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Stories From Gettysburg That Bring History To Life

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Vote up the Gettysburg anecdotes that make the epic clash feel real.

How does one get one's mind around a battle - especially one that went on for three days and involved 150,000 individuals, as Gettysburg did? Long lists of regiments and brigades, hour-by-hour timelines, and maps with blue and red blocks and arrows all over are of little value to people who don't already know a lot about Gettysburg. But individual episodes, with well-defined stakes and memorable characters, stick in the mind.

People might forget a map showing the position of the 20th Maine on Little Round Top, but they never forget Jeff Daniels (playing Union Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain in the film Gettysburg) shouting "Bayonets!" as he readies his unit to charge. The danger is that we can come to mistake the stories for the history. The real history of Gettysburg is far more complex than any one narrative.

Still, stories are an excellent way in - a stepping stone to more substantial knowledge about the US Civil War. To that end, here's a grab bag of actual incidents where real flesh-and-blood humans found themselves in the middle of the greatest clash ever fought on US soil.

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  • A 69-Year-Old Veteran Of The War Of 1812 Insisted On Fighting Because The Rebels Messed With His Cows
    Photo: Timothy H. O'Sullivan / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    1,332 VOTES

    A 69-Year-Old Veteran Of The War Of 1812 Insisted On Fighting Because The Rebels Messed With His Cows

    When Confederate and Union soldiers first squared off in and around the town of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, most of the town's 2,400 civilian residents did what they could to get out of the way, either staying shut up in their houses and basements or leaving for someplace calmer.

    One of them, however, insisted on joining the fight.

    John Burns, 69 (some sources say he was older), had fought a half-century earlier in the War of 1812, and could not abide a bunch of Rebels taking over his hometown. Upon hearing the sounds of combat on July 1, he told his wife he wanted to see what was going on, grabbed his old flintlock musket, and left his house.

    Burns approached several Union officers, offering his services. The Union men were mostly amused by this peculiar character, but Burns wouldn't go away, and eventually was able to get a more modern rifle from a wounded soldier. As the fighting heated up, Burns calmly took position behind a tree and began firing at the advancing Confederates. He was wounded three times in the intense fighting that day.

    Sgt. George Eustice later described Burns's participation:

    It must have been about noon when I saw a little old man coming up in the rear... I remember he wore a swallow-tailed coat with smooth brass buttons. He had a rifle on his shoulder. We boys began to poke fun at him as soon as he came amongst us, as we thought no civilian in his senses would [put] himself in such a place...

    [When asked what] possessed him to come out there at such a time, he replied that the rebels had either driven away or milked his cows, and that he was going to be even with them. About this time the enemy began to advance. Bullets were flying thicker and faster, and we hugged the ground about as close as we could. Burns got behind a tree and surprised us all by not taking a double-quick to the rear. He was as calm and collected as any veteran on the ground...

    I never saw John Burns after our movement to the right, when we left him behind his tree, and only know that he was true blue and grit to the backbone, and fought until he was three times wounded.

    Later, the injured Burns had to be left behind by Union soldiers as they retreated through the town. He was found by the Confederates. If they had known he was fighting out of uniform, they might have executed him. But Burns had gotten rid of his weapon and pretended he was just a helpless civilian who had been caught in the crossfire. Confederate surgeons treated him, and he was allowed to return home.

    Burns is memorialized with a statue on the Gettysburg battlefield, and his valor was called out in an after-action report by Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday:

    My thanks are specially due to a citizen of Gettysburg named John Burns who although over 70 years of age shouldered his musket and offered his services to Colonel Wister, One Hundred and Fiftieth Pennsylvania Volunteers. Colonel Wister advised him to fight in the woods as there was more shelter there but he preferred to join our line of skirmishers in the open fields. When the troops retired he fought with the Iron Brigade. He was wounded in three places.

    1,332 votes
  • A 15-Year-Old Civilian Girl Ended Up Nursing Union Soldiers
    Photo: Morse's Gallery of the Cumberland / Library of Congress / No known restrictions
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    918 VOTES

    A 15-Year-Old Civilian Girl Ended Up Nursing Union Soldiers

    The civilians at Gettysburg had to decide what to do when two mighty armies clashed across their town. Many chose to simply wait things out at home or in their basements, while others decided to pitch in and lend a hand to the Union soldiers.

