Prelude to Gettysburg.

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Prelude to Gettysburg 


MODERN PENNSYLVANIANS WELCOME armies of twenty-first-century Civil War enthusiasts to their state, from the South and the North alike, with unwavering hospitality. But it wasn't always so.

In fact, when the Union's Army of the Potomac drove the invading Confederate Army of Northern Virginia out of Pennsylvania after the Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863, no less important an observer than the Federal commander in chief, President Abraham Lincoln, was so elated that he sat down and composed a poem. He titled his comic ditty "Gen. Lees invasion of the North written by himself."

In eighteen sixty three, with pomp, and mighty swell, Me and Jeff's Confederacy, went forth to sack Phil-del, The Yankees they got arter us, and giv us particular hell, And we skedaddled hack again, and didn't sack Phil-del.

Behind the humorist's facade the modern reader can still intuit the enormous sense of relief that inspired those verses. Desperately worried that a Southern triumph at Gettysburg might have threatened the entire Keystone State, and with it, the Union itself, Lincoln was comforted enough by the success to express his joy in rhyme — but also politically astute enough to file away his fretful composition. It would not do to let the public know how close he believed he had come to losing Pennsylvania. The poem remained undiscovered in his private secretary's files for a hundred years.


Undiscovered, too, were most of the Pennsylvania landscape and people about whom Lincoln had worried. Today's travelers — even seasoned Civil War aficionados — tend to think of the Pennsylvania Civil War experience solely through the prism of the war's greatest battle, regarding the bloody, enormously costly Armageddon at the now legendary town in the south-central region of the state as a single, isolated event. True enough, the Battle of Gettysburg remains deservedly enshrined in public memory as a field of nightmares — Devil's Den, the Round Tops, the Wheat Field, and Cemetery Ridge — as well as a field of glory that saw Joshua L. Chamberlain's heroic defense on the second day and George E. Pickett's famous charge on the third.

But Pennsylvania's — and Pennsylvanians' — exposure to war proved far more complex, far-reaching, and extended, involving not only armed soldiers in uniform, but civilians; not only men but women; not only whites but blacks, not only in Gettysburg but in the surrounding towns and villages that endured the fighting and destruction in their midst, buried the dead, and cared for the wounded. Nor should it be forgotten that had Lee succeeded at Gettysburg, just as Lincoln's doggerel suggested, the Confederacy surely would have taken direct aim at the nation's cradle of liberty: Philadelphia- And had Lee occupied or sacked the city where American independence had been consecrated in 1776, the North might have abandoned the war effort altogether, with no choice but to sue for peace and allow the Confederacy to maintain a separate government unopposed.

So strongly did Lincoln feel about protecting Pennsylvania's largest city, no matter what the consequences, that on a visit to Independence Hall just two weeks before his inauguration, he had declared, his voice choking with emotion: "I would rather be assassinated on this spot than to surrender it."

Civil War Pennsylvania is more than the sum of one or two spots, however venerable they may be; it is in fact a network of historic towns and villages, along with vast areas of surrounding countryside, where the fate of the Union was in large measure decided. In the counties near Gettysburg, state militia answered the first call to arms; civilians bravely endured relentless threats and the destruction of their property. Here, home front women raised funds to support the war and — after the storm had rolled across their fields and orchards — helped nurse tens of thousands of wounded soldiers. Black citizens enlisted to fight for their own freedom, and children sacrificed their security, sometimes their lives; one, a 12-year-old girl named Hetty Zeilinger, served as an efficient guide to Federal cavalry through a mountain pass in a storm. Loyal publishers churned out broadsides and prints to support the Union cause, and skirmish and battle raged with surprising ferocity and frequency, climaxing in the biggest and costliest battle of the entire rebellion. Now more than ever, Pennsylvania keeps alive the memory of both Civil Wars, the war of the famous captains and the people whose stories are just beginning to be told, in unspoiled country-side, historic villages, and of course the brilliantly preserved battlefield itself.


Lincoln's winter 1861 inaugural journey is a good place to start the story. On his way to Washington, the President-elect traveled through several states, including Pennsylvania. Having won 56 percent of the state's popular vote in the presidential election, and with speculation running high about its Republican senator, Simon Cameron, joining his cabinet as secretary of war (an appointment the new Chief Executive would come to regret), Lincoln was especially popular in Pennsylvania by the time his train chugged in from New Jersey.

Shortly after dawn on Washington's Birthday, February 22, Lincoln reassured his audience in Independence Hall that he "never had a feeling politically that did not spring from the sentiments embodied in the Declaration of Independence."

Then it was outside in the cold morning to raise the American flag and seek inspiration from "the spirit that animated our fathers." It was lost on no one in the crowd, as Lincoln hoisted the banner from a wooden platform on the plaza after delivering his vow to resist surrender to the death, that the new emblem contained 34 stars. Not only did the redesigned flag thus ignore the deflaring reality of Southern secession — seven states had already left the Union — it now featured an extra star to represent the new state of Kansas. That was an ironic touch, since Kansas's admission had stirred much of the controversy that led to the current crisis. But as Lincoln reminded the crowd, including youngsters perched in the branches of nearby trees, it was "under the blessing of God" that "each additional star has given additional prosperity and happiness to this country." There would be more, not fewer, stars in the future, Lincoln vowed, until the United States would boast "five hundred millions of happy and prosperous people." He was more accurate than he knew. (A Civil War-inspired visit to Philadelphia should include the flagpole in front of the building, towering over the sidewalk plaque that marks the exact spot from which Lincoln spoke that day.) Abraham Lincoln's pre-war visit to Pennsylvania was not over. From Philadelphia his train took him to Leaman Place, where he introduced his wife to the crowd ("the long and the short of it," he joked), and from there to Lancaster, hometown of his weary predecessor, James Buchanan (here Lincoln pledged himself to be "true to the Constitution" and "the perpetual liberty of all the people").

