Yesterday I wrote about my walk around the areas of the Battle of Gettysburg which transpired on the afternoon of July 1st 1863. Today was my crack at doing my best to experience walking the areas of the battlefield that were contested on July 2nd 1863 when Robert E. Lee ordered James Longstreet to assault the Federal left on the basis of Dick Ewell and Jubal Early’s intransigence in ordering a follow up assault on the Federal right, coupled with inaccurate information Lee had about where the end of the Federal line was. The result was the attacks by Longstreet’s divisions which came perilously close to succeeding but which after some of the bloodiest fighting during any three and a half hour period of the war were repulsed by Union troops the Third, Second, and Fifth Corps.
The engagements of that afternoon and evening are etched in our national conscience. Devil’s Den, Little around Top, the Bloody Wheat Field, and the Peach Orchard, not to mention the fights along Rose’s Woods, the Stoney Ridge, Trostle Farm, and Plum Run are each microcosms of the battle, each with heroes, villains, and tactical geniuses and idiots. But my purpose tonight is not to dissect those battles, I am doing that in a text about the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead it is to reflect upon military history and what the men who fought the battle endured.
If you want to understand military history and want to do so without having actually been to war or having taken the time to try to see and walk the ground the soldiers trod firsthand make a critical mistake, especially in campaigns where the soldiers had to walk into combat. As Guy Sager, who endured the Russian Front as an infantryman in the Second World War wrote in his book The Forgotten Soldier:
“Too many people learn about war with no inconvenience to themselves. They read about Verdun or Stalingrad without comprehension, sitting in a comfortable armchair, with their feet beside the fire, preparing to go about their business the next day, as usual…One should read about war standing up, late at night, when one is tired, as I am writing about it now, at dawn, while my asthma attack wears off. And even now, in my sleepless exhaustion, how gentle and easy peace seems!”
Like yesterday I walked. I left my car at my hotel and put on my boots and my three-day pack from Iraq. I ate a biscuit with a little bit of gravy, and had a small cup of coffee at the hotel before I set off. Since the hotel didn’t serve hardtack it was the closest I could get to a Civil War breakfast. From the hotel it is about a two mile walk to get to General Lee’s HQ on Seminary Ridge. Since Longstreet’s advanced elements were about that far back from Lee’s HQ on that morning I thought that it would approximate the march of some of his troops while understanding that some of his Corps had to march far more just to get there before beginning their movement to the south part of the battlefield.
Upon reaching Seminary Ridge I began walking down what would have been the areas occupied by A.P. Hill’s Third Corps that Longstreet’s troops would have passed as they moved south. The distance that they covered was about five miles as the crow flies, but due to bad staff work and coordination most of the men of John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws divisions had to go further just to get to their start point for the attack. In the case of Evander Law’s brigade of Hood’s division which had the mission of being the furthest south of the attacking Confederates, they had marched over twenty miles before beginning their attack on Little Round Top. When I reached the area that they did I had only walked about seven and a half miles as opposed to the men of Evander Law’s brigade who had marched over twenty miles to get into their attack positions, but as a mater of fact they were almost all a couple of decades or more younger than me.
When I got to the point of the Confederate attack I walked a path that intersected with the soldiers of Law’s brigade and Robertson’s Texas brigade, both of Hood’s division. Hood had vigorously protested the attack to Longstreet due to the bad ground that his troops would have to traverse to reach their objectives. As I wrote in my draft book on the battle:
Hood was never one to hesitate to attack, but when he saw the situation that faced First Corps, he objected to the attack. “For the first time in his army career Hood suggested a change of orders to his commanding general,” and pleaded with Longstreet to change it. “From his own observations and those of his scouts he concluded that the attack would be futile and result in wanton wage of life.” The fierce Texan “recognized that the battle order, written more than two miles away on mistaken information…did not fit existing conditions.” His objections included the rocky terrain which he believed would break up his battle formations, as well as “the concave character of the enemy’s line from the north end of Cemetery Ridge to Big Round Top would expose his division to a “destructive fire in flank and rear, as well as in front” if his men attacked it obliquely.” He told Longstreet that it was “unwise to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, as ordered” and requested that he be allowed to “turn Round Top and attack the enemy flank and rear.
Meanwhile, the debate between Longstreet and Hood continued as Hood objected and Longstreet reiterated Lee’s insistence on the planned attack. McLaws noted that Hood “found that the enemy were strongly posted on two rocky hills, with artillery and infantry…” and he pleaded for freedom of maneuver. He believed that an attack up the rocky hills was doomed and later noted “it seemed to me that the enemy occupied a position so strong- I may say impregnable – that independently of their flank fire, they could easily repulse our attack by merely throwing or rolling stones down the mountainside as we approached.”
