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Wednesday, June 5, 2013 : Gettysburg, Shenandoah National Park

 

As we feared, we did not sleep too well, with PA-340 right under our window.

 

The breakfast at the Greystone Manor is like the hotel, plentiful, excellent and friendly. The hostess cooks it right under our eyes and serves us at our table.

 

We then take the road to Gettysburg, for a brilliant history lesson about the Civil War, improperly called the War of Secession by the French.

 

Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center entrance

Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center entrance

 

Although it stood at the crossing of no less than 10 roads and at the end of the railroad from WashingtonGettysburg did not become a strategic stake from the onset of the Civil War. General Robert E. Lee, pursuing the triple objective of opening the road to the industrial cities of Pennsylvania, strangling the Union capital, and inflicting Northern Armies such a bloody defeat on their own territory that their morale would never recover, had the  idea of taking the town. That move was kind of risky, and highly remarkable in military terms. Had it succeeded, the fate of the Union and the Confederacy would probably have been a definitive separation. But it is not the outcome that history remembers.

 

The battlefield, 6 miles North to South and 4 West to East, has become a military park managed by the National Park Service. As in any other park, the various sites are very carefully preserved and maintained.

 

Seeing those quiet green fields, it is hard to think that here, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, a battle was fought which, in three days, caused as many casualties per acre as the battle of Verdun, during WWI, did in 10 months. Gettysburg was an awful carnage for both the Confederacy and the Union, and irony remembers a roughly equal human price for each camp.

 

We should also not forget that the Union Armies were really on the brink of folding under the repeated assaults of Confederate troops. The ultimate victory of the North was due to a few smart moves, cleverly executed, that finally took a decisive importance.

 

After the Gettysburg debacle, the South never fully recovered its military might nor the fervent enthusiasm of 1861. Less than two years later, everything was over.

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Reconstitution of the Battle of Gettysburg at the Cyclorama Theater

Reconstitution of the Battle of Gettysburg at the Cyclorama Theater

 

The visit begins with the museum, inside which the Cyclorama Theater, a 360° movie theater, is located. The film of the battle, a superb sound-and-light show, is projected on the circular wall of the room. The spectator is situated on the Union positions of Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, first fortified, then very seriously threatened, almost overran and finally preserved. We are at the most strategic place, where General George Meade, who was in command of Union troops, had installed his headquarters. From up there, the view of the battlefield is panoramic.

 

The battle was so tough that, as shown on the picture, fighting went on even late at night, whether to finish an assault in progress or in an attempt to surprise the enemy.

 

Artillery played a major part in both camps. During this battle, each assault was preceded by a torrential artillery barrage, to destroy the fortifications as well as the enemy morale, with shells supposed to explode just above the enemy lines. These bombardments obviously caused tremendous human damage in each of the armies.

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Battle of Gettysburg, the Copnfederacy, attacking on the left, puts the Union in great trouble

Confederate troops, attacking on the left, put Union troops in serious trouble

 

The first two days of the battle ended with a net advantage for the Confederacy. Well organized, well equipped, well commanded by General Lee, the Confederate troops prevailed in most assaults.

 

At dusk on July 2nd, the North only maintained a few positions on Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, attacked on its rear, and Little Round Top. The situation was turning really bad for the Union.

 

As always in such a case, civilians paid a disproportionate price for a conflict in which they only participated from afar. After the battle, the city of Gettysburg, 2,500 inhabitants at the time, was just a pile of smoldering ruins, totally deserted by its population.

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Gettysburg battle field, between two assaults

Between two assaults, men and horses are taken care of

 

During the occasional lull, the wounded are evacuated, men and horses are taken care of, and soldiers can eat, drink and perhaps have a short rest, while waiting for the next assault.

 

The split-rail fences shown on the right of the picture played a large part in the battle. We will talk more about them later.

 

A supply mistake is probably the reason why the last Confederate bombardment, on July 3rd, failed to destroy whatever remained of the Union positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. The fuses of the shells were miscalculated and made them explode beyond their intended objectives, causing only rather limited damage. The last assault of the Confederacy, exhausted by three days of battle, broke off against the North's resilience.

 

General Lee's very last reinforcements were late and could not even be engaged. Anyway, they would not have been able to change the course of the battle.

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Gettysburg Museum, President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation

 

At the very last moment, and by the slimmest of margins, the Union prevailed and won the Battle of Gettysburg.

 

What happened next is well-known. The Confederacy finally capitulated, Secessionnists states were readmitted into the Union, President Lincoln emancipated the slaves. Then he was assassinated.

 

After the film, we quickly visit the museum. We have to shorten this interesting visit, we are expected at the bus station for a battlefield guided tour.

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Gettysburg, Eternal Light Peace Memorial

Eternal Light Peace Memorial

 

The guide who leads the visit is an expert. He knows everything there is to know about this battle, the precise timeline of events, the position of each unit during each assault, the arrival of reinforcements on various routes, absolutely everything. And with his liveliness, there is no way to get bored.

