Gettysburg National Battlefield / Jenny Wade House Museum (Gettysburg, Pennsylvania)
Where Vultures Prospered…
Gettysburg National Battlefield, Pennsylvania
June 16, 2001
It was a lovely sultry summer day when we drove into the site of one of the greatest massacres in United States history: the National Battlefield at Gettysburg. What’s especially impressive about Gettysburg is its absolute beauty: miles of green rolling hillsides and fields, rocky outposts and lush groves, speckled with the largest collection of memorial statuary in the country. Here lie memorials to generals and sergeants, infantrymen and doctors, troops from all walks of life and all parts of the country that collided here in furious exchanges of artillery on July 1-3, 1863. The peacefulness of Gettysburg today is a remarkable contrast to the chaos that reigned here during those tragic days, when the fields were muddy with rivers of blood, the moans of dying men could be heard above the cracks of gunfire and shouts of defiance, and the smell of death hung heavy in the air for miles around. Gettysburg today is a suitably peaceful last resting place for the dead souls that still (allegedly) wander the fields.
When we first arrived at Gettysburg, we parked at the visitor’s center and crossed the street to view the famous Gettysburg National Cemetery, where over 3,500 of the Union war dead are buried. (The Southern dead were hastily buried on the battlefield until 1877 when they were exhumed and removed to the Carolinas and Virginia for reburial.) Like most military cemeteries, it’s quite dull since all the stones are virtually identical, but there were a few points of interest. Most notably, there was a large monument marking the approximate spot where Abraham Lincoln made his famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. You’ve heard it all before, but I think it deserves to be reflected upon again:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced.
It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—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..
Lincoln made this address on the occasion of the ‘Grand Opening’ (if you will) of the cemetery. You see, in the previous July there had been over 50,000 lives snuffed out or wounded in the countryside surrounding the sleepy little town of Gettysburg. With so many corpses rotting in the fields, and many of them unidentified, it was definitely time for a new national cemetery. The unidentified bodies were gathered based upon the home state of the battalion (if they could even identify that – the cemetery records include comments such as “very light hair, comb” which were the only identifying features left behind), and they were buried in mass graves in a circle surrounding the beautiful main memorial. It’s rather poignant to walk around the circle and see the rows and rows of ‘Unknown’ bodies… and think of the family and friends that must have mourned their passing, forever hoping that maybe someday, someway they’d walk through the door again. But they never did…
With a bit of sadness, we walked from the Cemetery across the road to the Visitor Center Museum. Abundant battlefield memorabilia make this a quite interesting little museum, but of course, being The Comtesse DeSpair, I was here for the macabre. And it did not disappoint me. Behold this informative exhibit on civil war medicine: “More than 600,000 men died during the Civil War. Two thirds of them died of disease, only one-third of actual battle wounds. Here at Gettysburg, about 32,000 men were wounded, 8,000 of whom died. Most of the wounds, 94%, were caused by bullets, less than 1% by bayonets. The rest were caused by cannon fire.” The femur you see here has a painful story too: “This leg bone was found with the remains of an unknown soldier on the Trostle Farm at Gettysburg long after the battle. Judging from the extensive damage and the fact that this part of the body contains a number of arteries, he probably bled to death within 20 minutes. Bullets used in the Civil War were soft and travelled slowly. When they hit a bone, they mushroomed and shattered it.” Ouch!!
Of course, one of the well-known gruesome solutions to the bullet and the damage done was amputation. Civil War Surgeons were basically nothing more than lumberjacks (or is that ‘limberhacks’) with credentials. Here’s an example of the tools of the trade. As the exhibit so tactfully stated, “We can only imagine how many arms and legs were severed with this surgical kit.” Couldn’t have said it better myself…
But a surgeon’s life during the Civil War wasn’t just a psychopathic axe murderer’s dream come true. There were dangers lurking at every corner, as this picture demonstrates: “A surgeon’s life was hard and often dangerous as the note inside the kit indicates, ‘Medical Scales—Found in the pocket of a Federal Medical Officer after Battle-Bull Run, He being one of the dead.” Bum deal, huh?
