Monthly Archives: July 2010

History & Honeymoon: Part Four

“The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.”

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.

"Storm Over Gettysburg" by Mort Kuntsler. Lee and Longstreet confer before the third day's fighting.

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.

General Pickett

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.

As Victoria and I had to leave for Philadelphia before Pickett’s Charge, I refer you to The Killer Angels, Michael Shaara’s 1974 novel, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

"Lee's Old War Horse" by Mort Kuntsler. Longstreet and Lee prepare for Pickett's Charge.

"Hell for Glory" Pickett's Charge by Keith Rocco

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.

Presudent Lincoln (center, without his hat) shortly before his Gettysburg Address.

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 McCutchen, Esq. & Me

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.

NU friends and goddesses Bea Rashid, Mary Bartlett, Betsy Dowd, Jean Marie Pla and Vic in front of the Walnut Street Theatre.

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.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this 4-part account of our honeymoon journey through history.(Zagar photos by Steve Rashid. Thanks, Steve!)

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History & Honeymoon: Part Three

“My god, are these all the men we have here?”

On the morning of July 2, as we enjoyed our communal Doubleday Inn breakfast of orange juice and a tasty vegetable, egg, and cheese dish, I was particularly excited about our agenda for the day. The plan was to experience the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg by assaulting the Union positions in the Peach Orchard and on Little Round Top from the perspective of Confederate General Longstreet’s attacking infantry.

General Sickles, when he still had two legs.

The second day at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which many of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles, including Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, Union Generals Winfield Scott Hancock, Dan Sickles (Vic’s offbeat romantic antihero), Gouverneur Warren, and Strong Vincent — plus Colonel Colvill’s First Minnesota Volunteers. Some of these guys would survive the day’s brutal fighting and some would not – and at least one would survive, though not in one piece.

For the day’s campaign, Victoria and I armed ourselves with Joshua Chamberlain’s battle memoir Through Blood & Fire at Gettysburg and the volume of Battles and Leaders of the Civil War covering the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Battles and Leaders was first published as a series of articles in “The Century” magazine between 1884 and 1887. The articles were penned by Union and Confederate officers with their own personal insights, reflections, and in some cases grievances, regarding the battles they fought and the enemies they contended with – both in the opposing army and their own.

In addition, we carried a handy, little guide to the monuments and sites on Little Round Top.

BTW – You can actually read any and all of Battles and Leaders on this link. Articles on the second day at Gettysburg begin in Volume 3 on page 290. You may want to check out the article “Reply to General Longstreet” on page 355 to see how the battle was still being re-fought among veteran officers two decades after the guns fell silent at Gettysburg.

Victoria and I left the Doubleday Inn and drove west along Seminary Ridge toward Longstreet’s position on the Confederate right wing, passing the positions held by the bulk of Lee’s army at the end of the battle’s first day. On July 1, 1863 the Union forces had been driven from Seminary Ridge to the higher ground on Cemetery Ridge, nearly a mile of flat, open farmland to the south.

The two-lane road that runs along the Rebel lines, SW Confederate Avenue, is lined with vintage cannon marking each of the Army of Virginia’s artillery batteries, and monuments to all of the Southern states that fought at Gettysburg.

Every state in the Confederacy, including far-off Texas, was represented in the ranks of Lee’s invading army.

The South Carolina Monument.

Of these monuments, the South Carolina monument is the most compelling, dedicated to the Southern state that had more soldiers – and more casualties at Gettysburg than any other. The huge, imposing monument to General Robert E. Lee shows how the South, quite literally, put Lee on a pedestal – and still does to this day.

The Louisiana monument (below) is also dramatic: one of the very few to portray a fallen Rebel soldier.

At the far right of the Confederate line, where General James Longstreet made his headquarters, stands the Longstreet monument. Sculpted by Gary Casteel and unveiled on July 3, 1998, Longstreet’s monument is not only one of the very last to be erected on the battlefield — it is striking for what it is not. It is not a grand or heroic memorial in the manner of all the other monuments dedicated to commanders of both sides.

