I expected Gettysburg to look like a battlefield. To be wide open, possibly filled with uniformed reenactors, and flanked on all sides by tourists with lens-heavy Canons. And strewn with Civil War bullets, just waiting to be spotted by a sharp-eyed speculator like myself.
More subtle than my imaginings, Gettysburg is a town in Pennsylvania. Before the battle, it was small. It contained shops, a seminary, and a few brick houses with porches protruding into thick hydrangeas. It was a town dissected by roads running from every direction. These roads made it attractive to both the Union and Confederate armies: Supplies and men could be brought in easily. But there was never meant to be a battle, our guide explained. And somehow it ended up being the bloodiest of all.
Outside of town, the ground slopes up and down softly. There are hills with familiar names. I remember my middle school history teacher reciting them to us: Cemetery Hill, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill. Between the hills and the advantages they provided to those upon them, are other battle landmarks. The peach orchard. The wheat field, which switched occupants–from Northerners to Southerners and back again–four times in one hour. The boulder-studded field that Pickett’s forces charged across, headed for the clump of trees upon the ridge and the perceived weakness in the Union line. Wooden fences and rock walls (leftover from some long-ago farmer’s plowing) border fields. The wooden fences are not original, but are built, so we were told, on the same spots they once occupied. The crops, too, are in the process of being planted in their pre-battle places. The peach trees are young.
The only bits of modernity which have been left alone by the National Park Service are the monuments. A few decades after the war, veterans returned to the battle site to explain to researchers what had happened where. And to dedicate monuments to their brave regiments, to their commanding officers. States built monuments too, so that scattered throughout almost all of Gettysburg are marble pillars and metal statues. Most northern states are represented, but–unsurprisingly, given the location of the battlefield, the outcome of the battle, and the outcome of the war–there are fewer monuments from southern states.
In order to know what we were looking at, we went to the Visitors’ Center first. It boasts a brief film narrated by Morgan Freeman, a museum packed with artifacts, and something called the Cyclorama. Mom and I decided that the Cyclorama must be a ride of sorts, and spent the first part of the presentation waiting for the floor to move. It didn’t, but the room-sized, cylindrical painting depicting the entire battle of Gettysburg was impressive.
Later in the afternoon, we took a bus tour led by a licensed guide. That’s a federally licensed guide: apparently when Civil War veterans went back to visit the battlefields, they were appalled by the inaccuracies spread by unofficial tour guides. The veterans managed to pass a bill requiring those who give paid tours in National Military Parks to obtain licenses first. The process for getting such a license is grueling: application, written exam, training seminar, and oral examination. It was a good decision to take the bus tour. Undoubtedly as a result of his extensive testing, our guide was able to go into great detail regarding the battle. Using landmarks, he explained to us how far the lines of troops extended, where different regiments were stationed, and how both sides moved on each of the three days of the battle. I typically don’t care much about military tactics, but it was fascinating to learn about the struggle for high ground and the usefulness of the roads and the town.
Most interesting to me was the aftermath. Once both sides had moved out–the Confederates first and then the Yankees “in cautious pursuit”–the town was entirely altered. Wounded men, most of whom were already or would shortly become amputees, filled all corners of nearly every building in town. Trees and homes were pocked with bullet marks or decimated from cannon fire. Crops were trampled. Bodies choked the land for miles. One witness reported that on July 4th, 1863–the day after the battle ended–one could walk from one end of the wheat field to another without touching the ground. The dead were buried in shallow graves, many to be uncovered by heavy rainfall. Horses were considered too difficult to bury, and so most were piled and burned. Even four months after Gettysburg, when President Lincoln arrived to dedicate the cemetery and deliver his Gettysburg Address, audience members reported feeling nauseous from the lingering stench of death.
It was a haunting place to visit, more so because it doesn’t look at all as you’d expect the site of 51,000 deaths to look.