Gettysburg Field Trip – September 2008

By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2008, All Rights Reserved

From Thursday, September 25 through Sunday, the 28th, twenty-five of our members, led by president Jon Thompson, participated in the Roundtable’s annual field trip, this year to the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The club’s return to Gettysburg was driven in part by the ongoing work being done by the Park Service to restore the battlefield to its 1863 state, in part by the opening of the new Visitor Center there, and in part by the unveiling of the freshly restored (and moved) Cyclorama. Without cutting to the chase too quickly, let me report with some relief that those responsible for these changes have produced admirable results on all counts (save, perhaps, for the funding of these many projects, but more on that later).

Honoring the 8th Ohio

Upon our arrival in Gettysburg on Thursday afternoon, we assembled at our hotel and caravanned over to the 8th Ohio Monument on Steinwehr Avenue for a wreath-laying ceremony there. Jon distributed cards to all present listing details of individual Ohioans who served – and died – in the 8th at Gettysburg and then spoke for a few minutes on the unit’s actions helping to repulse Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. The ceremony ended with William Vodrey reading from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s address to a reunion of Gettysburg veterans in October 1889:

“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field to ponder and dream; and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.”

This reading, followed by a brief moment of silence, provided an appropriately somber and moving beginning to our visit.

Touring the National Cemetery

We next met up with our guide for the weekend, Gary Kross, who proved to be a most knowledgeable and entertaining companion. An immediate example of this was provided over dinner that night when William Vodrey asked Gary if he’d given tours over the years to any celebrities. Gary, as it turns out, has given tours to a pretty impressive list of celebrities including Gerald Ford, George H.W. Bush, Bob Hope, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Karl Rove, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar amongst others. Intrigued, William asked Gary who was the most knowledgeable celebrity he’d given a tour to, and Gary immediately responded, “Oh, without a doubt, Lynda Carter.” William and I, both a little stunned, looked at one another and then back at Gary. “Lynda Carter?” one of us asked incredulously. “Yeah, Lynda Carter,” Gary quickly answered. “You know, the actress? Wonder Woman? She’s really smart. Her kids are pretty sharp too.” William, nonplused as ever, then asked the obvious next question, “Well then, Gary, who was the dumbest celebrity you ever gave a tour to?” Given that this article is going up on our website, available for anyone to bump into on the internet, you’ll need to chase down either William or me at our next meeting to get the answer to that question.

After dinner, Gary led us on a tour of Evergreen Cemetery on the crest of Cemetery Hill, giving us background on the immediate aftermath of the battle and the horrifying and gruesome burden it placed on Gettysburg’s residents. This was the first opportunity we had to see the impact of the Park Service’s efforts to restore the battlefield to its 1863 state. Looking west from Cemetery Hill, you can now see clearly across the valley to the Peace Memorial atop Oak Hill where Confederate general Robert Rhodes staged his forces on the battle’s first day – a distance of over a mile. This view, like many new vistas opened-up on the Gettysburg battlefield, was blocked by trees a year ago.

While in the cemetery, Gary also spoke on the creation of the national cemetery and Lincoln’s address at its dedication five months later in November 1863. He showed us the spot in the cemetery where Lincoln actually delivered his speech, a spot which, surprisingly, is neither at the imposing brick podium just inside the cemetery gates nor where the monument commemorating Lincoln’s address is located. Instead, the spot is about 100 yards north of the memorial amidst a group of tombstones and mausoleums without any kind of marker. Over the next couple of days we learned that this is often the case at Gettysburg: that due to faulty scholarship, land ownership disputes, or sometimes just the aesthetic sensibilities of the original Gettysburg Monument Commission, Gettysburg’s monuments and memorials are not always sited where the event they commemorate actually occurred. The Gettysburg Address Memorial is just one of many misplaced monuments on the battlefield.

Throughout his time with us, Gary was an overflowing fount of Gettysburg dates, facts, troop movements, and people. One of the interesting tidbits he pointed out to us while we walked the cemetery was the grave of Gettysburg casualty George Nixon III, great-grandfather of President Richard M. Nixon.