Longstreet is not placed on a pedestal, and he is practically hidden in Pitzer’s Woods.

If you’re curious about why it took so long to honor Longstreet at Gettysburg – and why his memorial is so understated – I challenge you to explore the post-war controversy that arose over the man his troops called “Old Pete” and the soldier General Lee referred to affectionately as “my old War Horse.” This link will take you to an article that’s a fine start to such an exploration.

Longstreet’s statue stands in the eastern edge of Pitzer’s Woods, where the general reins in his favorite horse, “Hero” — as they both look across the fields toward the enemy.

"Longstreet" by Mort Kuntsler

From this shady spot, Victoria and I began our own assault on the Union forces waiting for us across the sun-blasted farmland to the southeast – just as Old Pete’s corps did on July 2, 1863. Victoria, driven by motivations both historical and health-conscious, had decided that we should tramp the battlefield on foot. So we parked the car near Longstreet’s monument and stepped off into the knee-high wheat and weeds, books in hand, headed toward the rocky prominence of Little Round Top.

Our objective: Little Round Top, across a mile of open killing ground.

A little more than halfway across the wide swale between Seminary and Cemetery ridges runs the Emmitsburg Road (now interstate Route 15) – then as now, a fence-lined barrier across the battlefield. It was on the other side of this road that the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Third Corps, posted in a peach orchard. At the time, Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Point education. But while Dan Sickles was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader with great confidence in his own abilities. A pugnacious New Yorker, Sickles did not shy away from a fight. And he was about to have an epic one.

There are innumerable peach orchards in the United States, just as there were on July 2, 1863. But the stand of peach trees that Dan Sickles’ Third Corps defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would become known ever after as The Peach Orchard.

How Dan Sickles’ troops came to be posted in The Peach Orchard is another longstanding Gettysburg cause célèbre. The commander of the Army of the Potomac, General George Meade, had ordered Sickles to align his right flank with the rest of the Union defensive line along the base of Cemetery Hill, with his left flank anchored on the rocks below Little Round Top. But, after looking over the terrain where Meade had placed his corps, Sickles had another idea.

General Sickles could see that the ground rose in front of his position for half a mile until it reached an elevated ridgeline in that peach orchard along the Emmitsburg Road. Sickles was concerned that Rebel artillery might soon occupy that ridgeline — and rain down shot and shell on his position in “the hole” that Meade had placed him in along the base of Cemetery Ridge. So, Sickles took it upon himself to order his men forward to occupy the high ground in The Peach Orchard before Johnny Reb’s cannon got there first.

Sickles’ initiative put his men on higher ground, but it also created a huge, exposed gap between his right flank and the rest of the Union line thousands of yards behind him – and between his left flank and the base of Little Round Top, which was virtually undefended. Sickles’ Third Corps now occupied an exposed salient, far in advance of any support or reinforcement from the Union rear: reinforcement they would soon need.

"Barksdale's Charge" by Don Troiani

After a deadly exchange of artillery fire in which both ends of Sickles’ salient got hammered, Longstreet’s infantry announced its assault with a Rebel yell. Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians smashed into Sickles’ center and Brigadier General Wofford’s Georgians hit him on his left. The fighting was fierce, but Sickles’ troops could not hold their line, and eventually fell back across the pulverized peach orchard.

"Retreat by Recoil" by Don Troiani. The 9th Massachusetts battery fights a heroic rear guard action against Barksdale's brigade at Gettysburg.

Where the Excelsior Brigade made their stand.

As Sickles’ line broke, the Thirds Corps’ Excelsior Brigade, made up of several New York regiments made their stand in the orchard and along the Emmitsburg road. Among them were The Second Fire Zouaves, a regiment of New York City volunteer firemen.

