When any American thinks about the key places in the American Civil War, Gettysburg is without a doubt one of the first to come to mind. It was here that the war reached some kind of turning point. As I had learned in history class, prior to the Battle of Gettysburg the momentum in the war was clearly with the Confederates. The Union victory at this battle turned the tide of the war, which eventually resulted in a Union victory. I sometimes speculate that the history is actually more complicated than this narrative. But, this narrative does seem like it makes a good high-level summary, and the Gettysburg Battlefield is an important battle regardless of what other factors and events contributed to the Civil War’s outcome.
The town of Gettysburg is a fairly small town in South Central Pennsylvania close to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains. After a string of victories, Robert E. Lee determined that if he could wind a few decisive victories in “northern” towns, he could demand some form of surrender in Washington. I am guessing that meant the United States recognizing their independence. Effectively, the invasion of Gettysburg was part of a plan for the South to complete their victory.
Most of the Battle occurred just outside of town. The first shot was fired in a field a little bit west of town, as the confederates invaded from the west. It was tough to get a good picture of this monument due to the sun angle, but this marker indicates where the first shot actually took place.
Due to the chaotic nature of battles, it is hard to follow all of the events in Gettysburg in chronological order without criss-crossing paths and recovering ground. The Gettysburg Military Park offers a driving route that covers many of the battle’s key locations and events, but it does not cover them in chronological order,
One of the first places I visited after the location of the first shot is this cut in the railroad tracks that many soldiers used strategically to hide from bullet shots. What I find amazing was that this land had already been cut out and these railroad tracks had already been built. From what I remember about railroad history, 1863 was still kind of early in the development of the railroads. So, I conclude that Gettysburg was somewhat ahead of the game with regards to getting railroads through their town.
The entire battlefield area, which is quite large in area (a couple of dozen square miles) has plenty of monuments to specific people involved in the battle. And, in order to attract visitors from all places, the monuments represent both the Union and Confederate sides. This monument to Robert E. Lee is placed near a giant field where the Confederates made the final blunder of this battle. Essentially, both the Union and Confederacy had “lines” where they had set up, and faced each other from roughly a mile away. On the final day of the battle, General Pickett marched a whole bunch of Confederate soldiers right into the center of the “Union” line as part of a three-prong strategy that did not work. There were massive casualties, and some soldiers even aborted the mission. General Lee admitted his mistake to the remaining troops.
The battlefield also contained a lot of replicas of cannons from the civil war era. I could not really figure out the rhyme or reason as to why they were placed where they were placed. But, there were a lot of them.
Gettysburg is somewhat of a strange place as the area seems to have a mixture of open fields and more wooded areas. I was told that some of these areas were not as wooded in 1863 as they are today, but given how long trees live, some of these trees had to have been here in 1863. In fact, there is one section of the auto tour where the trees appeared to be a nice fall color, an added bonus of the trip. It was here, in a wooded place called “Little Round Top”, at the southern flank of the battle lines, that one of the key turning points in the battle occurred when Union troops fought back a Confederate advance on the second day of battle. It was a turning point event of a turning point battle. This one spot can almost be thought of as a place that changed history. It is amazing how what was once just a pile of rocks on a gentle slope now becomes one of the places that shaped our country and who we are.
There are also several places on site where the war turned uglier. By this I refer to areas where casualties mount, but little to no land actually changes hands. This is how I imagine the “trench warfare” during WW1 to have been. This one wheat field apparently changed hands over six times during the three day period of the battle. Hundreds upon hundreds continued to die with neither side advancing too much.
I kind of ended up on information overload a bit. There is a lot to understand about this battle, and prior to today I had really only thought of it as the battle, and the Gettysburg Address. We decided to stop for lunch at a place called the Appalachian Brewing Company, which has a whole bunch of locally brewed beers, and burgers with their label on them. I have never really seen any company burn a label into a burger bun. Last week I saw how the Louisville Slugger bat company burns their label into their bats, but a burned label into a burger bun seems quite unique and different to me. Either way, it was an interesting experience, and I left the place actually feeling a little bit tipsy after this beer “flight”.
After lunch, back on the battlefield tour, I did do a couple of things one could consider a bit goofy. I saw a spot on Little Round Top where they had created an iconic image of the Civil War, a photograph of a dead Confederate soldier. I hope I did not offend anyone when I decided to reenact this photo. Sometimes I like to feel history come to life when I visit these places. This is why I was excited to see a Civil War reenactor standing at the top of the hill. I actually wonder how often Civil War reenactments occur in Gettysburg. I imagine a lot, and I picture the 8,000 people that live in Gettysburg to run into, and even be delayed by Civil War reenactments all of the time.
The battlefield also contains memorials to all of the infantry units that fought in this battle. Each one of these memorial stones contains statistics about the number of soldiers lost in battle. Reading just some of these stones I conclude that nearly half the people who came to this battle did not leave. This, of course, is what makes war so sad. Military history can be interesting, and it sounds like fun to take part in one of those reenactments. But it is important to remember how many people do lose their lives whenever there is war.
From the statues commemorating Abraham Lincoln, and the naming of one of our oldest cross country routes the Lincolnway, the impact that the outcome of this battle has had is quite evident all around us. After hearing all of these details about the battle, strategies, events and such, my main takeaway from all of it is that General Robert E. Lee lost this battle due in part to an over aggressive strategy following a series of decisive victories. When I process this through my head it actually makes a great deal of sense to me.
I think we have all been in situations where we get arrogant, aggressive, and sloppy after a series of ego boosts. I can relate this to sports teams that blow giant halftime leads, and executives that push through major new product lines without the full vetting of the product. It is easy to get caught up in a “winning streak”, and lose sight of the need to make careful decisions. I do not know if the war’s outcome would have been different had Robert E. Lee exercised a bit more patience and due diligence at this point in time. The war had other fronts and many battles elsewhere. It is still strange to think about that possibility though, the possibility that the world could be completely different if only a few events at a key point in history had unfolded differently. Alternate history writing often makes that speculation, and also speculates about how today’s world would be had the outcome been different.
Would the Southern and Northern States have ever reconciled their differences and reunited?
When would the Confederate States have outlawed slavery?
Could this have changed the outcome of the 20th century conflicts in Europe?
These questions and many more are discussed by many writings and videos often with wildly different answers. There is no real way of knowing what would have happened had this war turned out differently. This is part of what makes it fun to speculate. However, Gettysburg is not about alternate history. It is about real history, and history we can learn from. This is why I find it important to not just learn the fact, but also the lessons. One can memorize the sequence of events in this battle, and every battle of the Civil War but still fail to take away the lessons from it. One such lesion from this battle is to make sure we all continue to make smart decisions even when our egos have been boosted and our confidence peaked by a series of victories, in any situation in life.