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Feeling the Past at Gettysburg

By Glenn W. LaFantasie
6/3/2008 • Civil War Times

Sunrise at Gettysburg. Chris Heisey, Mechanicsburg, PA.
Sunrise at Gettysburg. Chris Heisey, Mechanicsburg, PA.

Something Bruce Catton wrote many years ago about Gettysburg comes to mind every time I visit the battlefield. “The battle was here and its presence is felt,” Catton said, “and you cannot visit the place without feeling the echoes of what was once a proving ground for everything America believes in.” Although I’ve long wondered about Catton’s curious choice of words (most people hear echoes rather than feel them), I think he meant precisely what he said.

Despite the garish commercialism that for years has threatened to overwhelm the battlefield at Gettysburg, it is still possible to feel the past there. I collided with those sensations several years ago when my youngest daughter, Sarah, and I visited the battlefield on a misty day in May to conduct an experi­ment in the style of historians Francis Parkman and Samuel Eliot Morison, who insisted on visiting the places they wrote about. I hoped Sarah and I could trace the route Colonel William C. Oates and the 15th Alabama took in launching their doomed attack on the afternoon of July 2, 1863, against Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on Little Round Top. The conflict between those two regiments has become legendary. But the trek I embarked on with my daughter, following in the footsteps of history, turned out to hold much more in store for both of us than I had imagined.

Like Parkman and Morison, I wanted to see the ground where history had happened. More than that, I hoped to walk the same paths Oates and his men had walked and, perhaps, gain some insight into what they might have experienced that awful—and dreadfully hot—afternoon when they tried with all their might to take a hill that, in the end, could not be taken. Sarah and I would have some advantages that Oates and his men did not, namely good footwear in the form of hiking boots and the fact that we had not already marched 25 miles from the vicinity of Chambersburg, Pa., to get to the battlefield.

Although we traveled up from Virginia, as Oates’ Alabamians and the rest of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia did in the summer of 1863, it was our trusty gas-guzzling minivan that got us to Gettysburg on a spring day when a very light rain was falling. Fourteen-year-old Sarah, brave soul, was quite willing to accompany me on this odd adventure. For one thing, she would get to miss a day of school, which made this historical expedition all the more appealing to her.

It was not our first visit to Gettysburg by any means. Since the 1950s, when I first saw the battlefield on vacations with my parents, I have returned to Gettysburg over and over again, a swallow drawn back to its Capistrano. For my wife, Donna, and me, Gettysburg is a place of fond memories. With our children (Sarah’s the youngest of three), we have visited Gettysburg many times, touring the battlefield or seeking out antiques and books in the village’s many shops. We lived at that time on a small farm in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, and the drive took only two hours.

So Sarah and I, armed with maps and photocopies of Oates’ accounts, set out to reconstruct a faded moment in history. We started where the 15th Alabama had begun its assault, on Warfield Ridge, about a mile southeast of the Round Tops. The ridge is a quiet corner of the park. In fact, I had never bothered to explore it before.

When I visited Gettysburg as a child, my family never investigated any of the remote edges of the battlefield, like Warfield Ridge. My father liked pulling the Studebaker over on the Emmitsburg Road in front of Cemetery Ridge and contemplating the famous copse of trees, the High Water Mark, where the Union army repulsed the gray tide of Pickett’s Charge on July 3, 1863. Why he was so intrigued by that landmark, I really can’t say. My recollection is that he actually knew very little about the battle. Maybe he felt an echo of the past that the rest of us in the car did not.

Or perhaps he was drawn back to that place because he realized that Gettysburg had come to mean something to me, that it had captured my imagination, despite my youth and the fact that the only thing I had ever read about the battle was a Landmark series book on Gettysburg by MacKinlay Kantor, the first chapter of which, by the way, was provocatively—and rather weirdly—titled, “Ja, the Rebels Eat Babies!”

