When the Civil War broke out in 1861, everyone thought it would be over in a matter of months. It ended up lasting four years. By the time it was over, the lucky ones – those who had survived – had certainly seen enough war to last a lifetime. And I’m sure they were all ready to go home.
As Thursday morning dawned, the 14 Civil War Study Tour students and I were nearing the end of our own Civil War journey. We were all pretty tired and looking forward to heading back to Pittsburgh that evening. In five days, we had seen Harpers Ferry, Richmond, Cold Harbor, Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Antietam. Now we were at the final stop on the tour – Gettysburg – where many say the tide of the War turned for good, although it would continue on for another bloody two years.
Our day began with a two-hour bus tour led by Bruce Rice of the National Park Service. As we picked him up at the visitor center, throngs of middle school students were everywhere. Like us, they were here to visit the battlefield just before the end of another school year. I watched them running around the parking lot, laughing and fooling around and doing what middle-schoolers do, and I wondered if they could truly comprehend what happened here 147 summers ago.
Bus driver Bruce fired up the bus and drove past Cemetery Hill, home of Gettysburg National Cemetery, the final resting place of over 3,500 Union soldiers. Here, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered the address that would immortalize him.
The bus snaked through the bustling town, which the Confederates controlled during the three-day battle, and which, in 1863, was home to around 2,400 people; today, more hand 8,000 live here.
We then drove up Seminary Ridge, one of the main parts of the Confederate battle line. Turning onto Reynolds Avenue, the immenseness of the battlefield suddenly became clear, as vast fields stretched out before us.
“We are now travelling along one of the first U.S. Infantry lines of the battle,” said tour guide Bruce, as he pointed out many of the regimental monuments that were placed here in the 1880s by their surviving members.
Next, we passed Gen. Robert E. Lee’s headquarters and then the Lutheran Seminary, one of the more recognizable features of the battlefield. During the fight, it was used as a hospital for both Northern and Southern wounded.
As the bus pulled off to the side and came to a stop, we filed off and stood next to the monument for the 11th Mississippi, where Bruce spoke of the incredible impact that the battle, and the War in general, had on thousands of communities throughout the country. “Entire towns were decimated,” he said. “If you want to try to comprehend what these casualty counts would mean today, comparing the size of the population then to now, just multiply the numbers by 10.” Using that math, if Gettysburg happened in modern times, there would be over 530,000 casualties; if you take the entire War into account, there would be over 6,000,000.
Continuing the tour, we crossed over the Emmitsburg Road to the Peach Orchard, site of some of the battle’s most furious and deadly fighting. Then we drove through the infamous Wheatfield and the Devil’s Den, where casualties were high as well.
Turning left, the bus slowly climbed up the rocky hill known as Little Round Top, where Col. Joshua Chamberlain led the 20th Maine on its legendary bayonet charge on the battle’s second day, saving the Union left flank and, effectively, the entire army.
It was a perfectly clear and sunny day, and as we looked out from the top of the hill, you could literally see for miles. The entire battlefield stretched out before us. Some of the students stood atop one of the massive boulders that dotted the hillside, the same ones that Union soldiers had taken cover behind almost 15 decades earlier.
Following the proper battle line of the Northern army, we made our way across Cemetery Ridge and past the massive Pennsylvania State Monument, the largest on the field. “More than half of the entire U.S. forces were made up of men from either Pennsylvania or New York,” said Bruce.
Our final stop was the spot known simply as “The Angle,” the focal point of Pickett’s Charge, which marked the climax of this three-day battle. As Bruce described the legendary attack, where some 13,000 Confederate soldiers marched three-quarters of a mile across an open field in the face of deadly Union fire, far off in the distance a group of middle-school students were retracing the steps of the Virginia Brigade. It was chilling to see them slowly approaching our position carrying a Rebel battle flag, and it made it all the more real.
In the actual battle, those few Confederates who were able to make it all the way to the stone wall at the Angle engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the Union men in what must have been a terrible scene. Just ten minutes later, however, the fight was over and the Northern lines had held. In that fateful charge, Southern forces lost over 6,000 casualties.
We stood there for a few moments, looking out onto the field to let it all sink in. The students were uncharacteristically silent, which either meant they were in awe of the moment, or just really tired. Probably a little bit of both.
When the tour was over, Dr. Barr gave the students the afternoon to explore the town on their own. Elise and Matt walked right back to the battlefield to look for the monument for Matt’s re-enactor group – the 63rd Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers, Company C. “We climbed over split-rail fences and hiked through knee high grass to get there,” said Elise. “It was awesome!”
Jordan, Rich, and Eric hit Lincoln Square and perused some of the town’s many Civil War relics shops. Eric purchased a “Don’t Tread On Me” flag to go with the cavalry sword he picked up in Richmond. Rich bought his own War memento – a leather-handled Confederate officer’s sword.
The rest just explored, got some lunch, or relaxed in the warmth of the spring sun.
I decided to do a little solo exploration and browsed through every shop I encountered in and around Lincoln Square. It wasn’t long, however, before I had my fill of Civil War relics and chotchkies. There’s just so many minie balls, rifles, bayonets, and sequined Confederate battle-flag vests you can look at in one day. (I’m not kidding about the vest, either. See the photo.)
As I walked around trying to find a quiet place to sit and have a cup of coffee, I realized just how loud it is in Gettysburg. No matter which way I went, I couldn’t escape the endless line of busses, trucks, motorcycles, and cars that passed through this busy terminus. In today’s Gettysburg, you don’t have to dodge bullets, but you do have to watch out for automobiles.
It was then when I thought of how ironic it is that the best thing that ever happened to Gettysburg was the terrible battle that happened here nearly 150 years ago. What would’ve become of this town, if not for the War? Would it still have thrived, or would it have faded into obscurity like so many similar small towns have?
As I sat on a bench in Lincoln Square, trying to make sense of it all, a semi slowly navigated the busy roundabout, hauling a brand-new, sand-colored tank. It’s a good thing Lee didn’t have any of those, I thought.
“All in all, I thought it was a good trip,” said Jordan. “But I’m ready to go home.”
I wonder how many of the soldiers who fought here were ready to go home, too?
After briefly walking through the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night and completed writing the Gettysburg Address, the 16 of us walked the couple or so blocks back to the bus.
Our Civil War journey had ended.
“This was by far one of the most educational experiences I’ve had at Robert Morris University,” said Elsie. “Being able to actually see where certain points in the Civil War took place was fascinating.”
“This trip was a new way for me to learn about Civil War history,” said Sara. “Being able to see the battlefields and better envision what the Union and Confederate troops were doing was a great experience.
“My favorite part was probably Fredericksburg. I liked how our tour guide tied in Revolutionary War history with that of the Civil War and even western Pennsylvania.”
Kristen summed it up the best.
“For me, history is like a vast jigsaw puzzle,” she said. “Everyone has gaps or holes in their puzzle, where the pieces are missing. One or more missing pieces can be pivotal, and are required to make sense of a whole event. This tour helped me learn about the Southern perspective, military strategies, geography, topography, civilian life, a soldier’s camp life, social customs, economics, river and canal systems, the lack of hygiene and mortuary services, and more. These are all major pieces that have fit together to form a vivid picture of the Civil War.
“It was like someone handed me a gift.”
–Valentine J. Brkich