Alas, the brave defense of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the tide as the Rebels flooded the peach orchard, charging hard to exploit the wide gap in the Union lines caused by Sickles’ debacle.

Meanwhile, General Sickles tried to rally his men – when his leg was nearly torn off by a cannon ball. While his aides applied a tourniquet to staunch the bleeding, Sickles was alert, smoking a cigar, and issuing orders even as he was being borne to the rear. An army surgeon’s saw soon claimed Sickles’ leg. (What happened to that leg is another story. See item #3 in this article.)

A painting by Don Troiani depicts the critical moment as troops from Sickles Corps retreat and a mounted General Hancock readies the First Minnesota to save the day.

The collapse of Sickles’ salient created a rapidly developing crisis on the Union left. As the Confederates raced across the peach orchard in hot pursuit of the retreating remnants of the Union Third Corps, General Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebels would charge through the gap and get behind his main defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could soon be lost.

Hancock spurred his horse toward the crisis point and tried to rally Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock had called for reserves — but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug the gap: that something turned out to be the First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Hancock, fate, and a band of stalwart men were about to meet their moment.

Colonel Colvill

Arriving on the scene, Hancock saw a fresh regiment providing support for an artillery battery and wondered aloud, “My god, are these all the men we have here?” Hancock asked the unit’s officer, “What regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” replied 23-year old Colonel William Colvill. With the clock ticking toward disaster second-by-second, Hancock pointed toward the oncoming Rebel horde, and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”

"The First Minnesota" by Don Troiani

“Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position” recalled First Minnesota veteran Lt. William Lochren, “And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.

The First Minnesota Monument.

Imagine that scene. At such a moment, moral and physical courage are joined. The moral courage to give and obey such an order: the physical courage to make such a desperate, sacrificial charge.

Led by Colvill, the 262 men and officers of The First Minnesota advanced on “the double quick” in line of battle, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead as they bore down upon the center of the enemy’s line. Relentlessly, without pausing to fire, upon Colvill’s order to “Charge!” the Minnesotans ran toward their foe, leveling their bayonets. As the lines collided with a vicious shock, muskets blazed away and savage fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times — but it was taken up again each time.

The Confederates were staggered by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Ultimately, sheer force of numbers prevailed, and Colvill’s surviving troops fell back to the Union lines. But by then, the men of The First Minnesota had bought Hancock the time he needed to plug reinforcements into the gap in the Union defenses.

Of the 262 men who made that heroic charge, only 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock: an 83% casualty rate that remains the greatest loss by any American military unit in a single battle. The regimental flag that was saved five times in that fateful fifteen minutes is now safely enshrined in the rotunda of the Minnesota Capitol building.

Soon after the disastrous drama of Sickles’ debacle turned a peach orchard into The Peach Orchard, a nearby wheat field just a few thousand yards to the southwest was becoming The Wheat Field.

Victoria settled beneath a tree along the road overlooking The Wheat Field and read from Battles and Leaders. I didn’t know much about this part of the battle, but Victoria regaled me with the story of how a Confederate division of Longstreet’s Corps under General John Bell Hood was ordered to take the high ground of Little Round Top.

Below that rocky summit lay a jumbled landscape of giant boulders, thick woods, and a hilly, undulating wheat field: terrain General Hood called, “the worst ground I ever saw.” (At least that’s what he said in the movie, Gettysburg.)

"Gettysburg: Into the Wheatfield" by Bradley Schmehl

The fighting back and forth across the wheat field and nearby woods claimed more than 4,000 Union and Confederate casualties. Billy Yank and Johnny Reb traded possession of farmer George Rose’s 19 acres of bloodstained wheat six times – but the Rebels could not gain the high ground on Little Round Top.

The now-silent, weed-choked acreage infamous as The Wheat Field was truly one of the deadliest patches of battlefield at Gettysburg.