    One of these was 15-year-old Matilda "Tillie" Pierce, who left her house before the fighting, going with friends to a farmhouse they thought would be out of the way of the action. The farmhouse, owned by Jacob Weikert, turned out to be not as far from the action as Tillie and her friends might have hoped. In fact, it was close to Little Round Top, the hill where some of the fiercest combat took place.

    With the units battling so close by, it was probably inevitable that the Weikert farmhouse would be pressed into service as a field hospital. Tillie gamely pitched in, providing food and water to the wounded men and otherwise assisting the surgeons and nurses. She later penned a memoir relating her experiences. Her keen eye observed much of what went on around her:

    While the infantry were passing, I noticed a poor, worn-out soldier crawling along on his hands and knees. An officer yelled at him, with cursing, to get up and march. The poor fellow said he could not, whereupon the officer, raising his sword, struck him down three or four times. The officer passed on, little caring what he had done.

    Some of his comrades at once picked up the prostrate form and carried the unfortunate man into the house. After several hours of hard work the sufferer was brought back into consciousness. He seemed quite a young man, and was suffering from sunstroke received on the forced march. As they were carrying him in, some of the men who had witnessed this act... remarked: "We will mark that officer for this."

    It is a pretty well-established fact that many a brutal officer fell in battle, from being shot other than by the enemy.

    918 votes
  • A 'New York Times' Correspondent Covering Gettysburg Learned His Son Had Been Killed There
    Photo: Unknown / Wikimedia Commons / Public domain
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    741 VOTES

    A 'New York Times' Correspondent Covering Gettysburg Learned His Son Had Been Killed There

    Samuel Wilkeson was a correspondent for The New York Times, covering the clash at Gettysburg while it unfolded. His son, Bayard, was a first lieutenant commanding a battery in the Fourth US Artillery. During the fighting on the first day, Lt. Wilkeson was struck in the right leg by a Confederate cannonball and later perished.

    Wilkeson Sr. learned of his son's death while the fight was still raging. Despite his grief, he penned a dispatch to The New York Times from a Union field hospital on July 4, the day after the fight - supposedly looking at his son's body as he wrote.

    The first and last paragraphs of the dispatch, which otherwise outlined the general contours of the event, give some clue to the writer's bereaved state of mind:

    Who can write the history of a battle whose eyes are immovably fastened upon a central figure of transcendently absorbing interest - the dead body of an oldest born, crashed by a shell in a position where a battery should never have been sent, and abandoned to death in a building where surgeons dared not to stay?

    [...]

    What remains to say of the fight?... My pen is heavy. Oh, you dead, who at Gettysburgh have baptized with your blood the second birth of Freedom in America, how you are envied! I rise from a grave whose wet clay I have passionately kissed, and I look up and see Christ spanning this battlefield with his feet and reaching fraternal and lovingly up to heaven. His right hand opens the gates of Paradise - with his left he beckons these mutilated, bloody, swollen corpses to ascend.

    Interestingly, the language of Wilkeson's last paragraph was strongly echoed in Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, delivered four months later, in which Lincoln spoke of a "new birth of freedom" for the nation.

    741 votes
  • 4
    749 VOTES

    Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain Had Two Brothers In His Regiment And Feared The Day Would Be 'Hard For Mother'

    Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who commanded the 20th Maine regiment and saw heavy action on the second day while defending Little Round Top from Confederate Gen. Evander Law's Alabama Brigade, has emerged as one of the most famous characters from Gettysburg.

    This is partly because he lived another 50 years to tell his story, and was used as a central character in Michael Shaara's novel The Killer Angels (later adapted into the movie Gettysburg). But it's also because the bayonet charge he ordered (largely in response to an ammunition shortage) was one fine piece of soldiering. The 20th Maine's charge may not have saved the Army of the Potomac, as has been suggested, but it sure didn't hurt.

    Chamberlain had more to worry about that day than tactical considerations or even his own safety. Two of his brothers were with him in the 20th Maine, though only one was serving as a soldier. His younger brother Thomas was a lieutenant colonel in the regiment, while his brother John Calhoun Chamberlain was also present - not as a soldier but as a volunteer for a Christian commission.

    Decades later, Chamberlain recounted:

    At that fiery moment three brothers of us were riding abreast, and a solid shot driving close past our faces disturbed me. "Boys," I said, "I don't like this. Another such shot might make it hard for Mother. Tom, go to the rear of the regiment and see that it is well closed up! John, pass up ahead and look out a place for our wounded." Tom, the youngest lieutenant of Regiment G, was serving as adjutant of the regiment; John, a little older, was sent out by the Christian Commission... and I had applied for him.

