it a backlash. Michael Shaara’s novel The Killer Angels and then Gettysburg, the movie adaptation, propelled Chamberlain and his regiment to a new level of recognition and some people believe Chamberlain and his regiment now receive more credit than they deserve for the Union victory at Gettysburg.

I hail from Maine myself and for a time I lived across the street from Chamberlain’s residence in Brunswick, Maine. Far be it for me to say that anyone from Maine is overrated! But rather than defending Chamberlain’s reputation myself, I’ll let his division commander, Brigadier General James Barnes, do it for me. This is what Barnes wrote in his official report of the battle.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (Library of Congress photo).

Colonel Chamberlain at once threw back his left wing, and extended his right wing by intervals toward the left, in order to avoid diminishing the extent of his front. The brigade of the enemy alluded to reaching a proper position, attacked him furiously on the left flank, advancing within 10 paces and rapidly firing. They were first checked and then repulsed by the left wing of the regiment, thrown back for that purpose.

A second, third, and fourth time the enemy renewed their attempt to break this line, and each time were they successfully repelled by that handful of men. Four times that little interval of 10 paces was the scene of a desperate conflict. The ground was strewed with dead and wounded men of both sides, promiscuously mingled. Their ammunition was exhausted; they replenished it from the cartridge boxes of the men lying around them, whether friends or foes, but even this resource soon failed them; the enemy in greatly superior numbers pressed hard; men and officers began to look to the rear for safety, but the gallant commander of the regiment ordered the bayonets to be fixed, and, at the command “Forward,” that wearied and worn body of men rushed onward with a shout. The enemy fell back. Pressing on, and wheeling to the right in open intervals, the left wing came again in line with the right wing, and then the whole regiment, deployed at intervals of 5 paces, followed up the advantage they had gained. The enemy threw down their arms and surrendered in large numbers; the others fled rapidly from the contest; 368 prisoners, including 1 colonel, 1 lieutenant-colonel, and a dozen other officers of lesser rank were sent to the rear; 50 of their dead lay upon the field, and large numbers of their wounded; 30 of this gallant regiment were killed, over 100 were wounded, but not one was taken a prisoner, and none were missing.

It was now nearly dark. A portion of the enemy appeared to have occupied the summit of the rocky hill to the left. The men of this brave regiment, exhausted by their labors, had thrown themselves upon the ground, and many of them sunk at once in sleep. Colonel Rice, now in command of the brigade, directed Colonel Chamberlain to drive the enemy from this height. The order was at once given. Roused again to action, and advancing with fixed bayonets and without firing, lest the smallness of their numbers might be suspected, they rushed up the hill.

Twenty-five more prisoners, including some staff officers, were added to the number previously taken, with a loss to the regiment of 1 officer mortally wounded and 1 man taken prisoner by the enemy. It was ascertained that these troops occupying the hill had been sent from Hood’s division, which was then massed a few hundred yards distant, and that their object was to reconnoiter the position as a preliminary to taking possession of the height.

In addition to the prisoners above mentioned as taken by this regiment, 300 stand of arms were also captured by them, it is due to this regiment and to its commander that their service should be thus recorded in some detail.

That was, in fact, a lot of detail for a division commander to include about one of his regiments. Barnes went on to say, “Colonel Chamberlain, of the Twentieth Maine Volunteers, whose service I have endeavored briefly to describe, deserves especial mention.”

Colonel James Rice, who took over the Third Brigade in Barnes’ division following the death of Colonel Strong Vincent, also dedicated space in his official report to the action of the 20th Maine on Little and Big Round Tops, and singled out Joshua Chamberlain and his brother Thomas for their actions on July 2. “Especially would I call the attention of the general commanding to the distinguished services rendered by Colonel Chamberlain throughout the entire struggle,” wrote Rice.

Barnes’ report appears in Official Records, Series I, Volume XXVII, Part 1, pages 599-605. Rice’s is in the same volume, pages 616-620.