AMERICAN CIVIL WAR TRAIL | Darrin Henry
Over a three day period from 1-3 July, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg claimed 700 soldiers’ lives every hour, more than any other battle on American soil, before or since. And that’s a conservative estimate; it is believed by some that real numbers are actually a lot higher.
The Fuss Over The Confederate Flag
It was a bizarre sequence of real-time events that led us to the famous town of Gettysburg last summer, deep in the lush countryside of Pennsylvania, USA.
A mass shooting had restarted an intense nationwide debate in the US concerning the Confederate Battle Flag flying over the State Capitol grounds in South Carolina, around the same time we began our two month road trip.
We’d heard of the American Civil war before; we’d seen the confederate flag on the Dukes of Hazzard car, but we soon realised, that actually, we knew very little beyond that. The flag saga brewed on TV each night making compelling viewing after we’d checked into our new motel along the trip. It stirred a curiosity in us both to learn more about what was causing so much angst with everyone, so with a little research online we adapted our journey to explore civil war historical sites along the way.
By the time we reached Pennsylvania we were like geeky students on a field trip and Gettysburg was soon punched into the GPS.
Dodgy Doctors on Duty
From our motel near Harrisburg, we drove in to Gettysburg for a day visit. The town of Gettysburg itself is quite small, just one square mile perhaps, but is surrounded by a much larger area of rolling, green fields, now designated the Gettysburg National Military Park.
We began at the Visitor Centre just outside the town. Inside we toured the free exhibits and sat in on a talk being given in the garden about medical practices during the civil war. Many of the soldiers died as a result of injuries sustained during battles followed by poor treatment practices of the time. In fact, twice as many soldiers died from disease during the war than from combat. One technique of the time was bloodletting, or draining blood from the body which it was believed was a way of removing disease. Scary stuff!
I should mention there were other attractions within the Centre which required an admission fee, including a special film narrated by Morgan Freeman, a Cyclorama (the nation’s largest painting) and 11 interactive exhibit galleries. You could also buy tickets for various types of guided tours and excursions, however, driving yourself around the Military Park was also an option, which we chose.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Leaving the Visitor Centre, Battlefield map in hand, we began the self-drive auto tour, heading through the centre of town and out to ‘stop one’ (where else) which was McPherson Ridge.
Back in 1863 the battle began to the west of McPherson Ridge. There are now monuments and memorial tablets erected all along the route in tribute to the fallen. The road verges and open fields were all immaculately kept and in the lazy, peaceful heat of summer with other tourists stopping to take pictures and wander about, it was hard to imagine the human carnage that once littered the area.
Apparently there are battle re-enactments or demonstrations that take place on these fields, but unfortunately none on the day of our visit. It would have been really great to have seen.
Next stop on the auto tour was the Eternal Light Peace Memorial followed by Oak Ridge Observation Tower. The memorial dedication took place in 1938 with more than 1,800 Civil War veterans in attendance. The inscription reads, “Peace Eternal in a Nation United.”
Why The American Civil War Took Place
The dates and numbers are gorily fascinating. The very word, ‘Gettysburg’ is one of those epic historic references that I assumed happened further back than it did, but it was just 153 years ago. At the end of the battle of Gettysburg, 51,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing. That’s over 700 every hour for three days solid! Staggering numbers considering how headlines are made today when two or three US soldiers are killed in conflicts around the world. A clear sign of the different times we now live in.
The American Civil War itself lasted four years, 1861-1865, fought between 11 Confederate states in the south and 23 Union states in the north.
At the heart of the issues that triggered this brutal and bloody period, was the southern dependence on black slave labour to support its agriculture based economy, especially the growing of cotton and tobacco. As the abolition of slavery calls gathered momentum in the north, the southern states rebelled, with first seven, then four more seceding from the Union to form a separate nation, the Confederate States of America.
The north rejected this break-up of the United States, itself just newly formed from the 1776-1783 revolution. Led by President, Abraham Lincoln, who was elected a few months earlier to the anti-slavery Republican Party, the northern states set about regaining control of the renegade south. Tensions finally turned to conflict and civil war broke out on 12 April, 1861. By the time the last shot was fired in 1865 the American Civil War had claimed the lives of some 620,000 soldiers and decimated the population and territories of the south.
Soldiers’ National Cemetery, Gettysburg
Back in the car once again we headed off to ‘stop’ number four, the North Carolina Memorial. The town of Gettysburg always visible down the gentle slope to our left. Everything about the Gettysburg National Military Park was immaculate; mowed grass, neatly trimmed trees, perfect brick buildings, gleaming signage and not a trace of litter. Like a movie set.
The Virginia Memorial was next with the large statue of Confederate General Lee and then a longer drive to Pitzer Woods. We had completed six of the sixteen stops on the auto tour, but the day was coming to an end and we wanted to see Soldiers’ National Cemetery (stop 16) so we headed back into Gettysburg.
Four Score and Seven Years Ago – The Gettysburg Address
Once inside the cemetery we made a beeline to the Lincoln Rostrum, a memorial to President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address. It’s become one of the most famous speeches of all time, just 272 words, which he took about two minutes to deliver. The full text was inscribed on a plaque alongside the bust, although the speech itself was delivered about 300 yards away at a site now marked by the Soldiers’ National Monument. The light was fading fast and clouds were beginning to cover the sky, but my decision to wait around was rewarded when a sliver of sunshine peeked through for a photo of the Lincoln Rostrum.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, took place as part of the cemetery’s dedication ceremony on 19 November, 1863, four months after the battle.
There was just time for a wander through the cemetery viewing the various monuments and then we had to hit the road. A summer storm was threatening and we wanted to be back at the motel well before it broke.
As to the row over the flag? Well, it was eventually taken down and placed in a nearby museum.