In any event, my father kept taking the family back to Gettysburg—I’d guess at least a half dozen times during my childhood. We could make the trip in about 10 hours from our home in Rhode Island, thanks to “superhighways” like the Merritt Parkway in Connecticut and the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Often we stayed overnight in one of the many motels that still line Steinwehr Avenue, which connects the battlefield with the town. The next day we’d take the Park Service’s self-guided tour. Other times, when we were just passing through on our way to some other destination, my father would ritu­alistically pull the car over in front of the High Water Mark and stare at the small grove of trees. Then, without saying a word, he would drive on.

Almost at once Sarah and I hit an obstacle that Oates and his Alabamians didn’t encounter—a modern wire fence (since removed by the National Park Service), too high to easily climb, so we had to follow it until we reached a gate we could manage. But while we had a fence to clamber over, Oates had considerably more to worry about when his men rushed down the slopes from Warfield Ridge. For one thing, Union artillery at Devil’s Den pounded the Alabama brigade to bits as it rushed toward the Round Tops. For another thing, Oates had just sent off a detail of men, carrying the 15th Alabama’s canteens, to find water. The order to advance came before the water detail could return, so Oates and his Alabamians began their attack with a prodigious thirst that would only get worse as the afternoon wore on. “It would have been infinitely better to have waited five minutes for those twenty-two men and the canteens of water,” Oates mused after the war, “but generals never ask a colonel if his regiment is ready to move.”

As if that were not bad enough, Oates had his younger brother, John, to worry about as well. The senior Oates knew that his brother was suffering terribly from rheumatism—which had laid John low the previous spring and gotten worse over the past few months. The march to Gettysburg didn’t help, and William had told him to report to the rear on sick call. But John refused to stay behind while his regiment went into battle. “I am an officer and will never disgrace the uniform I wear,” he declared. “I shall go through, unless I am killed, which I think is quite likely.”

Plum Run
Plum Run
After clearing the fence, Sarah and I tried to approximate a Civil War quickstep, but within a few minutes we were too fatigued to keep it up. The field that carried us down into Plum Run valley, in the shadow of Big Round Top, was furrowed and contained the stubble of last year’s corn crop. After that we came over a low ridge and entered a thicket of brambles, tangled nettles and thistles. Every few feet we had to stop to help each other unsnag our clothes.

Despite the historical maps I carried, we actually had only a general idea of where we were headed. Oates and his men must have experienced the same feeling. We could no longer see the Round Tops in front of us, nor could we see Warfield Ridge behind us. All we could see were the tops of trees.

We came through a woodlot and emerged into a large, marshy field. It was here, before the 15th Alabama reached Plum Run at the base of Big Round Top, that Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law galloped up to Oates and told him to “hug the base of Great Round Top and go up the valley between the two mountains.” When Oates found the Union left flank, Law said, his Alabamians were to turn the flank and “do all the damage” they could. If the 15th Alabama and the 47th Alabama to its left became separated from the rest of the brigade, Law told Oates to assume command over both regiments.

Slyder Farm
Slyder Farm
As Sarah and I stood at that spot, our feet getting wet in the soggy meadow, we could see ahead of us and off to the left some 300 yards or so a group of stone and wooden farm buildings—the Slyder farm—which stood there during the battle. This is a pristine pocket of the battlefield, and it is not hard to imagine how things actually looked 140-some years ago, when the Slyders evacuated their homestead, leaving the buildings standing as silent sentinels to the approaching Confederate waves. Hopping from one tuft of grass to the next to avoid the mire, we soon reached the banks of Plum Run, a small stream running through a deep cut that divided the Slyders’ fields from the wooded base of Big Round Top.

The stream gave us pause. The cut was too wide to jump, the run was too deep to ford without soaking our feet. Oates, standing in the same place, didn’t have the time or leisure to contemplate his next move. As his lines approached Plum Run, a sudden ripple of musket fire, coming from under the trees on the steep slopes of Big Round Top, caught him and his men off guard. From behind a stone wall on the opposite side of the creek, the 2nd U.S. Sharp Shooters sent a volley into the Alabamians.

