Bravery that made a difference

June 20, 1996|By PETER A. JAY

GETTYSBURG, Pa. -- It is midweek and hot. The tourist traffic seems a little slow. The great green valley where the battlefield lies seems to shimmer in the sun. To the west, South Mountain is indistinct in the haze.

At the Angle on Cemetery Ridge, near the so-called high-water mark where the Confederate charge faltered and broke, a few visitors stand quietly and look over to the woods to the west from where on the afternoon of July 3, 1863, the waves of gray troops came. Somewhere over there Lee watched them go, and watched them, shattered, return. The woods seem a long way away, across that fertile ground.

In some of the fields between the ridges, on either side of the Emmitsburg road, the wheat is ripening nicely this summer. As this is only June it is still a pale green, almost a pastel. By July it will be yellow, the big heads heavy and ready for harvest. It's a valuable crop in the fields out there, and especially so this year, with drought having devastated the wheat states of the west.

It was the richness of Gettysburg and the surrounding Pennsylvania country- side that struck many of the men who marched with Lee on this first foray into the North. They ate

better than they had in a long time -- hogs and cattle from the farmsteads, cherries from the orchards.

The affluence, and the nervous tranquility of the villages through which they passed, must have seemed dreamlike to the dusty veterans of Manassas and Sharpsburg and Chancellorsville as they converged on Gettysburg. And they must have looked nightmarish to those who watched them go by.

I thought of Stephen Vincent Benet's description of that ''ripe country of broad-backed horses,/ Valley of cold, sweet springs and dairies with limestone floors;/ And so they found you that year, when they scared your cows with their cannon,/ And the strange South moved against you, lean marchers lost in the corn.''

My son and I have come here, almost 133 years after those extraordinary events. Because they did so much to determine what kind of a country we would have to live in, we intend to try to understand them a little better by bicycling over some of this terrain. Like so many who come here, we are intensely moved by what we see.

The bicycles are helpful. We will cover more than 15 miles this afternoon, much more than we could comfortably walk, and we will do it easily even in the heat. And we're much closer to what we're seeing than we would be in a car.

A flicker flies into the Copse of Trees just south of the Angle. A nesting starling emerges from the barrel of a cannon. I have time to look carefully at the construction of the reproduced rail fences. In a modest retreat from authenticity, some of the fields where cattle graze have been equipped with modern aluminum gates.

We pass the Pennsylvania Memorial and go on to Little Round Top, where on the battle's second day Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine Regiment, their ammunition gone, saved the left flank of the entire Union Army with an inspired bayonet charge down the rocky slope, routing the climbing Alabamians.

We had been here once before, by car, when my son was a little boy. Then he was slightly bored. Now he is 20 and knows much more about the battle, and about Chamberlain, than do I. We both look at this ground now, as we do at each other, through different eyes.

West to the rebel lines

We bike on, stopping at the Devil's Den, from where Confederate sharpshooters picked off some of the defenders of Little Round Top. We pass the Peach Orchard, where new peach trees have been planted. Then we cross the road and head west to the Confederate lines.

It is cool and shady under the trees there, and as we rest I think of Stonewall Jackson, killed at Chancellorsville, and wonder if he would have made a difference here. There is a high steel observation tower, which for some reason is closed, but we clamber over the locked gate and climb to the top anyway to look back at Cemetery Ridge.

There is so much to see. We bike back through the town and then a little bit north, to where even before the battle was really begun John Buford's dismounted Union cavalry brigade stopped Harry Heth's division cold and bought time for the federal army to occupy all the best ground the following day. This, like Chamberlain's charge, was bravery that made a difference.

Not all bravery does, of course. Later, a few miles east of the town, we tour the grassy field where cavalry units under Stuart and Custer, sabers drawn and flags flying, clashed spectacularly and quite irrelevantly to the outcome of the battle or the war.

Soon, around the anniversary of the fighting, there will be re-enactments, with infantry and cavalry and the booming of unloaded cannon. That will be spectacular and irrelevant, too. I think I prefer seeing this ground on a quiet day, with puffy clouds overhead, wind in the wheat, and plenty of time to reflect among the bronze men and the stone memorials.

Peter A. Jay is a writer and farmer.

Pub Date: 6/20/96

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