Burnside's Bridge and the High Water Mark...
Day 3, Thursday, June 24, I woke up about 6 AM. I took the
kids over to the corner diner for a hearty breakfast. We brought down our
bags, loaded my bike on the back of the van, and hit the road at 9:30 local
time. It only took us about 45 minutes of driving through crisp summer
morning air to make it to Gettysburg. The town itself isn't much bigger
than your basic sleeply little farming community, with lots of trim, vintage
farm houses. The cemetery came into view first, and beyond a hill we arrived
at the visitor center. Inside, they had guns, uniforms, cannons, flags
and other artifacts from the battle. We got there in time for a guided
tour of the cemetery, so we followed the crowd.
I found out Gettysburg is a national military cemetery. Soldiers killed
in the battle are not the only ones buried there. The cemetery held soldiers
that were killed in Vietnam, World Wars I & II, the Spanish-American
War and Korea. The ranger talked about the design of the cemetery, and
showed us the dozens of unknown graves. After the battle, Union Soldiers
were buried in different areas than Confederate soldiers. Eventually, most
of the Confederate bodies were moved out by the southern states.
When Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, nobody bothered
to mark the exact spot where he spoke. Over time the cemetery expanded
to cover the area. Historians were able to go back and figure out where
he stood when he made the speech. Beyond the cemetery fence, there was
a flagpole mounted between the graves to show where Lincoln spoke.
After the tour, I got some good advice from one of the volunteers in the
visitor center, and we walked over to the High Water Mark, the furthest
advance of the Confederate troops during Picket's Charge.
That's me near the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Behind me, a mile
back across the fields is Seminary Ridge. That's where the Army of Northern
Virginia assembled on the third day of the battle. The white speck along
the treeline is the Virginia Monument, with its statue of Robert E. Lee
on top. To either side of that point, Confederate divisions under Generals
Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble lined up for a frontal assault on the center
of the Union line. Mid-afternoon on July 3rd, 1863, about 15,000 men came
out from that treeline, forming a line miles wide-- thousands of soldiers,
all advancing towards the spot where I'm standing. The Confederates had
to cross a mile of open fields under withering fire from the entire Union
line. The local farmers still grow corn in those fields. Folks in Pennsylvania
have a saying: "Knee-high by the Fourth of July." That's how tall the corn
was during Pickett's Charge. Some Confederates actually made it to the
Union line, but the attack was beaten back with over 60 percent of the
soldiers killed or wounded. One hundred forty-one years later, there are
trails cut out amongst the crops so that visitors can walk Picket's Charge
themselves. It was all very moving.
Union fortifications on Little Round Top
From there, we got in the van and drove around to Little Round Top.
Backtracking through Gettysburg, almost back to the highway, we turned
off on a road called Wright Avenue. The turnoff wasn't marked very well.
The road took us between Big Round Top and Little Round Top, right up to
a road that circles the entire battlefield. Zack and I climbed up to where
the Maine units held off a Confederate flanking maneuver that could've
won the battle. It was quite a climb up there. The crowds weren't bad at
all. Signs told visitors to stay on the paths, as they were trying to get
the native plants to grow back. From the top of Little Round Top, we could
see the Devil's Den below us. If the Confederate army had managed to get
its artillary up there, the battle might have ended very differently.
The summit of Little Round Top gives a commanding view
of the surrounding area
There were memorials, monuments, plaques and statues all over. In fact,
the National Parks Service says there are over 1,400 memorials in the park,
from every state, every regiment, every battalion that had men on the field.
It was a perfectly pretty day. We took the driving tour around to the Bloody
Angle, and visited some more memorials. Almost 50,000 men were killed or
wounded at Gettysburg. We could've spent a couple of days exploring the
park, but we ended up only seeing about a third of the battlefield. In
no time at all, it was almost noon, and we needed to move on. We headed
out without even visiting the gift shop. (That bothered me, because I had
been collecting patches and pins --and refrigerator magnets-- from everyplace
The hills of Maryland
We headed south into Maryland, yet another state I'd never visited before.