One can look at the ground and one can study it on maps, but until you walk that bad ground, even without doing it while subjected to enemy fire you won’t understand how bad it is. I made my way down a walking path and then tried to move off of it in order to get to Devil’s Den. It was awful, reeds, thrushes, a stream, boulders, and heavy brush prevented me from moving forward. So I went back, followed a trail to Big Round Top and then headed over to Devil’s Den. General Hood was right, the ground to use the words that he spoke to Longstreet after he was wounded “it was the worst ground I ever saw” is not an exaggeration. But the diversion allowed me to find the part of the battle where Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth, after having unsuccessfully resisted orders from Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick was forced to attack the well dug in Confederate infantry of Lafayette McLaw’s division on July 3rd.
From Devil’s Den I worked my way to Little Round Top. Most of the front slope is inaccessible due to the National Park Service doing a reclamation project, but there is a trail that leads up to it that many of the Confederates would have used. It was steep, and the ground was rugged. By the time I reached the top near the New York Monument I was exhausted. Despite having been in combat and being shot at I cannot imagine how the Confederate soldiers threw themselves up that hill facing small arms and artillery fire at point blank range. Their cause may have been wrong but they were valiant and tough soldiers. The fact that I am 30 to 40 years older than most of them is irrelevant, that ground was a bitch.
After that I went back over to the part of the battlefield occupied by the famous 20th Maine Infantry under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, and then followed their counter-attack down the hill. From there I went back across the rear slope of Devil’s Den to Houck’s Ridge where heavily outnumbered Union Regulars held their own against Hood and McLaw’s soldiers. From there I went over to the Bloody Wheat Field. Like the Bloody Corn Field at Antietam this was a killing ground which exchanged hands several times during the battle, about 30% of the 20,000 or so soldiers engaged there became casualties. When on looks it the field it is hard to imagine that so many men were killed and wounded in such a short amount of time. Walking across the ground I could not help thinking about the thousands of souls who suffered and died there.
From there I continued through Rose’s Woods and the Stoney Ridge where still more Union and Confederate soldiers fell in desperate fights before walking back west to the Peach Orchard. This was another bloody contest in which General Dan Sickles of the Union Third Corps surprised both the Confederates and his own Commander, General George Meade by moving his corps into an exposed position. The battle there cost many lives and apologists for Sickles, Meade, and the Confederates have used for their own benefit. Sickles is claimed to have nearly lost the battle for the Union, but Longstreet said that his movement and defense of the Peach Orchard was key to the Union victory. Again my purpose in this article is not to take a side in that controversy but to imagine the carnage of the battlefield as well as the bravery of the soldiers on it. It is hard to imagine being a Third Corps Soldier at the Peach Orchard as Confederate artilleryman Porter Alexander’s guns swept their positions, nor being one of McLaw’s infantrymen who were being slaughtered by the experienced Union artillerymen of Third Corps and the Artillery Reserve.
By the time I got to the Peach Orchard I was hungry, thirsty, exhausted, and my feet were hurting. I had a choice. I could simply walk up the Emmitsburg Road and head back to the hotel or I could continue to follow the route of the Confederate advance spearheaded by General Barksdale’s brigade. I went back across Excelsior Field and to the Trostle Farm where Sickles fell wounded, before crossing Plum Run and heading up Cemetery Ridge where the Confederate advance was halted. I then walked back to the hotel via Cemetery Ridge, the Taneytown Road and the Soldiers Cemetery, before making a brief stop on East Cemetery Hill.
Since I was exhausted and darkness and rain were beginning to close in I decided not to do my walk around the Culp’s Hill battlefield. That will have to wait for another time. Since the rain is expected to continue into the morning and I hate getting wet I’ll put off my walk around Culp’s Hill until another time.
Tomorrow I will head home early to help Judy do some work around our house. My friend Bill who met me last night had take care of a business emergency call from one of his customers in the Shenandoah Valley this morning and since it’s just me I figure I can head back home. Lord willing there is always tomorrow right?
In the past couple of months I have walked nearly 50 miles across two of the nation’s bloodiest battlefields, Antietam and Gettysburg. Honestly I don’t know a lot of people in policy making positions who do things like that. The tragedy of the American Civil War and the nearly three quarters of a million soldiers of both sides who died during it seems to me to have been forgotten or relegated to the realm of myth by too many Americans, including the President and many of his advisers and supporters. If we forget the cost and meaning of the Civil War, the validation of the proposition of the Declaration of Independence that all men are created equal then we do a grave injustice to those who fell in that war, unless we want to support Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens who said that slavery was the Cornerstone of the Confederate nation. The costs to our nation are too great to let the the lessons of our Civil War be relegated to myth or exploited to reimagine a recreated Confederacy dominating the rest of the country are too great to allow the President, who has called violent neo-Confederates and White Supremacists “very fine people” or to fail to resist theocratic people from imposing their religious beliefs on others as did the Southern clergy who helped break the bonds of the Union beginning in their own denominations in the 1840s.
Since I have now eaten and had a few beers I will take my 57 year old body to bed and get ready to head home in the morning.
So until tomorrow,