"Saving the flag" by Don Troiani. Colonel Jeffords of the 4th Michigan rescues the regiment's flag in the wheatfield.

I ran from monument to monument in that field, trying to take in the ebb and flow of the fighting. But I couldn’t dwell on The Wheat Field much longer.

Like General Hood, our objective was Little Round Top.

On the second day at Gettysburg, that rocky promontory, rising 650 feet above The Wheat Field, was the scene of the Civil War story closest to our hearts: the defense of Little Round Top by “The Fighting Professor” Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and the volunteers of the 20th Maine.

I begin our exploration of Little Round Top with a salute to those who fought there.

Soon before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field raged, Union General Gouvernor K. Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, reconnoitered Little Round Top and noticed a Confederate battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field. Seeing that Sickles’ ill-considered advance had left Little Round Top essentially undefended, Warren took it upon himself to protect the high ground. He didn’t have much time, sending couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill.

One of Warren’s couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent (what a fabulous name!), in charge of a brigade, and asked for his commanding officer. Sensing the high stakes of the moment, Vincent replied, “What are your orders?” Told that General Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”

Not waiting for formal orders from his superiors, Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army: the 16th Michigan, 44th New York, 83rd Pennsylvania, and Chamberlain’s 20th Maine. Soon after Vincent’s brigade took up their positions, the Confederate assault began — and Vincent, brandishing his wife’s riding crop, urged his men, “Don’t give an inch!” It wasn’t long before Strong Vincent fell, mortally wounded. Like General Warren, Vincent had done his part to save the Union left flank. Now, it was up to Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to play their role in the deadly, decisive drama on Little Round Top.

The right flank of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top.

Victoria and I hiked up to the position defended by Chamberlain and the 385 men of his regiment. There, we found a Civil War re-enactor dressed as an infantryman in the 20th Maine. He knew the details of the battle pretty well, and I enjoyed sharing the story with him as we stood together on that hallowed ground where Little Round Top, the Union Army – and perhaps the nation – was saved.

At about 6:30 PM, after once more repulsing an uphill attack by the 15th Alabama, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition. And they were running out of time.

"The 20th Maine & 15th Alabama at Gettysburg" by Dale Gallon

They had been fighting for several hours and had inflicted and suffered heavy losses. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold the ground at all hazards,” The Fighting Professor knew he could not retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”

"Chamberlain's Charge" by Mort Kunstler

According to Chamberlain’s own words, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered. An officer fired his pistol at my head with one hand, while he handed me his sword with the other. Holding fast by our right, and swinging forward our left, we made an extended “right wheel,” before which the enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”

Longstreet’s Corps had failed to take Little Round Top – and Victoria and I had failed to take any water with us on our battlefield hike. So, a dehydrated Vic and I joined exhausted Johnny Reb as he retreated across the Gettysburg farm fields and regrouped for the fighting that would climax on the Third Day.

The sun was starting to set but it was still plenty hot as we tramped back down Little Round Top, through The Wheat Field, across The Peach Orchard, over the Emmitsburg Road, and all the way to Pitzer’s Woods, where General Longstreet and his warhorse defended our rental car.

To be continued…

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History & Honeymoon: Part Two

“Forward men, forward for God’s sake…”

On the morning of July 1st, my wife, Victoria, and I got up early enough to enjoy breakfast at The Doubleday Inn with our housemates — a collection of congenial history buffs and their spouses.

One of our fellow guests, a 40-something Pennsylvanian named John, was there by himself, and this was clearly not his first visit to Gettysburg. It was fun to see how enthused he was about getting out on the battlefield.

I shared John’s excitement as I downed my breakfast, a delicious, maple syrup drenched version of French toast that proved too heavy for Victoria. She needn’t have worried about the calories: battlefield tramping burns ‘em off big time.

