Echoes of Battle

Honored Dead

Experimental Solo Bike Tour Day 3

Consumer Alert! This post contains some Civil War Geekery.  While every attempt has been made to keep such material to a minimum readers should enter at their own risk.

Today offered me the chance to do something I’ve wanted to do since I first visited the Gettysburg battlefield as an adult many years ago: ride around the battlefield on a bike.

Because we live in an auto-supremacist culture the park is, naturally, set up to be primarily a car-based experience, as so many of the Civil War battlefields in fact are.  The park map emphasizes the auto route and the various stops are designed to highlight significant aspects of the battle.  There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  But as my partner and I pretty quickly discovered, the most rewarding way of gaining an understanding of the battle is to walk the field.  You understand very quickly that while battle accounts are, in the classic mold, filled with tales of shot and shell, the average soldier’s experience of a battle was one where everything was framed by the terrain.  A small rise that you would barely notice driving past in a car could have shielded soldiers from enemy fire just long enough to get close enough to put a devastating volley into them.  Setting your battery up in a boulder-strewn area means the amount of shrapnel flying around you is going to be amplified when the enemy’s counter-battery fire starts arriving.

However, most people don’t have days to walk around the battlefields in this way–and neither did I.  Therefore biking seemed to be a useful way of combining both experiences.  Every cyclist knows how much more of the world you experience on the bike, although I confess that that has to some degree dropped out while I have been doing triathlon.  Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some enjoyable training rides!  But the primary purpose of those rides was training, and that militated against random stops, stopping for too long, wandering off route to explore some intriguing byways (as opposed to the more usual experience of wandering off route and standing in some scenic byway staring at your phone trying to figure out where you’ve taken a wrong turn).  I discovered this rambling aspect to cycling again when a few friends, Mary and I had done a small whisky distillery tour last October, riding with only a vague destination in mind, no particular time pressure, no definite route.  And the casual pace associated with randonneuring had bought some of that back.

But even randonneuring is still a far cry from the situation that faced me as I crawled out of my still slightly damp tent today: you have all day at your disposal, so where do you want to go?

This time I wanted to see some things I hadn’t seen before or which I had glimpsed all too briefly, plus to visit a few key sites associated with my Minnesota project.  So I started out visiting the National Cemetery, focusing on the Minnesota section.

Minnesota Section, National Cemetery

I recognized a few of the names from my reading, but only about half of the graves were marked, the rest were unknown.  Some, indeed, were even more unknown, the years having scuffed the markings on their headstones into illegibility.

Minnesota Plot, National Cemetery

The Scourge of Time

I was struck by the decision the cemetery designers had made not to provide conventional headstones, but rather simple stone markers, set only a few inches above the ground.  Officers and enlisted men are thus on the same level; the entire cemetery also comes across as a very humble, almost reticent place.  Given how thoroughly Lincoln’s characterization of these men–“these honored dead”–had colonized our popular imagination, what is striking is exactly the lack of pomp and circumstance in the burial ground.  There, is of course, a honking great centerpiece.

National Cemetery, Gettysburg

Minnesota commemorative urn in the foreground, with the National Cemetery centerpiece in the background.

But the graves themselves, in their uniformity, seemed different from the more embellished uniformity of a place like Arlington.  We stand above them, keenly aware of the physical (and emotional, and historical, and ideological) distance between us and them.  We kneel to make out the names, and pay our respects perhaps in spite of ourselves.

I was interested also to find that the Minnesota plot was one of the few in the cemetery to have its own centerpiece monument; in part this was striking because of the comparative scale: 52 graves doesn’t seem like a lot; the plots for the surrounding states are much larger, often by an order of magnitude.  Yet each of these other states had numerous regiments in the fight; Minnesota had just one.

I stopped at the visitor’s center and made a futile attempt to buy an annual parks pass.  Whether my partner and I plan on visiting a lot of parks in a particular year is irrelevant; we consider it essentially a donation to the National Parks Service which is, like many of the best things in the US, chronically underrfunded by the Federal government.  But it turns out that you can’t buy passes at parks for which no entrance fee is charged, and they don’t charge entrance fees at parks where they can’t control the access (Gettysburg has ten roads running into it, which is pretty much the reason the battle ended up being fought there in the first place).

After paying a visit to the bookstore I discovered another of the virtues of bike touring, or at least Mary would see it as a virtue: you can’t buy what you don’t have room to carry.  So I settled for a detailed topo map and a snack and headed for Culp’s Hill–after receiving some dire warnings from the ranger about how dangerous it was cycling in Gettysburg, how no one in the town was expecting to see cyclists, etc.

