By Tommy Hough
Treehuggers International was delighted to welcome guest Cinda Waldbuesser, the Pennsylvania senior program manager with the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA), to talk about the restoration work that's been done at Gettysburg National Military Park over the last 10 years by the National Park Service (NPS), in conjunction with the Gettysburg Foundation.
Thanks to Treehuggers International friend Perry Wheeler with the Washington D.C. office of the NPCA, and Katie Lawhon at Gettysburg National Military Park for their help and assistance in producing this special, on-location episode.
Pivotal Battle Offered No Shortage of Carnage
Fought over the course of three days in July 1863, Gettysburg is the most famous battle of the American Civil War, and one of the most terrible, even for a war which had no shortage of carnage or butchery. At least 50,000 military and civilian casualties were incurred at Gettysburg, including 10,000 killed, making it the most costly one-battle engagement in American history until the Battle of the Bulge 80 years later (which was fought over the course of six weeks, instead of three days).
The battle was the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's second invasion of the north, following an inconclusive invasion of Maryland the previous September, which resulted in the savage bloodletting at the Battle of Antietam – a battle whose scope and casualties shocked both sides as the bloodiest single day of fighting ever on the North American continent.
Rather than an attempt to seize territory, Lee's invasion of Pennsylvania was prompted by supply necessities. The Army of Northern Virginia could no longer forage for food or live off the land in war-torn Virginia, so following the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee gambled on Union confusion to launch a summer invasion of the north.
While Confederate cavalry under General J.E.B. Stuart threatened Harrisburg, the capitol of Pennsylvania, and briefly occupied nearby Carlisle, the bulk of Lee's army barely penetrated the Keystone State's border by more than 12 miles. Federal forces under the Army of the Potomac's new commander, General George Meade, positioned themselves between the Confederates and Washington D.C., buying time for reserves to be drawn out of the capital to help repel the southern invasion. Federal cavalry, newly energized after a stand at the Battle of Brandy Station a month earlier, initiated flanking maneuvers against Stuart's cavalry units.
Following several days of small-scale firefights, both armies jockeyed for position near the crossroads town of Gettysburg, through which the major east-west National Road (now U.S. 40) and north-south Taneytown Road pass.
Lee's forces, advancing from the north, pushed panicked Federal defenders through the streets of Gettysburg after engagements at Barlow Knoll and Oak Ridge smashed the Union line on July 1, but Meade fell back to high ground defensive positions anchored at Cemetery Hill, forming a line running some four miles south of town.
As the lines coalesced, Confederate flanking attempts were made on July 2 on the Federal right at Culp's Hill, while daylong close-quarter bloodbaths occurred along the line in benign-sounding locales like the Wheatfield, which changed hands several times in a matter of hours, and at the Peach Grove, which fell to Confederate advances by the end of the day on July 2.
At the chillingly named Devil's Den, at the base of Little Round Top, Federal troops held off Confederate assaults during hours of macabre hand-to-hand fighting, often in narrow gaps and draws in bizarre rock outcroppings.
The fighting sapped southern strength on the Union left, enabling Meade's forces to quickly claim and hold Little Round Top. By late afternoon Union artillery was raining devastating fire onto southern forces attacking out of Pitzer Woods and Warfield Ridge to the west and south.
By the end of July 2, the Union line held: to the north along the edge of Gettysburg at Cemetery Hill, and to the south at Little Round Top, where the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Chamberlin held the southern end of the line, thereby maintaining Union control of the battle, but under murderous, non-stop Confederate attack by newly-committed Alabama troops.
Union defenders paid dearly at the Wheatfield and Devil's Den, but in doing so bought time for reinforcements to brought into the fight. Even as Lee committed his reserves with a failed assault on East Cemetery Hill, Federal troops continued to pour into the area from Washington.
A Massed, Futile Assault
Realizing he needed to break the back of the Union line, Lee chose to do so at the center with a massive assault the morning of July 3. Almost all of Lee's staff, including his deputy, General James Longsteet, opposed it. Union General Meade had correctly anticipated Lee's moves throughout the battle, falling into excellent defensive positions by the end of the first day, and at a Council of War at the end of the second day predicted Lee would advance on the Union center, just over the hill beyond his headquarters near a farmhouse and several groves of trees.
After several cavalry actions early on July 3, including a renewed assault at the northern end of the Union line near Culp's Hill, Lee unleashed the largest artillery bombardment of the war up to that time on the Union center. Holding the high ground along Cemetery Ridge, Meade knew he held an advantage against an attack from the west, and only ordered his batteries on either end of the barrage to fire on Confederate positions, leaving artillery in the center to remain largely silent during the two-hour bombardment. There was no secret as to what was coming next.
