At Gettysburg, understanding the price of freedom

A SENSE OF HISTORY

July 04, 1993|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Staff Writer

Battlefields, you say, are for the history majors -- the bookish, the dull, the long-winded; especially those bookish types who cause eyes to glaze over with their long-winded droning about things like muzzle velocity, command and control or the ever-popular "what-if" factor.

What if Jeb Stuart hadn't disappeared on Lee just before Gettysburg? What if Ewell had taken Cemetery Hill the first day? What if Longstreet had hustled? What if Meade blah and blah and blah.

Fair enough. When it comes to visiting a battlefield like Gettysburg, the lines most likely have been long drawn between those who really want to go and those who get dragged along -- between those who ask "which one was Meade?" and those who roll their eyes, shake their heads and groan.

Still, if you've never knelt at the low stone wall that hooks around the backside of Little Round Top at Gettysburg and felt the absolute isolation of the position; if you've never wondered what it must have felt like for those men of the 20th Maine, knowing the fate of the entire grand Republic hinged on their capacity for quieting fear and holding that wall; if you've never probed inside and asked, "Had it been me in their place, would I have run?" -- then maybe this is your summer to do some exploring.

Battlefields are stories and emotions waiting to be tapped. And if there were only one battlefield in your future it really ought to be Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. Not only because it is the most famous battle ever fought in America, or even because it is so close -- less than an hour's drive up U.S. 15 from Baltimore. But because so many of those oft-cited patriotic values that politicians talk about -- courage, honesty, ingenuity, sacrifice -- are more tangible here, in their horror and glory, than anywhere.

For even though in 1863 the Battle of Gettysburg took place on the first three days of July, today this hallowed ground is pure Fourth of July country. With that in mind, here is a suggested approach to fully appreciating a tour of Gettysburg.

Organizing your visit

* Start with the electric map, located in the Visitor Center, for a quick orientation to the main events of the battle. In a darkened auditorium, a narrator draws your attention to a large map of Gettysburg, where colored lights blink on and off showing movements of key military units during the battle. Even though it lasted three days, Gettysburg is probably one of the easiest battles for a student of any interest level to get a quick handle on. This display puts everyone in your group on equal footing, and you'll at least start your tour understanding why, in this war of bitter ironies, the North approached Gettysburg from the South and the South from the North.

* Try to make your tour of the battlefield chronological. Detailed -- maps with 17 numbered stops are available free at the Visitor Center. But following the exact sequence on this circular path around the battlefield will mix in sites of the second day's action with first-day action followed by third-day action. That can easily dilute your appreciation of the crucial strategic decisions made by commanders as the battle unfolded.

Thus, if you think of the battlefield as a story to experience from beginning to end, you'll want to start your tour north of the city -- stops 10 through 13 on your visitor's map -- where the battle's first day's events took place.

* Take advantage of the free tours and demonstrations given daily during the summer (through Aug. 14) by the National Parks Service. These include guided walks of 45 minutes to two hours explaining the significance of key portions of the battlefield. Information about the times and starting points are available in the Visitor Center.

Points of special interest

* Stand in the spot on McPherson's Ridge where Union general John Reynolds died (No. 10 on visitor's map) in the opening drama of the first day's action. Reynolds, a much-loved and respected leader, was trying to halt the surprising advance of the Confederate army into Gettysburg, where, had it seized the high ground, it would have posed a grave threat to the Federal army. He had just exhorted his troops "Forward, men! Forward for God's sake!" when he was shot from the saddle. His death threw the command -- and opportunity -- to an obscure general named Abner Doubleday, who, had he not acquitted himself well that day, might never have had the stature to have been honored decades later as the so-called inventor of baseball.

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