Then he went on to the state capital at Harrisburg. During the train trip Lincoln thought about having raised the flag that morning, and by the time the President-elect rose from his place beside Gov. Andrew Curtin to address the state legislature, he had worked out a touching metaphor. He described standing with the flag in front of Independence Hall. "They had arranged it so that I was given the honor of raising it to the head of its staff, and when it went up I was pleased that it went into its place by the strength of my own feeble arm. When, according to the arrangement, the cord was pulled and it flaunted gloriously to the wind without an accident, in the light glowing sunshine of the morning, I could not help hoping that there was in the entire success of that beautiful ceremony at least something of an omen of what is to come. Nor could I help, feeling then as I have often felt, that in the whole of that proceeding I was a very humble instrument. I had not provided the flag; I had not made the arrangements for elevating it to its place; I had applied but a very small portion of even my feeble strength in raising it. In the whole transaction I was in the hands of the people who had arranged it, and if I can have the same generous cooperation of the people of this nation, I think the flag of our country may yet be kept flaunting gloriously."

During his visit to Harrisburg, Lincoln also expressed his hope that local militia, gathered in reassuring strength, would never have to shed "fraternal blood" to save the nation.

Lincoln's hopes notwithstanding, the bloodshed was coming, and quickly. That very night advisers persuaded Lincoln to refuse newly-sworn-in Governor Curtin's offer of hospitality. Instead — to the great annoyance of those attending a long-planned ball in the absent Lincoln's honor — the President-elect boarded a train in Harrisburg and headed quickly back to Philadelphia. From there Lincoln slipped southward through Baltimore to Washington in secrecy, to avoid just the kind of assassination threat he had alluded to that morning in Philadelphia. He earned much public scorn for his furtive departure, but at least, before he left the state, Pennsylvanians had pledged to their new leader to use force in the event of "a proper emergency." The emergency was soon at hand.


Bravado aside, the truth was that, made complacent by years of peace, the Pennsylvania militia was at first woefully unprepared for a military crisis. Nonetheless, when President Lincoln answered the April 1861 attack on Fort Sumter with a call for 75,000 volunteers, Pennsylvania became the first Northern state to respond. Quickly dispatching five companies to guard Washington, the state's promptness and patriotism earned a special vote of thanks from Congress — even though these initial troops arrived without weapons! In the years to come, hundreds of thousands of better-supplied common soldiers would be processed through a new facility named Camp Curtin in the governor's honor, for which Curtin himself secured a $3 million federal appropriation in 1861 to arm and outfit his soldiers.

Camp Curtin was the first and largest of the rendezvous-and-instruction camps established during the Civil War. And Harrisburg was likely the first Northern capital mobilized for war. Within weeks of the firing on Sumter, the city was teeming with uniformed soldiers, patriotic parades, and rally-round-the-flag oratory. Before long, the Ladies Union Relief Association had begun tending the wounded, knitting socks, and providing food, donated by locals, to nourish the soldiers streaming in and out of the railroad yards. Inevitably, the seamier side of war manifested itself here too: Moralists complained that "dens of infamy" had sprung up to attend to soldiers' other needs. But no one could object to reports that the city was soon stocked with some 6,000 rations "kept constantly on hand, ready to be served out at any time" to the hungry men.

By war's end, Pennsylvania had more than made up for those first bedraggled volunteers. In all, the state sent well over 300,000 enlistees into the ranks. Conspicuously and bravely joining the fight after 1863 were 8,600 black Pennsylvanians — more members of the so-called U.S. Colored Troops than from any other Northern state.

As the struggle dragged on and casualties mounted (the enlightened Governor Curtin established state-funded schools for soldiers' orphans), Pennsylvania's loyal women made their own crucial contributions to the Union cause. Their branch of the U.S. Sanitary Commission, organized to feed its soldiers at "refreshment saloons" while they went off to battle, collect their wages when they were away, and care for them if they came back wounded or sick, raised more than $1 million at a giant 1864 exposition in Philadelphia. In June of that year President Lincoln himself, who rarely traveled outside Washington, visited the Great Central Fair in hopes, he said, of "swelling the contributions for the benefit of the soldiers in the field." He threw in a visit to the city's Union League Club, recently organized along with sister organizations in other Northern centers, to marshal support for Emancipation, the raising of "colored" regiments, and his own campaign for reelection.

Meanwhile, Pennsylvania continued to serve as the "breadbasket" for the Union Army — harvesting food to nourish it and, at the state's coal mines and ironworks, harvesting from the earth vital resources and forging arms. Still, during its first two years the Civil War required its Pennsylvania recruits only to fight elsewhere. Home front farm-lies remained safe. Free people of color seemed secure. Although the death toll multiplied and the war effort mired in stalemate, Robert E. Lee's one and only full-scale invasion of the North in these years — his drive into Maryland in 1862 — had ended in a Union victory at Antietam and compelled Lee to bring his forces back home. Lincoln took advantage of the good news to announce the Emancipation Proclamation, which redefined the struggle from a war solely to preserve the Union into a battle to destroy slavery as well.