Touring the Battlefield

Gary had a prior commitment Friday morning, so instead, Jon Thompson led our group on a four-hour Cliffs Notes tour of the battlefield to lay the groundwork for the more in-depth tour we’d get the next day and a half. Jon showed himself to be the equal of any professional Gettysburg guide, demonstrating an effortless and seemingly bottomless grasp of the details of the battle. We started at 8 a.m. on McPherson’s Ridge on the north side of town, where Union forces first engaged the Confederate pickets on July 1st, and ended at noon on the observation deck of the Pennsylvania Monument just behind and above the spot where Pickett’s Charge fell into the Union center on July 3rd. In between, we visited Iverson’s Pits, Barlow’s Knoll, the Peach Orchard, Big Round Top, Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. At each stop Jon reestablished our geographical and chronological bearings, giving us a good feel for the overall ebb and flow of the three days of battle.

After lunch Gary rejoined us, and what Jon did for us in brief on Friday morning, Gary now did for us in depth for the rest of Friday and all day Saturday. The next 36 hours consisted of rolling around in the kind of delicious Civil War strategy, tactics, personalities, and trivia that thrills us history nuts and slightly concerns our families.

As we did Friday morning, we started on McPherson’s Ridge where Union general John Reynolds was killed, moving on in succession over the next day and a half to:

  • The railroad cut where 200 men under Confederate Brigadier General Joseph R. Davis (Jefferson Davis’ nephew) were trapped by the 6th Wisconsin.

  • The spot on McPherson’s Ridge where 70-year-old Gettysburg resident and War of 1812 veteran John Burns joined the Union defense of his town. He was later captured and released and lived to join Abraham Lincoln for Sunday services in Gettysburg five months later.

  • Willoughby Run, where Confederate Brigadier General James J. Archer was captured. (Our guide Gary led us off the main road and 75 yards down a long, overgrown path to the spot on Willoughby Run where the capture actually took place – very neat.)

  • Oak Hill, from where Brigadier General Alfred Iverson ordered his men forward into the killing field that came to be known as Iverson’s Pits, where 500 North Carolinians fell under the point blank volleys fired into their flank by Union troops concealed behind a stone wall.

  • Culp’s Hill, where the Union defenders fell back to on July 1st and where they remained for the next two days through Ewell’s questionable inaction on day 1 and determined action on day 3. (Of the Gettysburg campaign, Ewell later told a friend, “It took a dozen blunders to lose Gettysburg and [I] committed a good many of them.”)

  • Little Round Top, where the Union was saved not by Hancock, Warren, Vincent, or Chamberlain but, as Dennis Keating enthusiastically informed us, by Colonel (and Irishman) Paddy O’Rorke of the 140th New York, who led the first unit of Union troops up and over Little Round Top and into the Confederate advance coming up the western slope of the hill. O’Rorke was killed during the Confederate counterattack while urging his men on from atop the boulders on the hill’s crest.

  • Devil’s Den, where Gary focused more on its early-in-the-battle use as a Union artillery platform firing on the Confederates advancing from the west than on its later-in-the-battle use as a Confederate sniper’s nest firing on Little Round Top.

  • The Wheatfield, where Confederate attackers looking to push Union forces out of the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den traded charges and counter-charges from the morning of July 2nd until 7 p.m. that night.

  • Vincent’s Spur, where Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the 20th Maine made a desperate bayonet charge on July 2nd, possibly saving the Union position on Little Round Top and the entire Army of the Potomac from destruction.

  • Pickett’s Charge – we walked Lewis Armistead’s path across the valley from Seminary Ridge, past the Codori Farm, up the western slope of Cemetery Ridge to The Angle and over the stone wall to where Armistead finally fell at the feet of the Union battery situated there. Approaching the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, the ‘shadow of a mighty presence’ Chamberlain spoke of brushes past you, and you get a small sense of what the Confederate attackers faced that day. Frightening and sad.

Friday night half our group stayed at the hotel to watch the first McCain-Obama debate, while the other half took a “Ghosts of Gettysburg” tour. The tour consisted of about an hour and a half candlelit walk through the historic section of Gettysburg led by a guide in period dress reviewing the (apparently) many ghost stories that have developed over the years in and around Gettysburg. The presentation was matter of fact and friendly (even jovial), with no over-the-top dramatics or heavy-handed creepiness piled on. Despite my not being a ghost guy, our tour provided a fun conclusion to a long, wet day.

