Gettysburg will always be stuck in the past, because it will always be associated with the Civil War battle that bears its name, and the scores of dead who fell there.
Starting on July 1, 1863, Union and Confederate forces converged around the crossroads of Gettysburg and fought over the course of three sweltering summer days. Confederate General Robert E. Lee attempted to launch a second invasion of the North to divert action from Virginia and to pressure talk of peace in the North.
By the end of the battle there were 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing in action. It was the bloodiest battle of the war.
If it were not for the town’s bloody past, Gettysburg would be an idyllic, peaceful little town in the rolling hills of the Pennsylvania countryside. Re-enactors and guides certainly wouldn’t dress in Civil War era clothes if it were not for that fact. and Instead, the town is a tourist attraction for visitors interested in the history of the carnage that soaked the farmland in blood 154 years ago.
Even today, there is an odd detachment from Gettysburg’s past and it’s present. Essentially, the town’s surrounding area is one huge memorial–a cemetery for the thousands of soldiers who died. But families picnic and hike in the nearby woods, and kids laugh and play on the sites of some of the battlefield’s deadliest sites, including Little Round Top.
Little Round Top
On the first day of battle, the Confederates swept Federal forces from the fields north and west of Gettysburg. However, the Confederates were unable to secure the high ground to the south of town.
On the second day, Lee’s forces launched attacks on the battlefield’s heights. The Union’s left flank lay near Little Round Top, a rocky hill that dominates the surrounding territory.
Despite it’s height and obvious tactical advantage, Union forces did not occupy it when dawn broke on the second day of battle.
Five Union regiments occupied the rough land of the Devil’s Den, a place strewn with boulders as large as twenty feet across that was less than 500 yards away from Little Round Top.
Major General Gouverneur of New York was alarmed when he found Little Round Top unoccupied, essentially exposing the Union flank.
He sent aides galloping on horseback to fetch reinforcements to take up position on the hill.
A statue of Warren is mounted on Little Round Top. He remains transfixed with eyeglasses in hand, calmly surveying the lands in front of him. I speculate the monument belies the certain near-panic Warren must have been in when he ascended Little Round Top only to find a small Union survey team.
Reinforcements arrived on Little Round Top’s peak just as the fighting got underway.
At 4 p.m. Confederate forces marched through open farmland before diving into thick woods. Advancing in pockets–the main force quickly became separated in thickets and rough ground–the Confederates encountered Northern forces at the Devil’s Den.
From Little Round Top, the large dark boulders of Devil’s Den register to a sweep of the eye, but they might not be worth noting if they hadn’t seen terrible close-quater fighting.
After a pair of counterattacks, the Union forces were forced to retreat from Devil’s Den, leaving only Little Round Top to defend the North’s flank.
The initial Union reinforcements were almost overwhelmed on the hill, but once again a rider was dispatched to find anyone who could be compelled to come to the aide of the men on tip of Little Round Top.
Once again, reinforcements came, and the line somehow held off repeated attempts to take the high ground.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain–a former school professor–held the Union’s far left flank and made one of the most recognized small-unit command in the history of the U.S. military to end the engagement.
While holding the line against two advances, he ordered his men forward down the hill.
Charging into the Confederates like a swinging gate, Chamberlain pinned the surprised southerners against another Union force who had coincidentally moved into a position perfect for completing the maneuver. The Union held.
When you visit Little Round Top you can stand and survey the land beside Warren’s lifelike statue. However, it is difficult to imagine what the scene of battle looked like, or how terrible the sound of skirmishing in Devil’s Den must have sounded to the men arriving at Little Round Top. Instead, you hear the laughter of children, who scamper up and down the stone lookout tower on Little Round Top.
They can’t comprehend the enormous loss of life yet–they’re just too young to grasp how somber a place Gettysburg is or how hallowed the ground is. Sometimes a parent pulls their son or daughter aside and points out to some distant landmark to try to help them understand the soldier’s plight–tired, thirsty, sweating, fighting, scrambling, dying, bleeding out, screaming, expiring.
Still there’s a disconnect. Bodies don’t litter the grounds of Gettysburg anymore. Instead we build granite monuments that reach to the sky, lest any man forget the consequences of war or the tragedy of America’s greatest Constitutional crisis.