At first this revolutionary order did little to alter the stalemate. In December 1862 Union forces were soundly beaten at Fredericksburg, Virginia, and in May 1863, even with a new general, "Fighting" Joe Hooker, in command, Federal forces lost decisively again at nearby Chancellorsville. As Northern morale plummeted, General Hooker wrangled with the Lincoln administration about troop deployment and found himself besieged by a rumor that he had taken to drink. At this moment General Lee again moved across the Mason-Dixon line. Quietly, and unopposed, he led his forces north through Maryland and then into Pennsylvania. The Confederate invasion was well under way when, out of frustration with the administration. Hooker asked to resign. Lincoln had no choice but to replace his commander in the midst of a crisis.

Despite his embarrassment in Maryland the year before, Lee had successfully argued for this second invasion of the Union, A massive troop movement into fertile Pennsylvania, he believed, would not only provide desperately needed supplies for impoverished Confederate forces, but also prompt reluctant European capitals to recognize the Confederacy while encouraging exhausted Northerners to end the war. Eventually, President Jefferson Davis, who preferred a defensive war, acquiesced.


The first Rebels crossed the border into Pennsylvania on June 1,5. To the hungry soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia, the march had a vacation feel about it.

As the historian Joseph E. Stevens has observed, "Pennsylvania looked like paradise to the invading Confederates." They were occupying abundant fields overflowing with corn, wheat, and fruit, and generously helped themselves. The region's barns were so sturdy and beautifully whitewashed that one Texas soldier admitted they were "more tastily built than two-thirds of the houses in Waco." Famished soldiers gorged on local chicken and guzzled fresh milk as Pennsylvania-German farmers looked on helplessly. Their lack of resistance — or even visible hostility — to the invaders led some Confederates to believe they could continue faring through the state unmolested. (Today's visitors will encounter countless vivid reminders of the culture that Lee discovered and Stephen Vincent Benét celebrated in his great epic of the Civil War, John Brown's Body: "So I remember you, ripe country of broadbacked horses, / Valley of cold, sweet springs and dairies with limestone-floors; / And so they found you that year, when they scared your cows with their cannon, / And the strange South moved against you, lean marchers lost in the corn."

But if the Southerners thought they would advance totally unopposed, they soon learned otherwise: On June 22 vastly outnumbered local civilians daringly skirmished with them at Monterey Pass, near present-day Blue Ridge Summit, and that same day Company C, 1st New York Cavalry, crossed swords with Company 1, 14th Virginia Cavalry. Conversely, if some civilians still harbored the hope that Lee's was to be a peaceful presence, they learned better as well.


At Lee's orders, Gen. Richard S. Ewell rook part of the invading army into Chambersburg, a town that had already been besieged by the Rebels the previous year. Then Ewell ordered a large detachment of his men to march to York under Jubal Early, while he headed north into the Cumberland Valley en route to Carlisle, seizing it on June 27, Near a ridge between Chambersburg and Gettysburg, Early found himself at the gates to the Caledonia Iron Works, a foundry owned by one of the most virulent anti-Southerners in the U.S. Congress, Pennsylvania abolitionist Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, now a champion of black recruitment for the Union Army. Delighted with the opportunity to destroy the source of Stevens's wealth. Early ordered the entire complex sacked.

For good measure, as the Rebels marched off in the rain-soaked heat, feeding themselves on cherries from low-hanging branches, they destroyed neighboring railroad lines, and drove off isolated local defenders like the 26th Pennsylvania Emergency Militia, which opposed Early in a skirmish at Gettysburg five days before the big battle began there.

By the end of June, Pennsylvania's civilians were at last feeling the hard hand of war. The bulk of the Confederate forces advanced into communities along the railroad line from Hagerstown, Maryland, rampaging along a wide arc that took them north all the way to the Susquehanna River alongside Harrisburg, and back south. Taking a different route, toward York, Early's men passed through the town of Gettysburg, unaware it would become their ultimate goal.

The 35th Virginia Cavalry occupied Hanover, then destroyed telegraph lines, bridges, and railroad tracks, as well as a turntable at Hanover Junction. ("You had the rebels here last summer," Lincoln said when he passed through town four months later. "Did you fight them any?") The town of Mechanicsburg was spared destruction only after providing a bounty of food to the Army of Northern Virginia. Small but fierce battles broke out around Sporting Hill (on the outskirts of Mechanicsburg) — the northernmost military action of the entire Civil War.

As the Confederates approached, Ewell reached Carlisle, trailing an armada of 3,000 captured cows and hauling replenished supply wagons groaning with 50,000 barrels of seized flour. Feebly defended Harrisburg, with its inviting railroad lines and rich trove of supplies, now lay temptingly in "Old Baldy's" sights. But just before launching what surely would have been a devastating offensive against the highly vulnerable capital, Ewell received an urgent order to take his army south toward Cashtown. General Lee wanted all his foraging troops quickly reunited. A great battle was looming. And Pennsylvania's seat of government — which would have been the first Northern capital to fall to the Confederacy — was spared.