A word about the modern town of Gettysburg, itself: This was my fourth trip to Gettysburg, but my first in over twenty years and first since becoming a more serious student of the Civil War. My recollections of the town were that it was kind of a rinky-dink tourist town, full of junky souvenir shops, wax museums and “mystery spots.” If my recollections are accurate, then much of the town of Gettysburg has changed significantly for the better. While some of those junk elements survive, most of the town, especially the historic center that dates to before the Civil War, has been nicely restored. It’s not quite Charleston, South Carolina in its quaint, historic charm, but it’s taken a huge step in that direction. Very nice.

The Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center

Finally, we spent Sunday morning at the new, $103-million Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center which is, in a word, spectacular. It was built about a mile from the old Visitor Center, behind the Union line on Cemetery Ridge in a spot where no fighting occurred (vs. smack dab in the middle of the Union line, as was the case with both the old Visitor Center and Cyclorama building). While the old Visitor Center had a certain rummaging-through-your-grandma’s-attic kind of mystery and charm, the new center is a sprawling, gleaming, modern museum, designed to visually suggest a Gettysburg farm building. And where the old center presented its collection of relics and artifacts as just that – a collection, like what you might find stuffed into glass cases at your local historical society, the new center goes to great lengths and expense to put the relics and artifacts on display into historical context.

The museum is organized as a chronological walk through the entire Civil War story beginning with the Founders and the constitutional protection they granted slavery and ending with the war’s aftermath and Reconstruction. In between, heavy sway is obviously given to events at Gettysburg, but the curators attempt (and I think succeed) to place those events in context within not only Civil War history, but American history. This context is delivered in the form of voluminous expository text, maps, diagrams, photos, films, and recordings explaining the background of the artifacts you’re seeing in the museum and what you’re about to see if/when you tour the battlefield. Every multimedia trick used by modern museums to keep the casual visitor engaged is employed here, but I think to good effect. As a more serious visitor, I never felt assaulted by overly aggressive displays or insulted by dumbed-down ones. They got it right.

Now, there has been some complaint from the Civil War community that many of the relics from the old center have NOT been put on display in the new center, but frankly, I didn’t miss the now warehoused relics. How many smashed together minie balls and bits of shrapnel do you really need to see after all? The important stuff you do want to see is all here. Lee’s camp cot, desk, and kit, the stretcher used to carry Stonewall Jackson from the Chancellorsville battlefield (there was some understandable grumbling within our group that this particular artifact was here at Gettysburg and not Chancellorsville; however, since I was here and not Chancellorsville, I was selfishly happy it was here), Meade’s slouch hat and sword, the coat Confederate General Paul Semmes died in (with the entry hole created by the mortal round clearly visible), along with many, many weapons, munitions, and examples of what seems to be just about every article of clothing worn or piece of equipment used by either army. So, while much was warehoused, much is on display. And what is on display is informatively and attractively presented.

My only complaint with the museum portion of the Visitor Center is the old electronic map – it’s not there. If I’m being honest, I have to admit that the multimedia displays in the new museum do a better job telling the Gettysburg story than did the electronic map. However, I have very clear memories of being dazzled by the electronic map as a child and had hoped to see it once again. Apparently, it still sits about a mile away in its darkened room at the old Visitor Center awaiting demolition with the rest of that building later this year. While the thought of its demise brings a nostalgic tear to my eye, I can see why it was left behind; what’s replaced it is better.

Happily, on temporary display at the Visitor Center while we were there was one of the five extant copies of the Gettysburg Address written in Lincoln’s own hand. This is the copy that Lincoln sent Edward Everett, the ‘other’ speaker at the cemetery dedication ceremony. It was in his request to Lincoln for a copy of his speech that Everett famously commented, “I should be glad, if I could flatter myself that I came as near the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”

It was a thrill to see this document in person, much like seeing the Constitution or the Declaration of Independence at the National Archives. However, it was surprising to see the casual, off-hand way this touchstone document was presented by the curators. It was housed in a glass case, alone (save for a guard), down the end of a long hallway, with little supporting explanation, documents, or artifacts and only one small sign pointing you in its direction. If I hadn’t known beforehand it was going to be there so that I could look for it, I would have easily missed it. Not surprisingly, I didn’t have to knock anyone down either to get to it or to spend as much time as I wanted in front of it. Perhaps the curators had their hands full (or their budget spent) preparing for the opening of the museum, the Cyclorama, and the center, itself, but I think something grander and more thoughtful would have been appropriate for such an important American document.

