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.

Intriguingly enough, one burial crew discovered the body of a young woman dressed in the uniform of a Confederate private. Doubtless she was rolled hurriedly into a mass grave alongside her male comrades. Her name and her story remain unknown to this day.

Then there were the 20,000 or 30,000 wounded men, overwhelming the town and surrounding countryside, spilling out of churches, houses, and barns. Heroic doctors and nurses labored day and night while piles of amputated limbs bred maggots in the sun. Nevertheless, another 3,000 men died within the first few weeks, and they, too, were hastily put in the ground.

Four months after the battle, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, declaring that these dead had not died in vain, that their self-sacrifice ultimately ensured "a new birth of freedom" in the nation. Most people since have chosen to understand this slaughter in his terms. This place called Gettysburg thus became "hallowed ground."

Meanwhile, visitors began arriving, often women, often from hundreds of miles away, seeking among the skeletal remains exposed in partially-eroded graves their sons or lovers, hoping to bring them home. Sometimes they found them; sometimes they didn't, and left knowing they were still out there, somewhere.

In time such ghastly spectacles disappeared. Most of the Union dead were reinterred in Gettysburg's new National Cemetery, and most of the Confederates were gathered up in the 1870s and sent to cemeteries across the South.

Most—but not all. Inevitably, bodies were overlooked. As the town regained some semblance of normal life, the farmers returned to plowing their fields. They harvested their wheat and gathered up tons of bullets, relics, and iron scrap. Within a few years the ground had given up most of its burden, except for those, scattered here and there, still seeded beneath the sod.

Day-Trippers and POWs

Decades passed. Then aging veterans began to return. They dedicated monuments to their valor on spots where they fought. Hundreds of granite and bronze men arose, some frozen on horseback, some aiming rifles, some raising bugles to stony lips. Such statues graced over 1,300 monuments. Carriage drives wound among them; the battlefield had become the retreat of the meditative tourist, a shrine for pilgrims.

For a while Gettysburg became an amusement destination. Trolleys carried day-trippers to a popular park on battle-scarred Little Round Top, offering expansive views and refreshment stands. Evening merrymaking occasionally got out of hand. Sometimes couples sought privacy behind rocks or monuments. The good burghers were scandalized. The dead, of course, said nothing.

In 1913, over 50,000 veterans returned for the 50th anniversary of the great battle. Tenting on the old campground, former enemies mingled and embraced, proposed toasts, and embellished stories. They clutched canes made from battlefield trees and remembered. The murmur of their conversations, spiked by occasional roars of laughter, lasted deep into the nights.

Another war came. In 1944, part of the battlefield was briefly used as a German POW camp. One night two prisoners escaped. They were captured shortly afterwards, at the exact spot where hundreds had died during the bloody culmination of Pickett's Charge, 81 years before.

By the 1930s, the National Park Service had taken over the administration of the battlefield. For decades following World War II, Gettysburg National Military Park (GNMP) played smiling host to millions. Each summer, kepi-clad children piled out of family station wagons to play among the rocks of Devil's Den or Little Round Top. They packed into the venerable Cyclorama, with its massive (26 feet by 356 feet/8 meter by 108.5 meter), encircling, Victorian era painting of Pickett's Charge, to experience yesterday's concept of virtual reality.

A stated goal of GNMP is "to provide our visitors with an experience they will not soon forget." That may be a challenge now that annual visitor numbers average roughly two million a year. Last week slow-moving cavalcades of cars and minivans crept through the Park, guided by audio tours while those inside sat in air-conditioned comfort.

The Once and Future Battlefield

Today GNMP is looking toward tomorrow. In ten years, the 150th anniversary of the battle should be a major observance. By then a planned U.S. $95 million museum and visitor center should be finished, featuring state-of-the-art interpretive exhibits and facilities for safeguarding an extensive collection of artifacts, documents, and historic photographs. And a refurbished, restored Cyclorama should still be enthralling audiences with its imaginative depiction of what the battle must have looked like to a participant.

Ten years from now, the battlefield itself might look very much as it did to a participant, for a major goal of GNMP is to restore the ground to its 1863 appearance—or at least its appearance before the first shot was fired.

Primarily, that means removing "visual intrusions" that might detract from the imaginative apprehension of the scene. Telephone lines are being buried and postwar structures bought and dismantled. Three years ago, in a victory lauded by preservationists, GNMP finally managed to acquire and demolish a huge 300-foot (90-meter) observation tower, built in the 1970s by private interests, that many had considered the most hideous of visual intrusions.

Re-creation of the 1863 scene means occasionally waging war against nature. Woods have reclaimed areas that were once field or orchard, and these "non-historic" trees are now being removed. It also means occasionally joining forces with nature. Increased grasslands should help certain sparrows and ground-nesting birds that have long been on the decline. The former killing ground may soon become something of a nature preserve.

This once and future battlefield, however, will be partly illusory. The great vistas—the generals'-eye views—may appear much as they did in 1863. But changes at ground level—the soldiers'-eye views—may be harder to arrest. Just a few years after the battle, one veteran bewailed that everything then had already changed, that the hollows in the ground that sheltered him had already vanished. Ten years from today, many more generations of leaves, grasshoppers, butterflies, and sparrows will have laid their minute burdens down. The accumulating debris of nature, slowly covering the debris of battle, will always be changing the ground.

And that means fewer and fewer bullets—or bones—will be found.

The Vision-Place

For decades following the removal of most bodies, skeletons were still frequently discovered around Gettysburg. Whether laying out avenues, excavating foundations, or digging drainage ditches, workers often stumbled onto unmarked graves. But as the 20th century wore on, such finds became increasingly rare.

Then in 1996 someone stumbled upon a skeleton exposed by recent rains. Forensic analysis indicated it probably dated from the battle. But there was no telling whether he had been a Union or Confederate soldier, only that it appeared to be a young man felled by a shot to the head.

How many more are still out there, overlooked and forgotten? Once there were thousands; but today, probably few remain. Historians who have studied the evidence guess they number somewhere between several dozen and several hundred. Buried only in bloody uniforms, without coffins, such soldiers have now mostly moldered into the soil, been scattered by the plow, or been washed away by the creeks.

This hallowed ground is mellowing with each passing season. Still, tomorrow shall surely be like yesterday and today in that people will still come here, drawn to this spot, responding to the same unheard bugle call. As Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who won the Medal of Honor at Gettysburg, put it years after the war: "In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate the ground for the vision-place of souls."

Mark Jenkins is a National Geographic Society historian and archivist.

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