Thursday, July 16, 2009

Of Muskets and Memories, Part 2

I have a special place in my heart for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, arguably one of the most important fighters for the Union at the Battle of Gettysburg. He and his men, of the 20th Maine, held the Confederates back from taking a hill called Little Round Top, on the second day of fighting at Gettysburg. In his incredible book, The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara tells the story of how these men held "the line at all costs," as they were directed to do by their commander.



As good as this book is, reading about Gettysburg is one thing. Actually being there, standing on Little Round Top in the woods where these men made their stand, is something else entirely.



From Gettysburg PA


Here is the first monument that we find, walking into the woods. It marks the extreme right of this particular skirmish; Luke and Owen are walking into the woods where the Confederates were running up the hill, 146 years ago almost to the day.



From Gettysburg PA


Perhaps 100 feet away - maybe, not even that - is the monument marking this as the place where the 20th Maine made their historic stand. It tells how, outnumbered and out of ammunition, Chamberlain and his men, including his little brother, kept the Confederates back. When they finally ran out of ammo, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge to hold the line; amazingly, it worked.



From Gettysburg PA


And then, another hundred or so feet from that monument was this one, marking the extreme left of Chamberlain's fight. Standing here gave me goosebumps, because this wasn't just the end of the 20th Maine's fighters - it was the extreme left of the whole Union army. If the Confederates had broken through here, we might be a slave-holding nation still. Isn't that just freaky to contemplate?



We camped in a great campground right near the battlefield, so Ben let me go back to Gettysburg myself for a few hours, while he and the boys played mini-golf and ate ice cream. (One thing that was kind of jarring about Gettysburg was the mix of solemn battle history, and the intrusions of the modern world. Giant billboards advertised great used cars at Battlefield Kia, and then there was our personal favorite, Pickett's Buffet. General Pickett was the Confederate General best known for leading thousands of southern fighters in a charge, a mile wide, that was annihilated by the Union cannons at the top of Cemetery Ridge; why in heck name a restaurant after him?)



From Gettysburg PA


This picture gives a sense of the 6,000-plus acre National Park; monuments everywhere, surrounded by quiet green grass, wildflowers, and the occasional plaque explaining what went on in detail. It is perfect.



From Gettysburg PA


When I took this picture, I stood where the Union soldiers and their cannons held back the mile-wide, thousands-strong charge known to history as Pickett's charge (although, as the sign points out, others were involved, too). I took this pic through tears, because I could almost see the Confederates charging and screaming their rebel yell, from those trees visible in the distance.



From Gettysburg PA


Much like the memorials in the grass, the cannons are set up just as they were during the battle. It is eerie, and again perfect.



From Gettysburg PA


From Gettysburg PA


From Gettysburg PA


Pennsylvania has built a huge monument to the men who fought at Gettysburg. You can climb up to the second level, where you find these signposts:



From Gettysburg PA


Little Round Top is the hill farthest right in this pic.



From Gettysburg PA


Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address where this memorial now stands. One of my favorite things about the whole park was coming upon this plaque, containing the speech in its entirety:



From Gettysburg PA


To help kids appreciate and understand what went on here, the National Park has a great (if somewhat overwhelming) Visitors Center, where you can watch a movie about the battle, narrated by Morgan Freeman and very helpful for understanding why the Civil War was fought, and why Gettysburg was so pivotal. Also, the Visitors Center has this incredible painting, The Cyclorama, which depicts Pickett's Charge in a very vivid and amazing way. It was first exhibited in 1884, not long after the war had ended, and it must have been mind-blowing to behold back then - even now, it is amazing. Probably the best thing about the Visitors Center, though, are the Park Rangers available to help you figure out how to take the National Park in; we found them to be helpful and very knowledgeable about the battle and the park.



We decided about two days before we left that we were going to go to Gettysburg, meaning that we had almost no prior planning. But two books were helpful in getting the boys ready for the visit: Gettysburg - July 1-3, 1863, one of the American Battlefield series that explains the lead-up to the battle, the battle itself, and the aftermath, including a reenactment that was held fifty years afterward in which the formerly-Union-and-Confederate soldiers camped together. This book has lots of pictures, which can be both a blessing and a curse, as you might imagine.



The other book is The Civil War for Kids, which is more general but talks about the war from the perspective of children. It features activities, like cooking food from that period or playing games that children of the Civil War era might have played, so that kids can get a sense of what life was like back then.



All I can say is, if you get the chance, go to Gettysburg. It is an incredibly moving, amazing place, for kids and adults.

3 comments:

Firefly mom said...

Wow - fabulous pictures and narrative! The next best thing to being there ;) I would have loved to take my son there when he was going through his 2 year long Civil War phase. Didn't happen. Hopefully we'll get him there before he moves out!


P.S. I put up some vid for you on my blog of hubby doing his helium Dirty Harry.

The Stone Age Techie said...

Firefly Mom - thank you! I am going there right now :-)

Susan said...

Hmmm...I left a comment, but it seems to have failed to go through. I love your description of how the men held the line at Little Round Top, and the pictures of both ends of the line.

You make me want to fly right back to PA and do the Civil War...I didn't want to confuse the kids by doing both, so we passed by many a Civil War site,