Back in the 90’s I was meeting with a consultant from South Africa. This was his first trip to the US, so I asked how he intended to spend the upcoming weekend. I expected to hear the standard response that he would be sightseeing in New York or Washington.
Somewhat to my surprise, he said he was going to Gettysburg.
When I inquired why, he said that Gettysburg was one of the greatest and most significant battles in history and he wanted to walk the grounds and gain a better understanding of what had happened there. I felt a bit embarrassed that a man from South Africa would recognize something so historically significant in my backyard, while I and many other Americans barely gave it a second thought.
With this July marking the 150th anniversary of the greatest battle on American soil I was struck by some interesting comparisons to the D-Day invasion 80 years later: There were approximately 10,000 Allied casualties on D-Day with 156,000 engaged just on the Allied side – these casualty figures nearly double when the German casualties are included. With approximately 160,000 engaged at Gettysburg the casualty figures come in at 50,000 – nearly a third of everyone there. Ultimately Normandy casualty figures will surpass Gettysburg as the assault continued inland, but by any score Gettysburg was an extremely bloody affair.
Two years ago, I, like many Americans, made my pilgrimage to Normandy – it was an incredibly moving experience. And while twice before I had been to visit Gettysburg, once in the 60’s stopping for an hour or two on the way back from western Maryland – the second time 25 years later joined by two of my children, I could never call it a moving experience – more like a visit to another tourist attraction. I could always say I had visited the great battlefield but I couldn’t remember much except for the “Electric Map” (which I did not understand) and the kids climbing on the rocks in the “Devil’s Den.”
For the last several months, my fellow American history fans, Jon Reynolds and Mike Purzycki and I had been discussing a pilgrimage to Gettysburg recognizing that we would need a guide who would meet or exceed our expectations – someone who could convert the confusion of three bloody days 150 years ago and the 1,400 monuments there today, into something that would bring real meaning and maybe some inspiration to that relatively small piece of real estate where the North and South met in mortal combat.
Fortunately, as a former military history professor at the Air Force Academy, retired Brigadier General Jon Reynolds was just the man to find a guide. In inquiring with his friend, retired Colonel Alan Gropman, about the best guide, Alan said he would provide the guided tour himself. Alan is also a retired military history professor, the author of a number of books and an experienced Gettysburg guide.
We met Alan at the new Visitor’s Center and immediately we were engrossed in a discussion about the broader context of the battle – trying like others over the last 150 years to penetrate Robert E. Lee’s thinking as he so deliberately brought the war to Pennsylvania. It was clearly designed to inflict another major defeat on the Union following Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville in hopes of forcing Lincoln to offer peace terms that would allow the Confederate states to prevail.
Alan came well prepared with several large maps that positioned the forces on the field over the three days of the battle. He explained how he would take us to different strategic locations for each day in chronological order so we could understand the developments as they happened and the tempo of events as they unfolded.
The first sight he pointed out as we turned out of the Visitor’s Center was a small white house that served as General Meade’s headquarters over the three days of the battle. A point Alan emphasized several times during the day was that it was located right on the battlefield so that Meade was able to gain a greater sense of what was unfolding and he was better able to communicate with his corps commanders. On the other hand Lee’s headquarters was positioned well to the rear of his lines in a larger more comfortable home once owned by the Union statesman, Thaddeus Stevens. Alan felt that the location of the home put Lee at a disadvantage.
Of course, for Day One we went to the spot occupied by General John Buford’s cavalry as he deployed his division of approximately 2,500 men to secure the high ground at McPherson’s Ridge. Buford is credited with holding the strategic position to the benefit of the Union forces until they could be reinforced by General John Reynolds – no relation to the General Jon Reynolds who was with us, but an interesting coincidence nonetheless. John Reynolds was famous for coming up to support Buford and hold the Union position, but almost as soon as he arrived he was picked off by a Confederate sniper and died almost instantly.