By the time we left the Doubleday Inn on Oak Ridge that morning, headed for the new Gettysburg Visitor Center and Museum, we could imagine General John Buford’s battle-weary cavalry corps falling back under fire from Confederate General Henry Heth’s reinforced infantry to positions along Oak Ridge (and the adjacent McPherson’s Ridge) 147 years ago.

Buford’s boys had been fighting off Heth’s two brigades since 5:00 AM, and here we were, two honeymooning sluggards, just getting into action at 9:00.

As we drove toward town and the Visitor Center, we could see the distinctive cupola of the Lutheran Seminary along Seminary Ridge, an important landmark on the battlefield in 1863 – and to this day. We could envision a grimly determined General Buford up in that cupola, field glasses in hand, watching the progress of the battle raging to his front, and looking anxiously to the rear for the approach of General Reynolds and his infantry corps.

In fact, if we were there on that fateful morning in 1863, General Reynolds would soon be passing us on the road, riding up to the seminary and calling up to Buford, “How goes it, John?” Buford would reply, “The devil’s to pay!” and the next chapter of Gettysburg history would soon be written. But that would have to wait. We wanted to check out the new Visitor Center first.

Our hosts at the Doubleday Inn (and several of our fellow guests) had spoken in glowing terms about the wonders of the new Museum and Visitor Center, which opened in April 2008 — and they were not blowing smoke. Victoria and I have been to a lot of National Park visitor centers, and this one blows them all away.

Far more than the usual place to pick up maps, brochures and a gift or two, the Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is 22,000 square feet of exhibits, battlefield relics, inter-active exhibits, and multi-media presentations, including the film, “A New Birth of Freedom”, narrated by Morgan Freeman (who also starred in the film, Glory, which triggered my Civil War obsession in 1989).

Victoria and I watched the film and checked out the incredible exhibits – including the stretcher used to carry the mortally wounded Stonewall Jackson from the field at Chancellorsville on May 2, 1863. (Jackson’s death 8 days later would have dramatic repercussions at Gettysburg.)

The humble furnishings of Robert E. Lee’s personal field quarters were also on display, as were hundreds of period muskets, rifles, pistols, artillery shells, uniforms, and other treasures discovered on the battlefield over the years. It would be very easy to spend the entire day there – but with General Reynolds arriving on Seminary Ridge to reinforce Buford and the first day’s fighting heating up – we were eager to get back on the battlefield.

But first, we had to see the fully restored Gettysburg Cyclorama.

We’d seen it 20 years ago, when it was something of a sideshow attraction along with the old electronic map with its more than 600 lights that, for forty years, tracked the major action in the battle for visitors. Today, in its new home, the Gettysburg Cyclorama — the nation’s largest painting — gets its due.

The massive artwork, entitled “The Battle of Gettysburg”, is a 360-degree cyclorama by the French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux. The vivid painting wraps around the curved walls of the exhibit, surrounding the viewer with a stunning, colorful, and violent depiction of “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3, 1863 – the climactic action of the three-days of unprecedented valor, fury and sacrifice that was The Battle of Gettysburg. You really have to see it to understand the scale and power of this thing. The whole experience made me proud to think “Your tax dollars at work.”

"Reynolds and the Iron Brigade" by Keith Rocco. © Keith Rocco and Traditional Studios http://www.keithrocco.com

After our rewarding morning at the Visitor Center, we drove back out to McPherson’s Ridge, where Heth’s reinforced Confederate brigades of General A.P. Hill’s corps were about to confront the vanguard of the Union Army of the Potomac, hurriedly deployed by its commander, General John Reynolds. Reynolds First Corps included the famous Iron Brigade, wearing their distinctive tall black hats. For Heth’s rebels, one look at “those damn black hats” made it clear that one of the Union’s hardest-fighting, battle-tested veteran infantry units had now joined the fight for the Gettysburg high ground.

Victoria and I knew that our first stop on McPherson’s Ridge would be a somber one: the spot where Reynolds fell, shot from his horse in the opening moments of the engagement as he urged his troops forward, bellowing, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods!”(Generals led from the front in those days.)

