Celebrating the Birth of a New Nation
Remembering Gettysburg, 150 Years Later
The June sky peaking through the wispy-white clouds never looked so blue. It was my first visit to Gettysburg. I didn’t have much time on my way through but wanted to find the Eternal Light Peace Memorial at the National Military Park, the site where the Civil War’s bloodiest battle raged for three days during the summer of 1863 – where 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers fought and more than 51,000 were killed, wounded or captured. After winding my way through miles of memorials and monuments, I found the peace memorial with its perpetual flame, a soft flicker against the noon-day sky.
It was here, just 11 years before I was born, that more than 1,800 Civil War veterans gathered for the last reunion of the blue and gray. These old friends and former foes stood united as President Franklin D. Roosevelt dedicated the memorial on July 3, 1938. It was the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, but it wasn’t their first time together. Since the historic battle, the venerable soldiers had arrived for a Gettysburg reunion every 25 years to walk the hallowed grounds, relive the tragedies, and pay respects to the comrades who sacrificed their lives. Abraham Lincoln would have been proud to see these old soldiers shaking hands, linking us peacefully to a bloody past that created the “birth of a new nation.”
In the tranquil afternoon, it was hard to imagine the climactic bloodbath that once covered these grounds; those bloodstains have long been washed away, but a solemn echo of sorrow remains. Wild pink roses and Queen Anne’s lace grow along a split rail fence. Towering monuments, depicting battle events, stand in tribute against the breathtaking South Mountains that rise in the distance.
I parked the car and sat on a stone bench nearby, reflecting on a visit to the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Museum in Springfield, IL and its compelling "Civil War in Four Minutes" video – an animated map that depicts the four-year war. Each explosion represents a battle as an odometer keeps a second-by-second death toll of the 620,000 Union and Confederate soldiers that never made it home. As a young student, I had studied the Civil War, even memorized the Gettysburg Address, but the war’s scope and devastation really hit me when watching the video. That’s when I vowed to someday visit Gettysburg.
The opportunity for a longer visit came in September when the Mid-Atlantic Tourism Public Relations Alliance hosted its annual marketplace for travel writers. Carl Whitehill, Media Relations Manager with the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau, developed an itinerary that offered numerous tours and dining experiences. One night we enjoyed a delicious chicken dinner at the National Military Park Museum. Hardtack, the soldiers' staple diet, and rations of peanut soup and greens were also served.
Following the meal, we watched a film about the Civil War and then went to a circular viewing room on the top floor where the colossal “Battle of Gettysburg” cyclorama put us right in the fury of “Picket’s Charge,” the war’s decisive battle. The dramatic 1884 painting flows into a canopy of sky and a three-dimensional diorama with real fences, roads and artifacts in the foreground. An impressive sound system enhances the viewer’s illusion of being on the field as cannons explode, muskets fire, and soldiers cry out, thrashing in agony. The humbling experience is a “must see” while visiting Gettysburg, even though it is quite emotional.
Also memorable, was the “History on Hallowed Grounds” tour with Wayne Motts, a Civil War historian and Licensed Battlefield Guide. Motts has an amazing passion for the war’s legacy and the soldiers who sacrificed life and limb in a battle that helped unite the country and bring freedom to 4 million slaves. He’s eager to share stories that haven't always made it into history books. Since I’m from Illinois, he mentioned that the battle’s first shot was fired by Naperville’s Union trooper Lt. Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry when he saw the Confederate infantry advancing along Chambersburg Pike. Three years later, Jones returned to Gettysburg to place a “first shot” marker at the site. Recently, I learned that Gabriel Durham of Kankakee fought with the 12th Illinois Cavalry and was one of first to be mortally wounded in the battle. He’s buried in Kankakee, less than a mile from where I was born.
Our first stop was at the Lutheran Theological Seminary which served as a temporary field hospital during the war. John Lucas, a living impressionist, said “Union soldiers were taken through one door and Confederates through another, but once inside, they all received the same care.” He talked about the typical soldiers’ experiences, mostly witnessed through journals and letters. They wrote of hardships – the hunger, the exhaustion from constant marching and fighting, the deafening sound of cannons, bleeding eardrums, and the horror of seeing maimed and dying friends. Still, he noted that the war was often romanticized, enticing young boys to lie about their age to join the fight. “Most of the boys had never ventured more than five miles from home. They thought it would be exciting to leave their boring farm chores and carry a rifle. The harsh realities didn’t set in until their first battle when they were fighting shoulder to shoulder, maybe seeing a friend’s face blown off, or worse yet seeing their entire regiment wiped out. But they were trained to keep on going, through the thick smoke, explosions, and screams.” The rest of the day, and then some, my thoughts kept circling back to the boy soldiers who I imagined, at some point, wanted nothing more than to have their mothers tuck them in to bed again with a good night kiss.
