Monday marks the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the bloodiest battle on American soil—Gettysburg. It was a gladiator’s performance between two blooded opponents in an arena measured in square miles instead of square feet. Although the Union victory signaled the inescapable end of the Confederacy, the American Civil War raged maddeningly forward for nearly two more years, culminating in the worst war, casualty-wise, in American history. To put this in a little perspective, in the three days of July 1-3 in 1863 at Gettysburg there were about the same number of casualties as the United States suffered in the conflict in Vietnam. Up until our country’s latest ventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, there were more casualties during our Civil War than there were in all of our other wars combined.
I have visited Gettysburg on four occasions and could likely lead a guided tour today. My wife and I went in 2004 and purchased the guided audio tour cassette, which is supposed to take a person through the national battlefield site in two hours. We were so awestruck by the monuments erected to honor those who gave their lives to secure freedom—for either the Union or the Confederate side—that we stopped our car on numerous occasions and simply walked. It took us eight hours to complete the circuit. We stayed in a bed and breakfast which is situated on the edge of the battlefield inside the boundary of the park. In the morning we arose and looked out at the section of the battlefield we could see shrouded in morning fog, creating a ghostly image.
I do not know the exact number of monuments at the site, but it numbers in the thousands. This does not include the national cemetery where Abraham Lincoln issued his Gettysburg Address. Some of the monuments are small, much like a standard graveyard marker, but some are huge, allowing people to walk inside them, to read the inscriptions inside and out, and wonder at how those brave soldiers walked into the face of death in a period of history that had produced marvelous but hideous weapons of death.
This is simply my opinion, but I believe the most amazing monument at Gettysburg is the one erected by the state of Pennsylvania. It is easy to find, and if you ever visit the battlefield, I challenge you to walk around and inside this monument and either not weep aloud or not at least have a lump in your throat.
A little-known but extremely important personage of the Civil War—little known to anyone other than a Civil War buff—is a colonel in the 20th Maine Regiment named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. His regiment quite literally saved the Union army from being overrun on the second day as the battled raged near the place known as Little Round Top. The 20th Maine was stationed at the extreme end of the Union left flank and survived numerous assaults by Confederates from Alabama. If the regimental line had been broken the Confederate army would have been able to flank the Union forces, leaving the bluecoats in disarray and likely have to abandon the field. After 1 ½ hours of continuous defensive fighting, the 20th Maine had suffered catastrophic casualties and was nearly devoid of ammunition. With no hope of surviving another assault, Chamberlain ordered the 20th Maine to conduct a bayonet charge down the hill, an action which overwhelmed the likewise tired and thirsty Alabamians. Chamberlain was issued a Congressional Medal of Honor for his courageous leadership for this day.
Prior to the war Chamberlain had been a college professor at Bowdoin College in Maine. He joined the Union army and fought in numerous battles before Gettysburg. During the war he was wounded six different times, the most serious coming at Petersburg, Virginia. His wounds there were considered so serious that the doctors determined he would not survive. General Ulysses Grant gave Chamberlain a promotion to brigadier general at that time to honor his service, believing Chamberlain would not live long enough to exercise his rank on the field. However, Chamberlain survived not only those wounds but the entire war. At Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, Chamberlain was in charge of the Union forces as the Confederates were forced to parade past the Union army in defeat. Chamberlain ordered the Union troops to salute their former counterparts, an act which ingratiated the defeated soldiers but was not a very popular gesture to those of the North.
After the war Chamberlain returned to Bowdoin, where he eventually became college president. He was also elected governor of Maine for four terms. In 1913 he served as president of the festivities for the Grand Army of the Republic for the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg.
A visit to Gettysburg National Battlefield will have a profound effect on a person, much like visiting the Holocaust Museum or the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C., or the Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor. When you leave Gettysburg you may not be able to understand how or why fighting men gave their lives such as they did, but you will have an overflowing respect for their devotion, their determination, and their faith in what they were attempting to accomplish.