Out of death, a nation was born

The site of one of the Civil War's bloodiest battles, as well as Abraham Lincoln's famous Gettysburg Address, this Pennsylvania town is steeped in history, as Victoria Summerley discovers
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The Independent Travel

Four score and 60 years ago next Wednesday, the US President Abraham Lincoln stood up to make a "few appropriate remarks" at the consecration of a cemetery for the Union war dead at Gettysburg, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War. The President was not the main speaker: that honour went to Edward Everett, whohad the reputation of being one of the greatest orators of his time. A former Congressman and president of Harvard, where he occupied the chair of Greek literature from 1819 to 1825, he spoke for two hours.

Four score and 60 years ago next Wednesday, the US President Abraham Lincoln stood up to make a "few appropriate remarks" at the consecration of a cemetery for the Union war dead at Gettysburg, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles in the American Civil War. The President was not the main speaker: that honour went to Edward Everett, whohad the reputation of being one of the greatest orators of his time. A former Congressman and president of Harvard, where he occupied the chair of Greek literature from 1819 to 1825, he spoke for two hours.

Lincoln spoke for two minutes. His "few remarks" seemed to the puzzled audience to be something of an anticlimax after Everett's speech. In fact, the President himself felt that he had failed to rouse the audience, remarking as he went back to his seat: "That speech won't scour. It is a flat failure."

Today, of course, Lincoln's Gettysburg Address has passed into history as a statement of intent for the new America. You need not be American to recognise its famous opening lines: "Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." And you need not be American to agree with Lincoln's advocacy of government "of the people, by the people, for the people". But to get some idea of what might have been in Lincoln's mind 140 years ago on 19 November 1863, you have to go to Gettysburg, in the state of Pennsylvania.

Battlefields tend not to be scenic affairs because they are usually situated in flat, open spaces. Quite often, you have to rely on the scale models in the visitors' centre, with their toy farmyard-style trees and flashing lights, to tell the story and provide some sort of drama and atmosphere. But at Gettysburg, the bones of the battle seem almost to protrude from the ground, like the thousands of hastily buried corpses that were interred in the orchards and farmland around this small town following three days of bitter fighting.

This effect is heightened by the wooded ridges that encircle the fields and by the memorials that line the avenues on the battlefield itself, creating an impression that is both serene and somehow eerie; almost surreal. Some are massive stone structures, paying tribute to Union regiments (such as the 1st Minnesota, who fought off an entire Confederate brigade and were more or less wiped out in the attempt) or northern states. Others are sculptures, such as the North Carolina Memorial, a stunning bronze by Gutzon Borglum (of Mount Rushmore fame) that depicts three Confederate soldiers whose faces show, respectively, courage, fear and pain. I'm trying to be even-handed here, but in fact Union tributes far outnumber the southern memorials.

Alongside the memorials are cannon, their muzzles pointing like compasses to show the direction of the enemy, while the fields and farmyards are enclosed with traditional split-rail fences. Look across from Seminary Ridge to Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, and on a sunny day it is easy to imagine you are seeing what a Confederate soldier would have done on 3 July 1863, the third day of the battle, as he waited for Robert E Lee's cannon to pound the Union troops with a "shock and awe"-style 100-gun bombardment before ordering the ill-fated adventure that became known as Pickett's Charge.

You can stay on the Gettysburg National Military Park Battlefield itself, in the Doubleday Inn, run by Charles and Ruth Anne Wilcox. Named after General Abner Doubleday, it is on Oak Ridge and has fine views of Gettysburg and the battlefield. The inn was built in the 1920s, but it is a traditional clapboard house, decorated in old American style, with quilts and antiques, so it does not look out of place. The Doubleday often has guest Civil War speakers in the evenings, but if not, it is still a very pleasant place to return to at the end of a long day's sightseeing. You can curl up with a book and help yourself to tea or coffee and home-made cookies. In the morning, walk out of the house and you are in the middle of the first day's skirmishes.

You can tour the battlefield in a number of ways. There are bus tours and even horseback tours (though these are popular and need to be booked weeks or even months in advance). But by far the best way is to hire a Licensed Battlefield Guide, who will ride in your car - better still, let him or her drive your car - and take you through three days of bloodshed in a riveting two hours. We were guided by Mike, a true enthusiast who engaged us in his story of the battle without seeming in the least pompous or anorakish.

We began at the Peace Memorial, looking across to Oak Ridge, where the vanguards of the two armies had literally bumped into each other on 1 July 1863.

"So, Victoria, you're Robert E Lee and you've just ridden into Gettysburg on day one to find that your men have forced the Union troops to retreat. How do you feel?"

"Er, pretty pleased with myself?"

"Wrong! Robert E Lee was really pissed [annoyed]!"

Mike told us how the Union forces under the command of General Meade retreated back through the town to Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, forming a line in the shape of a fishhook to repel the Confederate advance. How an observant General Warren noticed that Little Round Top was unmanned and broke army protocol to detach a brigade to hold it against the rebel advance. How three Georgia regiments almost broke through the Union line. How General Lee, encouraged by this near-success, ordered General George Pickett and his Virginia division to charge the Union forces, aiming for a clump of trees that came to be known as the High Water Mark - the deepest incursion into the North by the Confederate army. How Pickett's men were cut to pieces; when ordered by Lee to re-form his division for a second attack, Pickett replied: "General, I have no division."

Gettysburg was indeed a high-water mark, a turning point in the Civil War. By invading the north, Lee's aim had been to inflict a defeat that would demoralise the Union and encourage Lincoln's supporters to sue for peace. Instead, on 4 July, he and his crippled army were forced to retreat back into Virginia. They would never again be able to mount an offensive campaign.