Oates swiftly moved his men across the stream—no worries about wet feet—and led them forward toward the saddle between the two hills. Another volley from the Yankees, dressed in their distinctive green uniforms, convinced Oates that he could not leave this Federal force on his flank or in his rear, so he ordered the 15th and 47th Alabama regiments to change direction to the right, face the stone wall and get ready to charge the enemy. As the Alabamians moved into position, the Union sharpshooters decided they couldn’t possibly hold back two Confederate regiments, so they quickly withdrew from the wall, dispersing into the woods.

Slyder Farm with Big Round Top beyond
Slyder Farm with Big Round Top beyond
Sarah and I crossed Plum Run via a dilapidated wooden bridge downstream, inching across its rotting beams. The drizzle had stopped, the day was getting slightly warmer, and we now faced our most formidable challenge: scaling the steep, rocky slopes of Big Round Top.

On July 2, Oates responded quickly to the sharpshooters’ withdrawal by ordering the regiments under his command to pursue the Federals up the hill. For Oates and his men, and for us trying to follow in their footsteps, that climb was no cakewalk. After the war, Oates remembered: “In places the men had to climb up, catching to the rocks and bushes and crawling over the boulders in the face of the fire of the enemy, who kept retreating, taking shelter and firing down on us from behind rocks and crags which covered the side of the mountain.”

Without dodging Minié balls, Sarah and I had a hard enough time just pushing our way through the natural barriers of brambles, fallen limbs, downed trees, exposed roots and huge rocks—boulders that Oates described as being more plentiful than “grave-stones in a city cemetery.” He later reported that many of his men fainted while climbing the hill. We didn’t faint, although we had to stop every 50 yards or so to catch our breath. Passing through a large clearing where today there is a monument to the 1st Vermont Cavalry, we veered a bit toward Big Round Top’s southern slopes, crossed a modern park road, entered woods again, then came upon something we hadn’t expected to find: a high, jagged cliff. Oates never mentioned the cliff, but he and his men must have encountered it, just as we had done—by complete surprise. Huffing and puffing, Sarah and I went straight up the precipice, with me leading the way and often reaching back to pull her up the rock face.

So far our attempt to feel the past at Gettysburg had produced only one sensation: exhaustion. We kept going, however, watching as the sky above the trees became noticeably brighter, and finally we reached the summit—a broad, rocky crest with a view that is now obscured by high oak trees and foliage. Grateful for not having to climb another foot, we sat down on a massive slab of shale, the highest rock formation on the hilltop, near where a steel observation tower used to stand. While we rested, I read aloud Oates’ account of reaching the summit.

View from Big Round Top
View from Big Round Top
Standing on this “highest point of rocks,” he had a clear view of Little Round Top just below him; he could see all the way to Gettysburg, three miles to the north, and could hear the sounds of battle rising from below the hill. While Oates gave his men 10 minutes or so to recover from their climb, a staff officer approached the summit and told Oates that his Alabamians had gone off course by climbing to Big Round Top’s crest and that they must come off the hill immediately and assault the Union left. Oates thought Big Round Top was strategically important, a “key-point on the field,” and he urged the officer to allow him to hold that position until Confederate artillery could be moved to the top. The staff officer informed Oates that he had no authority to alter General Law’s orders; the Alabamians, he said, must “press on, turn the Union left, and capture Little Round Top, if possible, and … lose no time.”

Oates knew his duty, and he called for his men to re-form their ranks. Coming down the hill would be a challenge. To avoid a cliff on the height’s northern face, Oates “caused both regiments to face to the left and [they] moved to the left, so as to avoid the precipice in our front.” What this meant, as Sarah and I found out, was that the Alabamians had to backtrack about 50 yards, come around the edge of the cliff and scramble down through boulders until they reached solid ground at the base of the precipice. Oates must have then re-formed his lines and advanced down the heavily wooded northern slope of the hill. Sarah and I followed their route, stumbling through the thick woods, admiring the jack-in-the-pulpits sprinkled across the forest floor, and rejoicing that the walk down was nothing like the climb up.

