July 28, 2012

Pennsylvania Triangle 2012, Day 4: Addressing Gettysburg

Wednesday, July 11, 2012: I woke up in my Gettysburg hotel room with an excited feeling swirling around in my chest. Before departing on this Pennsylvania Triangle, one of the things that I was most anticipating was getting the chance to explore the historic Gettysburg battlefield and its surrounding area. With such a vast piece of ground and so many interesting stories to cover, I decided that the best way to dip my feet into this Civil War experience was to take a guided bus tour. After being picked up by a van and carted to the bus depot, the tour group climbed aboard a comfortable coach bus where an extremely knowledgeable guide began recounting the details of one of the most important and bloody battles in American history. Gettysburg had never been a strategic point of interest to the Civil War. On July 1, 1863, as the Confederate army marched north under General Robert E. Lee and the Union soldiers rushed south to meet them, they just happened to collide in this little town of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg would become the major turning point of the entire Civil War and it was a battle that the the Union Army came very close to losing. After suffering many defeats to the South, General Warren was dispatched to scout a rocky hill named Little Round Top. The moment that he reached the apex, he immediately realized that this was the high ground that would decide the fate of the battle, yet it was completely unprotected and he could see that Southern soldiers were approaching in the distance. He immediately sent for soldiers and a foot race ensued between the North and the South. It is said that the Northern army arrived mere minutes before the South and were able to hold off the attack. Victory at Little Round Top proved to be the turning point of the Battle of Gettysburg. Many historians believe that had the North arrived just a few minutes later and lost Little Round Top, the South would have won the battle of Gettysburg and had a clear march right into Washington DC. Had that happened, the Confederacy would have won the Civil War and the world would be completely different than the one we know today.

After the tour, the bus dropped me back off at the depot in the middle of town. It is very close to a fork in the road between Baltimore Pike and Steinwehr Avenue. This area boasts a series of museums that are all within walking distance of each other. The bus ticket included free admission to five area attractions so I stepped directly across the street and into the first museum in the row: Soldier's National Museum. The first room in the building showcases many of the helmets, equipment, and weapons used throughout history by various soldiers. From there, the tour goes down the stairs and into a life-sized Confederate Army encampment. In the background, a narration describes the difficult life of Civil War soldiers. This was my favorite part of the museum; I really felt like I was living that moment in time. The last few rooms feature several miniature scenes from the Civil War which included Fort Sumter, the Battle of Antietam Creek, and Lee's Surrender.

The next attraction that I visited was the Gettysburg Diorama. In the rear of this building stands a finely-detailed diorama of the entire battlefield containing over 20,000 hand-crafted soldiers, horses, buildings, and cannons. Rows of bleachers surround the miniature scene. Soon, the lights are dimmed and the Battle of Gettysburg plays out with spotlights and sound effects highlighting each maneuver. When presented in this way, it is very easy to visualize the events of July 1-3, 1863. The Diorama is really well done.

Just a few blocks down the road is the American Civil War Wax Museum. I enjoyed walking among these beautiful depictions of important Civil War events and personalities such as the Lincoln/Douglas debates, the Dred Scott Decision, the Underground Railroad, Confederate spy Rose O’Neal Greenhow, and the "angel of the battlefield" Clara Barton.

Next came the Lincoln Train Museum. It was here that I learned the story behind the famous beard of Abraham Lincoln. Before the election of 1860, a clean-shaven Mr. Lincoln received a letter from an 11-year old girl in Westfield, NY named Grace Bedell. In the letter, she asked if he would grow a beard. Upon winning the election, he hopped aboard a train in Illinois to take him to Washington DC and his new office. During that trip, he made a point of stopping off in Westfield. When Grace Bedell saw the President-Elect donning his new whiskers, she jumped into his arms and cried. It is reported that Mr. Lincoln looked her in the eye and said, "You see, Grace. I let them grow for you."

The last attraction that I would visit for the day was the Hall of Presidents & First Ladies. This museum offers a very unique look into the heritage of the Presidency of the United States. From George Washington to Barack Obama, each one of these wax-sculpted Presidents would be illuminated in turn to tell a little bit of his story in his own words. Then, it was over to the Hall of First Ladies, where each inaugural gown has been reproduced in striking detail according to the Smithsonian archives.

I would spend the rest of the evening driving around the battlefield looking more closely at all of the sites that I had seen earlier on the bus tour. Today, the Gettysburg Battlefield features over 1,300 monuments placed on the field to represent the actual army lines as they were positioned in July of 1863. It was amazing to me to know that most of these monuments were erected in the 1800s. One of my favorites is the colossal Pennsylvania Monument. This structure features a spiral staircase so that guests can climb to the top and look out over the fields.

High above the treeline on the edge of the battlefield, another tower gives a bird's eye view of the entire scene. As dusk was beginning to roll in, I climbed to the top and looked out over the many famous landmarks that I had learned about during my day in Gettysburg: Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge. I stayed up there for a long time as a wave of veneration washed over me. I could almost hear the words of Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address echoing in my mind: ...we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

"We were under great pressure,
far beyond our ability to endure,
so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received
the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves
but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril,
and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue
to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks
on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us
in answer to the prayers of many."

~2 Corinthians 1:8-11