July 7: Gettysburg

One hundred and forty-five years ago this week, Union and Confederate forces essentially accidentally ran into each other right outside of a little town called Gettysburg. It turned out to be one of the most important battles in the War Between the States.

This morning we drove down to the historic battlefield and looked into hiring a tour guide to take us around the 6,000 acre area. At Gettysburg, you can hire a guide to drive in your car with you and give you a personal tour. The first one available was at 11 a.m. (we were there at 9 a.m.), so we decided to waste some time by going around the free museum that they have in the visitor’s center. This is a new visitor’s center and is very well done. We spent two hours in the museum and didn’t even get to finish it before our tour.

According to Paw-Paw, in the old museum they had a battlefield display that used lights to show how the battle progressed over the three days. In this new museum, they use three separate videos in separate rooms to show each day of the battle and what happened. In addition to that, they have relics and artifacts from each day and even interactive games you can play to learn about what the soldiers packed, bugle calls and signal flags.

The museum doesn’t just focus on the battle, but also has sections about the events leading up to the war and what happened after Gettysburg and the war. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to the last part before we had to meet up with our guide.

Right at 11 a.m., Battlefield Guide Joe met us in the lobby of the visitor’s center. He was a tall, goofy looking guy with a distinguished gray mustache, distinguished glasses and a distinguished Gettysburg Battlefield Guide short-sleeve dress shirt.

As we walked out to the car, he asked us where we were from and how much we really knew about the battle and the war. I’m sure he tailors the tour based on these two factors. He was a wealth of knowledge and could go very in depth if he was with people who had studied the war a lot, or could do more of an overview with the not so learned. He also could focus on a certain state if it was involved with the battle.

We were definitely in the not so learned group, and he found that out very quickly. If it wasn’t for that museum, I would have been completely in the dark about the battle and felt like an idiot. Luckily I pick up on things quickly and was able to follow what he was talking about and ask some semi-intelligent questions.

Since we were from North Carolina, he focused largely on what the N.C. brigades did during the war, which was actually quite a lot. They were a large part of the first battle on the first day, and got the farthest on Pickett’s Charge, the South’s last ditch attempt to defeat the Union. This is where the name “Tar Heels” is supposed to have come from, owing to the fact that North Carolinians would stand their ground and refuse to fall, like they had tar on their heels.

He based the tour around each day, driving us to different parts of the battlefield and showing us where the armies were and how the battle progressed. Once I got my bearings, it really started to make a lot of sense and was interesting to see. I tried to visualize the thousands of troops that were running around this tiny town.

According to our guide, very soon after the battle ended, a local man started buying the battlegrounds to preserve them and historians came up and started interviewing injured or captured soldiers that were left behind to find out exactly where all the different brigades were at different parts of the battle. Because of this, they have more than 1,000 memorials littering the battlefield, showing where the different brigades were. They even have little flank markers that show exactly where each army line was. Our guide said that there are no other battlefields that are this preserved and documented around now.

Each of the southern states involved in the battle put up a monument on the main southern front of the battlefield. He took us to the North Carolina monument, which was by far the most artistic. It was a sculpture of four soldiers that were running in Pickett’s charge. Each soldier represented a different state that the soldiers were going through: one was injured, one was grim-faced and determined, one was obviously nervous, and the other was a grizzled veteran trying to calm the nervous soldier.

We found out that the sculpture was done by Gutzon Borglum. That name should sound familiar because of an earlier post: it’s the same man that sculpted Mt. Rushmore. Pretty cool.

I won’t bore you with all the history of Gettysburg that I learned today, but I’ll suffice it to say that if the southern generals had listened to Lee and thought a little more, they probably would have won the war. Lee’s ideas and plans for attack should have worked in theory, but the execution was awful. I’m not saying I wanted the South to win because it would have ruined this country, but it’s amazing how close they were to dealing a harsh blow to the Union and possibly forcing an end to the war.

“It was like a mirage. They could see it right in front of them, but every time they reached out for it it went away,” said Battlefield Guide Joe.

The North had their share of blunders, too, but they got lucky by just barely beating the Southern forces to Little Round Top — a high hill that gave great attacking position around the town — and knew the area better so that they could position themselves accordingly.

I’ve never studied the Civil War much, but seeing this battlefield and how everything worked got me really interested. And Joe was full of great anecdotes about the war and people that were involved with it. He said that the guides basically do a lot of research into people and stories during the off season (winter), so he gets a lot of information then. He also hears many stories from guests and takes the time to look them up.

At the end I asked him how he got involved with the park and how he got the job. He said he had been studying the war and the Southern generals since the ninth grade. He’s a self-proclaimed huge Civil War buff. I guess he has a dream job.

After driving around for about two hours with Joe, we dropped him off at his car and thanked him for the tour. We were done with Gettysburg then and decided to grab a quick lunch at the Kickin’ Kitchen in downtown before heading over to Philly.

We had to fight some traffic, but got to Philadelphia around 6 p.m. and got checked into our room. We will be here for two nights and will take the time to explore the city — mainly the old downtown portion — tomorrow.

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