Walking the Good and Bad Ground at Gettysburg


Friends of Padre Steve’s World,

I’m in Gettysburg this weekend getting a chance to do some research and walking areas of the battlefield that I have stopped at but never fully explored on foot. Trust me, there is a difference when you actually walk the ground versus making stops and looking around.


I drove up this morning and thankfully traffic was light and there were no traffic jams at any point along the way which meant I made the trip in just a bit over four hours. When I got here I checked into my hotel, unloaded my stuff and set to work walking the route I had planned out. My hotel is right at the base of East Cemetery Hill where the Union troops rallied on the night of July 1st 1863. I decided that I would walk through the town and up to McPherson’s Ridge where John Buford’s cavalry and John Reynolds’s First Corps fought A.P. Hill’s Third Confederate Corps, before turning north past the unfinished Railroad Cut and Oak Ridge on my way to Oak Hill where Confederate General Robert Rhodes’ division of Dick Ewell’s Second Confederate Corps went into action.


Oak Hill is the site of the Eternal Peace Monument which was dedicated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1938 as a symbol of reconciliation between the North and South. It bears the words “Peace Eternal in a Nation United”. That was a mere seventy-nine years ago and my heart breaks when I see the same forces at work which tore apart the nation in the years before the Civil War, and sadly they are being stirred up by President Trump who more resembles the incompetence of James Buchanan coupled with the malevolence of Jefferson Davis than Abraham Lincoln, or the loyal opposition of Stephen Douglas.



As I looked out from that high ground I saw the beautiful Pennsylvania countryside still covered in Fall foliage with fields of Sorghum ready for harvest, and cornfields waiting to be plowed over for the next season. Directly in front of me was the ground that two of Rodes’s brigades, those of Alfred Iverson and Edward O’Neal, both incompetent pro-secession political generals sent their units into the attack leading to their slaughter. As I walked into the field where those soldiers fell I felt a certain amount of sadness for them. Yes, most of them made the choice to enlist in the Confederate cause, while others joined out of peer pressure, or others because they were drafted: but none signed up to be slaughtered at the hands of their incompetent commanders. One regiment, the 23rd North Carolina lost 89% of the men it took into battle in barely half an hour of combat. As I walked across that swale in front of Oak Ridge where the men of John Robinson’s division awaited them I was struck by the tragedy of men who went into battle for an unjust and unrighteous cause who fell in such large numbers on July 1st 1863. I wrote in the draft of my yet unpublished Gettysburg book:

When the Confederates got to about fifty yards of Baxter’s troops the commander of the 83rd New York, the Swiss born lieutenant Colonel Joseph A. Moesch shouted: “Up men, and fire.” Moesch rode behind his line cheering his men on, but they needed no urging. In the words of one of one, “The men are no longer human, they are demons; a curse from the living here, a moan from the dying there. ‘Give them — shouts one.’ See them run’ roars another.” The well concealed veterans of Baxter regiments slaughtered them as they had O’Neal’s men just minutes before. “One regiment went down in such a neat row that when its survivors waves shirt tails, or any piece of cloth remotely white, Iverson thought that the whole regiment of live men were surrendering.” As the Confederate attack collapsed some “of the regiments in Robinson’s division changed front again, charged, and captured nearly all the men who were left unhurt in three of Iverson’s regiments.” Official Confederate reports list only 308 missing but that number differs from the Union reports, Robinson reporting 1000 prisoners and three flags and Baxter’s brigade nearly 400. As Robinson’s troops smashed the brigades of O’Neal and Iverson, they were joined by the remnants of Cutler’s brigade which changed its face from west to north to deliver more devastating fire into the Confederates.



From there I went over to Oak Ridge and then made my way to Blocher’s Knoll, now know as Barlow’s Knoll. Once you leave Oak Ridge the ground to the east is flat and relatively devoid of any good defensive positions. The Union Eleventh Corps Commander, Major General Oliver O. Howard sent two of his understrength divisions under the command of Carl Schulz to link up with the right flank of Robinson’s division and extend the Federal line to prevent it from being flanked. Unfortunately, one of the division commanders, Francis Barlow decided to advance his division to Blocher’s Knoll which was a mile in front of where Schurz and Howard intended. Noticing what was going on Schurz ordered the other division under the command of Schimmelpfenning to extend its line to maintain contact with Barlow’s division. But there were not enough troops to fill the gap. The line was barely a skirmish line and with no good defensive ground it could do little to stop a determined Confederate attack. Which was exactly what occurred.


