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Friday, July 18, 2014

Gettysburg—A Sobering Experience

Battle of Gettysburg
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
In the fall of 2013 my sister Sandy, brother-in-law Pat, husband Doug, and I spent two days touring the museum and the battlefield at the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.  My husband and I first visited the museum and battlefield in 2008, but that visit was quite short and inadequate.  I, particularly, wanted to revisit the site since my 2nd great grandfather, Alexander Balus West, was wounded on July 3, 1863, during the battle of the third day. 

Eternal Light of Peace
We found our experience to be profoundly sad, sobering, and humbling.   Even though it has been almost a year since our visit, I want to share with my readers some information about the battle and some photographs regarding this experience.  I think that I, being perplexed and intimidated by the enormity and complexity of such a narrative, have postponed writing about the visit until now.
Our first day at Gettysburg was spent touring the museum with all of its photos, artifacts, exhibits, and video—so much to absorb and comprehend.  On the second day of our visit we toured the battlefield using a self-guided, auto tour.  The information that I am sharing in this blog is taken from our tour book, park museum brochures, and additional information from the Internet. In addition, I have included some of the beautiful photographs from Jen Goellnitz’s website, Draw the Sword, and have complied with her protocol for their use as described in her website.
 Virginia Memorial
Gen. Robert E. Lee
Representatives of Typical Soldiers
Gen. George G. Meade
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
The Union army was formerly known as the Army of the Potomac with George Gordon Meade as the Commanding General. It was later referred to as the United States Army (USA).  He had 95,000 troops and 356 cannons.  The Confederate army was first known as the Army of Northern Virginia and later called the Confederate States Army (CSA).  Robert Edward Lee was the Commanding General with 75,000 troops and 275 cannons.
THE BATTLE, DAY 1:  July 1, 1863
McPherson Farm
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
The Battle at Gettysburg, the largest battle of the Civil War, began when the first shot was fired by the Confederates at 7:30 a.m. on July 1 at McPherson Ridge near the McPherson barn with Union cavalry confronting Confederate infantry.  As more forces from both sides arrived, heavy fighting ensued along this ridge.  About 1 p.m., Confederate forces under Major General Robert E. Rhodes attacked threatening Union forces that were on McPherson Ridge and Oak Ridge.  Union forces were able to hold Oak Ridge until about 4:00 p.m. when they retreated through the town of Gettysburg to Cemetery Hill.  At the end of this first day of battle, the Confederate Army appeared to have the upper hand.  General Lee decided to continue the offensive the next day with his 70,000 men against General Meade’s 93,000 men. 
By evening the Union troops were entrenched on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill on the south side of the town of Gettysburg. Union General George Greene, known as “Pop” Greene and the oldest general fighting at Gettysburg, ordered his men to build entrenchments on Culp’s Hill.  These entrenchments, made of earth, wood, and rock, contributed to the successful defense of the Union’s right flank on Culp’s Hill.  General George “Pop” Greene survived the war returning to work as an engineer and helped build the Central Park Reservoir in New York City.  A boulder from Culp’s Hill marks his grave in Rhode Island.
THE BATTLE, DAY 2:  July 2, 1863
Cemetery Ridge
Seminary Ridge (Wooded Area)
On the morning of July 2, battle lines were drawn about one mile apart on parallel ridges, Cemetery Ridge and Seminary Ridge.  Most of the Confederate troops were on Seminary Ridge with most of the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge. The Confederate troops were also stationed through the town of Gettysburg and north of Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.  At that time, Union forces also occupied Culp’s Hill and south along Cemetery Ridge to the Round Tops. 
The Confederate soldiers were repulsed at Little Round Top by the Union forces.  Fighting continued throughout the day.  It was on Cemetery Hill that Colonel Isaac Avery of North Carolina, as he lay dying, penned a message to his father, “Major, Tell my father I died with my face to the enemy.”
Gen. James Longstreet
The Wheatfield
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz

