Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Guest Post from Ray: June 30th at Gettysburg

Continuing out series about Gettysburg's 150th Anniversary from Ray Beimel:

June 30th at Gettysburg
The ride and the heat of the first day helped us decide to sleep in a bit and drive into town on our second day. Our ride on Route 116 and Black Horse Tavern Road (how disappointed we were when we found out that while the building still stands, it is no longer a tavern) showed us a totally uncrowded way to get onto the battlefield. After a hearty breakfast of frozen waffles and fried eggs, we piled into Eric’s black car and headed for Devil’s Den. We were quite surprised to find open parking spots there. We climbed around the rocks in the manner of small children on our way up to the position of Smith’s New York battery of 10 pounder Parrott rifled cannon. We had quite a discussion about the wisdom of posting a battery where only 4 of the 6 guns could be placed and where it would have been tough to get the horses up in case of a withdrawal. Of course, the battery was overrun but not before one of their shells wounded General Hood which caused more confusion in what was a very confused assault.

Chris had an excellent book that showed the troop positions by 15 minute time intervals and armed with that we reviewed the early hours of Hood’s assault (which of course started later in the day, around 4 o’clock.) After that bit of geekiness, we went to investigate something that Chris told us about. Supposedly there is something carved on the top of the boulder called Elephant Rock. We boosted Eric up to see if he could clamber to the top to confirm or deny. But he was not going to get up there without protection or aid so we gave up on that quest.

Chris and Eric headed for the car while I started a conversation with a lady who had her right foot in an orthopedic boot. She was a serious walker and looked to be in good shape as she bemoaned 5 more weeks of relative immobility. She was just one of dozens of people we talked to who conversed easily and openly and in a most friendly manner. Even her husband laughed at my little jokes. Chris was “accosted” by a woman whose fiancĂ© left her alone while he did the Devil’s Den thing. She had a relative in one of the North Carolina regiments. It seemed like everyone we met had some connection to the battle.

When I arrived on Friday night, the first thing Eric offered me was a bottle of Chamberlain Pale Ale.

Since all kinds of things were left on the 20th Maine monument (Joshua Chamberlain commanded that famous regiment) we decided to leave our own remembrance. The six pack carton was cut into two pieces showing Chamberlain’s portrait. Why 2? Because we are the kind of geeks who will take the bushwhacking hike to the position of Company B while the rest of the goofers take the paved path. Before The Killer Angels was published, the 20th Maine monument was as deep in the woods as the 83rd Pennsylvania is today. Colonel Strong Vincent of Erie Pennsylvania told Chamberlain where to go and what to do but made the mistake of getting mortally wounded while Chamberlain lived to 1914.  

We even managed to find a parking space on Little Round Top, usually the second busiest place on the battlefield after the High Water Mark. As always, there were lots of people heading for the 20th Maine. We engaged some in conversation. One was the mayor of Tower City, PA. Some of the others were from Baltimore or Bawlamer, depending on who was doing the talking. One of them told me a story of more than ordinary poignancy.

He was at the High Water Mark with his brother. They were looking across the fields where Pickett’s men charged across. He said “it’s a good thing that assault failed or we would have lost the war.” His brother said, “We DID lose the war.” At that moment, more than 130 years after the war, brothers realized they were on opposite sides. This was often the case with Marylanders, then and now.

We found Company B’s monument and left a Chamberlain Pale Ale souvenir there. Then Eric made a stealthy backdoor approach to the 20th Maine to deposit the other Chamberlain portrait. You see how easily amused we are.

Then it was up to the 44th New York monument which is a miniature castle. The view from up there is one of the best on the battlefield. It also attracts a lot of interesting folks. It was also a good place to watch my 37 year old nephew gamboling about the west face Little Round Top like a beagle pup looking for a rabbit. He pointed at a monument and then gave a gesture of questioning. I shouted “16th Michigan.” He gave me a thumbs up. I surely don’t know all the regimental monuments but I have a good grip on those commanded by Strong Vincent.

The 44th New York “castle” also gives a commanding view of Devil’s Den. It certainly wasn’t a decisive part of the battlefield but it is the best place for boys and girls to scramble about without having to deal with any history.

This day we had packed sandwiches and chips for a picnic lunch. The only permitted picnic area is on South Confederate Avenue. It is off the beaten path but has the advantage of having the best restrooms on the battlefield. While visiting said facilities I passed a guy smoking in the shade wearing a polo shirt lettered for Canoe U (US Naval Academy). I spoke to him in the lingua franca of sailors, “so what’s a bleeping squid like you doing on a land battlefield.” He gave the correct reply. Turned out he was a naval reenactor and would be part of some kind of show at one of the big hotels on the east side of town. We spoke of Farragut and Porter, steam frigates and river gunboats and other such nautical stuff. It was good.

Once finished with lunch we decided to take a chance on the Visitor Center. It was incredibly busy. We did get a parking space, out in the lot that is nearest the hometown of a certain J.S. Ragman. (An explanation is available to those who ask but be aware it involves sailor talk.) We got there just as some kind of demonstration was ending. I noticed the anachronism of an elderly reenactor carrying his Coke product. He was in blue, Coke is from Atlanta. I saw the irony. And now you get to see it as well.

We went into the bookstore/gift shop in search of, well, of books. Chris and I bought Stephen Sears’ acclaimed one volume history of the battle among other things. It was packed. There was a lady there selling fudge to benefit the foundation that runs the Visitor Center. I bemoaned the lack of maple. She countered with a taste of root beer fudge. I succumbed to the temptation.

While waiting in line at the checkout, a tall Confederate reenactor was alongside me. In my brash and direct way, I asked “what unit are you in.” With a heavy indefinable (to me) European accent he replied, “14th South Carolina.” I cleverly responded, “You’re not from around here, are you?” He said he was from Belgium and indicated that the elderly man ahead of me was also from Belgium. This started a conversation about why he was wearing sky blue trousers but butternut for the rest. He said he normally was a Union cavalryman. Of course, Chris heard this and entered the circle. He asked about reenacting Napoleonic battles. The Belgians said the uniforms were far too expensive, given all the gold lace. So then Chris asked “Flemish or Walloon?” The accent was too heavy for me to be sure, but the old guy was really dissing one or the other.

That was pretty much the end of our battlefield day. Bratwursts for dinner, a couple of beers, and a vain attempt to teach Eric to play Cinch finished our second day. The next day was the actual anniversary of the opening day of the battle. That tale will follow soon.

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