Toward the end of September, I spent a few days in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, tromping around the battlefield. For more than 20 years I have been wanting to see this place for myself, ever since reading George R. Stewart’s gracefully written, balanced and humane, account of a most inhumane and unbalanced event: Pickett’s Charge. I saw the movie Gettysburg when it was first released over 20 years ago. I am not a Civil War buff — I agree with my late mother who thought we have seen too much of the war on TV and in movies; much the way that I sometimes grow weary of movies about the Second World War and Vietnam — however, I wanted to satisfy my curiosity about the landscape of Pickett’s Charge. I wanted my boots on the ground, walking over and over and over the cornfield, getting a feel for how the land gently slopes and feeling what it is like to wait in Spangler’s woods, then walk the distance from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge, toward the “clump of trees”, and to see Little Round Top and Big Round Top off in the distance. I wanted to see for myself the “bloody angle” where General Armistead and a few others briefly broke through the Union line, and Armistead himself was mortally wounded. And I wanted to see the “high water mark,” more symbolic than real, but as good a place as any to say that from this point on the South was losing the war. I also wanted to see the place where Lincoln gave his brief dedication…. I will have a separate posting for that.
My ancestors fought for the South– if you want to call it fighting. One drove a supply wagon in Texas (not much action there) and the other we’re not sure about– evidence suggests that he worked in a mess tent. I’m not nearly as sentimental as I was in my younger years, so when I visited this battlefield, I didn’t feel sad or imagine I saw ghosts. Mostly I wanted to understand and appreciate what happened here. What’s done is done. Let us be forever grateful we didn’t have to go through that battle ourselves. I know it took an amazing amount of courage to march across that field– Confederate losses were 50%. I am deeply grateful that slavery was abolished and the Union preserved. My curiosity about Pickett’s Charge is satisfied. And there is one lesson I will remember– George R. Stewart says it best in his book about Pickett’s Charge:
Much of human nature, good and bad, displays itself on a battlefield. In a sense, even, the charge may stand for all of human life. Some time in the years, if not daily, must not each of us hear the command to rise and go forward, and cross the field, and go up against the guns?
High water mark, facing west. Off in the distance, you can see Seminary Ridge. Confederate troops made it this far, give or take a few yards, before being pushed back by Union troops.
Bloody Angle, as seen from the Union side, facing west. This is basically a right angle, with one arm of the angle going south (left) of the tree and the other arm going east (right) of the tree. General Armistead and a few of his men broke through Union lines at this point, just to the right of the tree, moving east (toward the camera) along the low stone wall.
Bloody Angle, seen from the Confederate side, looking southeast. This is basically a right angle, with one arm of the angle going south (right) of the tree and the other arm going east (left) of the tree. General Armistead and a few of his men broke through Union lines at this point as they moved east (left).
Looking north along a line of Union guns facing west Confederate troops moved from the left (west) to the right (east).
From “Bloody Angle”, looking west across the field. In the far distance you can see the line of trees along Seminary Ridge where the Confederate troops began their advance. The path clearly seen on the left was put in by the National Park Service to guide tourists over the field.
Facing east across the final stretch of field sloping up to the “high water mark” and the clump (or copse) of trees. Only a few scattered trees remain. The path, clearly seen on the right, was put in by the National Park Service to guide tourists across the field.
Looking north along a fence in the middle of the field. Confederate troops marched from the left (west) of this photo, crossing over the fence (which was laid out on a diagonal across their path), and heading to the right (east) toward the Union lines.
Looking south toward Little Round Top (left) and Big Round Top. In this photo, you are looking across the field where Confederate troops marched from right (west) to left (east).
In the woods along Seminary Ridge, west side of battlefield, facing east. Way off in the distance, you can see a few scattered trees along Cemetery Ridge– those trees were the spot where Confederate troops in Pickett’s Charge were supposed to aim their march and break through Union lines. This gun (one of many) was held in reserve in the woods along Seminary Ridge, in case of a Union counter-attack (never happened). Confederate troops hid in these woods until they were called to line up.
Spangler’s Woods on Seminary Ridge, looking west. Confederate troops waited in these woods until called to line up and march. Almost half were gunned down by Union rifles and artillery.