George Doles’s brigade of Rodes division, strongly supported by artillery attacked the thin blue line of Schimmelpfenning’s division just as Gordon and Hays Brigades of Jubal Early’s division enveloped Barlow’s terribly exposed division. The men of Barlow and Schimmelpfennig’s divisions made a spirited and fierce defense before they were overwhelmed and retreated to Gettysburg, some making a fighting retreat, others fleeing the Confederate advance, many were killed, wounded or captured. Barlow lay wounded and was given aid by John Gordon who later became a lifelong friend. Schimmelpfennig was rescued from certain capture by a woman in the town who allowed him to hide in a shed behind her home as the Confederates moved into the town.


The memorials to these forgotten and often slandered soldiers line the road from the Mummasburg Road to Barlow’s Knoll. They did fight hard as A private of the 61st Georgia Infantry of Gordon’s brigade noted that the XI Corps troops “stood firm until we got near them. Then they began to retreat in good order. They were harder to drive than we had known them before….Their officers were cheering their men and behaving like heroes and commanders of ‘the first water’”

The 157th New York, was order to help shore up the line. The regiment advanced and engaged in a furious twenty minute fight, continuing the battle “in Indian fashion” until Schurz ordered them to retreat. The gallant 157th sacrificed itself buying time for others to withdraw and left over 75 percent of its men on the battlefield, when the order came, “less than fifty of the 157th were able to rise out of the wheat and follow.” “So the horrible screaming, hurtling messengers of death flew over us from both sides,” recollected a New York soldier. “In such a storm it seemed a miracle that any were left alive.” Krzyzanowski described the scene as “a portrait of hell.”

When one walks that ground it is impossible how that any unit of similar size or composition could have held against the massive pincer attack of Doles’s brigade and Early’s division on Barlow’s exposed position.


As I walked back into town I could imagine the chaos of the retreating Union troops as well as the victorious Confederates as day turned into evening. The Union troops who escaped made their way to link up with Steinwehr’s division and the Eleventh Corps artillery which had been positioned on Cemetery Hill as well as the survivors of the Union First Corps which had fought the Confederate Third Corps to a standstill before being forced back due to weight of numbers. I finished my walk by going up to Cemetery Hill where with the sun beginning to go down I walked among the graves of the fallen Union soldiers and a monument to John Reynolds who fell on McPherson’s Ridge.

As I noted a couple of months ago when I described my walk at Antietam, there is something immensely valuable about walking these battlefields. First, one gets to experience the elements of weather, distance, and terrain which are helpful in understanding what it was like for the soldiers involved. Second, one can see the battle from the perspective of those soldiers, imagining what it would be like to be deal with being under fire on that ground. One understands what men like John Buford and John Reynolds meant when they said that certain terrain was “good ground.” You don’t understand that until you walk it.


I finished tonight with a friend who met me here going to a number of pubs and walking through the town. While walking I saw a number of the churches that served as field hospitals, including Christ Lutheran. The horror of those hospitals is unimaginable to most of us. I have worked in inner city trauma centers and been in field hospitals in Iraq with our wounded and nothing can really prepare you for the horror of blown up, destroyed, and burned bodies of still living men on a such a massive scale.

But what I have experienced pales in comparison to what occurred at Gettysburg and Antietam, and what will certainly happen if war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula. I have been in the military all my adult life and I dread what I see coming, but since I know that chances are that it will happen I prepare myself and the men and women who serve under me for it. Sadly, most people, even those who have experienced combat in our recent wars are capable of imagining the carnage and horror of the next war. As a historian and a chaplain who has seen combat and a lot of other violent death I can well imagine it and no I don’t sleep well with that knowledge, especially when I see our President rattling sabers so often with seemingly little concern for the men and women that he will be committing to combat. In light of how he has dealt with the deaths of U.S. military personnel since he has been in office, taking no responsibility for any of them, passing the responsibility to military leaders, I tremble at the thought of what his next tweet might bring, but I digress.

Anyway, tomorrow begins another day of exploring parts of the battlefield on foot. Today I walked just over thirteen miles. I think that tomorrow I may well exceed that. I will tell you about that walk tomorrow night.

Peace,

Padre Steve+

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Filed under civil war, Gettysburg, History, leadership, Military

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