 

Only one regret for Marie, he only speaks English. I do my best to translate most of his speech.

 

The visit follows a more or less chronological order. It lasts about two hours, which I do not see passing, with many stops on the battlefield.

 

One of the first stops is at the Eternal Light Peace Memorial, dedicated to the victims of both camps. There is no official toll of the Battle of Gettysburg. Many bodies have never been identified, and sometimes not even attributed to either camp. The most reliable estimates put the number of casualties at anything between 44,000 and 51,000 for the three days of the battle.

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Split-rail fence, without nails. In the back, the city of Gettysburg

Split-rail fence, without nails. In the back, the city of Gettysburg

 

Coming back toward the city of Gettysburg, we once again notice these split-rail fences, very common in cattle-raising areas. They have neither nails nor links, they are just laid on the ground, and they can easily be moved from one field to another, to keep a herd inside. On a battlefield, they are a significant tactical advantage, when one camp needs to stop, or at least to slow down, the advance of an enemy, or just to be warned of a nightly attack attempt.

 

We will see more later, in the south of the battlefield.

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Crossed Union and Confederacy flags

Crossed Union and Confederacy flags

 

We make a break in downtown Gettysburg. Today, the city is prosperous and, with the exception of a few bullet holes in the oldest buildings, no longer bears the scars of the battle.

 

I notice that our bus bears the crossed flags of both the Confederacy and the Union. I can't help but see there a glimmer of hope for other similarly intractable conflicts elsewhere in the world. This is the idealist in me.

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Gettysburg station, where Lincoln arrived on November 18, 1863

Gettysburg station, where Lincoln arrived on November 18, 1863

 

While crossing the city, we pass in front of the small train station where President Lincoln arrived on November 18, 1863. At the time, it was the end of the railroad coming straight from Washington. Contrary to a popular misconception, the Gettysburg Address does not date from the battle itself (the day after the Union victory was Independence Day), but from more than four months later.

 

In theory, Lincoln had come to inaugurate the military cemetery dedicated to the victims of both camps. In a few simple yet highly powerful words, this essential speech, as familiar to Americans as the Declaration of Independence or the Constitution, delivers a totally different message that, without repudiating the past, confirms the present and resolutely turns toward the future and the reconciliation of people.

 

Lincoln spoke only for two minutes at Gettysburg, but those minutes made history.

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Gettysburg battlefield, 15th New York Independent Artillery Battery memorial

15th New York Independent Artillery Battery memorial

 

We continue the visit with the battlefields of the second day, the southernmost of the park.

 

The whole site is dotted with about 1,400 monuments, large or small, that celebrate here an isolated action, there the feat of a battalion, further again the bravery of a complete army. They remind us that conscription did not, after all, play such a big role in the conflict. Many armies were drafted by states, which financed, trained and transported them onto the battlefields.

 

The presence of two artillery pieces of the 15th New York Independent Artillery Battery seems quite odd in the beautiful Pennsylvania coutryside. It is hard to imagine bloodshed on such a scale in these peaceful hills. Yet ...

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Gettysburg, Little Round Top

Little Round Top. If the Confederates had taken it ...

 

Our guide stops us at the foot of Little Round Top, a securely defended Union position, firmly protected by artillery batteries with the advantage of altitude and troops sheltered in carefully prepared trenches.

 

With sheer courage and determination, the Confederates attacked the hill anyway, and were on the brink of overrunning it. The fight went on until late at night, hand-to-hand, with bayonets, even inside the trenches. Gouverneur Kemble Warren, a highly skilled commander, never lost his composure, even as the battle was turning really bad. He was very wise in his tactical choices, most notably in the progressive engagement of his various units, which ultimately allowed the Union to keep the position. He thus proved that an engineer by trade can nevertheless make relevant decisions.

 

We can try to remake history. What would have happened if the Confederates had taken Little Round Top in the night of July 2nd ? The left flank of the Union positions would have been in a disastrous situation, its Southern part would most likely have crumbled, and the outcome of the whole battle might have turned entirely different.

 

Almost simultaneously, Confederate troops from Kentucky were seriously attacking the Union position at Culp's Hill, climbing about two-thirds up the hill, and narrowly failing to encircle General Meade's headquarters. Heavy fighting went on for most of the night to save what could be saved of the hill.

 

At Spangler Hill, on the eastern side of Culp's Hill, monuments dedicated to each of the camps are so numerous and so close to each other that it is hard to tell who occupied which piece of land at what precise time. Pretending that the fighting was fierce and the situation undecided is a very mild understatement.

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Gettysburg, Pennsylvania State Memorial

Pennsylvania State Memorial

 

Back on the grassy meadow, we stop at the Pennsylvania State Memorial. This monument, the largest at Gettysburg, is dedicated to the 34,530 soldiers from Pennsylvania who fought here. It is erected at the exact place where, on the second day of the battle, powerful artillery batteries bombarded Confederate troops preparing an assault west of the position. A little later, it became necessary to reinforce those batteries with infantry units.