After a few hundred meters traveling around the Culp’s Hill route I realized that while today might be short on mileage it was going to be relatively long on climbing.  It was, after all, a battle fought over a series of hills and ridges, so do the math.  Culp’s Hill has a steel observation tower at the summit, one of a couple around the battlefield.  I’d always driven past them thinking that they wouldn’t add much to my understanding of anything.  But he, I thought to myself this time, you are relaxed, on tour, taking in the sights, doing something different. . .  Turns out, I was right the first time.  Culp’s Hill is heavily wooded, so from the top you can see. . .heavily wooded stuff.  And in the distance, some buildings.  And more woods.  And places without woods.  It wasn’t particularly compelling.  I’m guessing that these towers date from the same period as the ones that used to hover above the Angle, the climactic point of Pickett’s charge.  That one at least would have given you a very different perspective.  Unfortunately, instead of erecting a simple viewing platform at that site, folks back in the day put up the kind of monstrous desecratory eyesore that assures you that somewhere in close proximity will be one of those machines where you can turn a penny into a cheesey medallion.  Thankfully the Parks Service was finally able to get the structure blown up, or shot into space or some such.

Yet the question of “views,” of what you could see from a given perspective, caused me to think about something else I’d noticed when biking in yesterday: how small the central part of the battlefield really is.  It may seem big when you first see it, but then mentally populate it with thousands of men, enough men in fact to constitute a reasonable sized city, and cannons, and wagons, and limbers, and thousands of horses, and suddenly the space seems to small to contain all that.  The battle of Gettysburg looms large in our imaginations so we tend to feel perhaps that the field must also.

I successfully traversed the center of Gettysburg township without getting nailed by any irate or clueless citizens and made my way out to the East Cavalry Field.  (One thing to be said for this area, most of the roads traversing the battlefield have wide shoulders and even outside the battlefield the busy roads I used also had rideable shoulders, which put them one step ahead of most comparable roads in Virginia).  The Cavalry Field is a place I had never visited before; in fact, no one seems to go there.  I saw one car the whole time I was there, which is a shame because the site represents a pivotal moment in the battle, maybe even the pivotal moment.  Not many people know that one of the things that made Lee’s (in)famous Pickett’s charge not a wholly dumb idea is that it was designed to coincide with an attack by a large force of cavalry, commanded by his ever reliable favorite, J.E.B. Stuart, smack in the rear of the Union line.  Nothing routs an army faster than being shot at from and front and behind.  Instead, Stuart’s men were checked and then driven back by a much smaller force of Union cavalry.  It was also on this field, in this action, that George Armstrong Custer secured his reputation.  The man certainly knew how to make the most of a dramatic moment, but no one disputes the fact that he was brave.  Standing in his stirrups, flourishing his saber, he yelled “Forward, you Wolverines” and led his 5th Michigan in a counter-charge against Stuart’s final all-out assault.  The bloody hand-to-hand fighting that ensued stopped the Confederates long enough for other Union troops to flank them left and right and drive them back.  Substantially outnumbered, Union cavalry had defeated one of the finest cavalry commanders the world has produced and, in the process, arguably handed Lee his own arse.

People are still decidedly ambivalent about Custer, which perhaps explains why other generals get a paved "Avenue" but Custer gets a grassy lane.

People are still decidedly ambivalent about Custer, which perhaps explains why other generals get a paved “Avenue” but Custer gets a grassy lane.

There is little trace of this struggle now, even less so than of the violence in the other parts of the field.  It is instead classic Pennsylvania countryside: rolling, serene, with fine gradations of color, still occupied by working farms.

Monument to the Fifth Michigan, Custer's unit, at the East Cavalry Field

Monument to the Fifth Michigan, Custer’s unit, at the East Cavalry Field

And that last fact got me thinking again about something I’ve mulled over a lot recently: the effect of war on civilians.  Civil War battles are often discussed as if they took place on a conveniently vacated stage: this despite the fact that the names of the owners of small farms are etched in memory: Miller, Rose, Piper, Trostle, Henry, Matthews.  Most, but certainly not all, civilians fled the fighting but then came back straight away.  And came back to what?  Much of the fighting on the cavalry field took place around the Rummel Farm.  According to the guide pamphlet, after the battle Rummel had to find a way to dispose of 30 dead horses from the lane behind his house.  Now the disposal of a single dead horse is no small undertaking.  But thirty?  And if modern artillery made a mess of men, what it did to horses was often indescribable.  Yet imagine all the other stuff that goes with nearly 10,000 men on horseback rampaging back and forth over your farm.  The crops trampled, the fences (both stone and timber) dismantled or destroyed completely.  The shit.  The graves of the men hastily and ineptly dug, now located on your land. . .what do you do with them?  The occasional over-looked body: the man who fell in an out-of-the-way spot, or who crawled away to die in the shade of nearby woods. . .bodies that you will be discovering weeks or months later.  Neither army is going to compensate you for that.  Neither government is going to pay reparations.

Earlier in the day I’d ridden by Meade’s headquarters which I’d drive by a a couple of times previously.  This time I noticed signs saying that it had also been a hospital.  You can imagine it as a headquarters, but a hospital?  Modest doesn’t even begin to describe its size.  Positioned just down the slope behind the Union lines, the place took a couple of near misses during the massive artillery bombardment preceding Pickett’s charge.  It must have been overwhelmed with wounded, but “overwhelmed” pretty much describes every Civil War hospital site after a battle.