The dramatic prelude to Gettysburg was finally over. But it is again compellingly recalled for today's visitors to seven communities through an ambitious program called Pennsylvania's Civil War Trails. By the end of this year, interpretive and directional signs bearing the project's symbol — a soldier's kepi — will be placed to mark Civil War sites and guide visitors through a rich, newly explored history in the Dutch Country Roads region of the state, where the action surrounding Gettysburg was concentrated. During the Civil War Trails Discovery Weekends, the roles played in commerce and daily life by common soldiers, women and children under siege, and free blacks in grave peril of re-enslavement, all long marginalized by history, are vivified in these communities by docents, guides, living-history players, and re-enactors. A long-untold story is finally on full view. The program's goal is nothing less than "animating democracy."

Judge Marjorie O. Rendell, Pennsylvania's First Lady, was an early and vigorous proponent of what came to be called Pennsylvania's Civil War Trails: Prelude to Gettysburg. The initiative, she says, "reaches far beyond storytelling or wayside markers. We are the first to fashion a program that cooperatively presents our trails, which are as rich in history as in scenic beauty, to customers in an inclusive package that highlights our small towns, welcoming communities, and wonderful accommodations." Herself a keen student of her state's past, Judge Rendell was delighted to find how the project resonated with her fellow Pennsylvanians. "This initiative is very close to my heart. As I travel across the Commonwealth, I am happy to re-discover that, like me, so many others possess a deep, abiding interest in the historical legacy of Pennsylvania's past."

J. Mickey Rowley, Pennsylvania's deputy secretary of tourism, stresses the breadth of the program. "The Civil War experience is not only about battlefields; it is about women and children, the roles of blacks, commerce, and daily life. It is not only about sepia-toned markers but about enlightened experiences. Gettysburg is not an abstract place. It is connected to the core of why people chose Pennsylvania as their soil, and this is the story we will tell. We don't want to reinvent or reclaim the Civil War — but we do intend to offer a comprehensive, regionwide interpretation."

Lenwood Sloan, the state's director of cultural and heritage tourism, adds: "Pennsylvania boasts at least two historic icons of tourism — Philadelphia's Liberty Bell and Gettysburg's battlefield. But the Prelude program is about the ordinary people of Pennsylvania, standing shoulder to shoulder: the women who nursed and maintained field hospitals, the children caught in the crossfire, and farmers who were overrun by armies, in communities that symbolized, animated, and in the end, helped save democracy." The tourism office manages a growing program that includes town hall meetings, research activities, reenactments, educational materials, and publications.

There is more than tourism promotion to this effort. The program also compellingly invites the reconsideration and reinterpretation of a story most Americans long thought they knew. "There are tremendous ironies," says Sloan. "Like the fact that Governor Curtin wouldn't allow the U.S. Colored Troops to fight in Pennsylvania, yet they played a very important role at Wrightsville; or the fact that Hanover wouldn't recognize its free men of color, yet many were called as medics and undertakers to care for the dead, and many free men of color in Columbia and Wrighstville helped finance the guns and uniforms of the militia. These stories need to be told."

Principal among the projects, says Rowley, is a three-year, $1.1 million effort under the auspices of the Pennsylvania state archives to conserve the deteriorating original muster rolls of the state's 215 regiments, battalions, veterans' reserves, militia, and colored troops.


By the end of June 1863, the irritable, unprepossessing George G. Meade had assumed command of the Army of the Potomac. Reluctant at first to replace his friend Hooker, and likely aware that he was only days away from a major test on the battlefield, Meade hesitated to pounce on Lee's forces. Then, just three days after his appointment, the Union general found his men face to face with the great Southern general's. Their huge armies had inadvertently massed to confront each other in the unlikeliest of settings: a tranquil college town of 2,400 where nine roads converged — Gettysburg.

For the next three days, in a hellish outpouring of shot, shell, suffering, and death, North and South met in the biggest and bloodiest battle ever to roil the continent. When it was over more than 50,000 Americans were dead, wounded, or missing. It was — and remains — the most devastating military carnage in the history of the Western Hemisphere. But it was no less so to the civilians whose stories have seldom been told. As a resident named Sallie Myers recalled: "The noise above our heads, the rattling of musketry, the screeching of shells, and the unearthly yells, added to the cries of the children, were enough to shake the stoutest heart." Myers, who was very nearly felled by a stray bullet shot into her home on July 3, spent weeks nursing wounded men who had been brought to her house during and after the fighting.

No battle of the Civil War — or any war — has inspired so lavish a living memorial. The Gettysburg National Military Park (established in 1895 and run by the National Park Service) is one of the nation's most popular historical attractions, drawing some two million visitors annually, and has long reigned as America's leading Civil War site. In July 1913 more than 50,000 of the battle's elderly surviving combatants, Union and Confederate alike, held a 50th-anniversary reunion, attended by President Woodrow Wilson. The spectacular event — which managed to stress the concept of valor on both sides while submerging any mention of slavery or blacks — was funded by more than $2 million in federal and state appropriations to provide travel expenses for the old soldiers and build a tent city to house them on the field. As the veterans maintained a full, eerie five minutes of silence in tribute to "Our Honored Dead," one newspaper marveled: "You may search the world's history in vain for such a spectacle." Visitors have been returning ever since.

