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1 Nov 2010


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November 1, 2010 Category: Travel Posted by:

By Renée S. Gordon


“Fellow citizens, we cannot escape history. We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.”

–A. Lincoln Dec. 1, 1862


On June 15, 1863 the first units of General Lee’s Army of Virginia crossed the Potomac River and, using the Blue Ridge Mountains to mask their movements, proceeded north to arrive in Gettysburg on July 1st. It is in the streets of the city and the surrounding countryside that the most important battle of the 60 major engagements of the Civil War would take place. The Battle of Gettysburg, the largest and bloodiest combat ever fought on American ground, and the ensuing events would be transformative for both the Confederacy and the Union and would resonate through the ages.


Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was not a sleepy little hamlet when 75,000 Confederates and 97,000 Union troops converged there. Only seven miles north of the Mason-Dixon Line, the town’s center was at the juncture of 10 roads that had once been Native American trails that led to from the Atlantic Coast through a gap in the Blue Ridge that came to be known by settlers as the Cashtown Gap. At the time of the battle the city had a population of 2400, approximately 186 blacks, 400 houses, two colleges, a new courthouse, a rail station and was famous for the building of Conestoga wagons.


Beginning in 1736 Scots-Irish families founded the Marsh Creek Settlement in this region of PA. A Presbyterian minister, Alexander Dobbin, purchased 200-acres in 1774 and in 1776 he brought two enslaved men, Cumberland Township’s first, to the community to erect a native stone building that would function as a home, school and tavern. Ironically, after his death in 1808 Dobbin’s son Matthew would become one of the area’s main Underground Railroad conductors and the house would become a major station. After the battle the building functioned as a hospital. The Alexander Dobbin House Tavern is located at 89 Steinwehr Avenue is virtually unchanged and has seven fireplaces and handcarved woodwork. The complex includes a B&B, restaurant, store and tours that include a view of the crawl space used to hide runaways. It is listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHS).


Samuel Getty’s farm was part of the settlement and in 1785 his son James purchased 116-acres of his father’s land his a tavern and by 1786 had divided the land into 10 lots radiating from what remains the town square today. James owned at least one slave, the city’s first black resident, Sydney O’Brien. She was later freed and given the plot of land on which St. Paul’s AME Church now sits. Getty’s was at 13 Baltimore Street.


The Battle of Gettysburg and the events surrounding it paint an incredible picture of the era and what was at stake for the North, the South, African Americans both enslaved and free and the ways in which the war impacted on the civilian population.


Lee believed at this point that his army was invincible and that this attack would lead to the Lincoln’s capitulation. So secure was the South in this belief that a letter had been prepared for delivery offering terms to the Union. The South’s defeat proved to be the beginning of the end and the point at which they became aware that a Civil War victory was impossible.


The Union was dispirited prior to the battle and it provided an emotional boost. Lincoln was reelected in 1864, probably as a result of renewed confidence, with more than 400,000 popular votes and an overwhelming number of votes cast by battlefield soldiers.


Both sides suffered massive losses totaling around 52,000. The South lost many of their leaders and did not have the manpower to replace them. When Lee retreated on July 4th the wagon caravan bearing the wounded stretched 17-miles.


The new, $95-million Gettysburg Visitor Center and 11-gallery Museum is absolutely the best place to obtain an overview of the Gettysburg story. The 2008 LEED Green structure’s exterior replicates the type of farmhouse found in the area in the 1860s. Galleries are arranged chronologically starting with the causes and impact of the war. Tours include “The New Birth of Freedom,” a film narrated by Morgan Freeman. Paul Philippoteaux’s Gettysburg Cyclorama is on view in the mezzanine. The round, 3-D, painting, the IMAX of the era, is 377-ft. long, 42-ft. high, and depicts Pickett’s Charge.


