Originally published on forbes.com on July 4, 2013.
The Valley of Death "Battlefield Experience" program on July 2, more than any other event, illustrates the downside of attending sesquicentennial events on the more or less exact time. Oddly enough, some of the difficulties may have made the experience a bit more authentic.
The Lay of The Land
If you spend a little time at Gettysburg, you will find that it is relatively easy to orient yourself, when you are on the high ground. You can start walking in a more or less southerly direction form the vicinity of the "high water mark" past numerous Union monuments of all sizes and descriptions including the cathedral- like Pennsylvania monument. Looking roughly West, the larger Confederate monuments to Virginia and North Carolina are visible far across the field. Eventually the paths jog West as you go over or around the Round Tops and you are eventually on West Confederate Avenue going roughly North on Seminary Ridge. Stand by the Virginia or North Carolina monument and look across the upward sloping field divided by a fence and think about jogging across that field with lead raining on you from three directions, mostly from people behind that stone wall, but that is Day 3.
Valley of Death
On Day 2, much of the action was among the woods and rocks in the southern part of the field. It is very easy, at least for me, to get totally disoriented down there. CV and I managed to get to Devil's Den a bit before the Valley of Death program was starting. This was the one event where numbers overwhelmed the Park Service. Ranger Jim Flook divided us into two groups to take two different routes. My new found friends from the Gettysburg Geek Group coached us to stick with Ranger Flook to go through Devil's Den. The crowd of 500 or so climbed up through a narrow gap between the boulders that a Texas veteran of the battle had described as being as big as meeting houses. The fellow had also thought Little Round Top was very steep. He was obviously somebody from very flat country with small buildings, but to be fair, we did not have to climb Little Round Top under fire from the 20th Maine and green-clad United States Sharpshooters, who must have been nearly invisible to soldiers used to fighting in the open. The Sharpshooters added much to Confederate confusion on that day.
Ranger Flook gave us a good sense of the confusion and intense fighting in that part of the field. He was hampered a bit by sound equipment that was not well scaled to the crowd. This was compounded by one of the few exceptions I noted to the almost universal politeness of sesquicentennial participants of all descriptions. Somebody was standing not very far, certainly not nearly far enough, from Ranger Flook, talking on a cell phone, until someone in the crowd chased him away. Ranger Flook explained to us the difficulty that historians have in pinpointing the exact sequence of events in this area of the battle, by quizzing the crowd on how well their modern digital watches were synchronized and trying to imagine what it would be like quizzing veterans years after the event. The few of them that had watches had better things to do than look at them and witnessed things much more memorable than noting the time.
Next came the only logistical miscalculation that I noted through all the time I have been here. In order to get to the trolley path that would bring us to the Wheatfield, we had to go over a stone wall. It was a bit daunting for the elderly among us, including myself, and not at all a good experience for the wall, which was left in need of some repair. As General Hood, who had wanted to go the right, noted it was not good ground around there.
The Devil To Pay
Sound system difficulties and CV's waning patience with battle narrative influenced us to desert the unit, but we more than made up for it by the fascinating people that we encountered. On the trolley path we chatted a bit with the two women walking behind us. They had met at the bed and breakfast where they were staying. It reminded me of a few of the opportunistic alliance I have made when visiting historic sites. One of them agreed with CV that the problem with Doris Kearns Goodwin speech was that it was too much about Doris Kearns Goodwin. Probably, another person who did not listen to Imus, as much as I did.
CV thought that by bailing from the barely audible Wheatfield talk, we would have an edge getting on the shuttle bus. I totally blew that plan, because I could not leave without visiting the Irish Brigade monument, which in my total disorientation, I could have had a hard time finding without help. Fortunately General John Buford (Michael D. Smith) was happy to direct me. There were quite a few Union generals wandering the battlefield playing havoc with synchronicity. General Buford was only a few miles out of place. They are interpreters, rather than re-enactors. They belong to organizations such as the Confederation of Union Generals and make no pretense of being in command of the much more numerous re-enactors, enlisted men, who belong to other organizations. The flock of generals on the battlefield on Day 2 were there more as visitors. They will be going to work as interpreters during the weekend events.
I could not resist turning my request for directions into an interview that moved seamlessly between General Buford and Michael Smith. I learned from General Buford that the really important trick to a saber charge is not starting it from too far away, which can result in winded horses just when the fighting starts. Mr. Smith has never met Sam Elliot, but indicated that he drew a lot from Elliot's performance of Buford's low-key professionalism.
Mr. Smith speculated that if Buford had survived the war, he probably would have been promoted to Colonel in the Regular Army (Most of the regulars had higher war-time rank. Custer, for example, was a major-general during the Civil War and a lieutenant colonel at Little Big Horn). If Buford had assessed the post-war Army as favoring professionalism over politics, he might have stayed in. Otherwise he would have retired to take up horse breeding in Kentucky.
The Wild Geese
Lingering near the Wheatfield led to another delightful encounter. Paul Mullally, a retired urban planner from Dublin offered us the traditional tourist picture taking exchange at the iconic Wolfhound monument
There wasn't any snow. One of these days, I will figure out how to rotate pictures and get them into my posts.
Mr. Mullally is a member of the Council of the Military History Society of Ireland. Since 1600 or so, much of Irish military history is the history of Irish emigrants and exiles (wild geese) fighting in the armies of other countries, sometimes in their own units. The longest serving was probably the one in France. We had a rather free ranging conversation over many topics including my trip to Dublin where I noted that none of the public contact people were Irish. Mr. Mullally told me that during the Celtic Tiger period, they had to recruit planners from South Africa. There was an interesting interlude in which CV was quizzing Mr. Mullally about the Irish immigrant experience in America. That was kind of odd, since that is my heritage, not his.
The Irish Brigade had a really bad day in the Wheatfield which changed hands several times. Mr. Mullally and I hunted out some regimental markers, which General Buford had told me to be on the look-out for.
CV and I ate the rations we had carried as we were in line for the shuttle bus for our trip to Little Round Top. CV thought we had done enough walking by then. Little Round Top is my next post.
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