Gettysburg is a sleepy crossroads town. Situated in hilly Cumberland Valley fields in Pennsylvania, it is a musket volley or two short of 215 miles southwest of Manhattan. Now a national battlefield shrine, in July 1863 it was the turning point in our nation’s Civil War, known as the War Between the States to our Southern countrymen.
For three days – July 1, 2 and 3 – General George Gordon Meade and his Army of the Potomac battled General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. The fighting men of both sides, North and South, made history in the battle that forever changed America. A total of 23,000 soldiers of Union forces and 28,000 soldiers of Confederate forces were killed, wounded, captured or reported missing in action in the epic confrontation.
It is worth a trip, if only to stand on the actual ground of General Pickett’s famous charge. General Lee viewed the charge, which he ordered and always regretted, from a vantage point on Seminary Ridge in the center of Confederate lines above the battlefield. It is here, at the site of the Virginia State monument topped by a majestic statue of Lee on his horse, Traveler, that you fully grasp what happened on that terrible day.
After a fierce artillery barrage, 12,000 Confederate soldiers advanced almost one mile, across open fields, without cover or concealment, into the jaws of massive Union artillery firing shell and canister (buckshot). They marched toward certain death.
What makes Gettysburg so attractive as a tourist destination is its proximity and easy accessibility. It is an easy four-hour drive from New York City. Head south on the New Jersey Turnpike to Exit 6, and then west on the Pennsylvania Turnpike past Harrisburg, General Lee’s ultimate target of his northern thrust, to Route 15. Take Route 15 south for about 30 miles and bear right, west, along Baltimore pike to Gettysburg.
One Thanksgiving past, my wife, Eleanor, and I booked two nights at the Holiday Inn Battlefield at 516 Baltimore Street. The price was reasonable, the room spacious with a king-size comfortable bed, and there was free, convenient parking in the rear. We arrived at dinnertime, showered, dressed, and then enjoyed a delicious, moderately priced turkey dinner in celebration of America’s favorite holiday.
The hotel is close to the battlefield, which is a few miles south of the town center. Next door to the hotel is the house where the battle’s only noncombatant casualty, a young Irish-born woman, was shot dead by a Confederate musket ball.
The next day, Friday, we drove two minutes to the Visitor Center and the Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War. We could have walked. We arrived at 10 a.m., about two hours after the center had opened for the day, but two hours too late to hire a battlefield guide for a personal, escorted tour. There are only a few guides available in the fall. Many more, of course, are available in summer, the peak of tourism, when millions visit. But you have to be early whatever the season.
So, instead, we viewed the Electric Map display, which describes the battle and uses colored lights to depict various troop movements. We also visited the Cyclorama Center, which presents a sound-and-light program inside a circular auditorium that dramatically shows Pickett’s charge by spotlighting selected segments of Paul Philippoteaux’s 360-foot oil painting of this historical event
The synopsis: The Confederate Army approached Gettysburg from the northwest and immediately attacked the Union Army, which had been trailing it and was advancing into Gettysburg from the southeast. General Lee’s plan was to invade the North and bring the war to Union territory. General Meade, who had just replaced General Joseph Hooker, had been ordered by President Lincoln to track Lee’s army and prevent Lee from attacking the city of Washington.
On July 1, in early morning, Confederate troops attacked Union troops on McPherson Ridge, just west of town. You can drive around the battlefield and, using an audiotape, hear a reenacted description of the battle, engagement by engagement. There are thousands of monuments and dozens of convenient parking areas. It takes about three hours to complete the drive. There is a helpful printed guide, Touring the Battlefield, and the paved roadways enable you to navigate the battlefield with ease and gain access to all of the highlights without needing to ask for directions.
By 4 p.m. on July 1, the Confederate troops had driven the Union troops back into the town of Gettysburg, capturing thousands of them. The Union troops retreated to high ground south of town called Cemetery and Culp’s hills. Throughout the night, the rest of both armies arrived at the battlefield. When dawn broke on July 2, the armies occupied parallel ridges (the South on Seminary Ridge to the west of town, and the North on Cemetery Ridge to the east of town).
They were about one mile apart, out of musket fire range but well within artillery range. Lee, ever aggressive and confident of victory, attacked again, hitting both Union flanks. But the Union forces occupied strong defensive positions on high ground and the Confederate forces had to attack upward into blazing Union guns. The Confederates made some gains, but lost many men.
As the day wore on, Confederate General James Longstreet drove into the Union left flank at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard. The battleground was in farm fields of wheat and corn. The town of Gettysburg was mostly left unscathed, except for a few buildings struck and slightly damaged by errant artillery rounds.
Helping to defend the Union line was the Irish Brigade, which fought with distinction at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and Stony Hill on the battlefield’s southern end. Commanded by Galway-born Colonel Patrick Kelly, the Irish Brigade consisted of about 240 volunteers of the 63rd, 69th and 88th New York Regiments, and a couple hundred additional volunteers of the 28th Massachusetts and 116th Pennsylvania Regiments. Together, they marched into combat under a green flag containing an Irish harp. Before they were ordered forward into combat, they were granted general absolution by Father William Corby, a Roman Catholic chaplain of the 88th New York.
