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A guide to Gettysburg

It was 1863 and the American Civil War was going into its third year. The Confederate Army had recently had success at Chancellorsville and were hoping that the momentum would continue. It had been almost a year since the Battle of Antietam and though the Confederate Army had technically lost that battle, the Union Army had failed to pursue them. Since then, the Union Army had met defeat at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. General Robert E. Lee, in command of the Confederate troops, felt that the time to invade the North had come. Not only would an invasion into the North have the potential for winning the war but it would also continue to demoralize the enemy. Lee maneuvered his troops through the Shenandoah Valley in western Virginia and in the final days of June, they were marching across lower Pennsylvania. The newly appointed commander of the Union Army, George Meade, moved to cut off Lee's advance and ensure that Washington, DC was under no threat.

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On July 1, 1863 the two armies met by chance outside of the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The first day of the battle took place to the north and west of the town with the Union troops set to defend from the higher ground. The Confederates had more soldiers and the Union troops, who were waiting for reinforcements, held them off as long as possible. The Confederates made substantial gain during the first day and the Union troops eventually had to retreat through the town to their main line. The second day found the battlefield relocated to the south of Gettysburg. The Union Army again took the high ground, which curved like a fish hook from Culp's Hill to Cemetery Ridge and finally just north of Little Round Top. The Confederates focused the majority of their attention on the right and left flanks, hoping to slowly squeeze the Union troops. As the day wore on, the fighting moved farther down the left flank and Little Round Top and Big Round Top came into play. These two hills were heavily wooden and if the Confederates were able to take hold of that position, it would be hard for the Union to recover. On the third day, the Confederate plan of attack was the same as the day before, throw all they had against the Union lines and hope for a breakthrough. At around 3pm, over 12,000 Confederate soldiers began a daring march over the hilly battlefield. Remembered as Pickett's Charge, the goal was to cut a hole into the Union line and then flood in. With the Union troops cut in half, the Confederates had a strong chance of winning the battle. Pickett's Charge did not succeed and the attacks and counter-attacks continued throughout the day. On July 4th, Lee reassembled his army in the hopes that Meade and the Union troops would attack. They did not. Small skirmishes continued throughout the day but there was no massive attacks organized. On July 5th, Lee marched his army back into Virginia.

At the end of the three-day battle, the combined causalities were over 7,800 men; the death toll would make it the deadly battle of the war. In combination with Ulysses S. Grant's victory at Vicksburg, MS on July 4th, Gettysburg would be seen as a turning point in the war. It would be the last time that the Confederates attempted a large-scale invasion of the North.

The battlefield of Gettysburg is probably one of the best-preserved from the war and it did not take long for people to visit in droves. Over the years, improvements have been made to the battlefield and nearby museums to better represent the events of that July.

Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitor Center

Last year, the new Gettysburg museum and visitor center was unveiled. Housed in a large stonework building, based on the old farm buildings that were around during the battle, the museum and visitor center should be the first stop to any visit to Gettysburg. After paying your fees, the first stop of the visit is the small theatre where you can watch A New Birth of Freedom, a short documentary which detailed the campaign and its importance. From the theatre, the audience is then ushered up a floor to view the Gettysburg Cyclorama, a 360 degree circular oil painting of the third day of fighting. The painting was completed in 1884 by Paul Philippoteaux and recently underwent a restoration. The viewing gallery dims and the voice over takes you through the events of the third day. As landmarks are mentioned, the corresponding section of the painting lights up. Pops of light and sound echo as cannon fire and gunshot. The painting is so vivid with action, chaos and drama that it would seem that the painter himself had lived through the battle; which he did not, even though he painted himself into the scene. Once downstairs, the museum is filled with artifacts from the Gettysburg battle as well as the rest of the war.

Battlefield Tour

The beauty of touring the Gettysburg battlefield is that there are endless things to see and no matter how many times you visit, you can always find a new memorial of vantage point. There are large tour buses, trolleys, and even personal rangers who will take you around the battlefield. I had my own personal tour guide, my father. For your first time, it is probably best to take a somewhat guided tour as the intersecting roads can get a bit confusing. 

