Gettysburg: From Battlefield to Civil War Shrine

Mark Jenkins
for National Geographic News
July 14, 2003

The stench alone was overpowering. Even five miles (eight kilometers) away it was sickening. Great clouds of flies were equally loathsome. They hovered over the trampled crops, rocky woods, and blasted fields. They drifted over the litter of hats, coats, blankets, haversacks, diaries, love letters, Bibles, daguerreotypes, rifles, swords, and empty cartridge boxes to settle on the putrefying carcasses of perhaps 5,000 horses and over 7,000 young men rotting in the summer sun.

The great battle had ended. One surviving soldier could only write: "This place called Gettysburg shall surely live in Hell for all of eternity."

But earlier this month, on the 140th anniversary of the great battle, that place called Gettysburg could not have looked more different. Hayfields waved in the breeze. Wildflowers and butterflies graced meadows full of clover. The air smelled like mown grass. There was remarkably little litter.

On July 1-3, 1863, two armies—over 150,000 men, 70,000 horses, and 550 cannon combined—converged on this small crossroads town and in three days of furious fighting etched names like Culp's Hill, Little Round Top, Devil's Den, and Pickett's Charge into the national memory. This biggest battle ever fought in North America, resulting in the triumph of Union forces over Confederate, marked a turning point of the Civil War.

A fortnight ago, the annual Civil War Heritage Days were in full spate, featuring a mix of lectures, living history encampments, special guided battlefield walks, and Civil War collectors and book shows. Because of soggy conditions, the most durably popular feature, a huge re-enactment expected to draw thousands of onlookers, was postponed to August.

Never, it seems, has interest in this battle been higher. The Gettysburg Visitors Bureau, with pardonable pride, considers it the "most visited, most written about, and most intensely studied battle ever recorded." Hundreds of books relate the story, analyze the commanders, or exhaustively detail particular aspects of the fighting. New ones appear in droves every year. A quarterly magazine is devoted solely to articles on this campaign. Two million people a year actually visit the battlefield, and anyone worldwide can tour it virtually via the Internet.

This is a significant piece of ground for a significant number of people. But though many people know the story of the battle, which lasted three days, far fewer know the story of the battlefield itself, which has endured for the past 140 years.

A Vast Charnel House of Death

Once it was rich agricultural land, a place of barns and bountiful harvests and fruitful orchards. But in July 1863 it had become, as one witness said, "a vast charnel house of death."

Tons of artillery shells and an estimated seven million bullets had been fired. They had hit everything on the field: trees, rocks, fences, houses, and barns. They defoliated entire stretches of forest; they smashed through doors and windows to lodge in dining room tables or chests of drawers. And they hit horses and men with a smack or a thud, collapsing lungs, exploding skulls, splintering arms and legs.

Horses may have had the worst of it. Harnessed to artillery caissons and wagons, thousands were trapped in exposed positions and killed by shrapnel or bullets. Their carcasses littered the field; there was little anyone could do but burn them. Other horses survived, though often terribly wounded. Hundreds of these faithful animals, deemed too maimed for further service, were eventually led into a nearby creek bottom and shot. For years their bones were used as fertilizer.

Burying the human dead was agonizing. Pestilence loomed if corpses were not put quickly under ground. So burial parties, heedless of smeared blood and brains, dragged bloated corpses hurriedly into shallow graves. Most of the slain were young men in their twenties. Poignantly, some had been found clutching photographs, letters, or Bibles, last remembrances of loved ones lost. Many were buried in vast anonymous trenches, far away from home. The covering of dirt was so thin that at night a strange phosphorescence emanated from the ground. For years locals avoided such places as haunted.

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