May 27, 2019
Note: I apologize in advance for the long post, but I found it impossible to write a few measly paragraphs about a battle that is often referred to as the turning point in the Civil War.
We left Luray, Virginia, on Monday, May 20, and drove to Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The following day, we went to the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitors Center. If you plan to visit this area, I highly recommend you make the visitors center your first stop. For a reasonable fee, you can see a short film about the three-day battle, view the cyclorama, and tour a museum containing an array of more than 4,000 artifacts chronicling various American wars.
On Wednesday, we returned to the park to take a two-hour bus tour of the battlefield narrated by a Licensed Battlefield Guide. If you prefer, you can take a self-guided audio tour of the battlefield for about half the cost, or you can simply obtain a free map from the visitors center, and drive though the battlefield on your own, following the same route as the audio tour.
I will not argue the reasons why eleven southern states seceded from the Union and formed the Confederate States of America, nor will I bore you with a play-by-play of the entire three-day Battle of Gettysburg. Instead, I will attempt to explain, as I understand it, how the Confederate Army ended up in south central Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863. I will tell you about the days leading up to the conflict, and what transpired during the first few hours of that fateful morning of July 1, 1863. And last, but not least, I will describe how the remains of at least eleven Confederate soldiers ended up in a national cemetery created as the final resting place for more than 3,500 Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg.
But first, let’s go back in history to December 20, 1860, when South Carolina became the first state to secede from the Union. By June 8, 1861, ten more southern states—Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, Texas, Virginia, Arkansas, North Carolina, and Tennessee filed Articles of Secession. The states are listed in the order in which they seceded.
President Abraham Lincoln knew that the splinting of more than a third of the United States would leave the country vulnerable to attack by the United Kingdom, France, and Spain, all super powers who had become allies in the years following the Revolutionary War
To prevent this from happening, Lincoln raised a great army to invade what he called “the erring sisters of the Union.” He vowed to drag them kicking and screaming by the hair of their heads back into the Union whether they liked it or not.
The Rebels, refusing to cower to Lincoln’s threats, amassed their own army. On April 12, 1861, the newly formed Confederate Army opened fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Bay. That event triggered a war that would last for four long years.
For the first two years of the war, the South won every major battle except Sharpsburg, also known as Antietam, which was a draw. For those of you who are not up on your geography, Sharpsburg is located in Maryland. Maryland was known as a border state, one of the five slave states that did not secede from the Union during the Civil War. The other four border states were Delaware, Kentucky, Missouri, and West Virginia. West Virginia, originally part of western Virginia, declared its independence from the Confederacy at the beginning of the Civil War. The state was admitted to the Union on June 20, 1863.
By the third summer of 1863, Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, was tired of fighting a defensive war. Lee believed the only way to beat the Yankees was to take an offensive position and invade the north. After repeated discussions on the matter with Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Davis granted Lee’s request. On June 3, 1863, the Confederate Army began advancing toward the north.
In late June, Lee’s army arrived in south central Pennsylvania. Lee set up his headquarters in Chambersburg, twenty-six miles to the west of Gettysburg. His army divided and pushed out to the east, north and west, conquering portions of Pennsylvania in Lee’s own words, “at his leisure.”
When Abraham Lincoln learned that Robert E. Lee was in Pennsylvania, he advanced his last defensive army to Washington, roughly ninety miles to the south of Gettysburg. Lincoln thought Lee’s presence in Pennsylvania was a ruse. He believed Lee would turn around and March through Maryland to Washington, and attempt to capture the capital of the United States. Lincoln knew that if Lee took Washington, he would win the war, and the United States of America would fall.
When Lincoln figured out that Lee was not after Washington, but rather Pennsylvania, Ohio, New Jersey, and New York, he ordered his army, now under the command of General George Mead, to march up from the south before Lee took a major city. Should that happen, the super powers would recognize the Confederacy, and they would destroy the United States.
A week before the battle, General Mead dispatched officers and scouts to the cities of Hanover and Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, instructing them to secure the two towns. Mead then directed his officers to send out their scouts to flush out Lee’s army.
Two and a half days before the Battle of Gettysburg began, part of the Confederate Army was forty miles to the north in Harrisburg setting up cannons, when they received the unsettling news from a Confederate spy that the United States Army was no longer holed up in Washington, and that they were marching up from the south to do battle with the Rebels.
