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Road trip: Gettysburg August 16, 2011

Posted by Jenny in Civil War, history, travel.
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Reenactors of the 124th New York regiment

To listen to these men of the 124th New York, you might think they would have to be about 175 years old. They always speak of their regiment in the first person plural: “We faced the 1st Texas at Devil’s Den,” or “Our colonel and lieutenant colonel were both killed.” It was striking to me how powerfully the history of this place tugs people in the present year back to three days in July 1863.

More men fell in this battle—51,000 killed—than in any battle before or since in North America. It represented General Lee’s determined and desperate attempt to make a significant advance into Union territory. Lee failed and withdrew after three days of fighting that culminated in the lethal Confederate infantry advance known as Pickett’s Charge.

I had been at Gettysburg with my family when I was growing up, but I didn’t remember it well. The main thing I recalled was the cyclorama, and I was happy to see that the cyclorama still exists. I started my exploration with the visitor’s center. I saw a familiar figure seated in front of the door.

A familiar figure holds his text of the Gettysburg Address

As I passed this figure, something happened that also occurred when I first arrived at the other two battlefields I visited, Fort Donelson and Shiloh: tears filled my eyes. What a sentimental person I am! And how hard it is to explain why these places are so important to me.

After viewing a film that explained basic facts about the battle, our group of visitors went upstairs to experience the cyclorama. We stood in the darkened circle and listened to the sounds of artillery and riflefire booming from all directions. The canvas was created in 1884 by Paul Philippoteaux, a Frenchman who had made a specialty of the cyclorama form, the 19th-century equivalent to an IMAX theater. In the foreground stood actual three-dimensional artifacts of the battle. The purplish photo below was taken during the performance (very dark, as no flash was allowed).

We are there watching Pickett's Charge: rocks and rifles in the foreground, painting in the background

Philippoteaux actually painted four versions of the scene, all under contract with American businessmen. The first was exhibited in Chicago, went missing for quite a while, and was rediscovered in 1965 and purchased by a group of North Carolina investors. It is the second version that I saw at Gettysburg sometime in the 60s and again on this trip. It was removed for restoration work in 2005 (quite a task, as the thing weighs several tons) and returned to the new visitor’s center in 2008. The third version is known to have been destroyed, and the status of the fourth is unknown.

Advertisement for Boston exhibition of the cyclorama that now appears at Gettysburg. "Expect to see the grandest sight of this age."

I next spent quite a long time going through the museum, which covers the whole Civil War in chronological sequence: quite ambitious, but surprisingly successful.

Union cavalryman (exhibit in museum)

Then it was time to visit the battlefield. I did not go through the main auto tour sites in the sequence shown in the brochure; I zigged and zagged according to whim. I went across Washington Street from the visitor’s center and confronted the extremely large Pennsylvania Memorial. The overcast sky seemed brooding to me and appropriate in mood.

Pennsylvania Memorial

Soon I noticed an encampment of reenactors nearby. I went around taking pictures and talking to the members of the 124th New York. They explained that they come every year the first weekend in August. Their regiment is known as the “Orange Blossoms,” since many of them came from Orange County, NY. Some young fellows attached to the regiment were playing a primitive version of baseball with a large red ball. I understand there is a lot of controversy about the origin of the game, so I won’t get into a discussion about Abner Doubleday and Cooperstown.

Reenactor tents

Stacked rifles

Reenactor with pipe

The fellow below next to the campfire spent a long time with me explaining the sequence of the 124th’s involvement in the battle. They were situated on a low ridge adjacent to Little Round Top on July 2 and suffered 40% casualties in their engagement with the 1st Texas and a Georgia regiment that came behind the Texans.

Reenactor at campfire

I appreciated his time and his dedication to the subject.

I drove on through this peculiar landscape with all kinds of monuments residing among the fields and the woods. Many different concepts of the Civil War soldier or of honoring the dead exist in close proximity to each other. The only thing that all have in common is that they are all more or less representational—no “crazy modern abstract” sculptures.

The Minnesota infantryman is shown in the midst of urgent action

General Meade, appointed by Lincoln just a week earlier as commander of the Army of the Potomac, looks suitably large and impressive. He performed well at Gettysburg but came under criticism for failing to pursue Lee aggressively after the battle. In 1864 and 1865, his fate was to report to Ulysses S. Grant, and he consequently had little opportunity to exercise leadership.

George Gordon Meade, Union commander

Sometimes things seemed incongruously juxtaposed, as if each were frozen at a different moment without a connection between them.

Cannons in foreground, soldier with raised rifle in background, both frozen in a state of timelessness

This monument offered an important word.

