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 we'd visited.)
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 sculpture.

Burnside's Bridge
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.

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All content copyright (c) 2004 by Tim Frayser