The Cyclorama

I’m sure most of you have at one time or another seen the Cyclorama painting at Gettysburg depicting Pickett’s Charge on the final day of the three-day battle. However, anyone born since the close of the 19th century has not seen it the way it is now displayed, the way its original sponsors and its creator, French painter Paul Philippoteaux, intended.

The 377-foot-long, 42-foot-high oil on canvas painting has just this fall emerged from a five-year, $15-million restoration. As part of this restoration, the painting was not only cleaned and repaired, but 14 feet of sky that had been removed from the painting at some point in its life has been replaced. The fully restored painting has been installed in-the-round at its new home in the Visitor Center with a lifelike, three-dimensional diorama at its base that both leads the eye into the painting while quite effectively blurring the line separating the three-dimensional world of the audience from the two-dimensional world of the painting.

Paul Philippoteaux working on the Cyclorama

Rather than walking into a sparse gallery to view a painting at your leisure, as was the case at the old Cyclorama building, you now enter the circular viewing room from below, emerging onto a raised platform in the center of the room, and the painting is ‘presented’ to you as the centerpiece of a sophisticated light and sound show with an accompanying narration telling the story of both the painting and the final day of the battle. Thankfully, the overall effect is neither cheesy nor oppressive, as I fear I’m making it sound; rather, the effect is, in a word, awesome.

Reportedly, Philippoteaux’s intent was to give the Cyclorama’s audience a sense of ‘being there’ on Cemetery Ridge on July 3, 1863. (“The IMAX of its day,” as William Vodrey later commented.) I have to say that in its newly restored, newly installed state, the Cyclorama comes surprisingly close to doing just that. I felt privileged to see it. I can think of only one, minor fault with the presentation, and that is the too-short time that viewers are allowed with the painting. When the presentation is over, you are very politely shown the door so the next group can come in. I would have appreciated another 15 minutes to take in this massive work.

Your Cyclorama ticket also gains you access to a short 20-minute movie on the Civil War, “A New Birth of Freedom,” that is shown prior to your entering the Cyclorama room. Rather than the wasted 20 minutes I anticipated, the movie turned out to be quite good. There’s little information conveyed that would be fresh to any student of the Civil War, but the presentation is first rate. The story is told in a kind of flashy Ken Burns-like style, effectively blending moving pictures with still photos, sound effects, and music. The film even employs Burns’ documentary veterans Morgan Freeman as its narrator and Sam Waterston voicing Abraham Lincoln. Don’t skip it.

The Funding Controversy – Short Form

The word in the local Gettysburg papers is that the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is falling short of revenue projections, and there is talk of charging admission to the museum in addition to the Cyclorama. (Admission to the museum, today, is free.)

Gettysburg’s shopkeepers, already smarting from a fall-off in business due to rising gas prices and the more remote location of the new Visitor Center, which, they feel, takes visitors too far away from the business center, feel strongly that whatever more money the Visitor Center extracts from the wallets of visitors is money that will no longer flow to them. Many feel betrayed by the commission running the center in partnership with the Park Service and are calling for changes. It will be interesting to see what happens. We can only hope that it won’t be as bloody a battle as the first Gettysburg.

Bringing It On Home

This was my first Roundtable field trip. Since I joined the Roundtable, Dan Zeiser has been telling me, “You gotta go on a field trip; it’s the best thing we do. You’ll never learn as much in such a short span of time as you will on one of these trips.” I have to say that Dan was right. My experience on this trip was outstanding, and much of the credit for that goes to Jon Thompson, the trip’s organizer and leader. I saw Gettysburg in a way I’d never seen it and learned many things I’d never known, and this at a place I’d been to three times before and had read much about since childhood.

I also got to know 24 other members of our club better than I’d known them before. You will rarely have the opportunity to hang out with a nicer, smarter, or more interesting group of people than you will on one of these trips. Like Dan, my advice to any of you who haven’t done one of our field trips before or recently is just make the time and GO!

Related links:
List of Roundtable Field Trips
The Changes at Gettysburg
The Gettysburg Foundation
Gettysburg Virtual Tour
The Civil War Monuments of Gettysburg
Echoes of Gettysburg