Gettysburg 150: Impressions of a Battlefield

The happy chaos of a large family vacation to a historical battlefield town doesn’t leave much time for the kind of reflection I like to put into a Litkicks blog post.

It does, however, lend itself to some pretty good jokes. When I arrived at Gettysburg first in one car with some luggage and Caryn showed up later in another with more, I was able to call her “my supply train”. When a member of our party neglected to text me with some essential info about where we were all meeting for dinner, I was able to quote General Robert E. Lee to the lost Cavalry chief J. E. B. Stuart: “You are my eyes and ears. Without you I am blind.”

But, philosophical reflection and literary wit? That will have to wait, and numbered impressions will have to do for now.


The photo above was taken from near the peak of Little Round Top, the small hill where four Union regiments put up a ferocious defense on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. On the left, you see Devil’s Den, where another ferocious battle was also fought on the same day. This photo was taken at nearly the exact moment 150 years after the first assault on the hill. Many people had gathered to be there for the moment, and a beautiful speech was delivered by a Gettysburg Park Ranger named Bill Hewitt to a large crowd.

The battles at Little Round Top and Devil’s Den were scrappy, bloody affairs, and multi-faceted stories of heroism and ingenuity have abounded from both. Probably the most famous story is the one that concludes the fighting on July 2: realizing that his 20th Maine regiment at the top of the hill was out of ammunition and that the Alabama boys were coming back up yet again, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge — in 1863, this was considered a surprising throwback to earlier, less technologically advanced forms of war — that so stunned the Alabama regiment that they ran away, and Maine held the hill.

This incident became legendary even before the Civil War was over, but the level of mythology increased after actor Jeff Daniels presented a brilliantly drawn Joshua Chamberlain in the movie Gettysburg, highlighting the character’s gentle personality and vulnerability even at the moment that he orders the bayonet charge. This is a deft moment of cinema, but it was so effective that today it seems there is a strong undercurrent of resentment towards Col. Joshua Chamberlain among the amateur historians and battlefield guides at Little Round Top. Time and again, I heard references to the fact that Gouvernour Warren’s contributions to the victory were underrated, or that Vincent Strong deserved all the credit, or that the New York regiments and Pennsylvania regiments might have had a little something to do with the Union victory at Little Round Top along with the 20th Maine.

I’m sure this is true, but I am a little perturbed to see that there are so many Joshua Chamberlain-haters out there. I wonder if it is in the nature of war to inspire as much jealousy as love. This is a question I’d like to consider further soon.


At 3 pm on July 3, 2013, I gathered with my kids at the Virginia Memorial near Seminary Ridge to recreate Pickett’s Charge with a very large group. We walked the length of Pickett’s Charge, and it was a stirring event even though nobody was shooting canister at us as we clamored over the fence at Emmitsberg Road. My daughter Liz was a little perturbed at all the Confederate flags and symbols that surrounded us, but I really didn’t detect any racism or hatred or Southern anger at this commemorative event — none at all. It was a family kind of mood — lots of parents with kids, people of all ages and types, even a couple of brave people making the long charge through the tall grass in wheelchairs, which can’t be easy. I believe we were all united in our respect for history. Afterwards, my family ate dinner at General Pickett’s Buffet, where the food was surprisingly good.


Being a news junkie, if I were not on a weeklong family vacation I would certainly have been closely following the news from Egypt, where President Morsi has apparently been overthrown in a military coup on July 3, 150 years to the day after the final confrontation of the Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, I caught a quick news report after returning to the hotel. So what’s going on? Is this a positive step for Egypt, for the Middle East, for the world? Is it a bad thing? Does anybody know? It’s hard for me to figure out from a 90-second televised news blast, but in fact I get the feeling that other news junkies who’ve been following each new development in real time for the past few days don’t know either. I guess I didn’t miss much by living in the historical past for the last three days, instead of living in the present. Maybe the historical past is really where we all live, though we rarely realize that this is true.

