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)

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Beyond the woods behind the Rose farm was the Wheatfield, a thirty-two-acre field over which attacks and counterattacks surged back and forth, leaving so many dead and wounded that one soldier afterward said (no doubt with some exaggeration) that he could have walked over it without touching the ground. Beyond the Wheatfield, a mile southeast of our tower, is Devil's Den, a geological marvel of huge granite boulders tumbled together to form a strong defensive position that Confederates nevertheless managed to capture. From our tower the woods block our view of the Wheatfield and Devil's Den. But another five hundred yards east of Devil's Den we can see the steep and rocky rise of Little Round Top, open and mostly free of trees on its western face. Just south of Little Round Top towers Big Round Top, more than a hundred feet higher, rugged and wooded today as it was in 1863.

When one of Lee's staff officers had scouted the Union position in this vicinity early that morning, he had spotted its left flank on Little Round Top and the line running north through low ground a half-mile east of the Wheatfield before gradually rising to Cemetery Ridge. But when Longstreet deployed for attack that afternoon, scouts reported that the Union line had moved forward with its left flank now in Devil's Den, an apex in the Peach Orchard, and a division deployed for a half-mile north along the
Emmitsburg Road (today's Business Route 15) and disconnected from the rest of the Union line back on Cemetery Ridge. What had happened? Thereby hangs a tale that spawned one of the sharpest controversies on the Union side at Gettysburg.

At the center of this controversy was Major General Daniel E. Sickles, commander of the Union Third Corps holding the south end of Cemetery Ridge with its left flank on Little Round Top. At least that was where they were supposed to be. In a war with many colorful characters, Sickles stood out with the gaudiest hues. He was the only nonprofessional (not a West Point graduate) corps commander in either army. A New York lawyer and politician, he was prominent in the Tammany Hall political machine during the 1850s. He was also a notorious womanizer, despite the beauty and charms of his wife, Teresa. Elected to Congress in 1856, Sickles may have regretted that he ever came to Washington. His wife began an affair there with Philip Barton Key, son of the composer of “The Star-Spangled Banner.” When Sickles finally discovered what was going on, in February 1859, he seized a revolver and shot Key dead in Lafayette Park, directly across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House.

The sensational trial ended in Sickles's acquittal. One of his attorneys was Edwin M. Stanton, who became Lincoln's secretary of war in 1862. Stanton argued for acquittal on grounds of temporary insanity
—the first use of that defense in the history of American jurisprudence. This argument may have helped sway the jury, but the real reason they acquitted Sickles was the “unwritten law” that justified a husband's murder of his wife's lover. Although freed under the law, Sickles was shunned by polite society. To recoup his standing, he raised a brigade (four regiments) in New York City when the war broke out, and was rewarded with appointment as brigadier general to command the brigade.

Demonstrating military ability despite no training or previous experience, Sickles hitched his star to General Joseph Hooker, who had charge of the Third Corps for a time in 1862-63. Sickles won promotion to division command and then took over the corps when Hooker became army commander in January 1863. Although he was Hooker's protege, he had opposed the commander's decision to pull Sickles back from the high ground at Hazel Grove to straighten Union lines during the battle of Chancellorsville. The Confederates had promptly moved artillery to Hazel Grove, from where they dominated Union guns on lower ground and played a key role in the Southern victory—or at least that was how Sickles saw it.

At Gettysburg he was determined not to let the same thing happen again. Sickles was unhappy about the vulnerability of his position just north of Little Round Top, which was commanded by the higher
ground in the Peach Orchard almost a mile to the west. When skirmishers discovered signs of Confederate activity in his front in early afternoon, Sickles feared that the enemy would occupy the Peach Orchard and turn it into another Hazel Grove. Therefore, without notifying Meade—indeed, in violation of Meade's orders—Sickles moved his two divisions forward to take up an inverted V position with its apex at the Peach Orchard.

For the remaining fifty-one years of his life, Sickles insisted that his action saved the Union army at Gettysburg. If so, it was at the cost of 4,200 casualties (including Sickles, who lost a leg) to his ten-thousand-man corps. But Sickles's critics—who have been legion—insisted that he almost lost the battle because his forward move left Little Round Top undefended. If the Confederates had managed to seize that hill, they could have dominated the whole Union position and perhaps have rolled up the exposed flank on Cemetery Ridge.

