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This article by Phyllis Maguire was prepared for the May 21, 2003
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Gettysburg’s Hallowed Ground
Few place names carry more meaning or weight than
the Pennsylvania farm town where this country’s most ferocious battle
took place. Here at the crossroads of several routes used by farmers
to bring crops and animals to market, 165,000 soldiers hurled
at one another during the first three days of July, 1863.
As many as 11,000 of those men gave what Abraham Lincoln, who
their burial ground, called the "last full measure of
The battle they fought was the turning point of a civil war that,
arguably, determined this country’s boundary lines as well as its
political makeup and economic system. Now, nearly 2 million visitors
a year — 60,000 of them from abroad — come to Gettysburg to
ponder the struggle made here to preserve "government of the
by the people, for the people."
Historian James McPherson, who has written more than 20 books on the
Civil War, has visited Gettysburg more times than he can remember.
Dozens of those visits have been to lead his students on an April
tour of the battlefield, one McPherson has made in many of his 40
years as a Princeton University professor.
In his latest book, "Hallowed Ground: A Walk At Gettysburg,"
just published, readers can follow this superbly knowledgeable guide
for an engrossing armchair tour, and take it along into the field.
McPherson will discuss "Hallowed Ground" on Thursday, May
22, at 7 p.m., at Barnes & Noble in MarketFair.
Long considered one of the country’s preeminent Civil War historians,
McPherson in this slim volume leads us through all three days of the
famous battle. Places with iconic names — Little Round Top, the
Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Seminary Ridge — come alive in
a narrative filled with the sights, sounds, and personalities that
surged across the 10-square mile battlefield in bloody waves.
McPherson has written about Gettysburg many times,
in his 1988 book, "Battle Cry of Freedom," for which he was
awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and has sold more than 600,000 copies.
But in this new narrative — part of the excellent Crown Journeys
Series from Crown Publishers, which includes Michael Cunningham’s
"Land’s End" — McPherson takes a new approach.
"It’s an effort at verbal time travel," says McPherson in
a telephone interview from his home in Princeton. While his other
books contain straightforward narratives and interpretations of the
battle and its consequences, "this one looks at the battlefield
as a place where one can go to connect the past with the present,"
he says. "It’s an attempt to put people in a particular place
and have them use their imaginations, as well as their eyes and
to project themselves back into the past."
There are several reasons, McPherson explains, why Gettysburg casts
such a long shadow. Interest in the Civil War has been spurred over
the last 15 years by a series of books, movies, and television
(McPherson has contributed immensely to that effort.) Interest is
acute because the Civil War — along with the American Revolution
— defined this country, McPherson says, ensuring the survival
of one nation, abolishing slavery, and establishing democratic
(not plantation agriculture based on slave labor) as the country’s
political and economic foundation.
Gettysburg was the deciding battle of that decisive war, the point
where the Southern advance, flush from a string of Confederate
was repelled, sending Robert E. Lee back across the Mason-Dixon line
for almost two more years of desperate fighting.
The scale of the battle itself is another memorable factor: Although
none of the three days here were the war’s deadliest — that grim
distinction belongs to Antietam — Gettysburg was, all told, the
biggest battle ever waged in the Western Hemisphere. In addition to
the 11,000 who died as a result of the fighting, another 30,000 were
wounded and 10,000 taken prisoner.
"That scale still resonates today," says McPherson, "as
do the larger-than life figures associated with the battlefield —
like Lincoln and Lee, both of whom were there."
As McPherson points out, however, Gettysburg is "possessed more
by Northern memory than Southern memory — unlike some other
in the South that were in fact Confederate victories." As such,
Gettysburg is somewhat of an anomaly in Civil War commemoration.
"Awareness of and interest in the war tends to be greater among
white Southerners than other groups in American society — but
they look upon Gettysburg with mixed feelings," he explains. Not
only was the battle a defeat for the South, but it was poorest battle
waged by Lee — who has attained, McPherson says, an almost
image in the South."
In "Hallowed Ground,"as McPherson leads us from site to site,
he shares lore from the three days of horrific fighting. Two of the
farms on the battlefield, for instance, were owned by free blacks,
who — like other townspeople — had fled as the armies advanced
on the town. African-Americans had a particularly urgent reason to
flee: While in Union territory, Confederates rounded up blacks and
sent them south into slavery.
Here is John Burns, a 72-year-old shoemaker who, furious at having
his hometown invaded, took up a musket from a wounded soldier and
joined the fight. Here’s Sallie, a Pennsylvania regiment’s dog mascot,
guarding her regiment’s dead for four days until they were buried
— remembered with one of the 1,400 monuments and markers that
dot the battlefield.
