Independence Day In Gettysburg
I was only three years old when my father decided that the best way to spend the 4th of July would be to visit the Gettysburg Battlefield. The year was 1963, exactly 100 years since the Confederate Army, with its long column of weary and wounded soldiers, began the mournful trek towards the Potomac River. Wagons carried the severely wounded, many of whom had yet to receive any medical treatment. The walking wounded straggled behind, the moans of those in the wagons filling their ears as they struggled to put first one foot, then the other forward.
A century later, I was experiencing the battlefield in a very different manner than they had done. Things were much different in those early days of my childhood. Wooden picnic tables lined the roads and avenues which crisscrossed the battlefield. Tall wooden observation towers rose from the ground in several locations, spread out strategically to afford a better glimpse into the past for those seeking to understand. Large families laid claim to scores of the tables, loading them with homemade fried chicken, potato salad, and pickled eggs. Hundreds of people unfolded portable lawn chairs and claimed their spots around the chosen picnic areas.
Souvenir hawkers walked along the roads, selling Confederate flags, Civil War style kepi's, and plastic swords. There were scores of postcards to choose from, as well as confederate money, and little souvenir spoons to add to the collection back home. My 4 year old brother and I begged for “soldier” hats, but my brother was the only one to have his wish granted. Being a girl, I was told to choose something more ladylike. I didn't want to be ladylike. I wanted to be a soldier.
It was decided that I should have a flag to wave about. My know-it-all brother informed me that I couldn't have the Confederate flag I was reaching for because, according to him, I was a Yankee. He insisted that I should take the replica of the US flag as it had been 100 years before. After my father took the time to explain the difference between being a Yankee and a Rebel, I very firmly informed them all, “I'm a Rebel”. And to prove my point, when my brother starting telling me how dumb I was for picking the Confederate flag, I socked him a good one.
After that first visit to “The Burg”, as we came to call it, I returned countless times. It became a favorite summer activity for my family. At least once every summer, we visited, and my love for it grew. It was probably due to my father's patient explanations of what had transpired there that I became a history buff, particularly about the Civil War era. When my own children were born, I continued the tradition. Now I have grandchildren, and they too have spent many hours traipsing around with “Grammy”, learning about the significance of the battle and the history associated with each section of the battlefield.
From 1998 through 2008, my employment had required me to live close to my workplace. I happily moved to a town only 30 minutes from Gettysburg. During those years I made the drive an average of three times a week. I could never get enough of it. When the owner of my company chose to sell, I left for another position and had to move back to my home more than an hour away from the Burg. Time for visits became fewer and fewer. I had not been there in two years when the decision was made to visit this 4th of July.
My daughter, Lindsay, my boyfriend, Donnie, and I arrived at the town center expecting to be crushed in the early afternoon traffic. I was surprised at how little traffic was actually moving in the streets. We met Donnie's daughter and took a few moments to walk around to the shops. Lindsay and I were very familiar with the shops in town but neither Donnie nor Danielle had ever been to any of them. As we walked around I pointed out some of the key spots in town. The David Wills' house on the square where Lincoln put the finishing touches on his Gettysburg Address is now a museum. Standing at 6 Lincoln Square, it is the oldest structure on the square, having been built circa 1816.
The Gettysburg Hotel first opened its doors in 1797 as a tavern owned by James Scott. After witnessing the events of the terrible three day ordeal known as the Battle of Gettysburg, the structure was replaced by a new owner in 1890. It became a temporary White House for President Eisenhower when he was recovering from a heart attack in 1955. He and Mamie were it's last guests before the owner closed its doors in 1964. After standing empty for almost 20 years, a fire took its toll until it was restored and reopened in 1991.
After taking a quick detour to find some restrooms, we were off to the battlefield. Usually I take the auto tour, following the posted “star” signs that serve as guides to the individual sites of the three days' battle. But since it was already late afternoon, we decided to just stop in at some of my favorite sites. I knew that Donnie and Danielle would get a thrill looking out across the battlefield from the top of the observation tower on Culp's Hill, so we headed there first.
The story of John Wesley Culp is one of the saddest stories to come out of the Civil War, and it included another sad figure, that of Jennie Wade. As a teenager, Wesley had taken a job with a Gettysburg harness company making leather harnesses for carriages and wagons. When the company moved to Virginia in 1858, he went with it. Three years later, he enlisted with his new southern friends in the 2nd Virginia Infantry Regiment which was part of Stonewall Jackson's brigade. Back at home, his brother William enlisted in the 87th Pennsylvania Infantry. Though they both had survived several battles, they never had to fight each other.
When the opposing armies converged on Gettysburg, Wesley found himself back home on familiar ground. Culp's Hill was owned by Wesley's uncle and was considered to be the key position in the Union Army's right flank. On July 2, 1863 the Confederate army attacked the hill. Wesley's company was part of the attacking force. The next day during continued fighting, Wesley Culp was shot and killed either on the hill or very near to it. His fellow soldiers buried him there and supposedly marked his grave but the only thing ever found was his rifle stock with his carved name.
