Gettysburg: Watershed battle
Gettysburg, Pennsylvania - It was the weirdest feeling. Exploding cannon shells flashed across the battlefield around me, smoke rose, guns roared, men shouted and horses neighed. Yet, there I was, untouched by the death-dealing.
I need not have felt embarrassed – I was told that this was more or less the effect the Gettysburg Cyclorama had on many a visitor.
The cyclorama was the early version of the IMAX theatre, and it is said that veterans of the battle that took place in and around the little Pennsylvanian town over three days in 1863 wept when, years later, they saw it depicted in the encircling picture. And that was without the light, sound and three-dimensional effects of modern technology that make it so much more realistic for visitors these days.
The cyclorama is the climax of a visit to this historic American Civil War battlefield where the country’s history took a vital turn. This year is the 150th anniversary of that brutal episode within a conflict that claimed more American lives than World Wars I and II, and the Vietnam war combined.
Gettysburg is where the union forces under Major-General George G Meade set out to block the Confederates’ victorious northward march to inflict more morale-sapping and perhaps decisive blows on the North. General Robert E Lee threw the full force of his Dixie army at the Yankees, and had he apparently known how weak the defences were at particular spots at certain times and pushed forward, the outcome and the country’s destiny may well have been different.
As it was, the union defences held. The scene depicted by the cyclorama is the so-called Pickett-Pettigrew assault, named after the commanders, which on the third day came close to breaking through the Union lines. But it was repelled, and when the three-day battle was over, 51 000 men lay dead. The air had been so filled with flying lead that the Gettysburg Museum has two bullets that collided and fused in mid-air. When Lee withdrew his army on the fourth day, the train of wounded behind him stretched for more than 20km.
More than three million people visit the site every year. It is evident from the intensity with which the many school groups listen to their teachers and guides explaining the war and the details of the battle how important a place Gettysburg holds in American history.
It is where visitors from abroad, often baffled by the US’s curiously state-divided politics, also tend to get some telling insights into the American soul.
I remember how, years ago, when I first visited America, on the US government’s foreign visitors programme, I asked people to explain what exactly that terrible war was about. They answered by talking about Confederate and less autonomous union rights, and vaguely about pro- and anti-slavery. I was intrigued to see a recent article in Time magazine explaining, after all these years, that slaves were the biggest commercial commodity in America at the time, and making it quite clear that slavery was the decisive issue.
It came to mind that in answer to my questions at the time, somebody handed me a tattered soft-cover book that had Gettysburg in its title. In it was the celebrated two-minute speech by president Abraham Lincoln in which, at a ceremony at the site about four months after the battle, he talked about the principles of human equality and of the Civil War as a struggle not merely for the Union, but as a new birth of freedom that would bring true equality to all of its citizens.
It was with these thoughts in mind about the painful issues and the ferocity with which compatriots, in many cases parents against children and siblings against each other, settled them that I went to Gettysburg in the company of my old journalist friends from Durban, David and Caroline Braun, who now live in America and work for National Geographic.
We started with a slow stroll around the visitor centre’s museum which, with exhibits and interactive programmes, takes you through the causes of the war, the local battle and the personalities involved.
We then entered a theatre to see a film A New Birth of Freedom narrated by actor Morgan Freeman before taking the escalator to the cyclorama where the lights dimmed and from a platform in the middle we saw the battle ensue.
The dramatic presentation is based on 1884 paintings by French artist Paul Dominique Philippoteaux, who was commissioned by a group of Chicago investors in 1879 to create the Gettysburg Cyclorama. Working with a team of 20 artists, he spent considerable time at the battle site to sketch and photograph the scene, and extensively research the bloody event.
After many travels and considerable damage, and even being forgotten about for a while, the painting was extensively restored and installed in the new Gettysburg Visitors Center in 2008. It is 8.2m in height and has a circumference of 109m. It has a three-dimensional diorama foreground and a sky that blends into an overhead canopy, all of which enhances the illusion of standing in the middle of the battlefield.
After the cyclorama, visitors go by bus or car on a tour of the battlefield, which spans a low valley with features named the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and the Round Tops underscoring the homeliness of the country landscape until the day the opposing armies arrived. The curio shops, eateries and hostelries lining the town’s streets are testimony to how its fate was forever changed when, it is said, holes had to be drilled into the church’s floor for the blood to drain.
The tour along a dirt road leading round the battlefield takes visitors to one after the other monument erected along the fringe in honour of the men from the respective states who joined in the encounter. Some are dramatic, like Louisiana’s which depicts an angelic figure with a trumpet rising above the form of a dead soldier. Others are brutal, like Mississippi’s which shows a soldier with his foot on a fallen opponent’s torso and preparing to smash his skull with the butt of his raised rifle. Others are just granite slabs with the name of the state, the men who died there and a message etched in. They, too, by their very simplicity, bring home the tragedy.
There is an imposing statue of General Lee on his horse, staring out over the battlefield. At the far end, at the rocky outcrop from which the Union army repelled the assaults, there is a statue of General Meade standing on a rock and also staring out across the landscape that now looks so blissfully peaceful.
It is hardly surprising that Gettysburg is a favourite haunt of those who dwell in the paranormal. There are many tales of strange sightings, of ghosts and disembodied screams, and whatever the fantasies are of the kind. It is even claimed that there tends to be a flurry of paranormal activity during the summer months when more visitors from the South visit.
What struck me was how quiet, almost respectful, the throngs of people and pupils were who passed through the visitors centre, who stopped at the various monuments along the battlefield route to read the inscriptions, and who trooped along the footpath winding among the rocks where the Union soldiers were ensconced.
It is, indeed, a deeply touching place. - Sunday Tribune