Bystanders discuss history near this marker, which commemorates the efforts of Confederate soldiers from North Carolina.MARK GUYDISH photos/FOR THE TIMES LEADER
After their leader slapped a history book shut and yelled ‘Charge!’ these young men raced across the Gettysburg Battlefield last weekend, in the path of Pickett’s Charge. The lad in the right foreground quit running sooner than some of his comrades.
In the breakfast nook of a Gettysburg motel, a boy entertained two younger siblings last weekend by marching a packet of instant cocoa across the table.
“This is General Lee,” he said, making the packet give a little bow to an apple.
“Ah surrendah,” the boy declared, affecting what he imagined was the general’s Southern accent.
The youth knew Confederate General Robert E. Lee ultimately surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant – on April 9, 1865, in Appomattox Court House, Va.
But he and his brother and sister seemed hungry for information about what came earlier in the Civil War, specifically the three-day Battle of Gettysburg in July 1863.
Which side “had” Gettysburg before the battle, the children asked their mother, North or South?
“Well, we’re in Pennsylvania, and Pennsylvania is in the North,” she said. “But we’ll find out …”
That family had come to an ideal place to learn about the Civil War, from such sweeping facts as “the war claimed 618,000 lives” to such details as the story of a wounded General Francis Barlow accepting a drink of water from the canteen of an opposing officer, or a civilian named Mary McAllister “braving bullets in the street” to tend the wounded.
The stories seem to be everywhere in Gettysburg – on plaques in downtown streets, in the mouths of tour guides, in museum displays, books and pamphlets and on audio recordings you can buy in a gift shop.
They’re also interspersed among more than 1,400 markers on the sprawling battlefield, where history lessons of all kinds take place.
“Charge!” an energetic man yelled on a recent sunny afternoon, slapping shut the history book from which he’d been reading aloud and leading about a dozen boys – Boy Scouts, perhaps -- on a run across the battlefield in the path once taken by Confederate infantry in a futile assault that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge.
Not all the boys ran the final 200 or so feet of the three-quarter mile distance. “I’m dead,” one quipped as he slowed to a walk.
On July 3, 1863, more than half of the 12,500 Confederate soldiers who attempted Pickett’s Charge, under heavy artillery and gunfire, did become casualties.
If you had been a soldier at Gettysburg, one museum sign explains, your chances of surviving the three days of fighting unscathed were only 1 in 4.
Such sobering statistics are among the lore you’re bound to absorb at Gettysburg National Military Park, which Budget Travel magazine named one of the “15 places every kid should visit” in January and which the non-profit, Detroit-based Student and Youth Travel Association has chosen as a “Top 10” destination.
But Gettysburg isn’t just for students and youth. Even on a chilly weekend in March -- well before the busy summer season, and even before the planned opening of a new visitors center in April -- history buffs of all ages clambered to the top of battlefield viewtowers, peered into the long, dark barrels of cannons and shopped in downtown stores filled with 19th-century styles.
Sometimes they even slept where famous officers had camped.
General’s Lee’s former headquarters, for example, is now the site of a Quality Inn on Route 30, just a few blocks from the center of town.
In the adjacent museum, visitors can read how Mary Thompson, known to the townsfolk as Widow Thompson, was forced to allow the general and his staff to live in her home.
All of her clothes, except what she wore, became bandages. All of her carpets were used to wrap the dead.
Here you’ll find faded uniforms and drums, sabers and cartridge boxes and a surgeon’s kit – complete with amputation saw.
But, among the military souvenirs, there’s an occasional cheery note, such as the one Sgt. Michael M. Miller wrote to his wife, describing how his belt buckle saved his life by deflecting a piece of ammunition. Sure enough, the metal plate, with a piece of it blown away, is on display.
On a recent morning, the mood in the museum also was lightened by an upbeat song about boiled peanuts, often the only food available to soldiers in the 1860s:
“Goober peas, goober peas. Oh, how delicious! Eating goober peas!” the jolly, recorded voices rang out.
Outside, scores of tourists drove or bicycled through the quiet battlefield. They rode buses and horses, too. Some strolled to the forested summit of Big Round Top or shot photos of the better view from another battle scene, Little Round Top.
A visitor probably needs several days to come close to thoroughly exploring Gettysburg, but if you have only one day, you can still reach the highlights of the battlefield.
You’ll most likely go home inspired – or overwhelmed – by testimony about bravery, from the inscription about the 19-year-old private who amputated his own shattered leg with a pocket knife, then gave away his last canteen of water, to the fallen officer whose aide paid tribute:
“Wherever the fight raged the fiercest, there the general was sure to be found.”
For more information about travel to Gettysburg, visit www.gettysburg.travel or call 800-337-5015.