American History 101.7
Part 7 of “My Life with Eighth Graders.” To read parts 1-6, Click HERE. To ignore the whole mess, just move along. Nothing more to see here.
I finally made it to Gettysburg, but it took 74 eighth graders to get me there.
Despite arriving 144 years (and several hundred books) after the fact, the battlefield remained an impressive and fascinating place, worthy of further study. If author George R. Stewart’s premise is correct (and many of his premises were), there is good reason for every American to have a grasp of what happened during those three days in July of 1863. In the introduction to Pickett’s Charge (1959), he writes:
“If we grant — as many would be ready to do — that the Civil War furnishes the great dramatic episode in the history of the United States, and that Gettysburg provides the climax of the war, then the climax of the climax, the central moment in our history, must be Pickett’s charge.”
I’m not worthy of debating the issues surrounding or leading up to Pickett’s charge, or any other battle of the Civil War. I also know opinions remain strong on all sides…I’ve read Tony Horwitz’s engrossing, artful and occasionally hilarious Confederates in the Attic. But whether or not you agree with Stewart’s third point, I believe he is at least directionally correct. To better appreciate American history, we should be familiar with what happened in the open, rolling fields and on the gentle wooded knolls of south central Pennsylvania on July 1-3, 1863.
We arrived in our two motor coaches, and stopped at the visitors center so our personal tour guides could board. For the only time on the trip, our buses were segregated by gender, and our “boy” band was fortunate to get Ed Guy, a guide with more than twenty years experience. I found out later in the day that he’d moved to the area as a young boy and had grown up in the shadow of the National Park. After introducing himself, he said that our bus and walking tour would be roughly chronological. In other words, we’d start where the battle began.
Our first stop was at a field adjacent to a statue of Gettysburg resident John Burns, who walked out to the battlefield that July day, musket in hand, and offered to join the One Hundred and Fiftieth Pennsylvania Volunteers, though he was more than seventy years old. According to General Doubleday’s report, he fought bravely.
(above) A statue dedicated to citizen soldier John Burns. (below) Tour Guide Ed Guy teaches the boys how the troops marched into battle in formation.
At that first stop, Ed talked about certain events leading up to the battle, and how everything finally came to a head on July 1st. Then he taught the boys how to march in formation, and how they’d adjust the formation to quickly replace fallen comrades while advancing in battle. It was great to watch history came alive as the boys engaged and had fun. After that, it was back on the bus for a quick ride to the Devil’s Den, the location held by Confederate sharpshooters on Day Two of the battle.
Devil’s Den is overlooked by Little Round Top, which came into Union Hands following an historic day two bayonet charge by the 20th Maine, led by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a professor at Bowdoin College. The battle made him famous in his day, and again more recently through many popular works on the war (including Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels, Shelby Foote’s 3-Volume The Civil War, and Ken Burn’s eponymous PBS mini-series, among many others). As enjoyable and informative as those sources were, they paled in comparison to actually being there. I can’t speak for the boys, but looking down across the fields from Little Round Top, or hunkering down in Devil’s Den really brought everything to life for me…the size and scope of the battleground, the contours of the land as it lay this way and that.
(above) Ed and the boys down in Devil’s Den. The boys really were listening to Ed, they just rarely make eye contact when processing historical information.
(above) The boys leaving the Devil’s Den area on the way to Little Round Top
(above) Ed “Guide” up on Little Round Top, with Devil’s Den in the center background, just to the right of the white camper.
We finished our tour at the Gettysburg graveyard (after visiting the Bloody Angle, of course) near where President Lincoln delivered his famous address. For me, everything was over much too soon.
After lunch, we wound our way into Amish farm country, where we enjoyed a fine meal at a family style restaurant, before heading out to our final destination on the trip: Philadelphia.