Gettysburg National Military Park offers a 16-stop, 24-mile auto tour that culminates in the National Cemetery. Highlighted locations are Little Round Top, the Pennsylvania Memorial, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard. A number of African Americans lived on battlefield property. The two most significant sites were the homes of James Warfield, at the treelike on Cemetery Ridge, and the 12-acre Abraham Brian farmstead. The Brian home, that was used as Union headquarters and was in the middle of Pickett’s Charge, is reconstructed on the battlefield. Post-war Brian sued the US for $1028 in damages but received only $15. Visitors can take guided bus, horse and Segway tours of the battlefield Information is available at the Visitor Center.


The Penn House, 231 High St., was the home of Rev. William F. Penn, the first African American battlefield guide. Prior to his death in 1925 he escorted his clients in a horse-drawn buggy.


The first Confederates to enter the state were commanded by Gen. Albert Jenkins. He and his men rode from town to town and captured free blacks, especially children, to send south. Estimates of the number captured are in the hundreds. African Americans, realizing what awaited them if they were caught abandoned the city in droves, following the UGRR routes that they had so often pointed out to fugitives. They knew to “keep the mountains on your left until you reached the river.” Many journeyed to Harrisburg or Philadelphia.


General Buford established his headquarters in the Globe Inn once owned by James Gettys. His Black staff did not leave town and continued to work throughout the battle, one man even taking valuables and hiding with them in the woods at the request of the owner.


The civilian story is best told at the 1860 Shriver’s House at 309 Baltimore St. On July 1st as Black families fled down Baltimore Street Henrietta Shriver, her two children and a neighbor were leaving for her family farm. The house was almost immediately taken over by Confederate soldiers and the south side of the attic became a sniper’s perch. The Shriver House Museum offers an outstanding tour of the living area, the basement saloon and the attic. The house is replete with artifacts and the attic is a fully replicated sharpshooter’s nest and appears as if they recently vacated the room. Annually they recreate the event complete with re-enactors and this is an experience not to be missed. George Shriver never returned from war. He was captured in Virginia and died in Andersonville Prison in August of 1864.


Lincoln Cemetery on Long Lane was founded in 1867. Because it was not permitted to bury black veterans in the new National Cemetery, an African American group, The Sons of Goodwill, purchased land and interred 30 veterans of the Civil War and more than 350 others.


While the Battle of Gettysburg was a defining historical event, its significance was apparent to the entire country immediately. Lawyer David Wills was charged with the duty of planning a national cemetery for the Union dead. Seventeen-acres of land was purchased, an architect designed it, burials began and Wills planned a dedication ceremony for November 19, 1863. The cemetery was designed so that there is no distinction between officers and enlisted men. Lincoln was invited to make “a few appropriate remarks” and Edward Everett, orator, Unionist and abolitionist, was selected as keynote speaker.


Lincoln arrived at the Gettysburg Railroad Station at 6 PM on November 18th and from there he walked to the home of David Wills to complete his speech and spend the night. The restored Italianate station was constructed in 1858. Displays inside include a model of the 1863 station.


David Wills Home, one of Gettysburg’s newest museums, opened in February of 2009 and is fantastic. There are six galleries and two restored rooms. Highlights of the first floor exhibits include Wills office and a copy of one of the ledgers in which, when bodies were disinterred for burial in the national cemetery, the belongings they had on them were listed. In many cases soldiers went unidentified because their belongings had been stolen. The looting was so bad that it was declared an act of treason. Copies of the books were sent to each state in hopes that the soldier would be identified. The second level showcases the bedroom in which Lincoln finished the Gettysburg Address. The room is all original, linens and furniture were donated by the Wills’ family.


In November 19, 1863 Abraham Lincoln faced a crowd of some 20,000 people who attended the dedication. He followed Edward Everett who gave a 13,607-word address over a two-hour period. Lincoln’s 256 words took just two-minutes. He placed no blame but spoke only of their sacrifice and his hope for our country’s “new birth of freedom.”


I wish you smooth and unfettered travels!

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