Today they encounter a battlefield that looks more like it did in 1863 than at any time in recent memory. Commercial establishments were once pervasive in the park, but nearly all have fallen welcome victim to determined preservationists. Many of the remaining original, privately owned homes have come under the control of the National Park Service and been given proper identifying signage. Obtrusive commercial billboards have vanished, and the battlefield's long-omnipresent observation tower, a looming blot on the landscape for a quarter century, was blasted into oblivion while locals cheered and a national television audience watched.

Once inside the park, the town's busy streets yield quickly to hushed fields and evocative vistas, clearly marked and easily accessible by foot or vehicle. The Round Tops, the Bloody Angle, Devil's Den, Seminary Ridge, McPherson's Ridge, Cemetery Hill, the Codori House, the Peach Orchard, and Culp's Hill still beckon with almost mystical power, offering a spectacular variety of topography that at times seems almost extraterrestrial: huge piles of rocks in one direction, fog-enshrouded hilltops in another, lush fields in yet another. On their own, with audio tours, or in the company of specially licensed guides, visitors can relive the momentous three days, in an experience offered with the precision of the professional soldier and packing the emotional wallop of a mass funeral.

At the Confederate High Water Mark, a simple tablet sets off the spot where Gen. Lewis Armistead fell near the low stone wall, after briefly breaking through Union lines alongside a copse of trees near the Angle. Here was the climactic moment — and the end — of Pickett's massive, ill-fated charge against heavily defended Federal lines along Cemetery Ridge. Viewers can still stare across the wide expanse of ground along which those brave Confederates marched, double quick, in the face of withering enemy fire toward their almost certain death and defeat.

Nearby, although its days are numbered, stands the Gettysburg Cyclorama Center, which for nearly 50 years has housed the artist Paul Philippoteaux's monumental 27-foot-high, 359-foot-long circular mural showing the final moments of Pickett's great effort. Painted in 1884 (long before motion pictures outdid cycloramas in spectacle, ending their popularity), it was one among a form of behemoth artworks that attracted floods of thrilled visitors. Philippoteaux's masterpiece earned rave reviews and high attendance in Boston and, ultimately, Gettysburg, but it later faded from view. Then the Park Service commissioned the architect Richard Neutra to create the modernistic cylindrical building in which to display it — but his design failed, in the process, to ensure climate control or keep out water.

Now the painting is undergoing a desperately needed restoration. When completed, it will be rehung in a large, comprehensive, all-new Gettysburg visitors' center, scheduled to open in 2008. In the meantime, tourists will find an array of displays and souvenirs in an existing visitors' center next door, while fans of Neutra fight to keep his building from the wrecking ball. (Ever lively, the Gettysburg community is also engaged in a new battle over a proposed casino — which poses enough of a threat for the Civil War Preservation Trust to place the town at the top of its list of endangered sites.)


Speaking of art, the Gettysburg National Military Park is also one of the country's greatest sculpture gardens. Monument building began here in earnest in the 1880s under Pennsylvania's department of the Grand Army of the Republic in an effort, initially, to clean up the battlefield and create a network of roads to link its key sites. Soon state after state commissioned statues, most of them funded, cast, and installed before 1900. As Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, himself a Gettysburg veteran, reminded a new generation of Americans at the end of the century: "There is no better way to prepare for the next war than to show your appreciation of your defenders in the last war."

The oldest of these Gettysburg memorials is the towering Soldiers' National Monument, dedicated on July 1, 1869, inside the National Cemetery, a granite pillar surrounded by statues representing War, History, Peace, and Plenty and crowned with a standing figure of Liberty. Other classically inspired monuments include the tribute from New York and the large, domed Pennsylvania Monument. Virginia, Mississippi, and North Carolina provide some of the best examples of sculptures donated by Southern states.

Today's visitors can also see a series of heroic equestrian bronzes of the major major-generals (Meade, John Sedgwick, Henry Slocum, John Reynolds) and portrait statues of them — the most famous, perhaps, is the superb full-length portrait of Gen. Gouverneur Warren, sword at his side and field glasses in hand, forever surveying the landscape from the summit of Little Round Top, where he spotted the Confederate assault in time to save the hill, the battle, and, quite possibly, the Union. But here, too, are fine compositions honoring common soldiers (like the exhausted private in the 9th Pennsylvania Reserves Monument at the foot of Little Round Top). Father William Cor by, who gave absolution to the Irish Brigade as they prepared for battle, is the only religious figure honored in this field of sculpture. And another statue depicts the civilian hero John Burns, a vigorous septuagenarian Gettysburg cobbler who attached himself to the 150th Pennsylvania and was wounded in the fighting — he was, Bret Harte wrote, "The only man who didn't hack down / When the rebels rode through his native town." The artistic merit of these works varies, but sitting amid batteries of authentic cannon and Parrott rifles, they never detract from the pristine quality of the field, and at their best, add a subtext of human gallantry and historic pageantry.


Although it has remained fresh in the American memory for nearly a century and a half, the Battle of Gettysburg ended after three days on the evening of July 3, 1863. The next day, Robert E. Lee sent off the bedraggled survivors of his once mighty 75,000-man fighting force, now including some 28,000 wounded, in a 17-mile-long wagon train of misery that commenced its retreat over mountains and headed south in drenching summer rains, followed by another 14-mile-long subsistence train. Learning of the retreat back in Washington, Abraham Lincoln fumed because Meade failed to pursue him ("my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee's escape").