Robert E. Lee was caught unawares. He realized he had made a critical mistake: all ten roads led to Gettysburg, and that is where the two armies would meet and engage in a big battle. With his men spread out a hundred miles to the east and west, and forty miles to the north, Lee immediately sent out emergency orders to his officers to get to Gettysburg posthaste.
On June 30, the United States Calvary, under Brigadier Generals George Armstrong Custer and Judson Kilpatrick encountered General James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart’s cavalry. The two armies fought all day. From Hanover, Stuart continued north to Dover, approximately twenty-eight miles from Gettysburg, arriving there on July 1.
Meanwhile, Union Brigadier General John Buford of Kentucky thundered up from the south on June 30 with 2,900 Yankee scouts and six cannons. Buford took back the town of Gettysburg from the four Confederate soldiers he found garrisoned there. He then dispatched his scouts, and discovered, to his absolute horror, that 80,000 Confederates were pouring down the roads from the north, east, and west, and they seemed to be in a mad rush to concentrate their army.
Buford tried to convince the “bullheaded” Yankee generals (remember, Buford was from Kentucky) that the big battle would be at Gettysburg, but they refused to listen. Instead, he was ordered to wait until 8:00 the following morning when General John Reynolds, second in command of the Union Army, would advance up from the south with 8,000 men to see what Buford was screaming about.
At 7:30 that morning, 7,000 Confederate soldiers hauling twenty cannons were spotted coming up the Chambersburg Pike, marching straight toward the heart of Gettysburg. Buford positioned his men along a ridge a few miles from town. He ordered them to dismount, get on the ground, and point their rifles where the Confederates were surging up from the west. He told them when they saw the “devils” to start firing without even aiming. He believed their only chance was to fool the Confederates into thinking there were 30,000 men on the ridge instead of less than 3,000.
The Confederate Army retaliated by setting up their cannons near Herr’s Tavern, and immediately started bombarding the enemy. At 9:30 that morning, Reynolds finally arrived in Gettysburg. When he got within two miles of the battle and heard the shooting, he told his men to wait for him in a nearby peach orchard until he could access the situation. When Reynolds realized that Buford had been right all along, he rode like a madman to fetch his troops. Reynolds had been so confident in his assumption that Buford was wrong, his men had not yet loaded their rifles. When he reached his troops, he yelled at them to load their guns on the run and get up there and help Buford hold off the Rebels until Mead’s troops arrived. At 10:00 that morning, as Reynolds was frantically leading his men up from the south, he was shot in the back of the head, killing him instantly.
And thus, began the Battle of Gettysburg,
For three days, 150,000 soldiers clashed in a series of Confederate assaults and Union defenses. On the third day of the battle, General Lee ordered an assault on the Union’s center, in what would be become known as Pickett’s Charge, named for General George Pickett. More than 12,500 Confederate soldiers marched on the Union position, coming under intense fire. Half of Pickett’s division was injured or killed by Union soldiers. The charge’s strategic failure and loss of men forced Lee to retreat, leading his army on a tortuous withdrawal back to Virginia.
And in case you’re wondering what happened to Jeb Stuart back in Dover, he had been cut off from any communication with Lee, and had no idea of the Army of Northern Virginia’s position. Finally, around midnight on July 1, Stuart received word that Lee’s army was engaged in battle with Mead’s army in Gettysburg. By 3:00 am the following morning, Stuart and his weary column were on their way to Gettysburg. When Stuart finally arrived, Lee was overheard saying, “Well, General Stuart. You are here at last.” Stuart and Lee’s ensuing conversation was, according to an aide, “painful beyond description.”
The Battle of Gettysburg took a horrific toll on both sides. Approximately 10,000 soldiers were killed or mortally wounded, 30,000 were injured, and 10,000 were captured or missing. Immediately following the battle, most of the dead were buried in shallow graves where they fell.
In conducting research to write this post, I came across an article about the newly created Gettysburg National Cemetery, originally called Soldiers’ National Cemetery, where Lincoln would give what would come to be known as the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. I discovered that only Union soldiers were allowed to be buried in the national cemetery. When Lincoln’s immortal words “that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion . . .” Lincoln was not referring to all the men who died during that bloody three-day battle when he spoke those poignant words, but rather only the Union soldiers. In other words, to hell with the 3,903 dead Confederates.
