Read Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg Online

Authors: James M. Mcpherson

Tags: #Walking - Pennsylvania - Gettysburg National Military Park, #Walking, #Northeast, #Guidebooks, #Pennsylvania, #Gettysburg National Military Park (Pa.), #Essays & Travelogues, #Gettysburg National Military Park, #General, #United States, #Gettysburg; Battle Of; Gettysburg; Pa.; 1863, #Middle Atlantic (NJ; NY; PA), #History, #Travel, #Civil War Period (1850-1877)

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg

BOOK: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg
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A
LSO IN THE
C
ROWN
J
OURNEYS
S
ERIES

Land's End
, by Michael Cunningham

After the Dance
, by Edwidge Danticat

City of the Soul
, by William Murray

Washington Schlepped Here
, by Christopher Buckley

A
LSO BY
J
AMES
M. M
C
P
HERSON

Abraham Lincoln and the Second American Revolution

Battle Chronicles of the Civil War

Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era

Crossroads of Freedom: Antietam
(Pivotal Moments in American History)

Days of Destiny: Crossroads in American History

Drawn with the Sword: Reflections of the American Civil War

Fields of Fury: The American Civil War

For Cause and Comrades: Why Men Fought in the Civil War

Gettysburg: The Paintings of Mort Kunstler

Is Blood Thicker Than Water? Crises of Nationalism in the Modern World

Lamson of the Gettysburg: The Civil War Letters of Lieutenant Roswell H. Lamson, U. S. Navy

Marching Toward Freedom: Blacks in the Civil War 1861-1865

The Negro's Civil War: How American Blacks Felt and Acted During the War for the Union

Ordeal by Fire: The Civil War and Reconstruction

The Abolitionist Legacy

The American Heritage New History of the Civil War

The Struggle for Equality

To the Best of My Ability: The American Presidents

We Cannot Escape History: Lincoln and the Last Best Hope of Earth

What They Foughtfor 1861-1865

Writing the Civil War: The Quest to Understand

To James McPherson Long
May he too befriend
Mr. Lincoln

P
ROLOGUE

I
N HIS ADDRESS
at the dedication of the cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the battle of Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln acknowledged that “in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our power to add or detract.”

More than any other place in the United States, this battlefield is indeed hallowed ground. Perhaps no word in the American language has greater historical resonance than Gettysburg. For some people Lexington and Concord, or Bunker Hill, or Yorktown, or Omaha Beach would be close rivals. But more Americans visit Gettysburg each year than any of these other battlefields—perhaps than all of them combined.

And Gettysburg resonates far beyond these shores. At least sixty thousand foreigners are among the nearly two million annual visitors to the battlefield. In 1851
the British historian Sir Edward Creasy wrote a famous book titled
Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World.
The last of the fifteen was Waterloo, fought in 1815. After the American Civil War, Creasy published a new edition with a sixteenth decisive battle—Gettysburg.

During the bicentennial commemorations of the American Revolution in 1976, a delegation of historians from the Soviet Union visited the United States as a goodwill gesture, to take part in these events. A colleague of mine on the history faculty at Princeton University was one of their hosts. When they arrived, he asked them which historic sites they wanted to visit first—perhaps Independence Hall in Philadelphia, or maybe Williamsburg and Yorktown in Virginia, or Lexington and Concord in Massachusetts. But their answer was none of these. They wanted to go first to Gettysburg.

Why Gettysburg? asked my astonished colleague. It had nothing to do with the American Revolution. To the contrary, replied the Russians; it had everything to do with the Revolution. In Lincoln's words, it ensured that the nation founded in 1776 would not “perish from the earth.” These Soviet historians may have been more familiar with Lincoln's Gettysburg Address than was my colleague. They knew that the famous opening words of that address—”Four score and seven years ago”—referred to the founding of the United States in 1776, and that Gettysburg was the
battlefield on which thousands gave the last full measure of devotion that the nation might live. These Russians also wanted to see Gettysburg first because they compared it to their battle of Stalingrad in World War II—it was the costliest battle in America's own Great Patriotic War that turned the tide toward ultimate victory.

In 1896 the United States Supreme Court handed down a decision that has stood for more than a century as a landmark in the struggle for historic preservation of hallowed ground. Not surprisingly that decision grew out of events surrounding the recent creation of Gettysburg National Military Park. The Gettysburg Electric Railway Company had built a trolley line over the southern part of the battlefield to carry tourists to Devil's Den and the Round Tops. The park wanted to buy the land and restore it to its 1863 appearance, which of course would mean removal of the trolley line. The company refused to sell. The government began proceedings to seize the land under the power of eminent domain. The case went to the Supreme Court, where the government argued that “the ground whereon great conflicts have taken place, especially those where great interests or principles were at stake, becomes at once of so much public interest that its preservation is essentially a matter of public concern.” Nowhere were such great principles at stake more than at Gettysburg, which
embodied “the national idea and the principle of the indissolubility of the Union.”

