Our Unforgettable Gettysburg Experience

Compiled by Peggy DeStefano
   Our trip to Gettysburg this July opened up our consciousness to the enormity of the affect of our Civil War. When trying to understand what happened there between July 1 and 3 of 1863, just consider the number of casualties from this 3 day battle. We learned that it claimed 27,000 Confederates and 23,000 Union soldiers not to mention 3000 horses. After the dust settled, the Gettysburg townspeople took it upon themselves to bury the dead and care for the wounded. What an almost insurmountable task they faced yet they preserved the dignity of those who fell and cared for them with great respect. After all, these were their countrymen. Civil war is a bitter pill to swallow.
   Gradually the soldiers were reinterred to the Cemetery now known as the Gettysburg National Cemetery. To honor this immense effort, Abraham Lincoln attended the ceremony which officially consecrated the grounds. His Gettysburg Address given on Nov. 19, 1863 captured the truly historic consequence of this battle.
   When we toured the town, we could still see the cannon balls lodged in some of the buildings such as the Schmucker House located on Seminary Ridge. Although the town itself was largely spared the intensity of the battle, one unfortunate citizen, Jennie Wade, a 20 year old woman who was innocently baking bread in her kitchen was struck by a stray bullet which travelled through two walls before it struck her dead.
   The battles themselves took place in the fields surrounding the city. General George Meade was successful at defeating Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. After Pickett’s Charge, Lee managed to withdraw his troops across the Potomac River without being drawn into another battle. Meade could have destroyed the retreating army but chose not to.
   We attended the 156th Gettysburg Anniversary National Civil War Battle Reenactment on July 7. Two battles were captured by these devoted civil war buffs and actors. The first battle we witnessed was a cavalry battle which was called Farnsworth’s Fatal Charge. The second battle we observed was named “Carnage Incarnate – Armistead at the Wall” better known as Pickett’s Charge.
   The heat of the day in 2019 allowed us to appreciate the same heat these soldiers must have endured the day of the actual battle. The soldiers were already exhausted from their endeavors. How could they carry on? Were they spurred on by their commanders or were they so inspired by their cause?
   Here is the description of the two battles we observed:
   Farnsworth’s Fatal Charge:
   A tragic footnote to the carnage at Gettysburg occurred in the farm fields and woods to the south of Big Round Top. Newly-appointed Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth had received his promotion on June 29th just prior to the Battle of Hanover. On the afternoon of July 3rd, Farnsworth led his brigade of Union troops into his first and last battle at Gettysburg. Farnsworth was ordered by General Meade, through General Kilpatrick, to make what turned out to be a hopeless charge with the 1st Vermont cavalry, into the rear of Confederate General John B. Hood’s division. Most of the 1st Texas was in a strong position in a ravine behind two stone and rail fences.
   Upon receiving the orders from Kilpatrick, Farnsworth spoke with emotion, “General, do you mean it? Shall I throw my handful of men over rough ground, through timber, against a brigade of infantry?” Kilpatrick said, “A handful! You have the four best regiments in the army.”
   Farnsworth answered, “You forget, the 1st Michigan is detached, the 5th New York you have sent beyond call, and I have nothing left but the 1st Vermont and the 1st West Virginia regiments fought half to pieces. They are too good to kill.”
   Kilpatrick turned greatly excited and said, “Do you refuse to obey my orders? If you are afraid to lead the charge I will lead it.” Farnsworth reportedly rose in his stirrups, leaned forward with his saber half drawn and cried “Take that Back!” Kilpatrick rose defiantly, but repentantly, and said, “I did not mean it, forget it.” For a moment nothing was spoken. Then Farnsworth spoke, “General, if you order the charge I will lead it, but you must take the awful responsibility.”
   As they advanced, Farnsworth’s men received the concentrated fire of three lines of Confederates, from the front, and both flanks, as they attempted to overcome the strong Confederate positions behind the fences. Farnsworth made it to the first fence where his horse was shot out from under him and killed. Farnsworth quickly mounted another horse and dashed on. He was found on July 5th where he fell—just beyond the second fence pierced by five bullets. The number of Federal cavalry that rode in the charge totaled about 300. There were 65 casualties, and 120 taken prisoner.
   Captain Harry Parsons of Company L., 1st Vermont accompanied Farnsworth that day. Upon returning to the same location fifty years later on July 3rd, 1913, Parson said, “Each man felt that he was summoned to a ride of death.”
Carnage Incarnate — Armistead at the Wall (Pickett’s Charge):
   “Pickett’s Charge.” Just the mention of those two words brings forth a flood of visual and sensory perceptions. Steaming humidity, ripe rye fields, lush green pastures, thundering cannons, suffocating smoke and row upon row of Confederate soldiers advancing across open fields in the face of a Federal inferno on Cemetery Ridge.
