“It was an awful affair altogether”: The Battle of Gettsyburg

This past Sunday, I was able to take the trip North to visit Gettysburg. I’ve been interested in the Civil War since my love of President Lincoln was kindled in 2009 so a trip to the most famous battlefield was a mandatory pilgrimage.

Upon arriving, we by passed the introductory film but for those who are unfamiliar with those three bloody days in July, it’s probably worth shelling out the $12.50. (You also get admission to the museum and cyclorama of Pickett’s Charge) There are also options for bus and private tours of the nearly 6,000 National Park, but we opted for the free self-guided auto tour. You can pick up an auto tour map in the Visitor’s Center that provides information of the events that happened along the route.

Auto Tour route sign

The auto tour starts at McPherson Ridge, to the northwest of the town of Gettysburg, where the battle began on July 1, 1863 at 8am when Union cavalry confronted Confederate infantry. Continuing on, is the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, where at 1 pm on July 1, the Confederates fought back at the Union soldiers on McPherson and Oak Ridge. On the 75th anniversary of the battle, Civil War veterans dedicated this memorial with President Franklin Roosevelt.

Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Panorama of Oak Ridge, where Union soldiers fought Confederates until 3pm, when they were forced to retreat.

Panorama of Oak Ridge, where Union soldiers fought Confederates until 3pm, when they were forced to retreat.

Our next stop was the Virginia Memorial, which was also the location of Pickett’s Charge on July 3.  The memorial is located to the east of Spangler Woods with General Robert E. Lee and his favorite horse, Traveler, looking out across the field of Pickett’s Charge.

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There’s a short path that leads down to the location of Pickett’s Charge, but it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. Pickett’s Charge was a devastating blow to Confederate forces, with over 50% of the men in grey killed in action. The reason for the huge Confederate loss was due to an oversight; Emmitsburg Road, which ran between the Confederate and Union lines, dipped into a valley and was bordered by a fence. Basic wartime tactic: you never want to be below your enemy.

Panorama of Pickett's Charge

Panorama of Pickett’s Charge

Another major battle location was Little Round Top, and subsequently Devil’s Den. On July 2, Union forces successfully defeated Confederates who were firing from the nearby Devil’s Den. Though the Confederates were guarded by the natural protection of the boulders of the den,  they were still firing at an enemy that was situated higher above them. Little Round Top provided sweeping views of large sections of the battlefield, making the location incredibly desirable.

Panorama of Little Round Top. The Devil's Den can be seen to the rear left.

Panorama of Little Round Top. The Devil’s Den can be seen to the rear left.

Gettysburg is ranked #3 on “most haunted places in America” and the Devil’s Den is perhaps the most haunted place within the battlefield. The location is where Confederate snipers hid to fire at Union forces located on Little Round Top History remembers this location from the infamous picture of the Confederate sharpshooter taken by photographers Alexander Gardner and Timothy O’Sullivan.

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Devil’s Den

There are numerous reports of camera batteries suddenly draining at the location of the photo of the sharpshooter and capturing images that weren’t there, or capturing nothing at all. On our trip, we saw nothing out of the ordinary, though rumor has it the solider haunts the area because the photographers moved his body from it’s original location to stage the photograph.

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On top of Devil’s Den. You can see Little Round Top ahead.

And of course, there’s Abraham Lincoln. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and delivered his famous Gettysburg Address.

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Memorial to President Lincoln

Memorial to President Lincoln

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Graves of Unknown Soldiers

Soldiers' National Monument, approximate location of where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address

Soldiers’ National Monument, approximate location of where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address

Though I’m a big fan of Lincoln, I didn’t know too many details about the battle. Being submerged in the actual location is perhaps one of the best ways to learn; seeing the same sights soldiers saw 150 years ago is quite surreal and humbling.

It’s impossible not to think of the thousands of lives who fought and how their loss completely changed our history.

Gettysburg Tips:

  • Plan plenty of time when visiting Gettysburg. We didn’t arrive at Gettysburg until about noon and didn’t finish our tour until about 4pm.
  • The park also offers hiking and bridle trails, if you prefer a more authentic experience.
  • It’s hot in the summer. I’m not sure what it is about historic areas, but they seem to be about 10 degrees hotter than any surrounding area. Dress accordingly.
  • It might be helpful if you brush up on some Civil War history. Unless you enjoy learning through submersion, which is cool too!
  • It’s practically free (unless you choose the add-ons) and you have literally no excuse to pay this important historic park a visit!

More Than A Ghost Story: Harpers Ferry

This weekend, I took a drive with some old friends and visited Harpers Ferry, WV.  Known for it’s rich Civil War history (John Brown’s raid, anyone?), this pretty little town–a population of only 285–is perfect for a hike and a history lesson.

We started our day trekking up the most popular trail, Maryland Heights. Topping at 1,600 feet, Maryland Heights features picturesque views from the Blue Ridge mountain range.