Advancing in three division-sized groups from Seminary Ridge and Spangler's Woods along a mile-long front, Longstreet placed General George Pickett in command of the assault, which saw the bulk of nine regiments of the Army of Northern Virginia – Lee's best troops – advancing uphill against fortified artillery and infantry positions.
The weather was hot and humid, in the 80s, and the objective was a grove, or "copse," of trees a mile away at the center of the Federal II Corps position, but this was academic to Confederate officers. The advance was in broad daylight over a mile of open ground, following a bombardment. There would be no surprise, and no shelter.
Union artillery began firing before the southern infantry had advanced beyond the treeline, and long-range guns also targeted Confederate troops massing in the rear of Seminary Ridge. The Confederates advanced in a skirmish line at a medium pace, and held discipline while under what became withering artillery fire from the Federal left and right. The Union center remained silent, even though the advancing southerners could clearly see cannon pointing straight at them.
About halfway across the field, the Confederates leaped into double-time, at which point Federal artillery in the center at fired, mowing down half of the advancing troops within a matter of minutes. Federal infantry opened up on the advancing survivors as they closed in on Union lines, cutting down soldiers one and two at a time, though a few Confederate troops managed to reach a locale called the Angle near the bullet-riddled Brian Farmhouse, before being surrounded and gunned down.
One New York battery grimly summed up the point-blank use of artillery at this stage of the Confederate charge as "double canister shot at 10 yards." It was a terrible, mass slaughter.
The "High Water Mark" of the Confederacy
Today, the Angle and Copse of Trees literally mark the Confederate "high water mark" of advance, with Union unit monuments dotting the line, facing similar Confederate monuments a mile away along Seminary Ridge.
The mark didn't just represent the failure of the southern effort at Gettysburg, it marked the high water mark of the Confederacy. Though the south would have one last major victory at Chattanooga later in 1863, the die was cast with Pickett's Charge. The war would drag on for nearly two more years, but never again would a Confederate army manage a large-scale offensive.
By the spring of 1864, newly-installed Union commander Ulysses S. Grant initiated total war against the south, bringing to bear the full might of Union industry, technology and manpower against southern states, as the U.S. at last found a way to grind out a winning formula, however awful, to win a war it had once taken far less seriously than its adversary.
Modern Development Threats
Preservation of the Gettysburg battlefield began shortly after the battle ended, with a portion of East Cemetery Hill appropriated by the War Department as Gettysburg National Cemetery. Most of the nearly 5,000 Union troops killed in the battle were buried at this new National Cemetery, where President Lincoln famously delivered the Gettysburg Address during the cemetery's dedication four months later on Nov. 19, 1863. The Army Department managed the battlefield site for decades before transferring the property to the National Park Service in 1933.
National Battlefields and National Historic Sites play somewhat the same role in the eastern U.S. as National Monuments do in the west, in that they protect resources and practice conservation within a smaller footprint, but on a scale which still enables wildlife corridors and open space aesthetics, and acts as a bulwark to encroaching urbanization.
The Battle of Gettysburg retains a place in history as a turning point in the war, but its legacy extends beyond military history, as Gettysburg National Military Park preserves some 4,000 acres of the battlefield and adjoining areas, including streams, fields, meadows, orchards, and several large hills within the Pennsylvania Piedmont coastal plain and Potomac River watershed.
Working in conjunction with the National Park Service in renovating the battlefield to its state on the eve of battle in 1863, the Gettysburg Foundation is representative of the kind of locally-based, public–private partnerships which have developed over the last decade, enabling Park Service professionals to focus on resource protection and law enforcement, while foundation volunteers and employees staff the new LEED-certified visitor center and museum.
Opened in 2008, the new Gettysburg visitor center not only features outstanding historic artifact displays and film experiences, it is also the new home of the restored Gettysburg Cyclorama, painted by French artist Paul Philippoteaux and first exhibited in a tour of the U.S. in 1883.
The NPCA also worked with the National Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation to remove the Gettysburg National Tower, built in 1974 on private property but considered a park eyesore by battlefield conservationists until its demolition in 2000. The NPCA has also helped combat the threat of a proposed casino in significant proximity to the battlefield's borders.
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Tommy Hough is a former San Diego broadcast personality, wilderness and parks advocate, California Democratic Party delegate, and the co-founder and former president of San Diego County Democrats for Environmental Action. He was the endorsed Democratic candidate for San Diego City Council in District 6 in 2018.