Here’s Union general Daniel Sickles, smoking a cigar as he is carried
off the battlefield on a stretcher, to convince his men that he hadn’t
died from the wound that cost him a leg. And here’s 20-year-old
Jenny Wade, killed by a Confederate bullet as she stood in her kitchen
making biscuits — amazingly, the town’s single civilian casualty.
Along the way, McPherson also debunks many myths that have grown up
about the engagement. Advanced Confederate brigades were not scouting
Gettysburg to commandeer a cache of shoes — although neither side
intended to fight here until a skirmish escalated into a battle.
general John Gordon did not aid Union general Francis Barlow, whom
he thought lay dying, during the engagement at what is now known as
"Barlow Knoll" on the Gettysburg battlefield. And thirsty
troops did not call a truce at the end of one day’s horrendous
so both could fill their canteens at Spangler’s Spring.
McPherson also weighs in on controversies of Civil War
historians and cognoscenti: Did Sickles almost lose the battle for
the Union when he moved two divisions, leaving the strategically
Little Round Top unprotected? What role did illness play in some of
Lee’s disastrous strategic calls? (Cardiologists have since claimed
the Confederate commander suffered from ischemic heart disease.) And
which Southern regiments hit the "high watermark," breaching
the Union line during "Pickett’s Charge"? Probably the most
famous encounter of the three days, it is now supposed to be referred
to as the "Pickett Pettigrew Assault," McPherson writes, to
credit the role of North Carolinians in that desperate and futile
Along the three-day route, he gives us repeated and valuable visual
clues and corrections. The Peach Orchard today, for instance, contains
less than half the number of trees that were there during the actual
battle, while many of the now overgrown woods would have had little
or no underbrush in 1863, since foraging livestock were allowed to
The National Park Service, which is in charge of Gettysburg, has
an ambitious 10-year rehabilitation plan to duplicate the vegetation
and fencing of the actual battlefield as much as possible, to return
the site to the way it looked 140 years ago. The Service is trying
to raise $98 million for the effort (funds will also go to build a
new visitors’ center, says McPherson, who is on the advisory board
helping to plan the rehabilitation). During the 1990s, he points out,
Gettysburg — like other battle sites throughout the country —
was starved for funds by Congress, though recent legislation has begun
to break that logjam, he says.
Spearheading the preservation of historic sites is
of my major responsibilities as an historian," McPherson now says.
"I try to come as close as possible to telling the truth about
the past, and I think an equal responsibility is to preserve the
of the past with the highest possible integrity." He was very
active in the 1990s effort to keep Virginia battlefields free from
theme park franchises. That movement, which began in a history buff’s
living room, has grown to become the Civil War Preservation Trust.
"It has been very active in all states in buying land and getting
easements on land and working with local groups to prevent
on or impinging battlefields," says McPherson. He cites a recent
preservation victory near the Chancellorsville battlefield, where
a zoning board vetoed a planned development. Pressure continues,
in Virginia, he says, where many Civil War sites have to vie with
the demands of a booming population.
McPherson, who is now 66, was born in North Dakota and raised in
The son of two educators, his father was a high school math teacher
and a school superintendent of small-town schools in North Dakota
and Minnesota. His mother taught elementary school.
McPherson’s interest in the Civil War was whetted at Johns Hopkins
University, where he was mentored by the legendary historian C. Vann
Woodward, author of "The Strange Career of Jim Crow" and the
Pulitzer Prize-winning "Mary Chesnut’s Civil War." Under
tutelage, McPherson’s first focus was on the abolitionists who became
the subject for his Ph.D dissertation and first book, "The
for Equality: Abolitionists and the Negro in the Civil War and
published in 1964 by Princeton University Press.
McPherson is now serving as president of the American Historical
and has just finished "The Illustrated Battle Cry of Freedom"
slated to be published this October. He cut about 15 percent of the
text from his classic book, he says, to make room for 700
culled from Civil War era photographs and prints.
At the same time, he and wife Patricia are enjoying being grandparents
to the two young children of their daughter, who lives in Pennington.
And McPherson continues to visit Gettysburg — although he says
this year’s April tour got somewhat out of hand, with close to 200
participants in a convoy of almost 50 cars. He may limit next year’s
visit to just students — no parents or colleagues — to keep
it more manageable.
In the meantime, Gettysburg is still the place to contemplate
and devotion — as Lincoln proclaimed in his Gettysburg Address,
with which McPherson ends the book. And what does his intimate
with this hallowed ground suggest to him?
"It speaks to me of the sacrifice that the people of that
made to preserve the vision of the founders of 1776," McPherson
says. "Just as Lincoln hoped his listeners and other
would take inspiration from their example, I hope Americans will
to find inspiration there."
James McPherson, introduces and signs "Hallowed Ground: A Walk
at Gettysburg." Free. Thursday, May 22, 7 p.m.
Corrections or additions?
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