We passed the Naval Battery, which protected Harpers Ferry from Stonewall Jackson’s Valley Campaign in 1862. At the top of the mountain is the Overlook, where most of the pictures of the day were taken.

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A train came through the mountain while we were exploring!

From this height, you can see where the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers combine, making the cusp of the town of Harpers Ferry. If hiking isn’t your ideal of fun on a humid summer day, there are a variety of tubing and kayaking tours that take you down the Potomac River.

After the hike, we made our way back down the mountain to explore the town. The main focus of downtown is the history of John Brown, the abolitionist who attempted to start an armed slave revolt by appropriating a national arsenal in town.

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The “fort” John Brown and his men barricaded themselves inside after they failed to retain the arsenal.

While some buildings are open and functioning as restaurants, shops, and inns, most are used as self-guided museums, allowing visitors to learn and visit at their own pace.

Downtown Harpers Ferry

Downtown Harpers Ferry

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White Tavern Hall

There are several exhibits throughout town, devoted to Storer College, the water conservatory, John Brown, Meriwether Lewis, and Civil War history. I was especially excited to see that Thomas Jefferson was a presence here, having visited briefly in 1783 while traveling to Philadelphia with his daughter, Patsy.

Jefferson stood on a rock, which still stands today, and commented on the view that he saw in his only published book, Notes on the State of Virginia. 

“The passage of the Patowmac through the Blue Ridge is perhaps one of the most stupendous scenes in Nature.”

Full quote can be found here.

The view Jefferson described.

The view Jefferson described.

Jefferson Rock

Jefferson Rock

Harper House, where the Jeffersons stayed while in Harpers Ferry.

Harper House, where the Jeffersons stayed while in Harpers Ferry.

But another story from Harpers Ferry that’s lurking around every corner are the ghost stories. It seems that every soul that has stayed here has found it impossible to leave, from the likes of John Brown to John Wilkes Booth. The Harpers Ferry Ghost Tour has been rated #1 Ghost Tour on Trip Advisor, and they run every day at 8:00pm.   A selection of ghost stories from the area can be read here.

There’s no doubt the town is spooky, half the buildings look abandoned and there seems to be a permanent mist hugging the mountains, but we saw no paranormal activity on this trip.

Harpers Ferry is the perfect day-trip for those interested in hiking, history, or just looking to be transported back in time for a few hours. Though a lost cost trip–parking is $10, but everything else, excluding meals and souvenirs, are free, you’ll leave with far more than the chill down your spine.

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Panorama of Maryland Heights

Panorama of Maryland Heights

 

 

“Remember the Ladies.”

Men have written history books, but the women set the score. Here is a small sample of my favorite historical ladies.

1. Abigail Adams

There’s a reason Laura Linney was chosen to portray her in the John Adams HBO miniseries: it was simply perfect casting. Abigail tops many a badass ladies list not only because she married one president and gave birth to another. Abigail was unlike any woman of her time.

Where most men in the 18th century considered their wives only as cooks and baby makers, John Adams constantly sought out his wife’s opinion on many political matters. When John was in Philadelphia during the summer of 1776, she wrote to her husband, urging him to “remember the ladies” during America’s fight for independence. If you love a good romance, a selection of the hundreds of letters they wrote to each other can be found in My Dearest Friend. It’s because of these letters that we have such a documented grasp on the amazing woman she was. Abigail was also an advocate of a woman’s right to own property and education. She believed that women should not submit to their husbands, but should be educated and treated more as equals.

Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favorable to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If particular care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice or Representation.”

Abigail to John Adams, March 1776

Abigail is the definitive woman of the Revolution due to her wit, charm, and intelligence. She was unmatched during her time and still revered today.

2. Martha Jefferson

Unlike Abigail, we know practically nothing about the woman who stole Thomas Jefferson’s heart. We aren’t even completely sure the above silhouette is hers. But we do know she was supposedly incredibly beautiful and kind. She was described as exceedingly intelligent, very musical, advanced in needlework, and ran Monticello when her husband was away.

She started the production of beer at Monticello, which Thomas continued for the rest of his own life. Neighbors and even their own slaves adored Martha, and she was often found in the kitchen helping prepare meals when she wasn’t ill. During her term as First Lady of Virginia, she raised fund to support the American troops and joined with the Ladies Association of Virginia to raise $300,000 for linen shirts for Washington’s freezing army.

Martha died when she was 33, after being married to Jefferson for only 10 years. Jefferson never remarried. Her kind and caring nature lives on throughout the numerous places in Charlottesville, Virginia named after her, including Martha Jefferson Hospital.