About 4:30 in the afternoon, Confederate General James Longstreet, placing his First Corps of Confederate soldiers along Warfield Ridge, began his assault directing his forces against Union soldiers who were ensconced in areas known as Devils Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard and against Meade’s undefended flank at the Round Tops.  By 6:30 p.m. Confederate forces occupied the Wheatfield with deaths in the Wheatfield numbering over 4,000 dead and wounded from both sides.  Battles raged at  the Peach Orchard and Plum Run.  Confederate forces secured the Peach Orchard as Union forces retreated to Cemetery Ridge.  Meade’s troops were alerted about the threat to Little Round Top and brought in reinforcements to shore up the forces there. 
Between 7:30 and 10:30 p.m., Confederate General Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps attacked the Union troops at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill.   They were able to occupy the lower slopes of Culp’s Hill. 
Another interesting story is one about Wesley Culp who moved from his family farm at Gettysburg
Henry Culp Farm
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
 to Virginia.  However, when the war broke out he joined the Confederate Army in the Stonewall Brigade and returned to Gettysburg in July 1863.  He was killed on Culp’s Hill near his family’s farm.
The fighting at Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard was among the fiercest and bloodiest battles at Gettysburg.  During the humid, moonlight night after the the battle in the Wheatfield, it is said that the wounded who lay on the field were moaning, praying, and singing.  Confederate survivor, George Hillyer, wrote, “One of our soldiers began to sing.  Hundreds of wounded lay within easy hearing of the singer, whose fine voice echoed down the valley.”  Later, officer George Hillyer became a politician in Georgia and the mayor of Atlanta.
Devil's Den

The Peach Orchard
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz

At dusk, the Union forces repelled a Confederate assault that reached the top of East Cemetery Hill.
 THE BATTLE, DAY 3:  July 3, 1863
The Confederate soldiers controlled the lower portion of Culp’s Hill but were repelled at its summit on the evening of July 2.  However, between 4:30 and 11:30 a.m. on July 3, they again tried to gain control of the summit.  After seven hours of fighting, much of which was fierce hand-to-hand, the Union forces drove the Confederates back and held the position.
Daniel's Brigade
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
It was at Culp’s Hill on July 3 that my 2nd great grandfather, Alexander Balus West, was wounded.  He didn’t die at Gettysburg but was killed a year later at the Third Battle of Winchester.  During July and August of 1863, he was a patient in the Wayside Hospital (General Hospital No. 9) in Richmond, Virginia. He, also, may have spent part of those two months on sick leave recuperating at home from the injuries he received at Gettysburg. According to the information that I have obtained about him and the marker that is on the battlefield, he was in the Army of Northern Virginia, Ewell’s Corps, Rodes’ Division, Daniel’s Brigade, the 53rd North Carolina Infantry Regiment, and Company K.  Company K was from Wilkes, North Carolina.  A 3rd great uncle, Thomas C. Land, and the brother-in-law of Alexander Balus West, was a lieutenant in Company K.  Cousin Glenn Land says that the brigade of which the 53rd regiment was attached “actually fought on the opposite end of the line from where Pickett's Charge took place. They were some of the first Confederates that arrived on the field July 1st. They spent the entire first two days trying to secure the high ground known as Culp's Hill. By the 3rd day they were fought to a “frazzle.”
A couple of other events occurred on Day 3:  an artillery bombardment between 1 and 3 p.m. and a cavalry battle on East Cavalry Field between 1 and 4 p.m.
The Copse of Trees
Cemetery Ridge
However, the culminating battle occurred about 3 p.m. on July 3, 1863, when General Robert E. Lee ordered 13,000 Rebel soldiers to charge from their location on Seminary Ridge across a mile-wide open field and attack the Union center on Cemetery Ridge.  After a two-hour “cannonade,” 7,000 Union soldiers, who were situated near a clump of trees, known today as “the Copse of Trees,” repulsed a 12,000 to 13,000-man Confederate charge known as Pickett’s Charge.  Even though it has been given the name “Pickett’s Charge,” the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble composed the group.  This event, called the High Water Mark, was the climactic moment of the battle.  It marked the beginning-of-the-end of the Battle of Gettysburg with General Lee and his army in retreat.  
Field of Pickett's Charge
Courtesy of Jen Goellnitz
I assume that Confederate General James Longstreet was addressing General Robert E. Lee prior to the defeat of the Confederate troops at Cemetery Ridge on July 3 when General Longstreet made this statement, “General, I have been a soldier all my life…It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.
North Carolina Memorial
Seminary Ridge
Robert E. Lee offered to resign his post as commander of the Army of Northern Virginia after Gettysburg, but Jefferson Davis refused to accept it.  George Meade was eventually relieved of his position by President Lincoln who appointed Ulysses Grant as commander.  However, Meade remained in the Union army.  The day after the surrender at Appomattox, Meade rode through the Confederate lines to meet Lee.  He saluted his former adversary, and Lee asked, “What are you doing with all that gray in your beard?”  Meade responded, “That you have a great deal to do with!"

North Carolina Soldiers
Seminary Ridge

·      “Battle of Gettysburg,”
·        Boritt, Gabor, Stephen Lang, and Jake Boritt.  The Gettysburg Story, Battlefield Auto Tour. Right to Rise, Boritt Films, LLC, 2010.
·       “Gettysburg and Touring the Battlefield,” National Park Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, Gettysburg National Military Park, Pennsylvania, 2013.
·       Goellnitz, Jen.