Driving out of the town center of Gettysburg, the first stop was at the Buford Memorial.  From here, Brig. Gen. John Buford watched as the Confederate troops made their way towards the battlefield.  He only had a small number of cavalry and until reinforcements arrived, he and his soldiers were the only thing preventing the Confederates from gaining the high ground.  A statue of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds stands behind the first line of defense.  He arrived with his men to relieve Buford.  He did not survive long into the battle and the statue confirms this.  If a statue is atop a horse and all four legs are down, that means the rider survived the battle.  If one of the hooves is up, the rider was injured; two hooves up and the rider died during the battle.  

Leaving the location of the first engagement, the battlefield roads cut across the plains.  They are littered with monuments.  Over 360 of them line the roads and byways of Gettysburg.  The organizations that care for the Gettysburg battlefield have taken great pain to reconstruct the landscape to the way it appeared in 1863.  Standing out against the blue sky is the Eternal Peace Memorial.  Atop its white cenotaph burns the eternal flame, in memory of all that died here.  From the platform of the memorial, the first day's battle is easy to follow.  A path leads away from the memorial and offers a view of downtown Gettysburg and you are able to follow the eventual Union retreat that happened during the first day.  

Traveling back across no-man's land, the road takes you down the main defensive line of the Confederates on day one and two.  The meandering line stretches on for miles and along the way are the memorials to the Confederate troops.  Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Virginia, Tennessee and North Carolina all have large monuments.  Some of the monuments are newly added and offer an artistic presentation.  Others are small and simple, with only the company name and state on a single square of stone.  In front of the tall Virginia memorial, where Robert E. Lee stands atop, you get a perfect view of where Pickett's Charge took place.  The Confederate soldiers were ordered to march across a field, less then a mile, and aim for the Copse of Trees.  With those trees in the distance, the view makes the mission of that day a daunting one.  Not only did the soldiers have to avoid being shot but they also had to traverse uneven ground and navigate their way through many fences. 

As you continue down the left flank of the Confederate line, you eventually come to the Round Tops (Little and Big).  This section of elevation was the end of the Union line.  With its vantage points looking down all over the battlefield, whoever controlled the Round Tops had the upper hand.  As the car begins to climb the incline of the hills, you can only imagine the fierce fighting that must have taken place on those hot July days.  There is plenty to see at Little Round Top and it is sure to be one of the highlights of the tour.  The panorama that Little Round Top provides is breathtaking and the battlefield is laid out before you.  From the rocky outcroppings, you can see Devil's Den, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard.  The Confederates continued to bombard the Union line hoping for a weakness to appear.  Thankfully for the Union, the attacks did not result in any massive breaking points.  A statue of Union Gen. Warren surveys the field below from a boulder atop Little Round Top.     

Devil's Den is another popular stop and just standing in front of it, you can easily tell that the men who attempted to gain control of this area had a lot going against them.  When the Confederates made a push to take the large boulders, they assumed that the rocks would protect them.  Instead it penned them down and made it easy for the Union soldiers on Little Round Top to pick them off.  Legends began soon after that the caves and nooks of Devil's Den were haunted by dead soldiers.  From the Devil's Den, it was down the Union line.  Much like the opposing side, this line is also covered with memorials to the soldiers and individual officers.  New York, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Vermont, Ohio, Maine, New Jersey, Illinois, Indiana and Minnesota are among the states honored.  Eventually the Copse of Trees interrupt the fairly treeless landscape.  Pickett's Charge can be seen from the other side now.  From the Union line, the march looked even farther.  

Gettysburg offers so much in the way of Civil War tourism.  Within the town itself, there are countless stores hawking Civil War regalia.  Not far from Seminary Ridge is the headquarters of General Lee.  The Jennie Wade House is a favorite of tourists and ghost hunters; Wade was the only documented civilian casualty of the battle.  Speaking of ghost hunting, there are at least three different companies that offer ghost walks through the town and there is even a haunt trolley that will take you out to farther sites.                

 For more info: Visit http://www.nps.gov/GETT and http://www.gettysburg.travel/.  The movie Gettysburg is always a good film to watch before or after a visit.  It gives a great overview of the battle and the various key positions and it is more loyal to historical facts than most 'historical' movies.  For questions or comments, feel free to email me at marxentravels@gmail.com     

And special thanks to my battlefield tour guide, James Marxen.

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