Monday, July 29, 2013

The Thunder Roared Like Artillery Fire

My wife and I arrived in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania late Friday afternoon looking forward to exploring the town and the battlefield. We had originally planned on visiting earlier this month but given the crowds for the 150th anniversary we decided to hold off a few weeks. It had been some time since I had visited the site and, to her recollection, it was my wife’s first trip to the Civil War landmark. After checking in at the Gettysburg Hotel we meandered up and down the streets, in and out of shops, and enjoyed the time away as dusk devoured the remaining day light. 

It was a short evening for us as much of our time was spent browsing the book stores, taking a break for a casual dinner, and watching as cars continued to pour in from every direction... 

...converging on the roundabout.

It seemed like in every corner of the square there was something different from the others. What caught my attention was the Masonic building just across the street from our hotel.

By about 8:30 our energy was gone and it was time to head off to bed so that we could get an early start to our morning. We walked back to our room with the mix of century sounds in the background as the slow clopping of horse hooves accompanied the low grumble of engines and the hum of tires on the asphalt.

The next morning we arose to overcast skies and a forecast for late afternoon rain. Our trip was now on a deadline as we made one more quick stroll through town to grab a quick brunch and pick up a few small souvenirs. 

Back in the car, we turned onto the square where I glanced in the corner at a statue of President Lincoln who seemed to be bidding us farewell as we left the center of town. 

After a quick stop at Lee’s headquarters where pictures were allowed but not easily achieved in the small four room structure, we made our way down Seminary Ridge where we stopped at the old Lutheran Seminary to look around a little before heading off to the maze of battlefield roads.

From Seminary Ridge we continued straight onto Confederate Avenue where we drove across the Southern Line where you can see rows…

…upon rows…

…upon rows of cannons.

Along both lines, north and south, monuments to all the different states that fought in the conflict are staggered to reflect their positions during the conflict. One of the grandest on the southern side is that of Virginia which is topped by a statue of General Lee on his horse surveying the landscape.

If you take a closer look at the cannons throughout the national park you can get a sense not only of the open space between the lines but the power that each one of those pieces of artillery had on the lives of those on the other end. This is evident when you look down the barrel and see a monument at the other end such as the Pennsylvania monument off the muzzle of this Virginia cannon. You can also see one of the fence lines that crisscross the fields which played a role in the conflict in their own right.  

Weaving up and down some of the winding roads we made our way to what began the battle as a scouting position for the Union and was later the sight of some of the fiercest fighting during the battle, Little Round Top.

Behind the memorial to the 91st Pennsylvania Infantry on this peak you can see a location which was a place of human devastation, The Devil’s Den.

Walking down the stairs you can feel the sense of loss and dread build within you.

Throughout the pile of rocks there are little passageways and both offered cover for those taking fire and concealment for those charged with taking lives.

In the middle is the spot which gave this formation its name. It was here that lives were taken by the sharpshooters who occupied this position.

The boulders on top of this strategic piece of topography allow you to understand and appreciate the importance that the cover here provided. You can almost see the imprints made by soldiers perched on these rocks for hours at a time.

By this time, the sky began to darken and rolls of thunder began shaking the earth under our feet giving an altered sense of reality as we scanned the rows of cannons on both sides of the field.

Soon after, the rain came down in sheets and tourists scattered in all directions in search of their cars or other forms of shelter. At this point we knew that our day was nearly over so we made our way to the cemetery in the hope that we might catch a break in the storm. To our surprise, that is exactly what happened.

In the middle of the cemetery is a tribute of particular significance to me. It is known as the “Friend to Friend Memorial”.

As is described on the plaque, this sculpture is one of the best illustrations of the bonds of the Masonic brotherhood.  

All around this tremendous tribute are the graves of Union and Confederate soldiers alike with the only difference between them being the words chiseled in the stone.

Of course, men of all ranks are represented and for some generals, memorials have been erected by the soldiers who served under them such as this remembrance of Major General John Fulton Reynolds who died at Gettysburg within a day ride of his home town of Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

As we left the cemetery I turned around and could see almost black clouds rolling across the sky overtaking the white blanket that had enveloped us all day.

And when I turned to head back toward the car the last vestiges of opaque light made a silhouette that summed up the haunting spirit of these memory laden fields just beyond the town of Gettysburg.