3. Elizabeth Hamilton

Elizabeth (or Eliza or Betsey, as Hamilton called her) was the envy of all 18th century women when she won the heart of Solider heartthrob, Alexander Hamilton. Together they had eight children before Hamilton’s untimely death in 1804 (See Duel!). Eliza outlived her husband by fifty years, passing away at the age of 97 in 1854. Throughout her life, she staunchly defended her husband against critics and even stood by him during personal scandals. She devoted her life to protecting her husband’s image, hired assistants to sort his papers and recruited biographers to tell his story.

Even though her husband left her with a brood of children and mountain of debt, Eliza never remarried. Instead, she focused her energy on helping those less fortunate by co-founding New York’s first private orphanage, the New York Orphan Asylum Society. In her later years, Eliza lived in Washington DC, where she and Dolley Madison raised money to fund the Washington Monument.

4. Sybil Ludington

We all know the rhyme, “Listen my children and you shall hear/Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere.” But Paul Revere wasn’t the only midnight rider, though he is the most famous.

On April 26, 1777, 16-year-old Sybil Ludington mounted her horse, Star, and rode 40 miles, more than twice the distance Revere rode, from Carmel, NY to Mahopac, to Kent Cliffs anad Farmers Mill before returning home, warning residents of the British marching on nearby Danbury, Connecticut.

During the nearly nine hour ride, she galloped through mud and rain, and defended herself against a highwayman with a large stick. Though the soldiers arrived too late to save Danbury, Sybil was hailed as a hero and was even congratulated by General George Washington.

Since 1979, the Sybil Ludington 50k Footrace is held in Carmel, NY and traces her famous route.

Do you have a favorite historical lady? Leave her name and cause in the comments below!

“For God’s Sake, John, Sit Down!”

Ah yes, the Fourth of July. A day off work and an excuse to eat to excess while lighting explosives. America.

Though we have celebrated this holiday for hundreds of years, few know that John Adams was the one who foresaw the pomp and circumstance of July 4th. “I believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival,” he wrote in a letter to his wife, Abigail. “It ought to be celebrated by pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations from one end of this continent to the other…”

You're welcome, America. Now blow up some explosives. INDEPENDENCE!!!

You’re welcome, America. Now blow up some explosives. INDEPENDENCE!!!

If you’re so inclined you can also listen to Mr. Feeny himself (William Daniels) as John Adams sing about this in the musical 1776.

Most of the parties happen in the late afternoon or after sundown. That leaves a decent chunk of the day to lounge around in anticipation for the festivities to come. Why don’t you sit down and give 1776 a watch on Thursday? It’s a bit of a doozy (nearly three hours!) but a hilarious interpretation of the events of the summer of 1776. Franklin’s a bit of a creep, Adams is always angry, Jefferson is swoon-worthy, Lee is hilarious, and Hancock just wants to go home. (You can rent it for $2.99 on Amazon! Do it! Start a new tradition before you put your liver into overdrive! Or drink and watch it! Take a shot every time someone tells John Adams to sit down! Don’t worry, you’ll catch on fast.)

"WON'T SOMEBODY OOOOOOOPEN UP A WINDOW!????"

“SOMEONE OUGHTA OPEN UP A WINDOOOOOOOOW!!!”

Documentaries can be dry and a book is hard to swallow in day. A film isn’t. Granted, you’ve been bottle fed the story of the Declaration of Independence since you could wipe your own butt, but I’m sure there’s at least one aspect of it you never knew.

There was originally a slavery clause in the Declaration of Independence? Yup! New York abstained from voting on anything of importance? Sure thing! The delegates fought so much that a motion to even discuss Independence almost didn’t pass? You betcha!

I’m quickly reminded of the recent Spielberg film, Lincoln. Though we obviously knew the 13th Amendment was passed, many watched the final scene with baited breath. 1776 is incredibly similar. At the very least, you’ll notice that 18th century politics doesn’t differ too much for today.

The musical also does an excellent job of rounding out some Founders who aren’t the household names Adams, Jefferson, and Franklin are. John Dickinson is Adams’ main opposition. A delegate from Pennsylvania, Dickinson believed that independence was necessary but the time to declare it could wait. Adams, obviously, disagreed and Dickinson gets to sing a really cool song about being a conservative. (I’m serious. It’s one of my favorite songs in the whole show. Anyone doing a reverse gender 1776? Call me. I do great renditions in my car when driving to work.)

Fun fact. This song was cut from the theatrical movie release because President Nixon thought it was a personal jab towards him.

If this is too much of a history lesson overload, don’t worry there’s a romantic break. The only two female characters in the show are Abigail Adams and Martha Jefferson. Abigail only appears in visions John has and their dialogue is based upon the actual letters of the Adams’. Martha Jefferson is introduced when Thomas refuses to write the Declaration of Independence because he misses his wife and Adams is forced to send for her. She also gets an awesome song.

She’s really into dudes that play the violin…

If you’re someone who knows a lot or nothing at all about the Congress of 1776 and the passing of Declaration of Independence, you’ll learn something while watching 1776. And you won’t even know it.