An important word

I noticed that one monument in this part of the battlefield had small Confederate flags in front of it, while the other ones around it were all devoted to Union forces. The words seemed obliterated, but a knowledgeable person explained to me that this was a monument to General Lewis A. Armistead, who on July 3 led five Virginia regiments across the open fields into the Angle and across Federal lines, experiencing severe losses. Armistead was seriously wounded, and he died two days later. His men were the only ones to penetrate the Federal center.

Stars and Bars

I next visited the Soldier’s National Cemetery.

Silence and respect

Like many old cemeteries, this one featured some beautiful large trees. Very appropriately, a big buckeye leaned over a monument to Ohio artillerymen.


I spotted an absolutely gigantic gingko.

I hadn't ever seen such a large gingko

Fragments of verse were posted on signs around the cemetery. It was not poetry of deep intellectual value—just some simple rhymes to convey a sense of loss.

Last tattoo

This pair of figures had interesting stains on their faces and bodies. The one on the left might be Peace or Justice or Honor—who knows—and I have no idea what the right one represents. Since he has what looks like a gear at his feet, maybe he is Industry.They make a rather odd couple.

The odd couple

Since I now reside in North Carolina, I need to include an image of the main NC memorial.

North Carolina memorial

And so I continued through the parts of the battlefield. I made the short climb up to the summit of Big Round Top, connected by a ridge to Little Round Top, where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine made their famous defense of the Federal position and charged down the hillside.

Then it was on to beautiful Frostburg, Maryland. I would be doing some highpointing the next day.

To see all of the posts about my August 2011 road trip, type road trip: (with the colon after “trip”) in the search box at right and scroll down.

Monument to Chamberlain

Gideon Pillow assumes command April 29, 2009

Posted by Jenny in history, military history.
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We last saw our hero at the battle of Cerro Gordo.  Despite Pillow’s best efforts to thwart the military might of the U.S. Army singlehandedly, the American forces continued their inexorable advance westward toward Mexico City, next clashing with their foes at the linked battles of Contreras and Churubusco, August 19-20, 1847.

“Old Fuss and Feathers,” Winfield Scott, laid out the plan.  General David Twiggs was to advance across the rocky slope of Mt. Zacatepec to meet the forces of General Gabriel Valencia.  Twiggs was to “brush away the enemy in case he became impertinent,” and if the fighting became serious, Pillow was instructed to “support Twiggs with his whole division and assume the command.”*  Twiggs did not much care for this arrangement, having fought in the War of 1812 and possessing much more military know-how than the “political general” Gideon Pillow, but Pillow technically outranked Twiggs (because of the support of his ally James Polk), and so the order stood.

Soon the Mexicans opened fire with heavy cannon.  Without consulting Scott, Pillow decided that the moment had come to “assume command.” He advanced with a few lightweight mountain howitzers and a battery of light artillery.  The troops soon found that the Mexicans were well sheltered behind a deep ravine and fortifications.  Strong defensive fire continued until nightfall from Valencia’s position.  Lt. D.H. Hill later wrote, “Certainly, of all the absurd things that the ass Pillow has ever done this was the most silly… the ordering of six and twelve pounders to batter a fort furnished with long six, twenty-fours and heavy mortars!!”

Battle of Contreras

Battle of Contreras

A soaking rain set in.  From the heights of Zacatepec, Pillow set forth through the inky night with Twiggs toward a point called San Geronimo, north of Valencia’s position, so that he could arrange a “flanking movement” to entrap Valencia.  The two became disoriented as they manuevered across the slippery volcanic rock.  The two generals eventually emerged, not at San Geronimo, but on the far eastern side of the mountain, miles away from the scene of battle.

Meanwhile, an enterprising colonel named Persifor Smith, working with Captain Robert E. Lee,  had come up with a bold strategy to lead three brigades along a ravine toward the rear of Valencia’s position.  Lee successfully crossed the rocky slope of Zacatepec and informed Scott of the plan.  “Fuss and Feathers” ordered Pillow to stay put, Twiggs to create a diversion, and Smith to proceed with his plan.  Smith’s attack began at 3:00 a.m. and succeeded brilliantly.  Pillow arrived on the scene just as the Mexicans were fleeing.

Clearly, now that the conflict had already become a success, it was once again time to “assume command.” Pillow spotted Colonel Bennet Riley, who had participated in Smith’s movement.  Our general rode up to Riley and shouted, “You have earned the Yellow Sash, Sir, and you shall have it.”  Somehow or other, Pillow had suddenly become the dispenser of these tokens of recognition.

The Americans pursued the Mexicans across the Churubusco River.  Forces under Pillow and Worth joined up with troops commanded by Shields and Pierce, and the Mexican resistance fell apart.  It was time for the final advance to the gates of Mexico City.

(The series continues here)

*All quotations are from The Life & Wars of Gideon Pillow by Nathaniel Cheairs Hughes Jr. and Roy P. Stonesifer Jr., UNC Press, 1993.

Battle of Churubusco

Battle of Churubusco