During the tour, Motts stopped at several important battle sights. Most memorable for me was the “Copse of Trees” on Cemetery Ridge which is considered the focal point of Picket’s Charge. Here, soldiers engaged in hand-to-hand combat on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was on this day that two close friends, and also fellow members of the Masonic Fraternity, were pitted against each other -- Union General Winfield Hancock and Confederate General Lewis Armistead. Some say it was their destiny to meet on the battlefield. Although Hancock commanded the troops that Armistead’s infantry was fiercely attacking, the friends never came face to face that day. While Hancock bore the brunt of his old friend’s assault and suffered severe injuries, it was Armistead who was mortally wounded. Motts said both men were among the estimated 17,000 freemasons on the field that day. “According to one source, Armistead was cared for by Union soldiers after giving the Masonic sign for distress. Captain Henry Bingham, Hancock’s personal assistant and also a Mason, came to Armistead’s aid. And Armistead, knowing that he probably wouldn’t make it home, asked Bingham to take his personal effects to his friend Hancock," he said.
Compassionate stories like these are often heard during battlefield tours. Gettysburg welcomes nearly 3 million visitors each year, and 2 million more are expected during the next five years as the town celebrates the Civil War’s 150th anniversary. Gettysburg recently launched its lengthy commemoration with 150 cannon shots followed by a bugler playing the haunting “Taps” melody. In 2013, the commemoration will focus on the legacy of President Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address which he delivered at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. He said at the time, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here ….” Time has proven that we do remember.
Lincoln’s Legacy in Gettysburg
The Gettysburg Address is one of the most thought-provoking and eloquent speeches in history. Yet, I knew little of Lincoln’s personal anguish during his trip until I took the “Mr. Lincoln’s Trail” tour which follows his footsteps for the 24-hours he spent in Gettysburg. Lincoln’s son Tad was very ill at the time and Mary Todd was reluctant to see her husband leave. They’d already lost two sons and she agonized with worry. But Lincoln was determined to attend the cemetery’s dedication. David Wills, a prominent attorney in Gettysburg, had asked him to make “a few appropriate remarks” to console the war’s widows and children, and Lincoln wanted to share a message of hope and healing. Edward Everett, a distinguished orator and former senator, was asked to be the featured speaker. Historians speculate that Lincoln’s invitation may have been an afterthought.
Just a few months before his arrival, the town’s 2,400 residents faced unimaginable desolation and chaos as they assumed the burden of burying thousands of soldiers and horses in temporary, shallow graves – right where they fell. As the July heat soared, they doused handkerchiefs in peppermint oil to alleviate the tremendous stench of death; they fought green bottle flies while marking the names of soldiers on boards at the temporary gravesites. Meanwhile, churches and homes became makeshift hospitals as the town nursed an estimated 21,000 wounded and dying soldiers. Historians say the roads were black with buggies as reporters swarmed the town along with hundreds of families looking for loved ones. Town officials wanted the Union soldiers to have a proper burial and Wills was instrumental in creating a 17-acre plot on Cemetery Hill with its panoramic view of the battlefield. When the cemetery was dedicated that November, two-thirds of the fallen soldiers were still waiting to be disinterred.
“Mr. Lincoln’s Trail” begins at the historic railroad station where the president arrived at sunset, the day before the dedication, with his entourage and a good friend and personal assistant William Johnson, a freed African American. Nearby, empty coffins were stacked in railroad cars, waiting for the thousands of bodies that hadn’t yet been interred. Lincoln stayed with the Wills family at their 1815 Federal-style home which is now a museum dedicated to his historic visit. During the tour, we passed through the bedroom where the president revised his immortal speech; we saw the telegram that came from his wife around 11 p.m. telling him that Tad was “slightly better,” and simply signed, Mrs. Lincoln. That night, the president became feverish with the early stages of smallpox. His friend William took care of him and later died from smallpox himself.
The Gettysburg Address
The next morning, a huge parade marched from the town’s center to the cemetery as drums rolled, military bands played, and dignitaries sat on horseback. According to eyewitness accounts, Lincoln was wearing a new black suit, white gloves, and a stovepipe hat while riding a bay charger, his coat tails flapping in the brisk winter breeze. Only his friend William knew how weak and feverish the president was as the procession moved up Baltimore Street. An estimated 15,000 people gathered for the event.
