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The Civil War Revisited

Gettysburg: At the best-known site, personal stories overshadow military monuments

October 01, 2000|JAMES T. YENCKEL | James T. Yenckel is a veteran travel writer based in Washington, D.C

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — A humble plank-wood farmhouse stands quietly now on Cemetery Hill, separated by time from the horrors of war that once engulfed i

t. It was the home of Abraham Brian, a free black man, and his family, who fled as the Confederate army approached in that steamy summer of 1863.

The farm was strategically located on a ridge in southern Pennsylvania overlooking much of the battlefield, and Union troops turned the house and barn into a division headquarters, trampling the crops and dismantling the fences to build fortifications.

When Brian returned to his 12-acre property after the battle, he filed a claim for damages with the federal government. He asked for $1,028; he got $15. Undaunted, he rebuilt his farm and prospered until his death in 1879.

His gray, weathered buildings remain landmarks in the greatest battle of the Civil War, and his story is just one of many glimpses into the life--and, often, the death--of the soldiers and civilians caught up in the three-day encounter in which more than 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or reported missing, making this the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil.

Our nation was shaped by the events that took place here in the first three days of July 1863. But beyond the military tactics--the valiant but foolhardy charges and the sometimes blundering leadership on both sides--these personal stories, recounted in park brochures and battlefield interpretive signs, make a visit to Gettysburg National Military Park and the nearby town of Gettysburg compelling.

The park, established in 1895, covers nearly 6,000 acres of rolling fields cut by two high, parallel ridges. Scattered groves of trees trace the rocky crests, their leaves ablaze with color in October. In any season, the park yields lovely panoramas that almost make you forget its grim moment in history. Modern intrusions are slight, except for the more than 1,400 monuments and statues scattered across the landscape. About 1.7 million visitors arrive annually, most of them in summer when they can get a taste of the hot, humid weather the combatants faced. Spring and fall are quieter, and in winter you might almost have the park to yourself.

A trip into Civil War history is not particularly relaxing, as I discovered in April when I returned for a two-day visit. As a lifelong student of American history, I continue to find more to ponder with each trip. If you take time to learn about the players in the drama--the officers, their troops and the townsfolk--it is always fascinating. And the perspective one gains from knowing the details is often inspirational. I left in awe of the courage displayed by soldiers in both armies and with a firm resolve to face my own, lesser fears.

After major victories in the early years of the war, Gen. Robert E. Lee, then commander of the Southern forces, carried the war into the North. He was seeking to pressure the Union to call for peace and to spur Britain and other European nations to recognize the Confederate States of America as a separate government.

Initially, Southern forces, about 75,000 strong, seemed to have the upper hand in the Gettysburg battle, driving Union defenders out of town. But Union forces, which numbered about 88,000, claimed the high ground, and Confederate Gen. George Pickett's 12,000-man charge up Cemetery Ridge on July 3 was strongly repulsed. The Confederates suffered disastrous casualties from which they never fully recovered, and Lee retreated to Virginia.

The failure of Pickett's Charge was the war's turning point. Lee's army and the Confederacy were doomed, although they continued to fight for two more years until Lee's surrender on April 9, 1865, to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in Virginia.

I prepared myself for this visit by rereading "The Killer Angels," the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Shaara. The book brings the battle alive with stirring vignettes of the leaders on both sides, many of whom were friends and classmates at West Point before the war. It also can be used as a guide to the landmarks of the battlefield. As a novelist, Shaara altered events slightly, but not enough to mislead his readers. A pamphlet sold at the visitor center, "A Killer Angels Companion" ($7.95), by historian D. Scott Hartwig, sets the record straight for purists.

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