On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies of the North and South faced each other across a mile of undulating farmland in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though Confederate General Robert E. Lee planned to strike the Union center early in the day, the thunderous cannonade preceding General Longstreet’s assault did not begin until 1:00 in the afternoon. If Lee had placed my wife, Victoria Zielinski, in command of the attack, things would have gotten started much sooner. Indeed, Victoria and I were up and ready to go by 9:00 AM.
Our third day at Gettysburg would be a brief affair as we were due in Philadelphia later that same day. Victoria had planned a reunion in the City of Brotherly Love with a group of her closest college sisters (Northwestern University alums, of course). Therefore, we’d have to leave the Gettysburg battlefield before the climactic action — legendary “Pickett’s Charge” — began 147 years ago. But we’d still be leaving long after the day’s fighting began.
Few remember that the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg started at dawn as Union guns opened fire in the defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. Soon afterward, Union troops drove the Rebels off the hill, and by 11 o’clock, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The third day’s battle on the Union right was over almost before it began. Undaunted, Lee was determined to attack the Union center.
Much has been made of the dispute between Lee and his “Old War Horse” General James Longstreet on the third day at Gettysburg. Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to get behind the Union army’s left flank and threaten the roads to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – thereby forcing the Union army off the high ground on Cemetery Hill to give battle on ground of the South’s choosing.
Lee, however, was determined to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, Lee’s army had never failed to break the Federal lines in an all-out assault. But at Gettysburg, there was a critical difference: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals George Meade and Winfield Scott Hancock and the Army of the Potomac under their command were defending home turf. There was nowhere to run. As Hancock rode his lines that morning, he no doubt reminded every subordinate officer of the need to hold firm and give no ground to the enemy.
With the fight on Culp’s Hill essentially over, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center – to drive toward the infamous “copse of trees” at the heart of the Federal line on Cemetery Hill. Longstreet attacked with three powerful divisions, led by Generals Trimble, Pettigrew, and Pickett. The three brigades of Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.
Pickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price that afternoon: Garnett and Armistead died in Pickett’s Charge, and Kemper was severely wounded. Once again, it’s good to be reminded that general officers in those days of close combat led from the front.
Shaara does a great job of bringing the conflict between Lee and Longstreet to life – and his account of Pickett’s Charge is well worth the read. I won’t give anything away to say that Pickett’s Charge failed and that of the more than 13,000 Confederate soldiers who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward. The Union won the day – and the Battle of Gettysburg.
A little more than four months later on Thursday, November 19, 1863, President Lincoln came to the battlefield to dedicate the military cemetery — and the “few appropriate remarks” he uttered that day would cement the worldwide fame of Gettysburg for generations to come.
Secure in the knowledge that the Union would ultimately be saved, we drove east to Philadelphia to meet up with Victoria’s college mates. I left Gettysburg knowing that I would certainly be back again, perhaps in 2013 – the 150th anniversary of the battle. (Come to think of it, I’d better book our hotel room now.)
It was a glorious, sunny drive through rural Pennsylvania and we arrived in Philly with plenty of daylight left. (General Zielinski drove us hard for good reason.) We rendezvoused with our hosts in South Philly, Mary Bartlett and Roy Backes, and began the second stage of our honeymoon adventure.
Vic’s friend Mary’s husband Roy is the Production Manager of the Walnut Street Theatre – the oldest operating theatre in America. So, while Vic joined Mary, Roy, and her college roommates at the Walnut Street Theatre’s production of “Fiddler on the Roof”, I met up with my own dear NU friend, Jim McCutchen – now one of those damn Philadelphia lawyers you hear so much about. (Actually, Jim clerks for an appellate court judge. His work entails more life and death responsibility than I’d want to deal with.)
Jim showed me around the historic heart of the city, especially Independence Square, the site of Independence Hall, on Chestnut Street between 5th and 6th Streets. Every school child should know (though, alas, they probably don’t) that Independence Hall is the place where both the Declaration of Independence and the United States Constitution were born. Completed in 1753 as the Pennsylvania State House, it became the home of the Second Continental Congress from 1775 to 1783 and the site of the 1787 Constitutional Convention. It’s one thing to read about this place – it’s another thing to actually be there. It’s a pilgrimage every American should make.
