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Battle 'aftermath' sheds perspective on Gettysburg

| Saturday, July 6, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Ken Williams is the featured speaker at July's California University of Pennsylvania's Civil War Roundtable. He will discuss the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Ken Williams is the featured speaker at July's California University of Pennsylvania's Civil War Roundtable. He will discuss the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Flies. More flies than one could literally shake a stick at. That's an inkling of what townspeople remembered.

As the 150th anniversary of the Civil War's tide-turning Battle of Gettysburg drew nearly 200,000 visitors to the famed battleground last week, renewed discussions once again focused on the participants. Not merely the numbers of soldiers who fought in the searing heat, but the prominent names who held prominent roles in the battle, those who lived up to expectations, those who did not.

Among those Confederate leaders were Gen. Robert E. Lee, and generals James Longstreet, Richard S. Ewell, Ambrose P. Hill and George E. Pickett, among others. Union forces were led by Gen. George G. Meade, with Lancaster, Pa., native Gen. John Reynolds the highest-ranking officer on either side killed at Gettysburg. Among other Union generals at the battle were Abner Doubleday, Winfield S. Hancock and Daniel E. Sickles.

Confederate causalities have been estimated at approximately 28,000 dead, wounded and/or missing out of 75,000 total troops who gathered, some for the final time, in the small Pennsylvania town, while Union casualties numbered 23,000 out of 88,000 total soldiers. More than 27,000 were wounded, and many were cared for in private homes, barns or field hospitals. When the smoke cleared, doctors traveled with the armies to fight again, but a few hundred doctors remained to care for the wounded.

These issues dominate conversations today “in part because this is the 150th anniversary of the battle, and people are generally interested in the drama of the battle, the generals, things they learned about in school or aspects that are more in the forefront of discussions about the battle,” said Ken Williams, featured speaker at the California University of Pennsylvania Civil War Roundtable on Thursday. “But many of those same people who want to talk about the military aspects may or may not walk the battlefield and neglect to understand the ramifications regarding the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg. That aftermath is something we generally don't think about. We think, talk and write about the battle, who fought, who won, but most people do not focus on the aftermath that affected the town and townspeople and the nation.”

Williams, who has previously presided over CalU Roundtable discussions about the battles of Antietam and Cedar Mountain, notes that there were 7,000 killed, and 4,000 more died from their wounds within a few weeks.

Among many historians, more pressing issues and concerns may be what happened with the dead, what happened with the wounded, what happened with the prisoners, or what about the damage to homes and property of the townspeople, Williams adds, noting that many people often overlook these aspects of Gettysburg. They often fail to hear about the aftermath.

Besides the soldiers who died on the battlefield, there were horses caught in the midst of the battle that suffered the same fate, littering the battlefield and drawing even more flies. And pools of human and animal blood attracted even more flies, adding to the stench of death, which many townspeople and those from surrounding areas said could be detected from as far away as six miles from the battlefield.

With harvest season approaching, armies trampled the fields, livestock were killed, run off or eaten, and the water supply, which consisted essentially of springs, was basically wiped out. Any water which remained was contaminated, forcing townspeople to travel six to seven miles to find a water supply, which was used for the wounded, themselves and their livestock, Williams added. Townspeople were forced to rely on the government or the army for food and other provisions. Some townspeople died from being around disease that accompanied the battle and its aftermath. Additionally, following the engagement, the battlefield was inundated by scavengers looking for whatever they could find to sell.

“People think war is glorious, but pain and suffering continue long after the battle is over,” Williams, 55, said. “Death and destruction after the battle take their toll and the wounded had to be moved out of town for treatment. Because of the significance of the Battle of Gettysburg, we know more about the aftermath. Stories about what people saw and found following the battle often make people squeamish.”

With the battle raging the first three days of July 1863, Gettysburg, with a population of approximately 2,000 people, and a similar number living in Adams County around the town, did not return to a degree of normalcy until some nine months elapsed. In fact, in the days and weeks after Lee made his retreat southward, children — and adults — who made their way to the battlefield to survey the damage or to play were killed by exploding shells.

As America somberly celebrated Independence Day one day following the battle, the task of burying the dead became the responsibility of the townspeople, along with soldiers assigned to the duty.

“Northern soldiers were buried in individual graves,” Williams explained. “Those who died on the battlefield were most often buried where they fell. However, Southern soldiers were often buried in trenches and the Confederate soldiers were not disinterred until about 10 years after the battle, and many were missed for reburials.”

Civil War enthusiasts will meet in the university's Natali Student Center, Rooms 206 and 207, with the Roundtable set for 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., with doors opening at 6:30 p.m. For additional information, email or call 412-417-1516.

Williams, incidentally, comes to the Roundtable with impressive credentials. A graduate of Gettysburg College with a degree in history, Williams served several years with the National Park Service at Gettysburg as a ranger and, since his retirement as Director of Accounts Receivable and Financial System Administrator for Family Services of Western Pennsylvania, is currently a guide at Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater estate on Bear Run. Williams is also a Union Civil War re-enactor, having risen to the rank of First Sergeant.

Additionally, Williams has a direct battlefield connection to Gettysburg: his great-great-grandfather, Walter Williams, who began his military career with the 11th Pennsylvania as a drummer boy and rose to the rank of sergeant, was captured during the first day at Gettysburg but released the next day. He served until the war's end and died in 1919.

Les Harvath is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

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