But Meade's exhausted and equally shattered army did attempt several thrusts at Lee's rear in the hope of crushing the Army of Northern Virginia before it could cross the Potomac River and return in safety to Confederate territory. Pennsylvania was not yet at peace. Skirmishes flared in a number of small communities: Green Oak, Mercersburg, Greencastle, and Cunningham's Cross Roads.

A particularly harrowing encounter was also the second-largest battle fought on Pennsylvania soil. The First Michigan Cavalry, pursuing the Rebel Army through the storm-whipped night of July 4, came upon the 12-year-old Hetty Zeilinger. She knew the countryside very well, told them that the Confederates were up ahead, and led them through Monterey Pass, The Union forces captured 1,300 Confederate prisoners in a surprise attack that sent many frightened horses — and those in the wagons they pulled — toppling off the cliffs to their death. Neighboring towns and villages converted inns and churches into hospitals and tended the suffering wounded for months.

Lee ultimately did escape south, but Lincoln soon enough came to appreciate the magnitude of Meade's victory and the community's sacrifice. "Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech," he told a crowd of serenaders gathered outside the White House on July 7, "but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion." Four months later, however, he was prepared to do precisely that.

When one visits impeccably maintained Gettysburg today, it is difficult to imagine the condition in which residents found the town when they reclaimed it following the battle of July 1863. Dead soldiers and animals littered the streets and fields, rotting in the torrid summer sun, attracting vermin and insects, and producing a stench strong enough to make life unbearable. Brick buildings were pocked with bullet holes (still visible, proudly unrepaired), and in a house on Baltimore Street (still standing, and open to the public), the Wade family mourned the death of their young daughter Jennie; struck by a stray bullet while she baked bread, she was the single civilian killed during the three-day battle.

Amid all this suffering, indomitable local officials managed to organize an ambitious plan to solve the crisis by creating a national cemetery to house the dead. To dedicate this ground, the town fathers invited the celebrated diplomat and orator Edward Everett to deliver a major speech — even though he had run as the vice-presidential candidate on a ticket opposing Lincoln back in 1860. Then, almost as an afterthought, they asked the President himself to add "a few appropriate remarks." Shrugging off the slight, the commander in chief determined to go to Gettysburg and interpret the human sacrifice in his own terms. The result was not only the rhetorical triumph of Lincoln's long career as a public speaker, but perhaps the greatest speech ever given in America.

Today visitors can take the same route that Lincoln traveled within Gettysburg beginning November 18, 1863. The railroad tracks that brought him here from Washington that evening carry mostly freight now, but the original depot still stands and is currently undergoing restoration. When he arrived, Lincoln strolled down Carlisle Street, past the McClellan House (later the Gettysburg Hotel, a modern version of which occupies the spot), and headed to the handsome home of the dedication-day organizer, David Wills, in the town square known as the Diamond (now Lincoln Square), where he spoke briefly and jokingly from the doorway to a crowd of well-wishers, then retired to his room to polish his talk. The exterior of the Wills House perfectly resembles its Civil War appearance, except for the lifelike 1991 J. Seward Johnson, Jr., sculpture, standing on the curb just outside, depicting Lincoln lifting his hat to a modern-day tourist. The interior — including the room where the President stayed, which remains largely unchanged from its condition at the time of his visit — is being restored and renovated by the National Park Service to house a new museum dedicated to Lincoln and the Gettysburg Address.

On the morning of November 19, Lincoln mounted a horse in the Diamond and rode off in a long procession toward the cemetery. There, on a clear Indian summer day, with thousands of people on hand who had lived through the battle — men and women, old and young alike, college students and their teachers — the President listened patiently as odes were sung, dirges played, and Edward Everett intoned mellifluously for two hours. Finally, Lincoln stood up, and in two minutes revolutionized American political discourse — finishing so quickly that a photographer on the scene never snapped a picture of the historic moment. Although he rewrote the document several rimes in the months to come, providing copies to charity fairs to raise funds for war wounded, Lincoln's original words, as recorded by a reporter on the scene and then checked against his handwritten draft, perhaps offer the best idea of what he said that day — and the reaction it elicited from the crowd (the legend that Lincoln was greeted by silence is pure bunk):

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new Nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. [Applause.] Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that Nation or any Nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We are met to dedicate a portion of it as the final resting-place of those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. II is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. [Applause.] The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. [Applause.] It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work that they have thus far so nobly carried on. [Applause.] It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us, that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion; that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain [applause], that the nation shall, under God, have a new birth of freedom; and that Government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. [Long-continued applause.]"


The words are as well known as any ever spoken, yet no one — not the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Garry Wills, nor Gettysburg College professor Gabor Boritt, currently finishing Gettysburg Gospel, his own long-awaited book on the subject — is absolutely sure where Abraham Lincoln stood when he said them. But today's visitors can still re-experience the event by walking through the original cemetery gates, past tree-lined paths encircling arcs of small gravestones. At the crest of the hill is a simple tablet bearing a bronze bust of Lincoln. The Park Service has also erected a permanent speakers' platform where, each year on November 19th, the anniversary of the speech, the local Lincoln Fellowship together with Gettysburg College (whose original building, now called Penn Hall, served as a battlefield hospital in 1863) invite a prominent speaker to give a commemorative oration. On the Saturday closest to the 19th, the park hosts a large, colorful memorial parade of Union and Confederate re-enactors, and a luminaria event after dusk. (Except for the filming of scenes for the film Gettysburg, it should be noted, re-enactors never do battle on this ground — although they can be sported all over town in tourist season.)

