By Dan Ladd, Chronicle Outdoors Editor
Standing at the bottom of Little Round Top, one of several locations of significance in the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War (1861-1865), my wife and I and others nearby felt that the open-faced hill didn’t look all that big.
“Try climbing it when someone’s shooting at you,” I said.
We stood their imagining what it was like for a brigade of dedicated Alabama Confederate soldiers that was ordered to take Little Round Top in an effort to sweep the left flank of the Union Army of the Potomac. The Yankees, after pulling back during the first day of the three-day battle, were entrenched on the high ground in a fish-hook pattern. Little Round Top was the eye of the hook and was defended fiercely and successfully by Colonel Thomas Chamberlain’s 20th Maine Infantry.
Chamberlain ordered a desperate bayonet charge, securing a key victory for the Union Army on day two of the fighting. A monument on Little Round Top appropriately honors the “Tenacious 20th Maine.”
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought 156 years ago this week, July 1-3, 1863. It is considered the turning point in the Civil War, and it is the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.
The casualty numbers — 50,000 men, including over 7,000 killed — are astounding. Imagine the reaction today if a military engagement anywhere in the world was so costly. But a century-and-a-half ago, during the Civil War, such numbers were the norm and Gettysburg topped them all.
Today, the 40,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park is one of the most popular treasures in the eastern United States. It averages over a million visitors annually. It is massive, yet condensed when you consider that roughly 180,000 soldiers fought here for three days in the July heat in 1863.
My wife Adrienne and I are not history know-it-alls, but we sure appreciate our heritage and Gettysburg had long been on our bucket list of places to visit. So in late-April, while the weather was still cool, we booked a campsite, brushed up on our history and donned our hiking boots.
Auto tours are a common way to see a big park like Gettysburg that has miles of roads. Many folks do bus or van tours as guides lay out details of the battle — what happened where, why it was significant.
Others enjoy the park by biking through it. Horseback tours offer an alternative guided route. On top of that we saw folks enjoying the park on three-wheel scooters known as Gettypeds, and yet another group was getting around on Segways.
We adopted a new approach to an old technique. A friend had given me some literature that had a brochure and map for audio-tours. Ahead of our trip, I downloaded on my cellphone a couple of apps. One was a similar digital version of the auto-tour map handed out at the visitors center, which is the first place anyone new to Gettysburg should go.
We arrived late in the day. After setting up our campsite we went for a drive, but the visitors center was closed. Cemetery Ridge, where the Union established its lines after the first day of the battle, stands out so we drove up there, checked out some monuments and watched the sunset.
First thing next morning we were at the visitors center where there is a Civil War museum. Being a nice day, we didn’t want to be inside. I grabbed a map while Adrienne purchased a guidebook that outlined in order the events of the battle.
Soon enough, we were over on the northwest side of town where most of the action occurred on the first day.
General John Buford’s Union calvary halted a much larger Confederate force here for part of that day, buying time for reinforcements. The Confederates are credited with a victory here, and one of the key events was the death of Union General John Reynolds who was killed by a Confederate sharp-shooter.
The Union retreated through town and set up on Cemetery Ridge gaining what would be a high ground advantage during the rest of the battle.
This area where Buford fought is mostly open fields and lends itself more to road-touring than anything. The tower and building at Lutheran Seminary where Buford observed the battle still stands.
Next, we headed down Confederate Road, west of the main battlefield and opposite Cemetery Ridge. The Confederate lines were established here with the encampment to the west.
While we were trying to tour the battlefield in order of the events, it was obvious this area played a role in both the second and third days of the battle. It is famously known as the starting point for Pickett’s Charge, where Lee ordered 15,000 troops to cross a mile of open field to try to beak the Union lines. The failed attempt ended the battle on July 3, 1863.
About halfway through this drive is an impressive monument of Robert E. Lee. It marks the location where he went to greet the retreating soldiers after Pickett’s charge, and accept blame for the defeat.
A nearby monument of interest was of General James Longstreet, Lee’s second in command. Lee called him his “war horse.” Longstreet’s monument is staged in an area of the Confederate line opposite areas like the peach orchard and Round Tops, which were a big part of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Round Tops
Touring the battle events of Day 1 and Confederate Road took us most of the morning. It could’ve taken longer if we wanted to read more monuments. After lunch at our campground we headed for both Big and Little Round Top, which is at the southeastern end of the battlefield. This is where our serious walking began. We put a few miles on just getting around on these hills, as well as at Devil’s Den, which Little Round Top overlooks.
A short hiking trail leads to the top of Big Round Top where there are a handful of monuments, but limited views because it is wooded. The 20th Maine was sent here after their battle but the next morning were sent back to Cemetery Ridge.
The Round Tops and Devils Den draw perhaps the biggest number of visitors. They are easily accessible and greatly celebrated historically.
We eventually ventured to the northern end of the battlefield where the Union line was on Day 2. Here, we found something I was looking for: the 123rd New York monument of the Washington County Regiment on South Culp’s Hill.
Mustered in 1862 in Salem, it brought 495 men to Gettysburg and saw action on the second and third days. Their casualty list showed three killed, 10 wounded and one missing. We spent time honoring our hometown boys before calling it a day and spending some time in town.
Somber Day 3
The third day of the Battle of Gettysburg is considered a real heart-breaking event. During Pickett’s Charge, the Union lost 1,500 men, and the Confederates nearly 7,000, most were wounded or captured.
Cemetery Ridge has numerous impressive monuments. There, it is easy to see why the high ground was such an advantage to the Union. They may have lost it on the second day of the battle had it not been for the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which led a charge of their own against advancing Confederates. They suffered over 80 percent casualties, but prevented Cemetery Ridge from being taken.
The monuments that honor the 1st Minnesota and heroes of Day 3 are powerful. To stand there, imagining what it was like to see 15,000 men cross a mile of open ground to engage in battle is just incredible. No monument can do that justice, you have to see it and try to envision all of it for yourself. These were some brave souls, on both sides.
A trip to Gettysburg is not complete without a visit to Gettysburg National Cemetery, where soldiers from the Civil War era and onward are laid to rest, and where President Abraham Lincoln made his most historic speech.
We put several miles on our walking shoes getting around Gettysburg and don’t regret a single step. If you go down there yourself, you’ll find it one of the most historic places in America. Happy Independence Day!
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