Tag Archives: Robert E. Lee

Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg

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IMG_2718I was honored and delighted when my good friend Darroch Greer invited my wife Victoria and me to take part in another of his wonderful historical events at the Bedford Winery in Los Alamos, California, hosted by the great winemaker, history buff and raconteur Stephan Bedford.

Darroch is the Bedford Winery’s resident historian. (Does any other winery boast a resident historian?)

I’d been to several of Darroch and Stephan’s presentations staged in the courtyard of the Bedford Winery’s tasting room — and I’d always enjoyed the combination of fellowship, fine food and wine, and respect for history.

UnknownSo, on November 16, 2013, Vic and I took part in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The 150th Anniversary of the Dedication of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, Celebrated Through Eyewitness Accounts, Music and Victuals of the Era.

Darroch's wife Stephanie goes over the script with Victoria before the reading.

Darroch’s wife Stephanie goes over the script with Victoria before the reading.

The main event was a staged reading of Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg, written by John Copeland: featuring the words of eyewitnesses to that famous event at Gettysburg, when 15,000 people gathered in the town four months after the great battle to dedicate a final resting place for thousands of fallen Union soldiers.

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A rare photo of Lincoln at Gettysburg. November 19, 1863.

Darroch gave me the task of summing up the battle itself before we began the reading.

What follows is my attempt to capture the stakes, the major action, and the drama of those three epic days of combat in ten minutes.

 Reflections on The Battle of Gettysburg

gettysburg_sept_09_261Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top…

On June 30th, 1863, these were not yet legendary place names: they were simply topographical features on the landscape surrounding the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

imagesIn the summer of ‘63, the war to preserve the union was not going well for President Lincoln and loyal Americans who wished to keep the United States intact.

Crushing Confederate victories at Fredericksburg that winter and Chancellorsville that spring left Unionists anxious and dispirited. The Army of the Potomac staggered under the blows delivered by Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.

meadeAfter the debacle at Chancellorsville, another in a series of unsuccessful Union commanders had been sacked – as General Joe Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade. Meade was a Pennsylvanian. That would prove provident. Just three days after taking command, General Meade would face Lee at Gettysburg.

Yet, as bad as the war was going for the North, the stakes for the Confederacy were existential. Two years of warfare fought almost exclusively on Southern soil took a terrible toll in battle casualties, civilian morale, economic viability and agricultural productivity. Rebel leaders knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition against the superior industrial strength and manpower of the North.

grant9Something had to be done to change what was ultimately a losing equation — and convince the European powers to recognize the Confederacy.

In the west, General Grant’s army was closing in on Vicksburg, the last rebel bastion on the Mississippi. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. Meanwhile, the Union naval blockade continued to strangle Southern ports and cripple its economy.Invasion1863

Lee decided to take the war to the North. The goal of his invasion was to relieve pressure on war-torn Virginia. And if Lee could beat the Federals on their home turf — his army could threaten, or even capture, Washington DC and force President Lincoln to seek peace.

HD_EnemyApproaching1863_0.previewAs Meade took command of his army, Lee’s 75,000 veterans were already in Pennsylvania. The opposing armies weren’t sure where each other were, but Meade knew Lee was somewhere west of the state capitol at Harrisburg. As Meade groped northward to find his foe, nobody thought the decisive battle of such a critical campaign would be fought at an insignificant dot on the map like Gettysburg.

Yet, when the battle came, both sides well understood what was at stake. Gettysburg lies just 86 miles from Washington DC:  two days forced march to the nation’s Capitol. The battle for Gettysburg, therefore, would ultimately decide the outcome of the war.

John_BufordIt was nearing 6:00 PM when General John Buford and his cavalry rode into Gettysburg on June 30th. Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry came down the Chambersburg Pike. When the rebels saw Buford’s troopers they withdrew — and informed their superiors that Union cavalry barred their way. But the Confederate generals refused to believe there was anything more than green Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.

In fact, Buford’s cavalry were the tip of the spear. The Army of the Potomac was on its way. The fighting would wait until morning.

standencssThe next day, July 1st, the Rebs returned down the Chambersburg Pike determined to push Buford’s cavalry off the ridges north of Gettysburg. Fighting dismounted, Buford’s troopers put up a stiff resistance, buying time for reinforcement. In the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary overlooking the fight, Buford watched the progress of the battle raging to his front — and looked anxiously to his rear for the approach of General Reynold’s First Infantry Corps.

I would’ve loved to be there at the moment Reynolds rode up to the seminary and called out, “How goes it, John?” And Buford shouted back — “The devil’s to pay!”

220px-GenJFRenyoldsBuford was right. Before the day was done, Reynolds was dead and Union troops were driven off Seminary Ridge, through the town of Gettysburg, and into defensive lines on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge above the town and fields below. The Union First Corps lost two thirds of its men: dead, wounded, taken prisoner, and missing in action. But their sacrifice had kept the rebels from taking the high ground.

Lee wasn’t pleased that Union forces occupied the heights. But his army had once again driven their enemy from the field.