The gently wooded hills were carpeted with tall, old trees. It reminded
me of eastern Oklahoma, on the roads near Tahlequah, in fact. Beautiful
country. We turned west on Highway 77, through the forest of the Catoctin
Mountain National Park. The light filtering in through the high canopy
made it look like we were driving through a huge cathedral. A sign told
us we were passing the Catoctin Trail, and I thought it said the Appalachian
Trail (which was actually several miles to the west). As soon as we were
out of the forest, none of the directions I'd downloaded off the Internet
made any sense. Roads that websites told me to follow didn't seem to exist.
We found ourselves in a little town that wasn't marked, but may have been
Hagerstown. We stopped at a convenience store and got directions to the
Antietam battlefield. (I wasn't above stopping to ask for directions, and
it wouldn't be the last time that trip. Or that day.) The directions took
us south through the colonial town of Boonsboro. Just west of town was
the Antietam battlefield, the site of the bloodiest single day battle
in American history.
The Sunken Road at Antietam
Ten months before Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee attempted his first invasion
of the North. Advancing into Maryland, his army was followed by Union forces
under General George McClellan. The two armies met at Antietam Creek, near
the town of Sharpsburg, on September 17, 1862. Sections of the battlefield
are still privately owned, by farmers who continue to grow crops there.
For us, it had turned into a hot afternoon. The visitor center was cool
and pleasant, and I breezed through the gift shop. There were a bunch of
kids there on a tour sponsored by the Marine Corps ("junior jarheads,"
as Will called them). We took the driving tour, going past the Dunker Church
and the bloody Cornfield, passing more memorials erected over the years.
There was a high observation tower at the Sunken Road, which also had a
nice memorial to the Irish Brigade. Someone had put a flower in the bas-relief
From there, we made our way down to Burnside Bridge, the site where a literal
handful of Confederate sharpshooters kept the Union army at bay. The bridge
itself was well-made, and big enough to drive a pickup across. I thought
it odd that such a sturdy, well-constructed bridge was so far from any
major road. That could've been because of better roads, or because of the
area being set aside from traffic after the battle. For such a pretty place,
it held a grim history. More men were killed or wounded at Antietam than
on any other single day of the Civil War. Federal and Confederate casualties
totaled over 23,000. Neither side gained a decisive victory... but it was
enough of a win to give President Lincoln the opportunity to issue the
Emancipation Proclamation, which altered the course of the war.
Everyone was getting hungry, so we backtracked through Boonsboro back
to a restaurant the convenience store people had recommended called the
Red Byrd. It was a down-home, country diner, and everyone got their fill.
I ordered spaghetti, and even though it was ordinary noodles with canned
sauce and frozen meatballs, it was hot and there was a lot of it, so I
was happy. I was tempted to head down for a look at Harper's Ferry, but
time was running late. From there, we made our way to Interstate 70, called
the Korean War Veterans Memorial Highway in Maryland, and headed towards
Washington D.C. We passed an exit for Black Rock Road, which reminded me
of Burning Man.
On the road to Washington, traffic increased dramatically. We got on
the Beltway to circle the city to our hotel, and traffic ground to a standstill.
It took us a full hour to go ten miles. The rolling roadblock went away
when we passed the Baltimore exit. It looked like half of Washington must
live in Baltimore. We got off the expressway and went the 6 or so blocks
to our Comfort Inn, which everyone was very happy with. There was a lobby
and an exercise room and shampoo in the shower. We were in the Maryland
suburb of Landover Hills, and my wife was concerned about it being a high-crime
area. (Actually, Washington and everyplace around it is one big high-crime
area.) Everybody was still full from lunch at the Red Byrd, but I needed
a beer. A walk down the street found that gas stations and corner grocers
don't sell beer, just liquor stores. We settled comfortably into the hotel
room and had a pleasant evening together.
All content copyright (c) 2004 by Tim Frayser