Following The American Civil War Trail | Darrin Henry
Battle of Gettysburg battlefield tours come in all shapes and sizes. You can choose the conventional Gettysburg bus tours, have a private guide ride in your car or join one of the walking Gettysburg tours. Gettysburg horseback tours can be booked online. But you can also buy a guide map and drive yourself around one of the sites of the most famous of American civil war battles for free, which is what we did.
Facts about the battle of Gettysburg are gorily stunning. Perhaps the most hard-hitting is the number of casualties in the battle of Gettysburg. After three days, 51,000 soldiers were left either dead, wounded or missing.
Even today the confederate flag’s history and meaning, for citizens of the USA, continues to provoke strong emotions that stem from the American civil war period. In fact, it was the confederate battle flag at the heart of a fierce national debate, that led us to the Gettysburg visitor centre, last summer. Deep in the lush countryside of Pennsylvania, USA.
Note – I cover the causes of the American Civil War further down the post, which explains how the Union vs Confederate soldiers came about. First, how our present day adventure led us to Gettysburg.
Confederate Flag Controversy in South Carolina
Around the same time that we began our two-month US road trip, America experienced another of its mass shootings, this one in Charleston, South Carolina. Nine African-Americans were gunned down and killed at their church by a 22-year-old white supremacist. It restarted an intense nationwide debate in the US concerning the racial inferences of the Confederate Battle Flag flying over the State Capitol grounds in South Carolina.
Sharon and I both recognised the confederate flag from the top the Dukes of Hazzard car we’d seen years ago in the TV show. But as debate raged on US media we soon realised, that actually, we knew virtually nothing about its history, or that of the American civil war.
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 online research, we adapted our journey to explore civil war historical sites along the way.
By the time we reached Pennsylvania we were like geeky secondary students on a field trip, excitedly programming the GPS to visit Gettysburg military national park.
Casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg and Dodgy Doctors
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 National Military Park Gettysburg.
We began at the Gettysburg Visitor Centre just outside the town. 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, meaning to drain 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, the Gettysburg Cyclorama (the nation’s largest painting) and 11 interactive exhibit galleries. You could also buy tickets for various types of guided tours and excursions, as mentioned earlier. We bought a self-drive map so we could take our time.
Gettysburg National Military Park
Leaving the Visitor Centre, map of the Battle of Gettysburg in hand, we headed through the centre of town and out to ‘stop one’ (where else), McPherson Ridge.
The Battle Of Gettysburg
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. 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 of Gettysburg re-enactment demonstrations that take place on the fields, but unfortunately none on the day of our visit. It would have been really great to have seen it.
Next stop on our 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.”
Causes Of The American Civil War
The dates and numbers are sobering. 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.
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.
At the end of the three-day battle of Gettysburg, 51,000 soldiers were either dead, wounded or missing. Staggering statistics, especially considering the headlines today when two or three US soldiers are killed in conflict zones 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 calls for the abolition of slavery gathered momentum in the north, the southern states rebelled. At first there were seven, then four more states 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.
Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery
Back in the car once again we headed off to ‘stop’ number four, the North Carolina Memorial. All the while, the town of Gettysburg was 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 light was beginning to fade. We wanted to see Soldiers’ National Cemetery (stop 16) so we headed back into town.
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.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, took place as part of the cemetery’s dedication ceremony on 19 November, 1863, four months after the battle.
We just had enough time for a wander through the cemetery, viewing the various monuments, but 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.