   At precisely 1:07 p.m. — a field piece from the Washington Artillery posted near the Peach Orchard, then opened up the greatest cannonade in the annals of American history. It was a signal for the entire Confederate artillery line to let loose their terrific blast— it was a volcanic eruption for almost two hours with the Confederate artillery pounding the Federal position on Cemetery Ridge in an attempt to soften the Federal center for the pending frontal assault.
   Correspondent Samuel Wilkenson of the New York Times was at Meade’s headquarters and reported, “the Confederate shells burst and screamed as many as six a second and made a very hell of a fire that amazed the older officers — men were cut in two, and horses died still fastened by their halters.” It is difficult to even comprehend 140 Confederate guns and 100 Federal guns belching fire, smoke, destruction and death.    Approximately two hours later, Colonel Porter Alexander observed from his position near the Peach Orchard that the Federal guns had slackened fire and his own supply of ammunition was running low. He sent word to Pickett who in turn rode over to Longstreet, who had persistently opposed Lee’s plan. Longstreet merely nodded approval and Picket saluted saying, “I am going to move forward, sir.” With those words spoken, the Confederate infantry, three divisions totaling 12,000 men, majestically advanced from the woods on Seminary Ridge across the open valley toward 6,000 troops on Cemetery Ridge.
   Because General Hunt had earlier ordered a partial cessation of Federal guns, to cool them and conserve ammunition, the Confederates were received by a fearful hurricane of missiles that included solid shot, shrapnel, spherical-case, shell, canister and every other invention of warfare at the time.
   At a terrible cost in human life, the Federal line was broken at the Copse of Trees when determined Confederate forces crashed into Union troops at the Angle and forced them back over the ridge. For a moment of high suspense, victory hung trembling in the balance. Union troops under Webb, Harrow, Hays, Cushing and Stannard swiftly rose to the challenge and repulsed the Confederate assault to the heart of the Union. The Battle of Gettysburg was over.
   Brigadier General Lewis Armistead led his brigade to the farthest point reached by Confederate forces during the charge, a point now referred to as the High-Water Mark of the Confederacy. He and his men were overwhelmed and he was wounded and captured by Union troops. Armistead died in a field hospital two days later.
   If you aren’t exhausted and emotionally depleted by this description, I am. It is said after this battle you could not cross the field and touch ground, it was so laden with the dead.
   There were a few moments that made us feel better like the time both Confederate and Federal troops came together at a stream near Culp’s Hill to fill their canteens. Within arm’s length of each other, they put their weapons down to relieve their thirst and then peacefully retreated. Spangler’s Spring is a natural spring on the south base of Culp’s Hill. Local truces were called during the night of July 2nd where both sides allowed the other to drink from the spring. This spring supplied Union and Confederate soldiers with water during the 3 day battle.
   This was at Culp’s Hill where the man who owned the property and who fought for the South lost his life. It is also a place where there is a mass grave of Confederates some of whom may still lie there.
   There are some amazing tributes to the men who fought at Gettysburg. Bordering all of the battlefields are statues donated to the Gettysburg National Cemetery sent from the states represented in the battles. We had a battlefield Tour by Car wherein a licensed Battlefield Guide gave us a personal two-hour tour of the grounds. It was amazing to learn that states like Maryland had brigades that represented the North and the South. It was definitely a war between the states and a war between different parts of states. In some cases, brothers fought brothers.
   Another interesting detail that some don’t realize is that there were also women, disguised as men, fighting in the war. I just finished reading a book called, Soldier Girl Blue by James Knights. It is based on the true story of a young Canadian woman who escapes her abusive father and disguises herself as a man in order to enlist in the Northern army. She decides to do so after witnessing the treatment of a runaway woman slave and her daughter at the hands of her slave master who wants to bring them back to his plantation.
   Military records show that women fought—and died—in all the major battles of the Civil War, participating in clashes in Antietam, Fredericksburg, Gettysburg, Shiloh and Vicksburg, among many others. Dressed as men, women took on a wide range of military roles in the Civil War. “I wanted to do my part,” was mainly how they explained their desire to serve.
   In the museum at this National Park, is an amazing 360˚ mural, called a cyclorama hand-painted by French artists and given to the museum from France. It captures all the scenes of the area before, during and after the war. It is beautiful. There is one artist who rather than sign his name, he drew himself into the picture.
   An added note: Near the Gettysburg National Military Park is the Eisenhower National Historic Site. President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his wife, Mamie Geneva Doud had a farm nearby which served the President and his wife as a weekend retreat and a meeting place for world leaders. There are tours and activities that you can participate in.
   Gettysburg is a truly historic site. I think if every American would go and learn about what happened there, it would make them realize how important it is to preserve the United States of America.
   … “It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that 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.”
Here is the Full text of Lincoln’s Gettysburg address:
   “Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
   Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
   But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that 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.”

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