Intrepid tourists retrace Confederates' final steps in Battle of Gettysburg
GETTYSBURG -- Marty Bryant took his place near the left flank of Gen. Lewis Armistead's brigade, his tall, lean form not far from where Asa Jones, a relative, stood exactly 150 years earlier.
On the steamy ground around Bryant gathered a great mass of tourists and reenactors, students and teachers, jubilant shouters and quiet contemplators, the young and curious, and the old and courageous. Many, like Bryant, wanted to see what their ancestors had seen a century-and-a-half earlier during Pickett's Charge, the final conflict of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863, and the last time the South invaded the North.
More than 12,000 Confederates charged across nearly a mile of undulating, open field on July 3, 1863, led by Gen. George Pickett into a hail of fire from the Union line entrenched on the high ground of Cemetery Ridge. More than half were wounded, killed or captured, bringing the three-day battle's total to 51,000 casualties.
On Wednesday, about 15,000 people crossed the same field while up to 25,000 others watched, according to National Park Service estimates, to commemorate Pickett's Charge, an emotional high point of the Gettysburg National Military Park's observance of the 150th anniversary of the battle. The anniversary tribute, which includes reenactments off the battlefield, is expected to draw up to 200,000 people to this small town.
The cannonade during Pickett's Charge -- possibly the war's largest – is said to have rattled windows as far as Hanover, 13 miles away.
Burnell Forney, 85, of Lititz remembers his great-grandfather telling him about hearing the sound as an 8-year-old boy living east of Lancaster, more than 50 miles away.
“It sounded like distant thunder. Perhaps at first, they thought it was,” said Forney, who came with his son, Ernie Forney, 57, of Indianapolis.
Ernie Forney first walked this field four years ago, and marveled at the uneven terrain the Confederates traversed, particularly the final, brutal uphill charge into cannon and rifle fire.
“To keep walking – what does that take? What makes you do that?” said Ernie Forney, of Indianapolis.
Marchers massed where the Confederate brigades began their assault 150 years ago, gathering under blue flags bearing the names of generals including Armistead, Richard Garnett and James Kemper.
Park ranger Bill Hewitt walked the line for Armistead's brigade, past Bryant and his son, Nick, both of Manassas Va., and Marty's parents, C.C. and Anne of Appomattox, Va., barking orders at tourists: “Move to the rear!” “Form new flanks!” To late arrivals who tried to snag a spot in the front line: “Don't worry about being in front; they're going to get killed.”
His line formed more than 10 deep and 100 yards wide, the thousands of people in it ranging in age from babies to people in their 80s. At 3:09, after the first groups had already begun marching, Hewitt yelled, “Left face!” followed moments later by “Forward march!” which the crowd answered with whoops and hollers.
The sharp scrub grass near the tree line age way to muddy swales, several species of thorned plants and poison ivy mingled in the soft, tall, brown grass at the foot of Cemetery Ridge. They scaled fences of weathered gray wood and fought to stay upright in patches of rough, pitted turf hidden beneath the overgrowth.
Somewhere just past the middle of the field, history caught up with Tim English. His family ties to the town run deep; his grandparents owned a shoe store in Gettysburg that served President Dwight Eisenhower after he retired here, and they attended the dedication of the Peace Light Memorial in 1938 at the 75th anniversary commemoration of the battle while his grandmother was pregnant with his mother, said English, 46, who lives in Washington, D.C.
He returned to maintain his family's presence in a town that remains inextricably bound to those three bloody days in July. English, who visited Normandy two weeks ago, choked up as he contemplated the fates of those in whose steps he walked.
“There is only one Gettysburg,” he said. “This is hallowed ground.”
That ground rose up before the crowds, who stopped at the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge beyond which few Confederates passed, and from which fewer still returned.
“I read the Union fired 150,000 projectiles at them. One of them found Great-Grandfather (Benjamin Franklin) Little,” said Jim Hendrix, 71, of Cashiers, N. C.
He stood at the pink granite marker where the 26th North Carolina Infantry Regiment finally stopped after losing 90 percent of its soldiers during three days.
The spot represents to some the high-water mark of the Confederacy; it's the farthest Southern troops advanced on their final invasion of the North. After the march, several reenactors of the regiment stood beside each other, weeping openly, then knelt for a prayer.
As the crowd reached the stone wall marking the Union line, Marty Bryant stood near its front, still close to Armistead's flag, and listened as a lone trumpeter played Taps. The crowd, including thousands more who'd watched the march from the Union side of the wall, fell silent during the mournful tune. As it ended, another bugler down the line started playing it anew, with at least two more after that, each version fading louder or quieter depending on a person's place in the long line.
After the last notes floated away in the humid air, Bryant marveled at the gentle end to this march orchestrated by the National Park Service.
“We're ages newborn to 80, and they're all out here participating,
commemorating,” Bryant said. “What an appropriate way to do it. You're not crossing the line. You're stopping. You're showing unity.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at (412) 320-7900 or firstname.lastname@example.org.