The sudden loss of Reynolds was a brutal blow to the Union cause. John Reynolds wasn’t just any general – he was one of the Union army’s best.

"The Death of Reynolds" by Alfred R. Waud (1828-1891)

Some historians maintain that Lincoln wanted to give Reynolds command of the Army of the Potomac, but that Reynolds demanded more autonomy than Lincoln could grant him. Ultimately, Lincoln put Pennsylvanian George Meade in charge of the Army of the Potomac with Reynolds leading the army’s First, Third, and Eleventh Corps.

Tributes left on July 1, 2010 at the spot where Reynolds fell include a poem someone wrote to honor him. Like the dog biscuits still left for Sallie the regimental mascot, these battlefield tokens always break my heart, yet also fill me with joy that, for some, history is a living thing.

Upon Reynold’s death, command of the Union forces fighting on McPherson’s Ridge and Oak Ridge devolved to General Abner Doubleday. (The Doubleday Inn, get it?) Two years earlier, Captain Doubleday had fired the first shot in defense of Fort Sumter, now, promoted to general, he was called upon to once again play a pivotal role in an epic moment.

And while it may well be that the claim Doubleday invented baseball in 1839 (he was in West Point at the time) is no more than a legend, what he did for the five furious hours after Reynolds death would have been legend enough for any man.

Oak Ridge (McPherson's Ridge is to the left beyond the trees)

Doubleday’s men fought hard all morning, holding fast to the critical ridgelines just outside of town. As the Confederates threw wave upon wave of reinforcements into the fray, Doubleday’s 9,500 men battled ten Rebel brigades numbering more than 16,000, inflicting casualties on their attackers ranging from 35 to 50 percent in various regiments. The monuments that line McPherson’s Ridge and Oak Ridge are silent testaments to the valiant resistance of Doubleday’s troops in the face of overwhelming odds.

Evening falls on the Chambersburg Pike, looking toward the advancing Confederates.

Eventually, Confederate troops finally pushed Doubleday off those ridgelines, past the Lutheran Seminary, and onto Cemetery Hill — where Union troops were concentrating to secure the high ground overlooking the town and fields below. At day’s end, Doubleday’s First Corps had lost two thirds of its men, dead, wounded, taken prisoner, or missing in action. But their sacrifice saved the day. The gallant stand made by Buford, Reynolds and Doubleday had kept the Confederates from reaching the high ground on Cemetery Hill.

The contest for that high ground – and victory on the bloody Gettysburg battlefield — would last two more days.

The FIrst Minnesota monument at the base of Cemetery Hill: Heroism on Day #2

Victoria and I returned to The Doubleday Inn with a greater appreciation of the man whose name our pleasant B&B bore.

To be continued…

Victoria and a friend ask Honest Abe for directions in downtown Gettysburg.

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History & Honeymoon: Part One

On Sunday June 27th, my wife Victoria and I gave our last performance of “The Vic & Paul Show” in it’s three-week run at PUSH Lounge in Woodland Hills. It was a satisfying end to a wonderful run — made all the more special by so many great friends, Northwestern pals, and people we dearly love but haven’t seen in ages who showed up to share the experience with us. It had been more than twenty years since we’d done a comedy show together – and exactly twenty years since we’d said “I do” in a Greek Orthodox service on a blistering hot day in Chicago.

With our 20th wedding anniversary on June 30th, the show was essentially a celebration of our two decades of married bliss – and as we struck the stage at PUSH for the last time, our thoughts turned to our upcoming anniversary trip: a return to the great Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg.