On his person he had been carrying a message from a boyhood friend. Jack Skelly was a Union soldier wounded and captured at the Second Battle of Winchester on June 15. Wesley discovered Skelly in a temporary hospital and recognizing his friend, he agreed to carry a message in the off chance that he might one day come close enough to Gettysburg to have it delivered. It was written to another Gettysburg native and childhood friend of Culp's. Jack Skelly was her beau and he had hoped to marry her when the war was over.
The note was never delivered, nor could it be delivered. Wesley died on July 3rd. The recipient of the message was none other than Virginia “Jennie” Wade, shot and killed at 8:30 the next morning while baking bread. News that Jack Skelly had died while in Confederate hands arrived several days after the Southern Army had retreated from Gettysburg.
We traveled the roads, stopping to get out periodically to look at monuments or walk along a ridge or hill. We eventually found our way to Little Roundtop where Joshua Chamberlain saved the day with his determination to hold the ground at all costs. Looking out over the ground below, known as the Valley of Death, we could see Devil's Den in the distance, the Slaughter Pen slightly off to the left. A little farther back past Devil's Den, the Triangular Field lies, a silent witness to the carnage that soaked its soil 148 years before. Looking off to the right I could see the Wheat Field where the bloody ground changed hands six times between sun-up and sundown on July 2nd.
Looking out over the battlefield from my vantage point it was easy to imagine the noise, the smoke, the sounds of sabers clashing and rifles popping, the deafening booms of cannons firing. It was too easy to hear the screams of agony, the boyish cries from men barely out of their teens as they wished for a final look at a mother or sweetheart before their eyes closed permanently. As always, a feeling of sadness for all that was lost so long ago swept over me. All three days were fraught with death and destruction, but July 2nd saw more bloodshed than even the third day with Pickett's Charge and the decimation of the Army of Virginia.
We wound around through Devil's Den where Plum Creek now fights with marsh grass in an effort to find its way across the field. The creek, nothing more than a strip of wet puddles among the rocks, flowed red with the blood of the fallen and will forever be known as Bloody Creek.
We moved past the Triangular Field, stopping briefly at the Wheat Field. Though not as thick as it once was, wheat still grows among the other tall grasses. On warm summer nights it's not unusual to see a column of mist moving stealthily along the treeline on the side of the field. I've smelled the scent of tallow candles and felt the burning of sulfur in the back of my throat, and if one listens very carefully, it's not unusual to hear distant canon or drum beats and music.
It was early evening by the time we found our way to Sach's Bridge. Usually the bridge is full of visitors who are willing to come so far out of the way in hopes of capturing a ghost on camera or recording a ghostly sound. That evening it was relatively quiet. We walked about the area, looking and listening. Mostly I just let the collective memories of years gone by just float about me. Now and then a cricket chirps or someone scuffles on the wooden floor once trampled by the defeated Confederate Army as it trudged toward home. Some claim to have seen the ghostly image of one of the four Confederate desserters hung from the bridge during the retreat.
Heading toward our last destination at the site of Pickett's Charge, we stopped at the Pennsylvania monument whose entire base is decorated with bronze plaques bearing the names of every Pennsylvania unit and every single soldier who participated in the three day ordeal. I worked my way around the massive piece of architecture, looking for the 151st PA Volunteers. After taking several pictures of the plaque, I sat down on a nearby bench to contemplate.
Though there were many soldiers of interest to me in the 151st, I was particularly interested in Company H. One of the sergeants was my 3x's greatgrandfather, Franklin R. Boltz. His brother William was Captain. Franklin was wounded while William was captured. James L. Reber, 1st Lieut was a cousin, as was another sergeant, Percival G. Reber. Andrew Degler, a distant cousin, carries my maiden name. In fact, cousins and uncles abound in the likes of Joseph and Elias Boltz, William, John, and Andrew Miller, and George Reber. Alfred Moll was an uncle. The list goes on and on.
These men were all members of old families in the Berks County area of Pennsylvania. My family is one of those early settlers. Over the last 300 years our families have intermarried until we are all related in one way or another. When I think back to that time, I wonder would I have had the courage to stand next to those with whom I shared so much history and blood, and be able to stoically maintain my duty while my loved ones were falling around me?
Our last destination was to the place known as the High Water Mark. It was the spot at which the Confederate and Union soldiers engaged in hand to hand combat as Pickett's Charge slowly crumbled and disintegrated before all watching eyes. It was at this place midway between the “copse of trees” and the “bloody angle” where Confederate General Louis Armistead met his end, fighting against the men commanded by his best friend, Union General Winfield Scott Hancock.
By this time it was dark and heading towards the time when the park rangers would be making their rounds, ensuring that all visitors left the park by closing time. We listened in the silent night, not making a sound, each of us lost in our own thoughts about the sacred grounds we were treading. Off in the distance a muffled boom was followed by another, but louder kaboom. One by one, our heads jerked up and looked around, searching out the source of the noises.
Another boom, then one after another. Bright colors lit up the sky in the distance. Another set of explosions behind us and we turned to watch as more colors painted the sky. Now an explosion to the right, then the left, all followed with sparkling crackling colors raining down. All around us, in the towns surrounding Gettysburg, the final celebrations of the day were being enacted by setting off fireworks. What a fitting place to be reminded of the significance of the day.
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