Seemingly of far less significance on July 1 to the outcome of the battle, Alan took us to the monument erected in 1904 in memory of a local 69 year old civilian from Gettysburg who immediately joined the fight on July 1. John Burns was credited with several kills before being wounded and captured by the Confederates. He persuaded them he was only a civilian who got lost and was subsequently released. When Lincoln came to Gettysburg to deliver his famous address later that year he asked to meet Burns who had quickly become famous. Burns is today buried in the Evergreen Cemetery near the only civilian killed at Gettysburg, Ginnie Wade. Their graves are marked with an American flag – the only two there with permission to fly the American flag 24 hours a day.
As an author of a book on military logistics Alan was great at explaining some of the less prominent details and challenges of 19th century warfare. This included some of the small arms advantages of the Union compared to the Confederates with particular focus on the firepower advantage of Buford’s regiment during the initial engagement and the Confederate disadvantage of having to stand up to reload while in the attack as the Union typically fought from defensive positions. Alan even simulated the loading process for the “Napoleon” artillery pieces used in the battle by both sides. With a crew of 10, out in the open under constant fire and a fickle and volatile firing system, the artilleryman’s role at Gettysburg must have been every bit as hazardous as the foot soldier. Another interesting logistical detail to contemplate was life inside of the wool uniform with little water as temperatures during the three days soared to nearly 90 degrees. And finally, I try not to think about the field hospitals, unsanitary conditions and lack of anesthesia and pain medicine, particularly for the many facing amputation.
Our Gettysburg tour progressed through Day Two into Day Three of the battle. Along the way we climbed the observation platform which overlooks the entire battlefield as well as the Eisenhower Farm in the opposite direction. There was a sense of anticipation as we moved into position where General Longstreet’s men did July 3, 1963. They were ordered by Lee to assault the Union position nearly a mile away across open terrain – this would go down in history to this day as “Pickett’s Charge.”
It seemed fitting considering the role of their state in the war, that perhaps the most impressive monument we saw at Gettysburg was the State of Virginia’s, with Lee up top sitting on his beloved horse, Traveller. The soldiers’ images at the base of the monument are in assault mode or just gazing out across the fields. Off in the distance you can see the statue of General George Meade on Cemetery Ridge who would win the day and the battle for the Union, thus turning the tide of the Civil War.
After covering three days of battle we headed to one of the sights we had come to see – the Delaware Monument dedicated in 2000. In our enthusiasm to see our most recent state monument we overlooked the two Delaware monuments dedicated in 1885 to the 1st and the 2nd Delaware Infantry Regiments. The men of the 2nd earned the nickname, the “Crazy Delawares” at Antietam and fought gallantly at Gettysburg. The year 2000 memorial mentions the fact that as a result of action at the Bliss Farm and the Wheatfield, three Delawareans were awarded the Medal of Honor, one for heroism under fire. The Medal of Honor had just been commissioned during the Civil War and the criterion for the award was not as stringent as it would be in later years. However if you go to Gettysburg and let your imagination recall the bayonet charges, the hand to hand combat and Pickett’s desperate charge across 1,600 yards of pure hell, you may wish you could nominate everyone who fought there for the Medal of Honor.
Standing only a few short steps away from the Delaware monument was the Maryland monument. Several times during the day Alan had mentioned that he would take us to see it. I thought he must be confused, that he thought one of us was from Maryland. As we stood in front of the monument which was dedicated in 1994 he asked us what we saw – I said it looked like one soldier helping a wounded fellow soldier. He said, “What else do you see”? Someone observed that by their belt buckles he could see one was a Confederate and the other a Union soldier. Then Alan said, “What else do you see?” Looking up someone said, “They are brothers.”
You have to hand it to Maryland – they certainly captured the essence of the war, often referred to as the war of “brother against brother.” And Mike, Jon and I had to hand it to Alan for traveling up from Virginia to share his knowledge and his opinions about one of the most significant events in US and maybe world history. Each of us gained a perspective of Gettysburg we otherwise may have never experienced.
As I reflected on the day I thought of the pilgrimage of the South African almost 20 years before. I wonder if he left Gettysburg as informed and as fulfilled.