We were we going to Gettysburg for our 20th anniversary because that’s where we spent our first honeymoon in 1990. Back then I was in the early throes of a mad crush on Civil War history that was inspired by the Oscar-winning 1989 movie Glory and had continued unabated since. As we planned our nuptials, I gave my darling bride a choice of honeymoon excursions

1. A tour of National League ballparks

2. A tour of Civil War battlefields

That I could even propose two such options to my bride-to-be was proof that I was already the luckiest man in the world – but when she chose the battlefield tour, I was certain that our union (just like the Union that Lincoln’s armies defended on that hallowed ground) would long endure.

Our first stop in 1990 was Gettysburg, and while we did not plan it that way, we arrived on July 1st – the 127th anniversary of the first day of that epic 3-day battle. It was kismet. We were where we were meant to be. Thus, it felt right that on such a momentous marital (and martial) anniversary, we should go back to the small Pennsylvania crossroads town where Robert E. Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North came to a bold and bloody end. Romantic, yes?

We flew into Philadelphia on June 30th, the eve of the battle, and drove west to Gettysburg. We wanted to make sure that we got to our Bed & Breakfast while these was still light on the battlefield. It was a 3-hour drive and we were hungry, so we stopped for a late lunch. But no service plaza grub would suit this history-loving couple – and with the help of her iPhone, Victoria located the perfect spot for a picturesque and historic nosh just a few miles off the turnpike. So, we turned off at the Morgantown exit, headed for the Inn at Saint Peters Village.

Saint Peters Village was entered onto the National Register of Historic Places in 2003. It’s a small, late 19th century industrial “company village” on the banks of French Creek in Chester County, PA.

For about half a mile, vintage buildings line the main drag that winds up a steep, rocky ravine, with the creek running through giant boulders below. Artists and craftsmen have set up shop in the clapboard 19th century storefronts, and the biggest and most architecturally impressive of these is The Inn at Saint Peter’s Village, where we enjoyed lunch on a large wooden deck overlooking French Creek. It was beautiful. So far, so good.

Interestingly, National League baseball managed to re-enter our honeymoon thoughts when our waitress casually mentioned that Mike Piazza’s dad “owned the whole town.” It turns out that arguably the greatest hitting catcher in Major League history (427 Home runs, career .308 batting average) grew up in nearby Phoenixville with his parents, Vince and Veronica. It was nice slice of local history to go with my pizza.

Hey, pizza and Piazza!

It was nearing 6:00 PM as we drove into Gettysburg down PA Route 30 and onto the old Chambersburg Pike – the same road that General John Buford rode into town with his division of Union cavalry late in the day on June 30th, 1863. That evening long ago, a grimly determined Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry under General Pettigrew probed south from Cashtown along the Chambersburg Pike toward Gettysburg.

Pettigrew’s brigade had been sent by his division commander, General Henry Heth, of A.P. Hill’s Corps in search of much-needed supplies — including a cache of shoes they understood to be in the town.

But when Pettigrew saw Buford’s cavalry arriving south of town, he returned to Cashtown and told Heth and Hill what he had seen. Despite Pettigrew’s claim that Federal cavalry was on the Chambersburg Pike, neither of his superiors believed there was anything more than Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.

Fate – and the fighting – would wait until tomorrow. And so, as Victoria and I pulled into the parking lot of The Doubleday Inn, would our own adventures on the Gettysburg battlefield wait until the following day.

The charming house at 104 Doubleday Avenue, now The Doubleday Inn, was built in 1939 and it’s the only B & B or hotel located on the grounds of the Gettysburg National Military Park. It stands on the very ground that Buford and his cavalry would defend the next morning. There are 42 battlefield monuments within a quarter mile of the Inn honoring the regiments that took part in the fierce fighting that took place here on July 1, 1863.

Before we turned in for the night, we took a sunset stroll along Doubleday Avenue on Oak Ridge to check out the monuments lining the road in front of the Inn.

Our favorite was the monument dedicated to the 11th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry. All of the monuments at Gettysburg are stirring, heartbreaking testaments to valor and sacrifice – but this one is unique because of a dog.