I have been on hand in Gettysburg to cheer when my former boss Mario M. Cuomo, then the governor of New York, gave the cemetery oration in 1989. I was here to squirm when Chief Justice William Rehnquist stood immobile for 10 long minutes after rain short-circuited his microphone. I was in the audience to hear Sandra Day O'Connor, Richard Durbin, Shelby Foote, Jack Kemp, John Hope Franklin, George E. Pataki, and my good friend Rhode Island jurist Frank J. Williams. All rose to the occasion.

It is daunting, to say the least — as I found out firsthand. Last year, to my utter astonishment, I was invited to provide the latest of these orations myself, alongside my fellow Lincoln Bicentennial Commission member, Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., of Chicago. I have no idea why this honor came to me, unless it is because the organizers ran out of important speakers, or believed that since I'd visited Gettysburg and its environs so many times over the last 25 years, both alone and with my family, for research, conferences, book signings, and celebrations, that they mistook me for a townie.

In preparing my words (not while on a train, and neither did Lincoln — another durable Gettysburg myth), it is no exaggeration to report that I felt a sense of presumption, dread, even folly. Only when I began to speak where Lincoln once spoke did the premonitions evaporate and yield to something like elation. Standing there, I was nearly overcome by the thought of climaxing my own modest career as a historian by standing where Abraham Lincoln did nothing less than rededicate America to the struggle of the unfinished work of securing freedom.

My own Gettysburg address accomplished far less, of course, but I hope it at least reminded the audience of the eternal vitality of that 1863 elegy — and the man who spoke it. This is part of what I said at Gettysburg, in the heart of Civil War Pennsylvania, 142 years after Lincoln:

"Nine score and 16 years ago — on the very same day, though an ocean apart — not one but two babies were born, each of them destined to grow up and do nothing less than change the world.

"In one of the great coincidences of history, not only Abraham Lincoln but also Charles Darwin first saw life on the identical date: February 12, 1809.

"During their lifetimes each would arouse both love and scorn. Each would write words that would long endure. Each would defy expectations: one rejecting the pulpit to become a man of science; the other aspiring higher than the land to become a man of law and politics.

"Yet there the similarities ended. Charles Darwin believed in survival of the fittest — in a process of natural selection that empowered the strong and eliminated the weak. Those who have turned his hard science into social science argue that natural limitations preclude success. Abraham Lincoln, on the other hand, embraced, articulated, and personally symbolized the ideal of equal opportunity — encouraging today's slave to become tomorrow's freeman, today's laborer to become tomorrow's owner — through education, a level playing field, the blessings of liberty, and, as he put it, 'work, work, work.'

"Disciples of that other February 12th baby, Charles Darwin, might argue that our destiny is preordained, our future trapped within limited expectations. But Lincoln, to his eternal credit, stringing together his lifelong expressions of hope, encouraged 'the humblest man' to seek 'an equal chance.' He preached a 'patient confidence in the ultimate justice of the people' in 'a union of hearts and hands' where 'right makes might.' What he said on taking the oath of office can still be said with pride and confidence to the latest generation: 'Is there any better, or equal, hope in the world?'"

Admittedly, there is considerable hubris in quoting oneself. But perhaps my Gettysburg address might serve as a reminder of how each modern visitor can still find his own Civil War Pennsylvania — whether by speaking out loud or silently bearing witness. Appropriately, this wonderfully preserved region, its tourism professionals historically conscious as never before, continues to both arouse nostalgia for the past and incubate serious thought about our future.

Besides, I am consoled by the knowledge that there will be many speakers at Gettysburg dedication-day ceremonies in the years to come. Each November 19, the town all but erupts in celebration of Lincoln's address. The great locally based Lincoln re-enactor James Getty dons frock coat and stovepipe hat to deliver the address impeccably. The atmosphere is charged with excitement and memory.

For the three days immediately previous, the Lincoln Forum meets at a nearby hotel to hear scholars offer fresh perspectives on Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. And each June, it should be noted, the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College welcomes hundreds of enthusiasts, young and old, to a week-long conference on the battle, the war, and its consequences, with a different theme each year. The waiting list is so long, it is said that if a middle-aged enthusiast joins it now, he might, if he stays healthy, live to attend one of the conferences.

Like any visit to Civil War Pennsylvania, it would be worth the wait.

CIVIL WAR Pennsylvania is more than the sum of one or two famous spots.

AT FIRST the rich, quiet countryside seemed like paradise to the Rebels.

THE GOAL of the program is nothing less than "animating democracy."

TODAY THE battlefield looks more like it did in 1863 than it has for years.

THE BATTLE OF Gettysburg was over, but Pennsylvania was not yet at peace.

NOBODY knows quite where Lincoln stood when he gave his immortal speech.


