Unexpected Lessons from the Battle of Gettysburg

When your Dad insists that your travels include a specific destination, you listen. Well, you do if you have the relationship that he and I do. So when Dad got adamant that I needed to go to Gettysburg, PA to learn about this particular Civil War battle, I added it to my itinerary.

Candidly, it wasn’t already in the plans. I don’t understand the pilgrimages that people make to visit multiple Civil War or Revolutionary War battlegrounds. Sure, there’s always something to learn, but the quest to visit fields of war…I simply don’t see what people gain from these efforts and why they choose to spend their time this way. Surely there are those who feel the same about the choices I make, like going to see a collection of 12,000 elephant figurines–just down the road from Gettysburg, in fact.

If you are someone who travels to historic battlegrounds, please enlighten me. I mean no disrespect in my lack of understanding and would be happy to learn and experience beyond my bubble world.

You Wouldn’t Believe Me

When I tell you that I’m not all that interested in history, loyal readers will call malarkey. History is sprinkled throughout most of my blog posts. To me, that’s more anthropological history: how people lived, not what transpired. And I perceive a difference.

With that knowledge of what I find interesting, consider it supremely high praise when I tell you that the National Military Park at Gettysburg is fascinating and a phenomenal production. And it truly is a production, with tours and multi-media, and the best knowledge-based museum I’ve been to (vs. art)–sorry Smithsonian; this was stellar.

That said, having shot glasses in the gift shop seemed inappropriate.

Fence at Gettysburg

The Eternity of Three Days

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days. Consider the statistics of what happened during that time frame:

  • 164,000 troops fought to the death or to retreat. The Confederate Army, who launched the attack on Union land, brought 70,000 men. The Union army, who called in reinforcements from nearby skirmishes and reconnaissance, amassed 94,000 men
  • 7,000 died; 39,000 were wounded
  • 10 states were represented with regiments fighting for the cause

Strategy vs Reality

The Confederate Army sought Gettysburg for its proximity to Washington D.C. Had they won the battle, surely the war itself would have taken a different course.

While the Confederates had the offensive advantage, they also had the reality of being poorly equipped and fed; plus the travel and travails to reach this location. One tale is of a division who woke at 3:00 am, marched 18 miles, rested for 30 minutes, had no water, and then literally climbed uphill to battle. Beyond adrenaline, how could they have the energy to fight and to fight smartly?

The Union army was taken by surprise on the first day of battle and ultimately had to retreat until reinforcements came. And they did, in droves. Signals via flags, flares, and torches notified nearby battalions of the need to come to Gettysburg.

Within the Battle of Gettysburg there are many “sub-battles” named for the land on which they were fought. Culps Hill lasted seven hours of sustained battle, the longest of the Gettysburg front. At Picketts Ridge the Confederates fired 140 cannons and the Union army fired 80…for two hours non-stop. Well, actually the Union army stopped after an hour because they couldn’t see anything in the smoke and didn’t want to waste the mortar.  The Confederate goal was to blow up everything and then be able to walk on through. It didn’t go that way.

Warfare still had men marching shoulder to shoulder: a wall of munitions approaching each other. It’s said that at one point the first impact from the clash of men and horses was heard a mile away.

Cannons at Gettysburg National Park

Caring for the Wounded and Dead

This responsibility fell to the townsfolk–at all battlegrounds, not just Gettysburg. With 7,000 men dead, the deceased outnumbered the living community by 3:1 and their bodies were across 25 square miles.

Many soldiers were buried by their regiment where they fell. But there wasn’t always time, so the townsfolk buried them in temporary, shallow graves. Heavy rains following the Battle unearthed some bodies, doubling the effort.

Temporary graves were the answer to hygiene and respect; and the knowledge that family members would flock to the Battleground to claim bodies for proper burial back home. I can’t fathom the logistics of finding people.

Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, which impacted the town, too. Caring for the wounded, burying the dead, and trying to tend their farms for livelihood. They were the first town to ask for government assistance, which then became standard. In addition, the National Cemetery was established for Union soldiers. At its consecration, President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address.

“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation: conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war. . .testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated. . . can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war….”

The Gettysburg National Military Park is filled with more than 1,320 monuments, memorials, and markers to indicate events and fallen leaders.

Historical Marker at Gettysburg National Park

Monuments at Gettysburg National Park

Unexpected Perspectives on Slavery and the Civil War

At the time, the South produced 70% of the world’s cotton. The North was dependent upon this for trade, banking, etc. So while the North may not have endorsed slavery explicitly, many did so implicitly through business. A conflict of interests and of morals.

The question spurring the Civil War was not, in fact, whether to continue with slavery in the South, but which type of labor would be availed in the expansion to the West: free labor or slave labor? The future of the country was dependent upon the future of the West, as were the fortunes to be made. And labor decisions were central. I never knew that. Did you?

Civil War flags

Images courtesy of Bing.com

Slaves who escaped during the Civil War were considered “contraband” by the Union army. Because they were perceived as property of the enemy, now in the “possession” of the Union, the “goods” had to be applied to the war cause. So these escaped slaves were forced into military labor as cooks, aids, runners, etc. Stunning.

Music on the Battlefield

The primary instruments: bugle, fife, and drum. They were used for the cadence of a march and issuing military commands (think of the volume).

Music on the Battlefield in the Civil War

Images courtesy of Bing.com

Turning Point of the Civil War

The Battle of Gettysburg is considered a turning point of the war. I understand that in terms of proximity to D.C., but am intrigued by the phrasing when there were two more years of war. In my mind, a turning point precedes imminence.


Clearly this is not a comprehensive study; although perhaps the longest post I’ve written (thanks for staying till the end). With that in mind, what do you wish you knew about the Civil War? Or, what’s something you learned that you’d like to share?

3 Responses


Thank you for perspective and another insightful post. When I visited the site over 40 years ago, I simply saw lush green fields with gently rolling hills. Markers, yes, but media, education and, fortunately, shot glasses were not available. Or I was unaware. But even then I could envision the wrath of war, the expanse of dead and wounded across the now peaceful meadows. You’re both “teacher” (to your readers) and student, willing to experience. Thanks for sharing.


I stayed till the end and am glad I did, I learned a lot. Before this post most of my Civil War knowledge came from Scarlett and Rhett. Neither of them thought it was very civil, especially Scarlett.
Fiddle dee dee. War, war, war.

Tomorrow IS another day. Perhaps there will be more to learn…

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