In an emotional venture to Pennsylvania, with Lincoln’s speech echoing in his ears, Rough Guides writer Stephen Keeling remembers the Battle of Gettysburg – the deadliest battle in the American civil war – 150 years on.
I can’t remember when I first heard about the Battle of Gettysburg, but it was probably at school. Even growing up in the UK we learnt a little about the US Civil War, its most decisive battle and President Lincoln, but it wasn’t until college that I studied the period in more detail. Still, it remained a fairly distant subject – a historic event of great consequence, not a real place.
But of course, Gettysburg is a real place. When I finally visited I had absolutely no idea what it would be like; my conception of Gettysburg – the battle, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address – was all black and white photos, a symbol of the Civil War and little more.
Visiting a real place that you’ve studied for so long in books can be jarring. Sipping my coffee and nibbling my muffin in Hunt’s Fresh Cut Battlefield Fries and Café, it was hard to believe I was really here; where 150 years ago this was the turning point in the Civil War, the Union victory that ended General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North with some 51,000 casualties. Yet, people were going about their business: driving trucks, fixing the road, delivering letters.
Today, Gettysburg is just a small, fairly ordinary college town of seven thousand, but cocooned within the National Military Park; rolling fields, barns and woodland frozen in time, laced with a 24-mile auto route lined by heavy wood “pig tight, cow high” rider fences, linking all the key locations of the battle.
I should have visited the museum first, but I was too curious see the battlefield. Most battlefields I’d visited in the past were literally just fields, dotted with the odd pillar or two, but Gettysburg is different. The road snakes through tranquil, bucolic countryside – distant dogs barks and motors hum, and on Sundays bells chime – but is lined with sombre stone memorials to the battle. Giant obelisks and heroic statues commemorate generals, battalions and whole states. The effect is a bit like driving through a giant cemetery, which of course it is, or least sacred ground. Pretty quickly it becomes hard to absorb the sheer scale of the battle, its confusing twists and turns and its terrible losses.
Battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania © Delams Lehman/Shutterstock
The ridge where the fighting kicked off is dominated by a large, lonely equestrian statue of Union Major General John Reynolds, who died here in the first hours of the battle – a disaster for the Union. In fact, by the end of the first day, the Confederates had the upper hand; today the observation tower at Oak Ridge looks down the slopes towards Gettysburg College, but 150 years ago this is where the Union lines crumbled.
But perhaps the most poignant part of the battlefield is the location of “Pickett’s Charge”, where 12,000 Confederates charged 7,000 entrenched Union soldiers in a brave but hopeless bid to win the battle. With over 50 percent casualties, it turned into a decisive defeat that ended Lee’s campaign. Looking across the flat, grassy fields today, it’s hard to imagine so many men died here.
At the end of the auto route you reach the Gettysburg National Cemetery, and here the scale of the carnage starts to hit home. Thousands of gravestones dot the site, small rectangles of granite and US flags amongst grander monuments – and this is just for Union casualties (most Confederate dead ended up in Southern cemeteries). It was here, at the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, that President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, one of the most powerful speeches of all time.
It’s a moving place. Small groups of tourists wander the rows, in hushed reverence; gardeners tend the plots and birds flit and sing in the trees. Coming here when bodies were still being interred, visible signs of destruction all around, Lincoln must have felt utterly devastated; he only chose to speak for two minutes, but chose his words with diamond-like purpose.
I moved on to the civil war museum at the visitor centre. With its relics of the battle and illuminating film narrated by Morgan Freeman, it helps you put the battle into some kind of order. Exhibits try to offer some perspective on the suffering, death and the vast scale of the battle, but only succeed to a point; try to imagine 8000 bodies, lying in the burning summer sun, and over 3,000 dead horses being burned in great pyres. The townsfolk became violently sick from the stench.
The closest I could really get to the battle was at the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, a cycle of murals depicting the fury of the fighting in a specially constructed circular hall, also in the new visitor centre. The depiction of “Pickett’s Charge” is especially realistic; the scattered bodies of horses and men, the confusion and the sheer hopelessness of it all, the waste. When I had studied the battle at college, the connection between the fighting, the terrible shock of Gettysburg, and Lincoln’s address had seemed almost coincidental; now it started to make more sense:
“…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Top image: A cannon and a barn on the battlefield at Gettysburg National Military Park, Adams County, Pennsylvania, USA Delams Lehman/Shutterstock