After wandering about looking at some weapons, fences with bullet holes in them, bullets from the fields, and the likes, we meandered outside and began a self-guided driving tour around the battlefield. I was delighted to see that there were many buildings still standing that dated from the time of the battle. I’m sure there was a story that went along with this picture too, but damned if I can remember it! (Luckily for me, Riley does: “I believe the photo in the Gettysburg section is the Trostle Farm, where General Sickles lost his leg”. Now, how could I forget something like that????)
The main thing about Gettysburg is the hundreds of statues, memorials (how’s this one for impressive?) and vintage cannons that litter the countryside. I found it a very interesting and unique way of not only honoring the war dead, but also chronicling this fascinating little slice of time.
The drive is really quite interesting – especially if you’re a Civil War buff, which I am not (but I could be, if I but took the time). As you drive along, there are placards that describe events of the battleand point out landmarks in the countryside that illustrate where the opposition forces were located during key moments. Even if you’re not a war buff, the serene beauty of the landscape is so peaceful and enchanting that it’s well worth the drive. But it’s best to get out of your car and wander around a bit to take in the countryside.
Of course, I don’t usually travel to someplace like Gettysburg without having a predetermined goal for the trip. In this case, I wanted to view Devil’s Den – the location of the famous (if posed) photograph of the “Confederate Sharpshooter”. (Check out this picture which was also taken in the Devil’s Den area – and tell me they aren’t of the same soldier. The photographer dragged him to a more picturesque spot to take the famous snap… but I don’t really care. It’s still an awesome image.) Before you head down into Devil’s Den (at least the direction we came), you must travel up into the Bluffs just above it — a place called “Little Round Top”. This was strategic high ground during the war, looking down, as it did, on the valley below. Devil’s Den is located where that group of rocks are near the cars. Of course, just seeing it from here made me so giddy, I nearly fainted and fell off the bluff – but I managed to hold myself together long enough to get back in the car and drive down the hill.
As I wandered down the road, I soon caught sight of the rocks that formed the back side of the Devil’s Den area. I expected that when I rounded the corner to the actual Den of Death itself, there would be a ton of people there, but I was extremely pleased to find myself there alone. I felt very moved to be standing here, after having loved the power of that photograph for many years. I was so powerfully moved, in fact, that I had to commemorate the moment by laying down in the same spot myself. (Don’t we all?)
That was obviously the high point of my trip to Gettysburg. But this was the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Yes, that little grove of trees marked the furthest point north that the southern forces managed to reach. They weren’t there long, of course, as the Union forces were able to repel their advance and win a decisive – if very costly – victory.
And that pretty much concluded the battlefield portion of our trip to Gettysburg. Except it didn’t. Because the battlefield didn’t just reside in the unpopulated countryside — its boundaries extended to the town of Gettysburg itself, where reminders of the war are still written in bullet markings on the walls of several buildings and a civilian death is given solemn remembrance at the Jennie Wade House Museum. It seems impossible to me now, but at the time I was too worn out from the days journey through the battlefields to go into the museum. Jeez, what a dummy – because if I had, I would have seen the bullet hole in the door by which poor Jennie Wade became the lone civilian casualty of Gettysburg. Here, let the placard speak for itself:
On the morning of July 1st, 1863, Gettysburg resident Jennie Wade and her family fled their town home to this brick double house shared by her sister Georgia McClellan, to distance themselves from the fighting. The Union retreat to Cemetery Hill soon placed Jennie and the rest of the household in the direct path of danger.
Despite the menace of stray bullets that constantly struck the house walls, Jennie busied herself furnishing water and baking biscuits for the many soldiers manning the nearby Union picket line.
Early on the morning of July 3rd, fate claimed Gettysburg’s only civilian fatality. Jennie was killed instantly by a random Confederate bullet while preparing biscuit dough in the kitchen. Her mother saw her fall and sadly informed the rest of the family: “… your sister is dead.”
After that fascinating diversion, I passed by a tree on my way through downtown. But this isn’t just any old tree. And this is the essence of Gettysburg – tragic history at every footstep.
And a beautiful, peaceful park as well.
For more information on Gettysburg National Military Park, also see:
Virtual Tour of Gettysburg
Military History Online