Colonel Kelly commanded his troops from his war horse named “Faugh a Ballagh,” an Irish phrase meaning “Clear the Way” which also was the Irish Brigade’s battle cry. In sentiment the phrase is similar to a Marine Corps axiom: “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” Colonel Kelly, then 42, of Castlehacket near the city of Galway, was born in 1821 and came to America in 1850, after the famine, settling in New York. He enlisted as a private in the 69th Regiment at the start of the war and rose swiftly through the ranks. He was later killed in action at Petersburg and his body taken back home to Ireland for burial.
Each year, New York City’s bond with the Fighting 69th Regiment is renewed when its members, accompanied by their mascots – four Irish wolfhounds – lead the New York City Saint Patrick’s Day Parade up Fifth Avenue after attending Mass at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.
What did Confederates think of the Union army before this epic confrontation? Confederate Colonel Edward P. Alexander had written: “His cavalry is numerous but can’t ride and his infantry, except the Irish, can’t fight.”
Near the Wheatfield and Stony Hill stands a tall stone monument commemorating the valor of the Irish Brigade. A Confederate soldier who had fought at Gettysburg against the Irish Brigade sculpted it decades after the Civil War. He was Irish-born William O’Donovan, who had enlisted at age 17 at the war’s start in 1861, fought in the war and survived. He cut a large Celtic cross out of dark green malachite with a bronze front. The New York Coat of Arms and the Sunburst of Ireland are depicted along with an Irish harp guarded by two American eagles. An Irish wolfhound lies crouched at the base of the cross.
At the Wheatfield and at Stony Hill, between 4 p.m. and dusk on July 2, the Irish Brigade fought and fell. About 530 men went into battle, and more than 200 were killed, wounded or listed as missing in action – almost one of every three men. They retreated back to Cemetery Ridge, bound their wounds and waited for the next Confederate attack.
It came in the afternoon of the next day, July 3, beginning with a thunderous, two-hour-long artillery barrage fired from more than 200 Confederate guns a mile away on Seminary Ridge. Union gun batteries returned fire. The battlefield became obscured by smoke.
About 3 p.m., at the command of General Lee, Confederate forces 12,000 strong, including General Pickett’s Virginia Division, surged forward toward the center of the Union battle line. They were slaughtered. Irish Brigade Major St. Clair Mulholland, 116th Pennsylvania, later wrote: “All the Union batteries opened and played upon them as they advanced over the fields. They were seen to fall by hundreds and thousands.”
The charge faltered, broke and failed. About 200 Confederate troops breeched the center of the Union line at a place called the Bloody Angle, but they were cut down or captured. More than 5,000 soldiers became casualties in one hour. General Lee waited for the cover of night and led his troops in a retreat to Virginia. Meade did not pursue. The South’s invasion of the North was over. The rest of the war would be fought in Confederate territory.
On Friday evening, after a full day of shopping in Gettysburg, I visited the Irish Brigade Gift Shop at 504 Baltimore Street next to our hotel. The sales clerk wrote out explicit directions to the Irish Brigade monument near Stony Hill. I also bought a copy of a pamphlet written by T.L. Murphy, “Kelly’s Heroes: The Irish Brigade at Gettysburg.” Murphy works as a licensed battlefield guide. He can be reached at P.O. Box 3542, Gettysburg, PA 17325. The information in this article about the Irish Brigade comes from his pamphlet. Also on sale at the shop are souvenirs, videotapes, maps and other mementos.
On Saturday morning, my wife and I got up early – 6 a.m. We went to an immaculate restaurant across the street from the hotel for a quick breakfast so that we could be at the Visitor Center by 8 a.m., in time to hire a guide. Our guide was David Hamacher, who told us he had to master the history and trivia of the battle and pass a difficult oral examination administered by master guides to become qualified as a battlefield guide. He gave us an unforgettable 2 1/4 hour tour, from 8 a.m. until 10:15 a.m., charging $35.
He took us everywhere, told us everything and let us linger at the Irish Brigade monument. I am an American, an Irish citizen, a Roman Catholic and a former Marine. At the solemn site, I reflected on the bravery under fire and the loss, and said a silent prayer in memory of Colonel Kelly’s heroes.
Our only regret is that we ran out of time. We did not cross the street from the Visitor Center and view the National Cemetery, where 3,629 Union soldiers are buried, and where Lincoln, in November 1863, four months after the battle, gave his Gettysburg Address, paying tribute to the soldiers of both sides who had fought and died and redefining the meaning of America.
My wife and I had read The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara, and Lincoln at Gettysburg by Garry Wills, had seen Gettysburg starring Jeff Daniels as Medal of Honor winner Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of Maine, the hero of Little Round Top, and had watched The Civil War, Ken Burn’s television documentary. Each is masterful in its own way. But the books, the movie and the documentary are no match for the deeply moving experience of actually walking on the battlefield itself.
When you go to Gettysburg, you trod hallowed ground where incredible courage under fire by Union and Confederate troops enshrined them in honor, glory and history. You do much more than make a trip. You make a pilgrimage.