The Court agreed. The justices ruled unanimously that Gettysburg was vested with such importance for the fate of the United States that the government had the right to “take possession of the field of battle, in the name and for the benefit of all the citizens of the country.… Such a use seems… so closely connected with the welfare of the republic itself as to be within the powers granted Congress by the Constitution for the purpose of protecting and preserving the whole country.”

The battle of Gettysburg was an
event
without equal in its connection “with the welfare of the republic itself,” as the Court put it. But what is Gettysburg as a place? It is a battlefield of about ten square miles (five miles from north to south and two miles from east to west, not counting East Cavalry Field) surrounding a county-seat town of about eight thousand people today, 2,400 at the time of the battle in 1863. It is located seventy-five miles north of Washington, 115 miles west of Philadelphia, and only eight miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, which forms the border between Pennsylvania and Maryland. From the town of Gettysburg a dozen historic (and modern) roads radiate to every point of the compass—a major reason why a great battle was fought there, for the road network enabled the armies to concentrate there quickly after the opening clashes.

Although it is the home of Gettysburg College and of a Lutheran theological seminary, the main business of Gettysburg today is tourism. Most of those nearly two million visitors to the battlefield spend money in town. Many tourist services flourish, from restaurants and motels to shops selling every kind of trinket and relic, from “ghost tours” and a wax museum to bookstores and picture galleries. Some of these businesses are cheek by jowl with the National Military Park, which includes more than four thousand acres on which most of the fighting took place during those first three days of July 1863.

No tourists came to Gettysburg before that time. It was then a market town for a large and prosperous agricultural hinterland. The area was a famous fruitgrowing region; no fewer than thirty-eight orchards existed on what became the battlefield. All of them are gone today except part of the famous Peach Orchard where the Confederates broke Dan Sickles's line on July 2, plus two ornamental fruit orchards on Cemetery Hill and at the site of the Bliss farm, across which some of the Pickett-Pettigrew attackers marched on July 3. The Park Service has long-term plans to plant replica orchards where they existed in 1863—but don't hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

I have lost count of the number of times I have been to Gettysburg. I have toured the battlefield by car, by bus, on a bicycle, and on foot. Over the past
twenty years I have taken Princeton students, alumni, friends, and miscellaneous groups on at least two dozen tours of the battlefield. I have made so many visits to the college and town, as well as the battlefield, that Gettysburg has become almost a second home. I honestly believe that if I were blindfolded and winched down from a helicopter to any spot on the battlefield on a moonlit night, I could remove the blindfold and identify my surroundings within minutes.

I would not have known where I was on many parts of the battlefield in 1863, however. Not only did all those orchards exist then, but there are also some six hundred acres of woods today that were cleared then, and about 150 acres of cleared land today that were wooded in 1863. Another six hundred acres of woods that existed in the same places then as now were woodlots in 1863, where farmers harvested dead trees and some live ones for fuel and fencing. They also allowed livestock to graze in some of these wood-lots, which kept them free from undergrowth. Many of the woodlots were therefore open and parklike in 1863, enabling troops to move through and fight in them where saplings and undergrowth today would make such activities impossible.

The Park Service plans to remove 150 acres of woods that did not exist in 1863, to reforest fifty acres (plus the orchards) where woods did exist in 1863, and to cull some trees from the six hundred acres of wood-
lots. When they have done so, it will be easier to see and understand the lines of sight, approach, and combat that existed in 1863 (though the culled woodlots will soon grow up in brush and saplings again in the absence of grazing livestock, for which the Park Service has no plans). Until (and even after) this cutting and culling happens, however, the first thing a tour guide must tell listeners is to imagine a cleared field or a parklike woodlot where there are thick woods today, or imagine an orchard or a grove where there are none today. Such a feat of imagination is not always easy.

What brought those 165,000 soldiers—75,000 Confederate, 90,000 Union—to Gettysburg during the first three days of July 1863? Why did they lock themselves in such a deathgrip across these once bucolic fields until 11,000 of them were killed and mortally wounded, another 29,000 were wounded and survived, and about 10,000 were “missing”—mostly captured. By way of comparison, those 50,000 casualties at Gettysburg—27,000 Confederate,

23,000 Union-were almost ten times the number of American casualties on D-Day, June 6, 1944. What was accomplished by all of this carnage? Join me for a walk on this hallowed ground, where we will try to answer these questions.

BOOK: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg
10.66Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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