Thursday, July 4, 2013

Reflections on Gettysburg's 150th

Since returning to Cooperstown on Tuesday, I've spent some time reflecting on my experiences during my time in Gettysburg earlier this week. Overall, I had a memorable experience exploring the battlefield and taking advantage of the Park Service's many interpretive offerings.

Ranger Chris Gwinn finds some shade for his group as he explains the fighting north of town on the Gettysburg Plain.

I decided to divide up my time between battlefield experience programs, commemorative events, and some hiking and exploring on my own. I was staying about 35 minutes outside of Gettysburg, but I did my best to get to the field as early as possible each day to maximize my time. I arrived in town on the afternoon of June 29th, just in time for Chris Gwinn's battlefield experience program following the movements of the 11th Corps north of town on July 1st. It was the quiet before the storm - a small crowd (by 150th anniversary standards) of about 70 took part in the program. Gwinn walked us to various positions between Barlow's Knoll and the Mummasburg Road, and introduced us to the men and officers of the 11th Corps. The program ended around 5:30, and after a quick dinner I was back on the battlefield for the evening, where I traced the counterattacks of the 1st Minnesota and Willard's brigades as best that I could. Unfortunately, there's currently no easily accessible path down to the Plum Run Swale in the area where George L. Willard met his demise on the evening of July 2nd, at least that I could find. The commemorative landscape and interpretive signage in this area tends to draw attention to the 1st Minnesota's sacrifice, but there is not much to alert visitors of the charge of the "Harper's Ferry Cowards."

The sinking sun peaked out behind some clouds as I walked on Cemetery Ridge on the evening of June 29th.

Due to my event in Bendersville, I did not arrive in town on June 30th until about 3:30. The big event on this day was of course the "New Birth of Freedom" program to kick off the anniversary. The program itself, which featured voice actors reading accounts of the battle with the West Point Band providing live background music, was interesting. The major disappointment was Dorris Kearns Goodwin's keynote address. Many found the address politicized and controversial. My major complaint was that she spent a great deal of time discussing her own experiences, and 20th and 21st century historical events, but made little or no effort to draw connections to the Battle of Gettysburg. Following the speech, thousands of visitors processed to the cemetery with lit candles to view the illumination of the cemetery's Civil War graves.

The Illumination in the National Cemetery.

On July 1 - I was on the field at about 6:15. Rather than head out to the first day's battlefield, I headed down to the southern end of the field, where I had Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard to myself for about 2 hours. Then I headed back to Ziegler's Grove, parked my car, and headed out to take part in what for me was the most memorable experience of the anniversary, Dan Welch and Scott Hartwig's "Last March of the Iron Brigade" battlefield experience program. I can't convey how amazing it was to hike in the footsteps of the Iron Brigade, on a morning that closely mirrored the weather of July 1st, 1863, with about 1200 others. It's an experience I'll never forget. Accompanying the crowd were about 60 members of the Liberty Rifles, a group of living historians, complete with fife and drums. These reenactors led the march as the whole group set off from the fields around the Codori Farm toward Seminary Ridge to the sounds of "The Campbells are Coming." At intervals, we would halt as Hartwig and Welch went into detail about many of the men in the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, the 24th Michigan, and the 19th Indiana. We arrived at the Lutheran Seminary and marched out into the swale between Seminary and McPherson's Ridge. At that point, the Liberty Rifles swung into battle line, unshucked a replica of the colors of the 19th Indiana, and double-quicked toward McPherson's Ridge shouting like devils. The program concluded with Hartwig and Welch telling us what happened on July 1st to each of the men they had introduced along the march, and how those that survived fared afterward as well.

Early morning on Little Round Top, July 1, 2013.

I spent the afternoon hiking on the first day's battlefield, especially on Oak Ridge and on the new walking path on Seminary Ridge, before heading into town for the "Rebels, Yankees, and Civilians" battlefield experience program at Pennsylvania Hall on the Gettysburg College Campus. Throughout the day, I made a special effort to observe the crowds. While my observations were by no means scientific or comprehensive, I was surprised by what I saw. I anticipated that the anniversary audience would skew older, and would consist largely of battlefield buffs who had made many trips to Gettysburg before. Certainly, this audience was in town in full force. But I also noticed again and again many family audiences with teenagers and younger children, and what appeared to be many first time visitors. I even heard several of the latter remark to each other that they wanted to return to Gettysburg sometime when it was less crowded to see more. If my observations are at all indicative, I think this anniversary will encourage new interest in visiting Civil War battlefields. Here's hoping.

Of course, there were programs especially designed for the hardcore battlefield enthusiasts. On the morning of July 2nd I attended Troy Harman's 6:30 a.m. battlefield experience program, following in the footsteps of Captain Samuel Johnston's recon. Though it was early, several hundred people turned out for this program. As is to be expected with the early hour and a niche topic, I noticed that most of the attendees were the older, experienced battlefield buffs that I had expected to see throughout the weekend. Harman marched the group essentially down Confederate Avenue from the Longstreet Tower to the Soldiers and Sailors Memorial, pointing out vantage points of the federal position, as well as vantage points of the route Harman believes Johnston followed. Harman concluded that he believed Johnston did in fact make it to one of the Round Tops, and that he likely also saw bivouacked troops of the Third Corps. After the war, Johnston only claimed that he saw no troops "prepared for action."

Troy Harman leads visitors on an early morning tour, July 2nd, 2013.

Sadly my time in Gettysburg came to an end at about 11 a.m. on July 2nd. Overall, I felt there was a nice balance to the NPS programming. Any visitor could find something of interest, whether they were a novice battlefield explorer, a family with young children, or the self-proclaimed expert who thought they knew it all. I also enjoyed the overarching themes of the entire event. I think visitors who paid close attention came away with a basic understanding why the war was fought and the motivations of soldiers on both sides. The Park Service did an excellent job exploring the realities of war, and the cost that soldiers and civilians alike paid. Finally, I hope visitors left understanding that the fight to define the meaning of of freedom and equality - a conflict which brought on the Civil War - is a struggle that has reverberated throughout American history.

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