Corrections or additions?

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

roam free.

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, Barnes & Noble, MarketFair,


James McPherson, introduces and signs "Hallowed Ground: A Walk

at Gettysburg." Free. Thursday, May 22, 7 p.m.

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