You’d hardly think it possible today looking over this particular patch of Pennsylvania countryside, which like much of the rest of the area, is known for its rock-strewn fallow fields and picturesque small towns nested in the valleys of the local hillsides. This particular patch however, was immortalized a century-and-a-half ago to the minute, as it played host to the most gruesome battle in the history of the Western Hemisphere, it’s forests and fields filled with fallen men, whom over the course of the three days, would fight one of the most important battles of the American Civil War, and ensured that the name Gettysburg would be remembered long after the guns fell silent.It’s hard to grasp even today just how much rode on the results of that fateful battle – even today, Gettysburg looks like just a small town torn from a Norman Rockwell painting, far removed from the likes of Normandy or Stalingrad or any number of other storied sites of war where the course of battle just so happened to affect the course of history. Yet that history is palpable, walking through the town, and especially walking through the surrounding National Park that covers the battle sites. Place names sanctified by bloodshed and immortalized in countless retellings in the generations since the battle, place names like Little Round Top or Cemetery Ridge, spring out of the history books and into real life before me, as I walk the very grounds that, one hundred and fifty years ago to the minute, Union and Confederate troops fought, bled and died over.When the first shots were fired on McPherson’s Ridge on the morning of July 1st, 1863, few on either the Union or Confederate sides could have guessed the importance the following battle would have on the Civil War, the United States, or the world. Though fierce fighting on both sides for the whole three days, the Union’s occupation and holding of the high ground, combined with several tactical blunders on the part of the Confederacy, allowed for a Union victory, one which when combined with General Grant’s capture of Vicksburg the following day, is considered by many to be the turning point of the American Civil War. Though both sides suffered similar numbers of casualties, the failure of Lee’s second (and final) invasion of the North, and the Confederacy’s inability to replenish their ranks with reinforcements following the long retreat South left the Army of the Northern Virginia gutted, and the Confederate cause all but lost. After the Battle of Gettysburg, the road to Appomattox was all but inevitable.
For the tactical and historical reasons, but also for the size and scope of the battle and the stories of the men who fought it, Gettysburg came away as the definitive battle of the American Civil War, one many people know details about almost instinctively. Yet all the school lessons and books cannot match seeing the battlefield with one’s own eyes, and treading it’s hallowed grounds with your own two feet. I’ve visited Civil War Battlefields before, but with Gettysburg, there is truly a different feeling to it, aided perhaps by my visit coinciding with the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg itself.Having read about the Battle of Gettysburg since grade school, nothing compares to seeing it in person, the weight of history on my shoulders, the scope and scale of the battle’s consequences fleshed out before my very eyes. To see the barricades from where General Joe Chamberlain and the 20th Maine charged Confederate forces with fixed bayonets when their ammo ran low, forcing the surrender or retreat of the Rebel forces, and maintaining Union control of Little Round Top… to walk in the memorial march for Pickett’s Charge, through the same bramble-infested hillside that his men charged Union guns in the forlorn hope of capturing that famed copse of trees… to stand before the spot in Gettysburg National Cemetery where President Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address… and to do so largely all at the same time as the events happened all those years ago… to describe the feeling that pervades the proceedings, I’ll admit, my words cannot do it justice, no more than the scores of books or maps of the Battle I’d read previously can compare to seeing it in person.Of course, I’m far from the only one to be here for the occasion – there had to have been tens of thousands of people there with me, ranging from Military attaches to Boy Scout troops to Russian tourists (one group of which I enjoyed a lively debate over whether Gettysburg or Stalingrad is the more celebrated battle) to grandfathers, whom like my own at one point years ago, pointing out the landmarks to a wide-eyed grandchild on their shoulders. All of these guests are on top of the thousands of Civil War Re-enactors filling the park, preparing for the various staged battle reenactments that took place over the week. As someone who had visited Battlefields from Bull Run to Antietam without even seeing another person there, this was something of a shock, albeit a pleasing one, to see so many scores of people there to appreciate, commemorate and memorialize the events that occurred one-hundred-and-fifty years ago.Fifteen decades have passed since the guns grew silent at Gettysburg, where a three-day battle between the North and South saw nearly two-hundred thousand men fight, and nearly fifty-thousand of them dead or wounded. Yet even today, the deeds and actions of the men on both sides who fought there live on in the hearts and minds of people the world over, resonating as loudly today as they thunder of cannon and cries of men did all those years ago. Now, as then, the Battle of Gettysburg, the men who fought and bled there, and the homesteads and causes they fought for, are alive for any who stand on those hallowed grounds, and may it be the so for the countless generations still to come.