When Oates’ men emerged from the woods into the narrow valley that divides Big Round Top and Little Round Top, they were greeted by a heavy rolling volley from above, and Oates for the first time saw in front of him the men of the 20th Maine, crouched behind piled rocks and boulders and trees, about halfway up the craggy slopes of Little Round Top. It was, he later said, “the most destructive fire I ever saw.” All along the gray lines, the men of the 15th Alabama and the 47th Alabama crumpled to the ground, dead and wounded, but the lines closed up, filling the gaps, and the Alabamians returned the enemy fire “most spiritedly.”

20th Maine Monument
20th Maine Monument
Sarah and I came out of the woods and found ourselves on the spot where Oates and his men were surprised by volley fire. Across a paved park road and about halfway up the slope of Little Round Top, we could see the white granite monument of the 20th Maine, perched atop a rock ledge, near the spot where Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain had placed his colors. In 1863 the terrain was different than it is now, for the southern slope of Little Round Top was altered considerably when the park roads were constructed around 1900. Today a small parking area has been carved out of the hillside below the 20th Maine monument.

Standing at the edge of the woods, I told Sarah how the Alabamians struggled with Chamberlain’s 20th Maine for possession of this hill. Oates, I explained, had determined that the weakest point in the Union line was its left flank. So he tried to maneuver his Alabamians to the right to roll up the Federal defensive line.

Chamberlain, seeing the threat, re-fused his line—a tactical step by which he formed a salient by extending his front. For an hour the bloody battle raged up and down these rocky ledges and treacherously steep slopes. Five times Oates drove his men against the Union defenders. Each time the Confederate colonel was in front of the advancing men, waving his sword in one hand and holding his pistol in the other. The battle front, he later remembered, surged back and forth like a wave.

While Oates directed the fighting on his right, desperately attempting to swing around the Union left, the battle over on his own left wing was going just as badly. On this flank his men were caught in deadly crossfire. Years later he described the slopes of the hill as being “soaked with the blood of as brave men as ever fell on the red field of battle.”

Along this left wing of the 15th Alabama, amid the boulders and the trees, Lieutenant John Oates urged his men forward. He was no longer on horseback, having abandoned his mount before crossing Plum Run, and he moved his men steadily up the hill and over the rocks. Along this section of the line, below the ledges where the Maine monument stands today, he and his men could find little cover. Suddenly plunging fire came down the hill, and John Oates fell with seven bullet wounds. A fellow officer quickly pulled him between two huge boulders.

Meanwhile William Oates was trying to get his men up that difficult slope. The Alabamians were running out of steam and ammunition by then. There was no time for Oates to care for his wounded brother; precious little time, even, to decide what he should do next.

His officers urged him to retreat, but Oates hesitated. A flaming volley of musket fire from the rear made up his mind for him, and he turned around to see a detachment of Union soldiers—including Company B of the 20th Maine and remnants of the sharpshooters the 15th Alabama had earlier chased up Big Round Top—firing from behind a stone wall.

Outflanked, low on ammunition, his casualties mounting and a portion of the enemy now in his rear, Oates realized he had no choice but to withdraw. He called out the order at a crucial moment. As he did so, while the crashing clamor of battle drowned out his words, Chamberlain—who was also facing heavy losses and depleted ammunition—ordered a bayonet charge.

The 20th Maine came rolling like a rockslide down the hill, striking the disorganized Alabamians as they were trying to pull back and begin their own retreat. The collision was tremendous—and disastrous for Oates and his men. Oates put it as plainly as he could: “We ran like a herd of wild cattle.” He could not rescue John. Young Lieutenant Oates was left behind, dying in a crevice between two boulders.