The argument will never be settled. When we go forward to the Peach Orchard and look east toward the position that Sickles had been ordered to hold, it will become clear why he considered the Peach Orchard a dominant site. When we later ascend Little Round Top, it will become even more clear why this rocky elevation was an even more crucial position. In any event, by the time Meade learned what Sickles
had done, it was too late to order him back to the original line.

At 4:00
P.M.
Longstreet's attack exploded from the woods along Warfield and Seminary Ridges. From right to left, one brigade after another, nineteen thousand rebels (including three brigades of A. P. Hill's corps) hit the Yankees at the Rose farm, the Wheat-field, Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, and the Trostle farm. After bitter, costly fighting they captured each of these famous locales. Mounted on his horse while watching the action from his headquarters at the Trostle farm, Sickles felt a sharp pain in his right leg and looked down to see it hanging in shreds from his thigh, almost severed by a cannonball. Although Sickles remained conscious, a rumor began to spread among his troops that he was dead. To forestall a panic, Sickles had an aide light a cigar and stick it in his mouth. He puffed away jauntily as he was carried to the rear on a stretcher. His amputated leg was preserved in formaldehyde at a medical laboratory in Washington, where in later years Sickles would take visitors to see it. We can visit his shinbone today at the Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington.

Descending from the observation tower, we will make our way to the Peach Orchard. From there a stroll of half a mile south will take us to the Rose farm and the woods beyond. A half-mile to the east of the Peach Orchard will bring us to the Wheatfield,
and a half-mile to the northeast to the Trostle farm. At each place, interpretive markers and numerous monuments explain the actions that occurred there. A further stroll a quarter-mile south of the Wheatfield will take us to the fantastic landscape at Devil's Den, and more markers and monuments. After three hours of fighting in these places, the ground was covered with at least eight thousand dead and wounded soldiers, about evenly divided between blue and gray. Meade and his subordinates skillfully fed units from the Fifth and Second Corps into the battle, using the interior lines that made the Union position so strong. These reinforcements counterattacked to regain some of the positions lost by Sickles's corps and to prevent a Confederate breakthrough on Cemetery Ridge. But when dusk turned into darkness at about 8:00
P.M.
, the Confederates still held Devil's Den, the Wheat-field, the Peach Orchard, and the Trostle farm.

Just across the road north of the Peach Orchard is the foundation of a farmhouse. In 1863 John and Mary Wentz, both in their seventies, lived in this house. Their son Henry, a carriage-maker, had moved to Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), several years before the war. In 1862 he enlisted in a Virginia artillery battery and fought at Gettysburg with that unit. Soon after the battle a legend arose that “Captain” Wentz had commanded a battery that shelled his parents’ house after Wentz had sent them to the cellar
to protect them. Then he was killed in a Union counterattack and buried in his father's backyard, his parents refusing even to look at their apostate rebel son. An enthralling story, but there is not a bit of truth to it. Henry Wentz was a sergeant, not a captain; he was nowhere near the house during the battle; and he survived both the battle and the war.

From the Peach Orchard we will head south on the Emmitsburg Road and bear left onto South Confederate Avenue. One-third of a mile farther on the right is the Alabama state monument, which marks the position from which Evander Law's tired and thirsty brigade led off Longstreet's attack. Looking to the northeast we can see the highest part of Little Round Top looming above the intervening woods. In 1863 most of those woods were not there, and the five Alabama plus two Texas regiments would have been visible from Little Round Top as they moved across the open fields toward the Round Tops in late afternoon. If the Park Service carries out its restoration plans, eighty-eight acres of woods that were not there then will be gone again by the time this book appears. Maybe.

In 1863 these troops
were
spotted from Little Round Top. When Longstreet's assault began, the only Union soldiers at this key position were a handful of signal corpsmen. Meade had sent the army's chief of engineers, Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren,
to check on affairs at Little Round Top. As Warren later told it, he asked a Union cannoneer to send a shot toward a woodlot a mile away. Confederate soldiers concealed there jerked suddenly, and Warren saw the glint of sunlight reflected from their rifle barrels. The story sounds rather fanciful, especially since the late-afternoon sun was behind the Confederates. More likely the signalmen told Warren there were Confederate troops across the way, and he soon saw them moving out from the treeline. Hurriedly sending orders for reinforcements to double-time to Little Round Top, Warren earned his niche in history.