On the side of the monument that faced the enemy that bloody day is a cast iron representation of the regiment’s beloved mascot, a terrier named “Sallie,” who was said to have hated three things: Rebels, Democrats, and Women.

According to the well-documented story, after the first day’s battle was over, faithful Sallie refused to leave the field where her brave boys had fought and fell. She stayed with her dead soldiers until she was found, weakened and close to death, a day after the battle. Sallie’s regiment nursed her back to health and she fought with them until she was killed in battle in February 1865. Sallie’s boys never forgot their faithful canine comrade – immortalizing her on their regimental monument.

To this day, visitors paying their respects at the 11th Pennsylvania monument on Oak Ridge often leave dog biscuits and bones for the devoted Sallie – as they did on the evening that Victoria and I paused to remember the regiment’s service and sacrifice before going back to the Doubleday Inn to prepare for the next morning:

July 1st – the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

To be continued…

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LeBron: The King Moves On…

As a Cleveland native, I’m getting asked my opinion of LeBron James leaving the Cavaliers — and many of my friends and co-workers expect me to be upset, indignant, jilted, etc. So, while the blogosphere hardly needs one more commentary on LeBron James’ move to the Miami Heat, I’ll make this short and to the point.

LeBron doesn’t owe me anything.

He’s a professional basketball player  who wants to win and be remembered as the best to play the game. That’s a tall order, and yet he’s one of the very few with the physical gifts, youth and talent to potentially eclipse the legendary legacies of Wilt, Russell, Oscar, Bird, Kareem, Magic, MJ and, yes, Kobe. So, as an unestricted free agent, having sized up his chances for multiple NBA championships with the Cavaliers in Cleveland, LeBron has chosen to move on. So be it.

After all, LeBron already did the Hometown Hero thing. Born in nearby Akron, LeBron went to Cleveland to start his career when he could have pulled some kind of “I won’t sign” stunt to avoid it. (Others certainly have.) And he brought a lot of excitement to Cleveland:  7 seasons with no behind-the-scenes demands to be traded, no belittling of his teammates, or any of that negative superstar prima donna crap. That’s why Cavs fans loved him. It wasn’t just his points, assists, rebounds, and come-from-behind shot-blocking — it was his behavior as a relatively-solid citizen.

I don’t know what happened against the Celtics in the playoffs. How can you go from blowing the Celtics out in Boston to being unable to win anther game? (I’ve heard ALL the rumors.) But, now that the NBA playoffs are over, it’s obvious the Celtics were better than any of us thought they were at the end of the regular season. That collection of veteran all-stars took The Lakers to Game 7. Maybe, just maybe — all the locker room rumors notwithstanding — the Celtics were still the better team.

A player the caliber of LeBron James deserves his shot at winning multiple titles. That wasn’t happening in Cleveland. Am I disappointed? Yes, of course, I am. Do I feel betrayed? Not at all. The bitter Cavs owner, Dan Gilbert, says LeBron quit during the playoffs. He’s crying out loud in an open letter about LeBron’s lack of loyalty. Hey, Dan! You just fired a head coach and GM who won more games in the last two seasons than anybody else in the NBA. Stuff your indignation. Perhaps Gilbert’s fit of pissy pique is an inside glimpse at yet another factor in LeBron’s decision to exit the Cavs. Dan Gilbert owns the Cavs. He doesn’t own LeBron James.

As for “The Decision” and all the pomp, pageantry and ESPN schmaltz that attended it? If the media and fans dub somebody “King James”, don’t be shocked when he behaves like royalty. I, for one, will be rooting for my Cavs and for LeBron James and The Miami Heat. (I’ve always liked D. Wade.) But if the Cavs and Heat match up in the playoffs, I’ll be rooting for LeBron to remain ring-less. That would be a great story.

Not the King of Cleveland anymore. The Sultan of South Beach?

Oh yeah, now about those two wars we’re fighting and that oily problem in the Gulf…

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