“I’d love to be a Civil War buff. What do you have to do to be a buff?” ~ George Costanza, Seinfeld
The day began slowly and sullenly beneath overcast skies…
..and after a disheartening encounter with a thuggish, broad-hipped female Parks officer at the visitor centre, who refused in a blunt and sarcastic manner to let me in with my pack, or even to store it somewhere (“No, we don’t have anywhere to keep it– that’s the whole point!”), but by lunchtime the skies and my mood had cleared… [journal entry].
I’m on my way back to eastern PA for the second thousand miles of the Appalachian Trail. But first, this excursion to the scene of an almost mythical three days of bloodshed, probably the most iconic — and written about — shedding of blood ever to occur on American soil. I don’t know if I qualify as a buff, but I do know I’ve been fascinated by the conflict since my teens, when a series of films and novels set in the South, inevitably intertwining with the thinly shrouded background of the Civil War, began working on my imagination.
My earliest War-Between-the-States-based memory is of our parents taking us kids to the drive-in to see a faded, ancient Gone with the Wind. We were asleep in the back seat within minutes. 30+ years later, I had a side-trip to Gettysburg in mind during my first shot at the A.T., but by the time I was halfway through Pennsylvania I was limping through my own internal battlefield.
Now I’m back, my hammock slung at the nearby Artillery Ridge Campground, a gloriously lurid EPIC BATTLES OF THE CIVIL WAR comic from their souvenir store as my guide, ready for a battlefield pilgrimage before resuming my own personal battle an hour or two’s drive east. And not even yet another of America’s often-unpleasant officials (I still cringe recalling the snarling brute at JFK, glowering before a “PROUD TO BE THE FACE OF AMERICA” poster) can quell my growing excitement…
My two-day thru-hike, covering the length of the battlefield, begins.
Here’s where Union General Reynolds was killed, in the initial skirmishes early on July 1, 1863:
Reynolds was extremely popular — historian Shelby Foote called him “the best general in the army” — and it was looking very bad for Union forces at this stage:
That’s the iconic McPherson barn in the distance. Union General Buford’s cavalry had been camped on this farm, and there were thousands of casualties in the vicinity during the fierce first afternoon’s carnage:
Reynolds’ equestrian statue. By tradition, the two raised hooves signify that the rider died in action:
The barn again, Reynolds’ statue on the left. These classic Pennsylvania fences are emblematic of the battle:
As a golden sun emerges and I explore the northern fields of the battle, I start to fall in love with this whole beautiful area. Ironies abound. I’m enjoying this verdant, unspoilt, parklike farmland that has been preserved and protected because many thousands of men suffered and died here.
And I’m the only pedestrian. The fields and woods are studded with monuments and markers — hundreds of them. I find myself following the course of the unfolding battle as I walk. An 18-mile “auto-touring” circuit weaves round the fields, vehicles cruising past to stop for a few minutes at significant places.
I can’t imagine any other way of experiencing such a place than on foot. And it’s a good warm-up for the thousand miles I’ll soon be commencing.
A 70-year-old local, John Burns, volunteered to help out as a sharpshooter that awful first afternoon:
In 1903 this statue was erected. Burns had become a national celebrity:
Still north of town, a viewing platform provides height and perspective:
This could be mistaken for a pleasant park:
Nothing pleasant here. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting took place when hundreds of Confederates fell back to a railway cutting:
By the end of that first day the combatants’ lines had been established, the Union forces along Cemetery Ridge, the Confederates along Seminary Ridge, where I spend much of my first afternoon. Cannon remain poised in the woods…
..aimed at the high ground of Cemetery Ridge, with the key battle landmarks of Little and Big Round Tops visible in the centre distance:
It’s a long, hot, but never less than absorbing afternoon, as I head south along the Confederate lines:
Tomorrow, deeper exploration of the northerners’ lines and the crucial geography of Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Cemetery Ridge, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard — names I’ve known for years without knowing much of the detail behind their awful roles in Day 2 of the battle.
For now, with the sun at last beginning its retreat, I start my own, a long slog down the famous Taneytown Road, where vast numbers of injured where nursed in makeshift hospitals during the conflict, back to my $29 hammock site at the empty campground, my stove and an enormous food bag ready for the Trail.
In the cool of dusk I soak up the quiet, restful, late-spring countryside, my head swimming with names, numbers, and awful facts, the woods whispering with ghosts…
~ And that’s all the Goat wrote
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