We stood there for a long time, Sarah and I, just looking at the 20th Maine monument. We were alone at the base of Little Round Top. Everything was still, except for a few songbirds and the faint sounds of water dripping off the leaves in the woods. Then Sarah asked, “Can you feel that?” I had no idea what she was talking about, and I told her so. “I can feel something,” she said. When I asked her what it was, she shrugged and looked puzzled. “I thought for sure you would have felt it,” she asserted, but she couldn’t describe it. It was something intangible, like a fog or a shadow. She said it made her feel sad. But beyond that she couldn’t put a name to what she had just experienced.

Later, when I recalled this odd moment, I unexpectedly started making connections between what Sarah had felt at Little Round Top and what I had once experienced many years earlier, when I visited Gettysburg alone as a high school student during spring break. My father had died the previous autumn. It was during that visit, when the dogwood was in full bloom and the robins were darting from tree to tree, that I believe I felt for the first time what Sarah experienced.

On a cloudy April day so many years before, I had walked almost the entire length of the battlefield. Toward late afternoon, I ended up on Little Round Top, standing beside the 20th Maine monument. I knew next to nothing about the regiment and its commander. I certainly knew nothing about William Oates, his brother John, and the luckless 15th Alabama. So I stood in front of the monument, reading the names of all the Maine soldiers who had defended this hill.

All at once, a wave of emotion came crashing over me, and I felt remarkably connected to these courageous Maine boys. I pondered all the lost souls. I wondered about the poor families whose lives were shattered when they learned they had lost loved ones on a rocky Pennsylvania hillside. I thought about how those families must have felt cheated, bereft and alone. And then I thought about my own father, buried on a grim hilltop in Rhode Island. It was then—more than at any time since his unexpected death at 46—that I understood how much I missed him.

Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment
Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine Regiment
So what, precisely, had Sarah felt at Little Round Top? Perhaps she had encountered the lingering spirits of William and John Oates, Joshua Chamberlain and all the men of Maine and Alabama who fought like demons for possession of this little hill. Chamberlain, following one of his own visits to Little Round Top after the war, wrote: “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear; but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls. And reverent men and women from afar, and generations that know us not and that we know not of, heart-drawn to see where and by whom great things were suffered and done for them, shall come to this deathless field, to ponder and dream, and lo! the shadow of a mighty presence shall wrap them in its bosom, and the power of the vision pass into their souls.” Perhaps Sarah had even felt the trace of my own sadness from many years before, when I had come to this place and found something I missed, something I had lost. There is something about Little Round Top that makes it hard not to think about sacrifice, loss and death.

A few weeks after the battle Oates learned of John’s death and met a Union courier who, under a flag of truce, returned his brother’s personal effects—a gold watch, a little money and a small bloodstained book.

Not until July 1910 did William Oates learn that John’s body had been removed from Gettysburg in the early 1870s and laid to rest in Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond. After years of searching, William had finally located his lost brother. Two months later, he died at the age of 77. His Gettysburg nightmare was at last over.

Sarah and I left Gettysburg that evening before sundown, driving south along the Emmitsburg Road, which took us past Warfield Ridge one last time. Just for a moment, I pulled the car over onto the shoulder. There in the gathering twilight we could see Big Round Top, its dark form silhouetted against the sky. We stayed long enough to watch the outline of the hill fade in the falling darkness. Then, without saying a word, I pulled the car back on the road and headed for home.

Our pasts are locked up inside us. Sometimes, when we least expect it, they come spilling forth and intersect with other parts of our lives. On this day of discovery in Gettysburg, Sarah and I happened on several converging pasts, not all of them our own. Our journey had brought us both to a personal understanding of some of the many meanings of Gettysburg.

The past is not always tangible or even knowable. But sometimes it can be seen, and every now and then it can be felt. On a misty spring day, across the lush fields and hills of Gettysburg, my daughter and I felt far-reaching echoes of our history.

Glenn W. LaFantasie, the Richard Frockt Family Professor of Civil War History at Western Kentucky University, is the author of Gettysburg Heroes: Perfect Soldiers, Hallowed Ground, published in March 2008 by Indiana University Press.

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