 

Our visit of the Gettysburg battlefield is now over. it was highly educative and fascinating.

 

We leave the military park. Pennsylvania, MarylandWest Virginia, and finally Virginia, this is another four-state day !

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Entrance of Shenandoah National Park, start of the Skyline Drive

Entrance of Shenandoah National Park, start of the Skyline Drive

 

We pass close to Hagerstown, Maryland, where I have a good friend but, unfortunately, we have no time to stop. After crossing West Virginia, which seceded from Virginia in 1863 in order to remain within the Union, we eventually enter Virginia. We are going to spend several days in this state rich with historical heritage, which gave the Union no less than 8 Presidents.

 

History has to wait until tomorrow. For the rest of this day, we enjoy the beautiful scenery of Shenandoah National Park.

 

This long and narrow park is located on the crestline of the Blue Ridge Mountains, the first Appalachian mountain range starting from the Atlantic, more or less parallel to the coast. Further west, there are three more mountain ranges, lower and lower, up to the large Midwest plains. The Skyline Drive is the park's main artery, crossing it end-to-end on 105 miles, from Front Royal in the North to Waynesboro in the South.

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Shenandoah National Park, Shenandoah River Valley overlook

Shenandoah National Park, Shenandoah River Valley overlook

 

As implied by its name, the Skyline Drive stretches along the crestline of the highest Appalachian range, passing from one side to the other by passes pretty close to the summits. To enjoy these gorgeous landscapes, there are about two dozens overlooks. We are not going to stop at each one and still, we will reach Charlottesville after dark.

 

We have stopped at one of the first overlooks, Shenandoah Valley Overlook, from which we can see the wide valley of the Shenandoah River and, further up, West Virginia, where we came from. With such a beautiful weather, sight extends to tens of miles. It is late spring, and vegetation is harmoniously green. I wish I could come back in fall, to enjoy the contrasted shades of yellow and red of the Indian Summer.

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Shenandoah National Park, a local falcon looking for prey

A local falcon looking for prey

 

Shenandoah National Park is rich with plant and animal life, it won't be long before we realize it.

 

At another stop, Marie takes this picture of a falcon looking for prey.

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Shenandoah National Park, view of the Blue Ridge Mountains

View of the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

This picture accurately shows the successive Appalachian mountain ranges, beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. It is almost late afternoon, the sun is already setting, and the right part of the picture is a little overexposed.

 

No mistake, we are really on the crestline.

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Shenandoah National Park, a wild turkey on the side of the road

A wild turkey on the side of the road

 

If you want to enjoy random encounters, it is better not to drive too fast on the Skyline Drive. Here, a wild turkey looking for food is slowly strolling in the grass along the road, more bothered by her next meal than by our temporary and stealthy presence.

 

We relish the idea that such an elegant bird will be, in perfect accordance with the tradition, pardoned by the President for Thanksgiving.

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Shenandoah National Park, the sky is getting cloudy on the Blue Ridge Mountains

The sky is getting cloudy on the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

At another stop, a ranger comes to chat with us. I first assume that he thought I was kind of overspeeding, but no, he just wants to show us a path well hiden beneath the trees, that leads to the overlook shown on the picture.

 

We notice that the sky seems to be getting cloudy. This is not exactly good news.

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Shenandoah National Park, young female white-tailed deer

Young female white-tailed deer

 

We had not planned to cross Shenandoah National Park late in the afternoon, we are just very lucky to see many animals looking for food around dinner time. We probably would never have seen so many of them earlier in the day.

 

This young female white-tailed deer, quite common in this park, is peering at us with curiosity. She is not going away, she is merely waiting.

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Shenandoah National Park, sunset on the Blue Ridge Mountains

Sunset on the Blue Ridge Mountains

 

The sky is getting cloudier by the minute at sunset, giving this ethereal shade of yellow behind the Blue Ridge Mountains. The valleys are already in the dark.

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Shenandoah National Park, a beautiful doe

A beautiful doe

 

We notice this beautiful doe at the last second. She is right there, so close to the edge of the road that Marie can take the picture without the zoom. She has so much intensity in her look !

 

Once again, we bless the fortunate timing that made us cross this beautiful park at its residents' dinner time.

 

We finally leave Shenandoah National Park. The Skyline Drive goes further south without us and becomes the Blue Ridge Parkway, down to the mountains of Georgia. We take Interstate 64 for a few miles to Charlottesville. We are staying at the Cavalier Inn, on the campus of the University of Virginia. From outside, this hotel looks a bit basic, but the room is large and includes a very wide bed. Gusts of rain have begun to fall.

 

We have dinner in a nearby restaurant, The Villa, where food is simple but very decent, and the AC blows too cold to Marie's taste. The lasagna curse goes on, Marie can't have any here too.

 

Back in the room, I update the blog while Marie writes her diary in her notebook.

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