The brigade that came was commanded by Penn-sylvanian Strong Vincent, recently promoted from colonel to brigadier general. As millions of readers and viewers of the novel
The Killer Angels
and the movie
Gettysburg
know, one of the regiments in this brigade was the Twentieth Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, ex-professor of rhetoric and modern languages at Bowdoin College. Vincent posted the Twentieth at the left of his four-regiment brigade, getting the whole brigade in position just minutes before enemy regiments began their assault on Little Round Top.

We can easily find our way to the Twentieth Maine monument, about 250 yards southeast of the Little Round Top parking area. When I first visited Gettysburg
in the 1960s, scarcely any tourist knew about the Twentieth Maine, and few ever saw its monument, which is tucked away from the others that are back on the west face of Little Round Top. After
The Killer Angels
was published in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize, the Park Service put up a sign pointing to the regiment's monument and position. After Ken Burns's video documentary
The Civil War
in 1990, which prominently featured Chamberlain, and the movie
Gettysburg
in 1993, two interpretive markers, more directional signs, a paved walkway, and an auxiliary parking lot just below the monument materialized. Now this site is the most heavily visited in the Park.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain became an iconic figure in the 1990s. More people on the tours I have led want to see where he fought than anything else. Powerful emotions have gripped some of them as they stared at the simple stone and bronze monument and their imaginations drifted back to those desperate moments about 7:00
P.M.
on that July 2. I remember one such occasion in particular. In April 1987 I took a group of Princeton students on a tour of the battlefield, as I have done many times. This year one of those students had written her senior thesis on Chamberlain, but had never before actually been to Gettysburg. As we came to the place where the Twentieth Maine fought, she could no longer hold back the
tears. Nor could the rest of us. Although I have experienced other powerful emotions while walking Civil War battlefields, none has ever matched that April day in 1987. The world has little noted what I said there, but it can never forget what they did there.

Several of Chamberlain's ancestors had fought in the American Revolution. His father had wanted young Lawrence (as his family called him) to pursue a military career. But his mother wanted him to become a clergyman. She seemed to have gotten her way; Lawrence graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Bowdoin and earned a B.D. from Bangor Theological Seminary. In 1855 he accepted a professorship at Bowdoin, succeeding Calvin Stowe, whose wife, Harriet Beecher Stowe, had written
Uncle Tom's Cabin
while Chamberlain was a student there. Chamberlain knew Mrs. Stowe, and like thousands of others he was moved by her novel to work for the abolition of slavery.

In 1862 he got his chance. Although thirty-three years old and the father of three children, he considered it his duty to fight for Union and freedom. To dissuade him, Bowdoin offered him a two-year sabbatical to study in Europe. Instead, Chamberlain went to the state capital and accepted a commission in the newly organized Twentieth Maine. He was probably the only officer in either army who could read seven foreign languages—these seven, at least: Greek, Latin, Arabic, Hebrew, Syriac, French, and German.

As the shadows lengthened toward evening on July 2, Chamberlain found himself responsible for preventing the enemy from rolling up the Union left. His orders from Vincent were to “hold that ground at all hazards.” Chamberlain soon found out what that meant. For more than an hour, repeated assaults on Vincent's brigade (eventually reinforced by another brigade) surged back and forth, constantly increasing the pressure on the left flank held by the Twentieth Maine. Chamberlain and his senior captain, Ellis Spear (one of Chamberlain's former students at Bowdoin), extended and bent back their line in an attempt to prevent this disaster. Meanwhile, off to Chamberlain's right, on the west face of Little Round Top, the battle raged fiercely as Alabama and Texas regiments advanced from boulder to boulder up the hill. Vincent was mortally wounded, a colonel and the general commanding the reinforcing brigade were killed, and the commander of an artillery battery that had struggled into position was also killed.

BOOK: Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg
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