James_LongstreetDay Two at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which some of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles. For most of the day both armies consolidated their positions.

Ironically, Lee’s units arrived on the battlefield from the north and Mead’s army came up from the south.

It wasn’t until 4:00 pm that General Longstreet’s Corps began the Confederate attack on the Union’s left flank along Cemetery Ridge.

sicklesBut the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Corps, posted in a peach orchard – far in front of the main Union line.

Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Pointeducation. But while he was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader: a pugnacious New Yorker who never shied away from a fight.

And he was in for an epic one.

sherfy-orchard-warThere were innumerable peach orchards in America on July 2, 1863. But the stand of trees that Sickles’ troops defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would be known ever after as The Peach Orchard. It was here that Confederate General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians made their famous charge. It was here that Sickles lost his leg to a cannonball. It was here that, after fierce fighting, Sickles’ men were forced to fall back under heavy fire.

ExcelsiorbrigadeAnd it was here that New York’s Excelsior Brigade made their heroic stand.

But the bravery of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the flood of Rebels charging through the peach orchard to exploit the gap in the Union line caused by the collapse of Sickles’ exposed position.

220px-WinfieldSHancockGeneral Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – and another Pennsylvanian — knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebs would plow through that gap and penetrate his defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could be lost.

Hancock rode toward the crisis point and rallied Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock called for reserves, but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug that fatal gap.

That something was the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.

220px-William_ColvillHancock 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 Rebels and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”

Said a First Minnesota veteran, “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. And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.

1stmnmonumentwebThe 262 men of The First Minnesota advanced on the double quick, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead, bearing down on the center of the enemy line. On Colvill’s order to charge, they raced forward with leveled bayonets. The lines collided with a shock, muskets blazed, and fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times, but it was taken up again each time.

The Southerners were stunned by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Of the 262 men who made that 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. But the men of The First Minnesota bought Hancock the time he needed to reinforce the gap in his defensive line.

gettysburgkeenan9aLongstreet renewed his relentless assault on the Union left in bloody engagements that made The Wheat Field and Devil’s Den synonymous with savagery, gallantry and wholesale sacrifice.

Before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field, Union General Gouvernor Warren stood on Little Round Top and saw Longstreet’s battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field.

4548_1004430988Realizing that Sickles’ advanced position left Little Round Top undefended, Warren sent couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill. One of his couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent.

Told that Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”

Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army, with the 385 men of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine anchoring the end of the line. Soon after that, the Confederate assault began.

IMG_0465Vincent, 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.

colonel-joshua-chamberlainAt 6:30 PM, after repulsing yet another rebel attack, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition — and running out of time. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold at all hazards,” Chamberlain knew he couldn’t retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”

Said Chamberlain, “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… 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 both sides regrouped for the fighting that would climax the next day.

battlefield On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies faced each other across a mile of open farmland — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though 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.

robert-e-leeActually, the third day of the battle began at dawn as Union guns opened fire in defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. By 11:00 am, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The fight on the Union right was over almost before it began.

The legendary "copse of trees" that marked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge.

Lee’s target: the legendary “copse of trees” that marked the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.

Lee had attacked both Union flanks – and the Federals had paid dearly in their defense. Since General Meade must have had to draw troops from his center to reinforce his embattled flanks, Lee resolved to attack the Union center.

Lee’s “Old War Horse” Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to go around Big Round Top, 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.

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The copse of trees (center right) seen from Confederate positions across the farm fields.

But Lee was resolved to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, his army had never failed to break the Union lines in a frontal assault. But Gettysburg was a different: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals Meade and 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 his troops of the need to hold firm and give no ground.

imagesGeneral Pickett’s division would lead the charge that became known forever after as “Pickett’s Charge.” The three brigades of General Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. General Lo Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.

armisteadPickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price: Garnett and Armistead died in the charge. Kemper was severely wounded. The rebels managed to punch a hole in the Union center, led by Armistead, shot down as he placed his hand on a Federal cannon. But the Army of the Potomac sent the rebels in retreat across the farm fields over which they had so gallantly, but futilely, charged.

Of the more than 13,000 Confederates who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward.

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July8.63On July 4th, the day after General Meade’s Army won the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg fell to Union troops under General Grant.

At great cost, the soldiers of the Union Army had given their war-weary nation two great birthday gifts. And while it would wear on for two more grinding years, the Civil War was essentially over.vicksburg-great-victory

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The First Day at Gettysburg: 150 Years Ago Today

This is a re-post of the first of a series of articles I wrote about the trip my wife and I made to Gettysburg in 2010. On this, the 150th anniversary of the first day of that great and decisive Civil War battle, I thought it would be a fine idea to put this old post back into service. Part travelogue, part history lesson, it’s a good way to walk the hallowed battlefield and enjoy the charms of the town if you can’t actually be in Gettysburg for this weekend’s sesquicentennial events.

* * * * * * * * *

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 1, 1863 – the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg.

“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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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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