That fall, a man named Samuel Weaver was contracted to exhume and reinter the bodies of all the Union soldiers in the new national cemetery. Weaver claimed he could identify the deceased by his underpants. If the soldier was a Confederate, he was left in place, his grave closed up again. When Weaver instructed his assistants, he made it clear that no Confederate could rest in the Union cemetery.
But Weaver made a huge mistake. He failed to take into account the Confederate soldiers who were injured when they were captured. Those soldiers were subsequently treated in Union hospitals set up in Gettysburg. The men would have been bathed and dressed in clean Union underpants and clothes. The soldiers who succumbed to their injuries were buried on the battlefield with their comrades. And then along came Weaver, who mistook a handful of Confederate soldiers for Yankees because they were wearing Union underpants. I expect old Samuel Weaver is rolling over in his own grave because of his colossal blunder.
According to the National Park Service, as many as eleven Confederate soldiers were accidently buried among their Yankee adversaries in the new national cemetery. There is no rhyme or reason as to where the Confederates were laid to rest, but according to the ranger I spoke with, he said they believed that either the crudely made grave markers, most written in pencil, had faded to the point it was sometimes difficult to read the name of state the soldier was from, or a state abbreviation was misinterpreted. Based on this, there are three Confederate soldiers from either North or South Carolina buried in the Connecticut section; one Maryland Confederate buried in the Maryland section (at least they got that one right); three Mississippi Confederates buried in the Massachusetts section; and two Georgians, one Mississippian, and one Virginian interred among the Yankees in the Pennsylvania section. The NPS also believes that at least one Confederate soldier is buried in one of the Unknown sections. Many of the headstones list only a company and/or regiment, and some are blank. Sadly, it is impossible to know exactly where the Confederate graves are located.
Beginning in 1871, an effort to relocate the Confederate remains buried on the battlefield was initiated by the Wake County Ladies Memorial Association in North Carolina. Similar associations in South Carolina and Georgia soon followed suit. A man named Dr. Rufus Weaver was contracted to supervise the removal of the Confederate dead. This was a daunting task, given the forlorn condition of the battlefield graves and the loss of grave markers, many of which had not been maintained or cared for by the farmers upon whose land the graves were located.
It is believed that the remains of 150-200 Confederate soldiers are still buried on the battlefield. If you visit a certain part of the battlefield on a winter’s day when the ground is bare, you can see the telltale signs of depressions where the ground has settled into the graves below.
The National Park Services has left the bodies buried because current archaeological practice in all national parks is to disturb as little as possible, so that future generations will have intact sites available for study.
On a final note, today is Memorial Day. It is the day we set aside each year to remember and honor those who died while serving in the United States Armed Forces. Harry and I visited the Gettysburg National Cemetery this morning to honor all of the Civil War soldiers who died in the service of their respective countries. The cemetery is divided into twenty-two sections, including one section for U.S. Regulars, three sections for Unknown soldiers, and a section for each of the eighteen Union states who lost men during the Battle of Gettysburg. A granite marker identifies each section, along with the number of bodies buried there. Miniature American flags were placed in front of each marker in honor of Memorial Day. In the four sections where there are known Confederate soldiers—Connecticut, Maryland, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania—I took the liberty of tying a grey ribbon around each of the tiny flag poles placed in front of the markers where Confederate soldiers are buried. It seemed only right that the eleven Rebels buried in a Union cemetery because of a fluke, should be honored for their ultimate sacrifice, despite the fact that Abraham Lincoln did not see fit to do so.
Note: During our visit to Gettysburg, we are staying at Drummer Boy Camping Resort. I use the term “resort” loosely. This is an older campground with outdated facilities. The campground is large, with over 500 sites, many of them occupied by permanent residents. Few roads in the campground connect, forcing you to drive from one section to another on the main (private) road that runs the length of the campground. Even some of the sites are laid out oddly. Our site is literally at the end of a road that dead ends into another road. Another campsite sits on a short road that serves as an exit to RVers in our section. The only plus side to Drummer Boy is that it is located about two miles from the Gettysburg National Military Park Museum & Visitors Center. On a scale of 1 to 5, I’d give the campground a 2, and that is being generous.