Everett honored the fallen Union soldiers that day with a 30-page, two-hour oration. His grand speech was followed by Lincoln’s 272-word address, a heartfelt message that lasted only a few minutes, yet soothed a grieving nation. In that short time, he defined the war’s importance in defending the Declaration of Independence, the heart of a country “conceived in Liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.” He stressed that those who gave their lives did not die in vain; because of them, “… this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” His words began to transform a great devastation into renewed hope and healing before the war had even ended; and they have since become the birthright of every man, woman and child in this country.
Even so, there was no applause as Lincoln stepped from the rough wooden platform. He told his bodyguard Ward Hill Lamon that his message “didn’t scour.” Historians, however, believe that the crowd didn’t realize Lincoln’s speech had ended; mesmerized, they were waiting for more.
Our tour group was silent as we entered the cemetery and reflected on the 620,000 who died during the Civil War. Putting the death toll in perspective, Motts said, “If we built a wall, it would be 12 times larger than the Vietnam Memorial to accommodate the names of those who lost their lives. There were 30 million people in the United States at the time and 2 percent of the population died in the war.”
Lincoln left that night on the train, returning to Washington to oversee the country’s successful end to the Civil War. That end came on April 9, 1865 when General Robert E. Lee surrendered his Army of Northern Virginia. Five days later, President Lincoln was assassinated. Although his honorable goals to preserve the nation and end slavery were successful, it’s distressing to know that he died believing his address at Gettysburg “didn’t scour” when his message still resonates 150 years later -- not only in America but throughout the entire world.
Today, the Eternal Light Peace Memorial at the National Military Park stands at the top of Oak Hill, overlooking the battlefield. The endurance light is a lasting symbol of redemption and forgiveness on a monument inscribed with “peace eternal in a nation united.” Nearby, there’s a stone bench inviting visitors to reflect on history and President Lincoln's powerful message to all of us.
Gettysburg’s 150th Anniversary Commemoration
Carl Whitehill, Media Relations Manager with the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, said Gettysburg’s April 29-30, 2011 kick-off is part of a four-week series of events held in Pennsylvania that outline Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s invasion of northern territory. They include a march by Union and Confederate troops into Gettysburg, living history encampments at historic locations throughout the town, re-enacted skirmishes, and will be capped off with 150 cannon shots along with the playing of “Taps.” For the event calendar, visit www.gettysburgcivilwar150.com or call (800) 337-5015.
A few of my favorite place in and around Gettysburg:
Adams County Winery - Gettysburg's first winery is housed in a 130-year-old bank barn just 8 miles west of town on Route 30 and offers free tastings of their award-winning wines. Guests are invited to bring a picnic or select from a variety of picnic foods available on site. During the summer, the winery features special events as well as music in the vineyard. It's open daily from 10 am to 6 pm. Complimentary wine tastings are also held at the winery's downtown Gettysburg location at 25 Chambersburg Street. For more information, visit www.adamscountywinery.com or call (717) 334 4631.
Historic 1776 Dobbin House Tavern - For a unique Gettysburg experience, dine at the Dobbin House Tavern, which was built "four score and seven years" before Lincoln delivered his immortal address, according to its brochure. The colonial restaurant serves traditional cuisine, including local favorites such as William Penn's pork tenderloin, Gettystown shrimp, and baked king's onion soup. If you're looking for a romantic evening, reserve one of the cozy, candlelit canopy bed tables on the second floor. The home was built by Reverend Alexander Bobbin, a frontier pioneer from Ireland and sits right across the street from the David Wills home where President Lincoln put the final touches on the Gettysburg Address. The historic home is graced with the original stone walls, ornate woodwork, seven fireplaces and antique furnishings. If you go, check out the crawl space where runaway slaves hid during the Underground Railroad. For more information, see www.dobbinhouse.com, or call (717) 334-2100.
Hickory Bridge Farm - Nestled in the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains, the restaurant offers country dining at its finest. The cozy restaurant serves family-style dinners at private tables in a charming antique-filled barn. Tables are highlighted with old-time dinnerware and cloth linens. The restaurant highlights family recipes made from scratch using local products. A typical dinner includes a house salad with warm bacon and smothered in a lovely sweet & sour dressing, spiced peaches, oven fried chicken, corn fritters, fresh potato bread and apple butter, vegetables, and warm apple crisp. Owners Robert and Mary Lynn Martin said the farm dates back to the late 1600s when the King of England granted the land to Charles Carroll, the last surviving signer of the Declaration of Independence. They offer three lodging choices: The Farmhouse, The Old Farmhouse which dates back to 1700, or nearby cottages that sit in the woods along a mountain stream. For more information, see www.hickorybridgefarm.com or call (717) 642-5261