The Liberty Bell is housed in a groovy new glass and steel building across the street. I don’t care for the setting. Somehow, that proud, historic bit of brass doesn’t fit its modern surroundings. The bell looks out of place, out of time, an anachronism. I’m sure that’s not the message that the Park Service intends. But while the Park Service has housed the Gettysburg Cyclorama in a setting that adds to it’s dignity and power – The Liberty Bell is diminished by the manner in which it’s exhibited. Alas. Where’s Davy Crockett when you need him?
Jim and I hoisted a few cold ones and caught up with each other (after a quarter of a century) before meeting Victoria and her NU pals at the Walnut Street Theater, where Mary’s husband Roy gave us a private backstage tour of his historic domain. The Walnut Street Theater, which has stood at the corner of Ninth and Walnut Streets for two hundred years, bills itself as the nation’s oldest theatre. If so, there must be a lot of eminent theatrical ghosts haunting the place. Roy took us all around the stage and backstage – and into a room filled with fabulous old handbills and theatrical notices.
The Walnut Street stage has seen the likes of Edwin Booth, Edmund Kean, the Barrymores, George M. Cohan, Will Rogers, The Marx Brothers, Helen Hayes, Henry Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Jane Fonda, Robert Redford, Jack Lemon, William Shatner – and the Practical Theatre’s own Louis DiCrescenzo in a long-running production of “Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?” There’s even a picture of Louis in the balcony lobby – right up there with all the other theatrical luminaries.
The next day, was July 4th – and there’s no better place to be on the Fourth than Philly. That’s what made this whole trip so special. Vic and I were at Gettysburg on the exact dates of the battle in 1863, and now, on the Fourth of July, we were headed out to the spot where the newly signed Declaration of Independence was first read aloud to the crowds outside Independence Hall in 1776.
As a group, we walked from Mary and Roy’s townhouse to Independence Square and enjoyed the sights and sounds of a Park Service July 4th ceremony complete with a male choir, a color guard, and what looked to be several dozen aged Sons and Daughters of the Americas Revolution. (A few looked to be no more than a couple years too young to have served at Lexington and Concord.)
Not far off Independence Square stands a statue called “The Signer”, representing all those brave patriots who chose to hang together rather than hang separately. However, my personal interest in the statue was magnified when I read a plaque that revealed “The Signer” was modeled after signer George Clymer of Pennsylvania. Few but historians remember George Clymer – but if, like me, your mother hails from the tiny coal country borough of Clymer, Pennsylvania – that name is far more significant. I just love connections like that: discoveries that let you know you’re in the right place at the right time.
We headed back toward Mary and Roy’s house by way of South Street. Our hosts were eager for us to see something called Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – which lay somewhere down South Street. I loved South Street right away. From the moment we started down this funky urban artery, its mix of Starbucks coffee culture, punk ethos, hippy vibes, and Rastafarian island groove captivated me. But wait, said our hosts, the best – and the grooviest – was yet to come.
After we’d walked a few blocks, we began to see what they were talking about — storefronts, buildings and alleyways adorned with glittering mosaic murals: the unique and stunning work of Philadelphia folk artist, Isaiah Zagar. I was immediately reminded of Antoni Gaudí’s work in Barcelona – and Simon Rodia’s Watts Towers in Los Angeles. (I am ashamed to say I have yet to visit the Watts Towers. See Sally Nemeth’s blog for her visit to this incredible Los Angeles art treasure.)
The transcendent highlight of our South Street trek was our exploration of Isaiah Zagar’s masterwork, Philadelphia’s Magic Gardens – a work of art that must be seen and experienced to be appreciated. We were surrounded by it, engulfed in it, and astounded by it. Like the monuments of Gettysburg, these amazing artworks by Isaiah Zagar are timeless testaments to the better angels of our nature.
Later that night, we took in the July 4th fireworks from Mary and Roy’s townhouse rooftop. But I’ll let the brilliance and color of Zagar’s art stand in for the rocket’s red glare and bombs bursting in air.