Meade's Headquarters

The Leister farmhouse, General Meade’s headquarters and a hospital after the battle.

Creep Monument

My vote for the creepiest monument on the battlefield (to the 11th Massachusetts)

After grabbing lunch I focused on the part of the field where the 1st Minnesota, at terrible cost, saved the entire Union army from collapse on the second day of the battle.  Plum Run, the scene of their fight, is visible if you know what you are looking for but it is a scrub infested creek bed that blends into the surrounding landscape.  (The map I’d bought earlier indicated that the area of foliage around the run is about the same now as it was then).  I am sure that most visitors to the battlefield don’t see it.  Rather they tend to, quite literally, overlook it.  From one side of the battlefield your gaze is fixed upward, on the gentle swell of Cemetery Ridge and you are mentally seeing what Pickett’s men must have seen as they stepped out of the tree line on Seminary Ridge.  From the other side your gaze is foxed on distant Seminary Ridge but more so on the intervening slaughter pens: the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field.

Plum Run

The scrubby banks of Plum Run, in the middle distance, looking toward Cemetery Ridge

That small, scrubby creek, however, is the kind of background to the stories that Civil War veterans tell.  The sweep of an entire battle is a matter for generals and historians.  But for the average soldier, your fight involved a few hundred square yards at best.  The staggering number of men killed in the near mythic Wheatfield died in a space smaller than your average Manassas McMansion.  For the 1st Minnesota, their battle would forever be the grassy slope leading down to a 100 yards or so of rocks, scrub, and boggy ground where, on a stinking hot July afternoon they fought four times their number to a standstill until there were virtually none of them left to fight.

1st Minnesota Monument.

Gypsy Rose pays her respects at the monument to the 1st Minnesota.

To finish off my tour I rode to the northern part of the battlefield, scene of the first day’s fighting.  I’ve only been there once, and then I’m pretty sure that Mary and I didn’t drive all of it.

More creepy monuments.

My nomination for the second creepiest monument on the battlefield. For me, it is the birds on the upper part that put it over the top.

But because this was part of of my attempt to see some different things (or to see some things differently) I stopped at the Eternal Peace light, which I had never done before.  This is a monument that was originally opened by FDR in a ceremony in 1938.

Eternal Peace Light Memorial.

Eternal Peace Light Memorial.

It is an interesting piece, designed to be a testament to national unity and reconciliation.  But it is also an example of the epic kind of bureaucratic delay and bungling which, still present today, threatens to drown that same national unity in a rising tide of cynicism and distrust.  Because the monument was originally proposed to be built for the 50th anniversary of Gettysburg–the one that would produce the iconic images of aged veterans from both sides shaking hands across the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge–in 1913.  Twenty-five years later the government finally managed to get it built.  Yet at the time, so great was the belief in the power of reconciliation and the nation (although as historian Gary Gallagher has shown, there are more than a few reasons to question the standard reconciliation story) that in an era with nothing like our modern transportation infrastructure, over 200,000 people were present to see FDR, and thousands more were still stranded on the roads trying to get to Gettysburg.  Sadly, the monument, like the idea it represents, is looking a little battered and stained.

Eternal Peace Light Memorial (Detail)

Repairs are Needed

I rode on up to Barlow’s Knoll, often referred to more unkindly as Barlow’s folly.  This is the place where Barlow’s ill-advised troop placement resulted in the collapse of the entire right wing of the Union army on the first day.  But what caught my eye was that adjacent to the statue of Barlow (such is the nature of war–even if you are a first-class fuck up you still get a statue erected in your honor) was a plot designated by a couple of small brown signs as the “Old Alms House Cemetery.”  I immediately wanted to know more, but there was no further signage at all (some subsequent research revealed that the Adams County Almshouse, dating from the 1820s, had been a large complex of buildings just down the slope from the cemetery; it was gradually demolished in the latter years of the twentieth-century).

Old Almshouse Cemetery

Old Almshouse Cemetery, Barlow’s Knoll, Gettysburg.

It was all a little sad, really.  These were the graves for the poorest of the poor, those who would have had no one willing or able to claim the body when they died.  Now it was as if they were being abandoned again.

Yet not quite abandoned.  Someone had placed little flags in front of the stones, many of whose inscriptions were barely legible.  But I also noticed that someone had placed coins, usually only a single penny, sometimes two, on many of the gravestones.  I didn’t know if they had been put there as part of an event, or if this might be a local tradition.  But it seemed an entirely appropriate one.  As I moved among the graves, reading the inscriptions–including one that indicated that its occupant had been a Civil War veteran–I fished in the pocked of my bike jersey, retrieved all the small change I’d accumulated, and tried to place a coin on as many of the changeless graves as I could find.

Coins left on graves.

Alms left on the graves at the almshouse cemetery.

Then it was off to visit perhaps the most genial KFC I have ever been to in order to pick up some dinner, and then back to the campground where I could look forward to a quiet evening, pleasantly free of rain.


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