The visitor can find out about special weekend events and celebrations by calling 800-VISIT-PA or going to By year's end the historical experience will be enriched by interpretive signs, each bearing the logo below, which draws on such symbols as the wedge-shaped architectural element to represent the Keystone State and a kepi, the forage cap that was worn by both Union and Confederate soldiers.


PHOTO (COLOR): To arms in Wrightsville: Troops march on North Front Street in 2003.

PHOTO (COLOR): A broadside ordered posted by Governor Curtin proclaims the threat of the Confederate invasion.

PHOTO (COLOR): Black Gettysburg: Abraham Brian's farm was in the thick of the fighting; John Hopkins, whose house stands at 219 South Washington, was respected throughout the town.

PHOTO (COLOR): Union troops bivouac in a Chambersburg church: an 1862 watercolor.

PHOTO (COLOR): Camp Curtin was the first and largest of the war's training camps.

PHOTO (COLOR): Graves of men of the 54th and 55th U.S. Colored infantry in Columbia's renovated Zion Hill Cemetery.

PHOTO (COLOR): Jennie Wade, the only civilian killed in the July 3 fighting.

PHOTO (COLOR): Women re-enactors in an event called "Flames Across the Susquehanna."

PHOTO (COLOR): Lincoln stopped at Hanover Junction on his way to Gettysburg; the top-hatted figure may be him. The station was recently restored.

PHOTO (COLOR): A weary soldier on Little Round Top commemorates a Pennsylvania outfit.

PHOTO (COLOR): A conservator explains the ongoing restoration of the immense Cyclorama.

PHOTO (COLOR): Gettysburg's streets have remained quiet and gotten tidier over the years.

PHOTO (COLOR): In November 1955 the town turned out to welcome back its favorite neighbor, President Eisenhower, who had suffered a heart attack.

PHOTO (COLOR): One of Peter Rothermel's controversial paintings depicts the Pennsylvania Reserves storming Plum Run on July 2.

PHOTO (COLOR): Two young visitors join General Warren on Little Round Top.

By Harold Holzer

Harold Holzer, co-chairman of the U.S. Lincoln Bicentennial Commission, is a leading authority on Lincoln and his era and is the author of many books about both.


Every now and then the quiet countryside yields up a memento that brings the old struggle back, fresh and immediate. While the editors were preparing this magazine, Dana K. Shirey, a photographer in Wrightsville, sent us a letter that a neighbor had come upon in his attic. Signed "Your Aunt Rachel Bahn" and dated July 14, 1863, it tells of the recent invasion:

"… Our soil has been, at last, polluted by the feet of rebel hordes. We witnessed sights that we never expected to witness. Yes, sights which I hope we many never witness again. A week prior to their appearance the community was in a perpetual excitement. Most all kind of business was suspended. The number of horses, cattle, &c. that passed our place was extraordinary. The farmers, or most of the farmers, moved their stock to Lancaster County to prevent it from falling into rebel hands. And they had done wisely too. Nearly all those who kept their horses at home were heavy losers. They stole them all they could get. On Sunday 28th inst., the Rebels entered York about 10 o'clock A.M. which place had surrendered on the previous evening. General Gordon's brigade marched on to Wrightsville & passed this place at 2 o'clock P.M. &: re-passed it the following day about the same hour. Hoke's & Smithes brigade commanded by General Early were encamped in & about York. As our forces were to [sic] weak at Wrightsville they met but little resistance. Our troops retreated to Columbia and then fired the Bridge, They behaved pretty civilly while passing here. Hundreds of them came in, one wanted bread, another wanted butter, the next wanted apple butter, milk &c. They wanted to pay everything with their worthless money, but of course we did not take any. A dirtier, more motley, obnoxious-looking set of fellows I never saw. The majority of them seem to be tired of this unholy war, & would be willing to lay down their arms & come into the Union again. They left York on Tuesday morning in great haste, after burning all the [railroad] cars in the vicinity. They destroyed all the Rail Road bridges between York & Wrightsville. When the battle was going on at Gettysburg, 33 miles from our place, we heard the cannonading distinctly. Morgan [evidently a friend or family member] participated in that engagement. He escaped unhurt. Many of our neighbors visited the battlefield, they saw & spoke with him, he was well & seemed to be in good spirits….

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      Essay last updated: 20060607
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    • ABNT:
      HOLZER, H. Prelude to Gettysburg. American Heritage, [s. l.], p. 2–23, [s. d.]. Disponível em: Acesso em: 6 jun. 2023.
    • AMA 11th Edition:
      Holzer H. Prelude to Gettysburg. American Heritage.:2-23. Accessed June 6, 2023.
    • APA 7th Edition:
      Holzer, H. (n.d.). Prelude to Gettysburg. American Heritage, 2–23.
    • Chicago 17th Edition:
      Holzer, Harold. 2023. “Prelude to Gettysburg.” American Heritage, 2–23. Accessed June 6.
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      Holzer, H. (no date) ‘Prelude to Gettysburg’, American Heritage, pp. 2–23. Available at: (Accessed: 6 June 2023).
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      Holzer, Harold. “Prelude to Gettysburg.” American Heritage, pp. 2–23. EBSCOhost, Accessed 6 June 2023.
    • Chicago 17th Edition:
      Holzer, Harold. “Prelude to Gettysburg.” American Heritage, 2–23. Accessed June 6, 2023.
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