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History lessons at Gettysburg

© By Mike Keenan

  Prior to visiting Gettysburg, I read Michael Schaara's The Killer Angels concerning the battle of Gettysburg from July 1-3, 1863, told from the perspectives of John Buford, Joshua Chamberlain, James Longstreet, Robert E. Lee, and other military leaders. I recommend it as essential reading prior to any visit as it will place you there in the midst of the actual struggle. The monuments will come alive. Also, before anything else, tour the Visitors' Center.
     On the top floor, there are countless pictures of soldiers decorating the walls, grim and austere with no smiles. Given the carnage then between north and south, it seems appropriate. Depicted also are the myriad ways that the soldiers died or were wounded.
     From one of many displays, I learn that "sharpshooters" were the best marksmen, acting as "skirmishers" who fanned out to observe and engage the enemy at a distance. I observed 15-pound rifles and one 36-pounder. Sharpshooters tried to pick off officers. To qualify, at two hundred yards distance, they had to place 10 consecutive shots in the target no more than 5 inches from the bull's-eye. At one-eighth of a mile, these men hit a man with every shot. At one quarter of a mile, it was two out of three and at one-half of a mile, they hit one out of three. This must have been disconcerting for the enemy, particularly the officers. Sharpshooters were distinguished by their forest green wool uniforms, which provided cover for their art.
     From the Center, there are Parks Service tours and a 10-minute orientation film that ends with Lincoln's Gettysburg address. On the second level, many rifles and cannons were displayed. The cavalry used smaller guns, carbines, which were accurate at 500 yards. There's a fascinating clothing display which includes the impressive Zouave uniforms. Also included are signaling devices, camp arrangements for officers and enlisted men, samples of head gear and drums and bugles as each regiment had their own fife and drum corps. There were 50 different drum beats and commands to learn for a drummer, different cadences from marching commands to assembly for breakfast, retreat, moving forward, etc.
     From another display, I learned of the strange geographic twist to this historic battle. The southern troops approached from the north and the opposite for the northern regiments. General Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter, and he was replaced by General Abner Doubleday, connected with the advent of baseball.
     Most soldiers used muzzle-loading muskets with mini-balls that were lethal at 200 yards and even at a thousand yards, still effective. The battle saw 350 cannons on one side versus 270 cannons for the other. There were more US lives lost here than in Kosovo, World War I and II combined. In WWI, there were 16,511 casualties and in WWII, 405,399. However, in the Civil War, 622, 511 lives were lost.
     A mix of morning gore unified the dead. Medical treatment was basic. 600,000 died from injuries during the Civil War, two-thirds from disease and one third from wounds. At Gettysburg alone, 32,000 were wounded of which 8,000 died. 94% of the casualties were caused by bullets, less than 1% from bayonets and about 5% from cannon.
     The video is an excellent start to appreciate the battle which claimed an astronomical 61,000 casualties. Vicksburg was next and four months later, the National Cemetery was dedicated with the most famous speech in American history.
     We rented an audio tape that accompanied us as we explored the battleground. The population of Gettysburg was only 2,400 at the time of war; now, it's 8,000. From the tape, I discovered that the popular song, "Dixie," was written by a northerner and that the Mason-Dixon Line, a mere 6 miles from Gettysburg, is the line that separates Pennsylvania from Maryland. Mason and Dixon were two surgeons.
     Of all of the monuments that frame the battlefield, the Virginia monument, unveiled June 8th, 1917, is one of most famous in the world, depicting "traveler," Robert E. Lee's horse, the only statue of a southern general in the entire park. The Pennsylvania monument is the largest in the park, erected in 1910. One-third of those who served in the battle were from Pennsylvania.
     As we travelled around Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill across the battlefield the audio tape revealed interesting stories and provided background with suggestions as to what to see and where to stop. There were sound effects such as horse's hooves, wagons, music, etc., all helping one get into the spirit of what actually transpired.
     90,000 horses were employed in the battle. "Old Baldy" was Meade's horse. General Butterfield was Meade's chief of staff. He didn't like the sound of the last bugle call at night, so he whistled a tune and asked the bugler to perform the same melody for the last call at night, which the bugler performed. This became known as "taps" or reveille.
     There are many pictures at the Center, featuring various brigades, for example, the Irish brigade, the fighting 69th of New York with their Celtic across and wolfhound insignia. At Trostle Farm, visitors see artillery shell holes in the grain floor. This was Dan Sickles' headquarters. In 1914, he died, 51 years after the battle, outliving all of the other generals. He was responsible for the establishment of Gettysburg National Park in 1895, persuading Congress to pass the bill.
     There is a dramatic replay at the Center of the scene from the "Angle," forcing Pickett's futile charge which resulted in 7,000 dead bodies. Gettysburg marks the high water mark of the Confederacy and the turning point of the Civil War.
     Statistics abound. The Union army employed 200,000 soldiers under the age of 16 while a full 300 "men" were not yet 13.
     There are approximately 400 cannons on display here, most of which have their original barrels; however, their carriages are reproductions, having succumbed to the weather.
     A highlight of our stay was the Battlefield B&B where we were treated to daily demonstrations of authentic Civil War clothing, weaponry, including shooting muskets outside, and displays throughout the home, located on the fringe of the park. We bumped into Civil War historians there to study the famous battle. In the evening, guest lecturers discussed aspects of the war and its titanic battles. If you want to absorb the history, this is where to stay.


Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.

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