150th Anniversary of the Battle at Gettysburg

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For the past two weekends, thousands of people have headed to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to recognize the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the pivotal battle of the American Civil War. There were presentations, memorials, living history events and reenactments of the battles, including the famous “Pickett’s Charge”,  to commemorate this anniversary. For historians, re-enactors, families and tourists, this was a chance to be a part of a very special event.

On July 1, 1863, Gettysburg, a small southeastern Pennsylvania town of 2,000 people was the start of the largest battle ever to take place on American soil. The Confederate Army was in the process of a second “invasion” of the North, while the North was defending the routes to Washington D.C. The Confederate Army was spotted coming down the Chambersburg Pike by Union cavalry and a battle had begun. The Confederates out-numbered the Union cavalry and easily forced them to retreat through the city. Throughout the night of July 1st, the Union army fortified defensive positions on "high ground" on the outskirts of town as both armies continued to arrive. The Confederates attacked many different positions on July 2nd, but there was no clear winner to the day. On July 3rd, General Robert E. Lee, commanding officer of the Army of Northern Virginia, decided to have his army attack the center of the Union army on Cemetery Hill by marching an army of 15,000 men almost one mile across open field. The attack, named Pickett’s Charge, for the generals selected to lead the attack, was a military catastrophe resulting in a casualty rate of over 50% and the retreat of the Confederate Army. On July 4th, under cover of heavy rain and the failure of the Union Army to deliver a fatal blow, the Confederate army retreated to Southern territory never to return to their former glory.

Gettysburg Battlefield is hallowed ground as there were over 51,000 casualties including wounded, dead and captured from the battle. This was the most casualties of any battle before or since on American soil. There were over 7,000 dead from the battle. After the armies left the city, it was up to the citizens to take care of the wounded and bury the dead. The city rose to the challenge creating Camp Letterman as a hospital where over 20,000 soldiers were treated and released to either their units, other facilities or home. President Abraham Lincoln gave his famous “Gettysburg Address” at the dedication of the National Cemetery in November 1863. In 1864, The Gettysburg Battlefield National Association was created to try to protect the sacred ground. In 1895, Congress declared that the battlefield was a National Military Park and in 1933, the National Park Service took over the running and maintenance of the park. During and after World War I, the battlefield was used as a training camp for American soldiers by future president, Dwight Eisenhower, who has a historical home overlooking the battlefield. Currently, the park system is working on restoring the battlefield to how it looked during the battle by removing trees and replanting crops.

Gettysburg is an amazing place to visit. Stepping on the battlefield or observing the view from Little Round Top takes you back in time to 150 years ago. There are many ways to tour the battlefield including personalized tours by park rangers or authorized guides, a tour bus or in your own car with an audio CD tour. The tour stops at all of the major points in the battle. If possible, take the time to walk around different parts of the park and see the over 1,400 monuments and memorials to the regiments and units, both, Confederate and Union, who bravely fought there. You can get tour information at the visitor’s center.  A walk through the National Cemetery is a solemn reminder of what occurred those three days in July, 1863.

Gettysburg is only a short distance from both Washington and Baltimore, which makes it a perfect day trip. There are many websites that will give you more tour information as well as 150th Anniversary events such as http://www.gettysburgfoundation.org or www.gettysburg.com. Before visiting Gettysburg and to get the most from your visit, read "Killer Angels" by Michael Shaara or see the movie, "Gettysburg", starring Martin Sheen and Jeff Daniels, which does a great job honoring Shaara's excellent account of what happened in a small town in Pennsylvania on three fateful days in July 150 years ago.