June was a busy month with a great deal of travel that kept me from my computer. The highlight of this travelling was attending the Civil War Trust Annual Conference held in the evocative surroundings of Gettysburg. For three and a half days I was able to immerse myself, alongside five hundred like-minded enthusiasts, in the fascinating and inspiring history of America’s greatest battle. Superbly organised and executed, the conference also brought together a veritable ‘Whose Who’ of American Civil War historians and authors who delivered talks and conducted a whole range of very illuminating battlefield tours.
I participated in two tours both of which proved fascinating and educational. The first was led by lawyer and author Eric J. Wittenberg and followed the route of JEB Stuart’s ill-fated ride round the Union Army in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg. Picking up the ride in Westminster, Maryland, we followed Stuart’s ride northwards via Union Mills, Hanover, Carlisle and Hunterstown during which Eric’s understanding of this oft misunderstood part of the Gettysburg Campaign became very clear. The debate about Stuart’s conduct during that period quickly developed. Did Stuart neglect, or exceed his orders, and deprive Lee of his ‘yes and ears’? Or did he interpret his orders correctly and take the initiative to cause disruption in the Union rear and gather important supplies? These questions and many more will undoubtedly continue to be discussed for years to come, but Eric Wittenberg’s tour shed light and insight on the whole affair and certainly provided participants with plenty of food for thought.
The second tour was, for me, the highlight of the conference. Entitled ‘Walking the Union Fishhook’, it took the form of an eight-mile hike right around the Union defensive position that had developed by the morning of 2 July 1863. The map below show this position very well and how it fitted into the overall narrative and flow of the battle.
Guided by two qualified Gettysburg Licensed Guides – the Civil War Trust’s own Director of History and Education, Gary Adelman, and serving US Marine Corps Colonel, Doug Douds – we started the tour on the summit of Little Round Top at the southern tip of the Union line. It was immediately clear that we were in for an informative and entertaining day as both guides launched into their delivery with gusto. Readers may recall that I sung the praises of the Gettysburg Licenced Guides programme in a previous blog post, and these two gentlemen certainly lived up to my previous billing. This programme produces guides with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Battle of Gettysburg, its terrain, its history and its participants, as a result their ability to engage an audience is without exception outstanding.
The actions of Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren in highlighting the Union’s exposed flank on 2 July 1863, and the actions of Colonel Strong Vincent’s Brigade to hold Little Round Top were explained by Gary and Doug, and with these fresh in our minds we started on the hike. Moving off the top of the hill and we transversed the close country of the Western slopes of Little Round Top, passing through a little known, nor visited, rocky feature know as the ‘Devil’s Kitchen’ before arriving in the better known ‘Devil’s Den’. Here the complementary skills and interests of our two guides came to the fore. Doug regaled us with the story of the battlefield actions in this part of the field, whilst Gary talked about the photography that was conducted shortly after the battle to record the event and the rise of the battlefield as a tourist attraction, including the facilities, such as a railway, put in place during the nineteenth century to facilitate this trade.
The next stage of the tour took us to the infamous Wheatfield the site of some of the bloodiest fighting on the battlefield and a location that changed hands six times during the course of 2 July 1863. As we moved through the terrain from Little Round Top to Devil’s Den and on to the Wheatfield our guides flagged up a truism that can be easily missed on this battlefield, and many others, if one explores them in the traditional manner. All too often tours will take one, in a car or a coach, from location to location and each stop or stand is treated as an isolated action on the battlefield. What is often missing is the narrative or interpretation of how that action fitted with action happening in adjacent locations geographically or with that happening at the same time elsewhere on the field. Walking the whole Union position quickly highlighted how all the actIons and activities were inextricably interrelated and how something happening in one location often had a knock on effect elsewhere.
This cause and effect inter-relationship was nowhere clearer that when we reached the Trostle Farm and discussed the actions of Major General Dan Sickles and the Union Third Corps. As Sickles moved his corps forward to occupy what he felt was better ground, he created a gap in the Union position that then require others, in particular Winfield Scott Hancock and his Second Corps, to fill. Walking from the Trostle Farm to the heart of Cemetery Ridge it became very clear just how big a gap was created and problems it produced elsewhere in the Union lines.
The tour continued along the centre of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge where we stopped to discuss the awesome Pennsylvania State Memorial and the action at the famous Angle which has become known as the ‘High Watermark of the Confederacy‘. From there we moved on through the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the resting place for more than 3,500 Union dead and where at the cemetery’s dedication Abraham Lincoln delivered ‘…a few appropriate remarks…’ which turned out to be one of the greatest speeches of all time, and is now referred to as the Gettysburg Address. The tour concluded with the eastern most portions of the Union line and took us over the wooded Culp’s Hill finishing at Spangler’s Spring. Again throughout we were able to appreciate the terrain from less well-visited viewpoints and to continue to build our understanding of the inter-relationship between the various parts of the battle.
At the conclusion of this walk I, and many of my fellow participants, commented and reflected on the new and different perspective we all had gained. Whilst most of us had been to the battlefield, many on numerous occasions, and had toured in many different ways, be it by coach, by car or even walking parts of it, few if any had completed such a complete and in-depth study of the Union position. The insights gained and understanding enhanced by doing so was marked. The lesson learned here, and that I for one took away was relatively simple. It is dangerous to attempt to understand history, particularly of such a complex event as a battle, by picking a few salient points in isolation and it is crucial tolook at new perspectives and appreciate the often complex interplay of activities in order to build a full and accurate picture. And that is my excuse when my wife enquires as to why I need to need to spend yet more time on a particular battlefield!