6 Responses

  1. Great report filed under
    Great report filed under difficult conditions!
    I’ve visited many battlefields in my time, including numerous visits to the best of them all — Gettysburg. (can’t believe I wasn’t there for this anniversary!)
    At only one place of the many sites spanning many wars did I ever have the profound feeling that I died there — and it was half-way down the slope at Little Round Top.
    Consequently I did an enormous amount of research on it including going to the NYPL to get the old army records of each soldier who died there …
    In the course of my research I spoke to many serious historians (this was back in the ’80s) and even then came up against the resentment towards “Saint Joshua” as they called him.
    My take on it, and I did ask them about it, was that popular history has written him as the hero to the exclusion of all the others involved. So … the hardcore historians who know the battle better than their own family resent the undue credit and hero worship he gets, when in fact it was SO MANY others who deserve the credit. But I still like him, and Strong, and Warren and the whole crew.

    I can’t believe you walked Pickett’s Charge!!! That’s SO cool!!!

    I’m so sorry I missed doing this with you!!!

    Do you know I actually slept overnight on top of Little Round Top? Boy was THAT scary! There were big animals walkin’ around that you couldn’t see in the dark. And that’s not even getting into the ghosts!

    Also — I found caves — maybe it was in Devil’s Den — to the left when you’re on LRT. More secret sacred coolness — and a nice place to have a ceremonial puff. 😉

    re: Egypt — Yeah — it’s huge. You fully caught the history at Gettysburg, so don’t feel bad, but this was a Berlin Wall coming down kind of moment. As is usually the case, I had the news channels on the TV with mute while I was working, and saw it and unmuted the moment it happened. It was an absolutely unreal party that went on in Tahrir Square for hours — and made the Macy’s fireworks look like a small town picnic.

    And yes — the army said to Morsi (who CNN are STILL spelling his name Morsy !?!?!?) that he had 48 hours to address the concerns, and then he went on TV and basically said f-you, and they went in and took him out right on cue. As you prolly know, this was the largest protest in human history. The estimates range from 30 million people up 50 or 70 million depending on the source.
    And yes — the army took out the badguy — and will see to it new elections are called within 6 months to a year.

    And here’s this crazy social media thing that’s buggin’ my ass — I’m Facebook friends with all these liberal radical types who are posting non-bloody-stop about Tahrir Square or Monsanto or fracking or wire-tapping or whatever … but the moment this happened, and in the hours following when there was dancing in the streets and the creep everyone wanted gone was ousted … people were still posting pictures of the fucking cats or whatever. Hardly anybody of my supposedly news-following friends were actually experiencing what was going on — and all the networks had great live coverage from the square. People are very quick to complain and feel good about themselves by doing so, but the moment the good news comes, they immediately find something else to bitch about and seem to miss the rare victories our species experiences. Which this was. A bloodless coup ousting an fundementalist whack-job who was completely fucking up a great country.

    Anyway … we thank you for your most noble service on behalf of the Union.

    Gen. Grant

  2. the ability to make humorous
    the ability to make humorous connections is just another version of literary wit and a philosophy of the mind. So, strong work my witty philosophical light hearted friend…..
    And…. I second the irritation of Gen. Grant on the attention deficit mentality that ensues when you enter the sheepdom of facebook. Moments like the one in Egypt need to be revered and reflected upon and given some space…….

  3. As for hating Chamberlain, I
    As for hating Chamberlain, I am reminded of an observation by the late Solomon, professor emeritus at Texas: Resentment is reserved for superiors, anger for who you consider equals and contempt for inferiors.
    Until I saw the movie, I never knew about the bayonet charge and thought it to be very brave and heroic, needing nerves of steel or the feeling of sheer desperation.
    Years later, when asked why his charge at Gettysburg failed, General Pickett replied: “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

  4. so let me get this straight.
    so let me get this straight.

    the “united states” tried to annihilate each other
    and then try to save the world and make a profit
    at it, and all fairly recently in world history
    do i have that right?

    man, lissen to them bombs goin’ off tonight …
    we ain’t takin’ no shit offa NO One …
    it’s in our blood ….

  5. Levi, I wouldn’t attempt to
    Levi, I wouldn’t attempt to come see the Chicamauga & Chattanooga National Military Parks because they have been affected by the National Parks shutdown.

    No one down here is happy about it either. There have been some battlefield enactments already. However, there were more planned this Autumn.

    The sooner that the whiney tea party republicans are outvoted, & petitioned — the sooner a vote will come to the US House floor & the budget & “debt ceiling raising”will be passed. Then the National Parks will reopen.

    Your friend & long time member of Litkicks,

    Steve Plonk

    P.S. I, too, am a Civil War buff.

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