    749 votes
  • 5
    499 VOTES

    Both Army Commanders Occupied The Houses Of Gettysburg Widows For Their HQs

    When the two massive armies showed up in Gettysburg, residents had to contend not only with stray bullets and shells, but also with officers commandeering their homes for various purposes. Two Gettysburg widows found themselves hosting the commanders of the contending armies - whether they wanted to or not.

    Lydia Leister, in her early 50s, had lost her husband James to consumption a few years earlier. She used an inheritance from her father to purchase a $900 house just outside Gettysburg, where she ran a small farm with her children. Mary Thompson, the other widow, was 70 in 1863; she had married a drunkard who had abandoned his family by 1838 and was dead by 1850. Her children were all grown - some living nearby - and Thompson was, one hopes, enjoying a quiet retirement.

    The two women's date with destiny began on July 1 as the clash engulfed the town. Leister grabbed some clothing and tried to flee down Taneytown Road with her daughters. They eventually found refuge at a home on the Baltimore Pike. In Leister's absence, Union staff officers commandeered her empty house because of its proximity to the new defensive position of the Army of the Potomac.

    On July 2, a group of 12 Union generals crowded into the house to hold a council determining whether they would stay and fight the following day. Meanwhile, on the other side of the battlefield, Thompson's house was commandeered by Confederate officers on the evening of July 1. It's not clear how much time Lee spent in the home, but he seems to have dined and met with other officers there. After the clash, Thompson, fearing charges of disloyalty, was at pains to make it known that she did not cook for Lee and his staff while they were there.

    Both houses were badly damaged by the fighting, and both women had to rebuild and renovate as best they could afterward. Leister was not reimbursed by the US government, but did sell the bones of fallen military horses for a tidy sum of $375 - about $6,000 in today's dollars. Leister sold her house to the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association in 1887, while Thompson lived for the remainder of her life in the house where Lee had dined.

    499 votes
  • 6
    412 VOTES

    Lee’s Cavalry Commander Disappeared For Days, And Lee Gave Him Hell For It

    Gettysburg was a "meeting engagement," meaning it was not initially a pitched battle fought by two fully present armies staring at each other over a field. It developed organically, in a way that was never completely under the control of either army commander.

    In the days before Gettysburg, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia - operating as three semi-independent corps - had begun its incursion into the North but had not yet converged on a single objective. The Union Army of the Potomac, in the midst of a change of leadership to Gen. George Meade, was in pursuit. Neither army quite knew where the other one was, and Meade was tasked with simultaneously locating Lee and protecting all approaches to Washington, D.C.

    The engagement that grew into the Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, when elements of Confederate Gen. Henry Heth's division encountered two brigades of Federal cavalry commanded by Union Gen. John Buford. Buford decided to make a stand at Gettysburg rather than concede the town and its highly defensible surrounding hills, but he knew his small force couldn't hold off the Rebels for long. Couriers were dispatched from both sides, and reinforcements poured in; by the afternoon, both armies were more or less committed.

    From Lee's point of view, Gettysburg's first day was accidental. He didn't know about Heth's confrontation with Buford until it was already well underway. Part of the reason for this ignorance is that Lee's cavalry commander, Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, was nowhere to be found. At the beginning of the campaign, Stuart had been given orders to guard the flank of Gen. Richard Ewell's corps, but he had also been given discretion to "pass around the [Union] army... doing them all the damage that you can." Lee has been criticized in retrospect for giving his subordinates too much freedom, but he also trusted his top commanders to use initiative and seize opportunities where they could be found.

    Stuart interpreted his orders liberally, and as of July 1, he had not reported in for days. He succeeded in capturing 125 Union supply wagons, but failed at his key task of screening the Army of Northern Virginia's movements and providing intelligence on the Army of the Potomac's whereabouts.

    Stuart did not reunite with Lee until late at night on the second day. Upon first seeing Stuart, Lee is reported to have said, coldly, "Well, General Stuart, you are here at last." Stuart's aide later said that his boss found the meeting "painful beyond description."

    Stuart did not miss the whole show; he and his men participated in the cavalry engagement on the third and last day of Gettysburg.

    412 votes