Whether your sympathies lie with Johnny Reb or Billy Yank, the stories you hear at Gettysburg are moving accounts of death and glory, heroism and sheer foolhardiness. But what of the townspeople, who found themselves in the midst of a bloodbath? The battlefield covers 25 square miles and includes the town itself, where Confederate troops advanced up Baltimore Street, driving the Union forces in front of them to the south of the town on the first day of the battle.

You can get a civilian perspective if you take a walk up Baltimore Street to the Schriver House, where Henrietta Schriver and her two small daughters lived. Henrietta's husband George had gone off to fight in Shenandoah, and when, after months of rumour, she saw General Meade's cavalry ride into town, she must have thought her family was safe at last. But as the sounds of gunfire echoed through the town on 1 July 1863, Henrietta decided to take her children and a neighbour's daughter, Tillie Pierce, to her parents' farm. Unfortunately, this lay between Big Round Top and Little Round Top, where some of the worst fighting took place. All that we know about the Schrivers comes from the journal kept by Tillie, who details the carnage at Little Round Top and tells of the growing pile of amputated limbs at the farm, tossed aside while the surgeons worked and the women made bandages.

The Schriver House has been restored, and you can take a 30-minute tour with a costumed guide. When Henrietta returned home, she found that Confederate soldiers had used her attic as a snipers' nest; Civil War bullets found under the floorboards are now on display. But there are other nice domestic touches as well, such as the old-fashioned beds with their rope bases (the origin of the saying "sleep tight") and the kitchen with its black-leaded stove and old-fashioned cooking utensils.

Many of the civilians left Gettysburg altogether, either fleeing before the battle began or moving away afterwards, sickened by the sight of so many dead. Astonishingly, only one civilian was killed; a woman called Jennie Wade, who was staying at her sister's house to help out after the arrival of a new baby. She was shot as she was baking bread.

Today, Gettysburg is a bustling small town, well aware that tourism is its preeminent industry, but not too tackily obvious when it comes to taking advantage of this. The gift shops tend to be of the American Country variety, smelling of cinnamon-scented candles and selling quilts and cushions. If you like that sort of thing, they are good places to buy presents.

The Dobbin House Tavern, which dates from 1776, includes a country store, a tavern and the Alexander Dobbin Dining Rooms, where you can dine by candlelight, served by staff in period costume. Each dining room is designed according to its original use, so, for example, in the Bedroom, you can eat at a table dressed like a four-poster bed. The food is excellent, so it is a good idea to book.

Even the Avenue Restaurant, a traditional diner, is historic in its own way having had only three owners since 1945. And if you feel like a walk after supper, try one of the ghost tours, which can be seen wandering the town at twilight, a bit like the restless souls whose stories they relate.

More than 51,000 troops were killed, wounded or captured at Gettysburg. After the battle, the bodies lay piled in the fields throughout that hot summer and on into the autumn. Farmers had to tend their crops around the corpses, while the smell of putrefaction was so bad the townsfolk could not bear to open their windows. Farms, churches and barns were full of wounded men. Many of the corpses that had been given a quick burial - their graves a mere 18in-deep scratch in the soil - were promptly disinterred by relatives who came to search for husbands and sons. You can imagine the scene: the grieving women, handkerchiefs clamped over their noses, clawing the earth from a face only to find the features of a stranger, then moving on to the next makeshift mound.

When the governor of Pennsylvania, Andrew Curtin, toured the battlefield, he was horrified and put a local judge, David Wills, in charge of creating a burial ground for the Union dead. Wills bought 17 acres of land and the slow process of identifying and interring the bodies began. By the time Lincoln arrived in Gettysburg for the consecration ceremony, fewer than half had been buried in their new resting place.

What makes the history of Gettysburg particularly interesting is this emphasis on the horrific aftermath of war as well as the drama of battle. It is easy to imagine Lincoln feeling almost overcome by the scale of the slaughter. Everett's speech, a classic funeral oration rich in allusions to ancient Greek ideals, dwelt on the history of the war - which, you have to remember, was to go on for another two years. (Incidentally, Everett was generous enough to write to Lincoln afterwards, congratulating him on saying in two minutes what he had tried to say in two hours.)

Lincoln drafted and re-drafted his speech, the second time on the eve of the ceremony as he stayed with David Wills in Gettysburg itself. He must have felt that he had to try to bring something positive out of the bloodshed - to remind people what the fighting was all about. As Garry Wills says in his book, Lincoln at Gettysburg: "He came to change the world, to effect an intellectual revolution. No other words could have done it - he called up a new nation out of the blood and trauma."

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

Getting there: Victoria Summerley flew from London Heathrow to Philadelphia with British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com). In late November and early December return fares cost £252. You can also fly from Gatwick and Manchester to Philadelphia on US Airways (0845 600 3300; www.usairways.com) for about the same. Or fly to Newark on American Airlines, British Airways, United, Continental or Virgin Atlantic, and then take the train to Philadelphia's 30th Street station.

Getting around: It takes about two-and-a-half hours to drive from Philadelphia to Gettysburg on I-76 (Pennsylvania Turnpike West), and Route 15. One week's fully inclusive car hire in Philadelphia starts from £139 through Holiday Autos (0870 400 0010; www.holidayautos.co.uk). The writer hired a Chevrolet Blazer which costs £269 for one week.

Staying there: Accommodation in Gettysburg was at the Doubleday Inn Bed and Breakfast (001 717 334 9119; www.doubledayinn.com). A double room costs $95-$130 (£63-£87) including breakfast.

Seeing there: A personal tour with a National Park Service Licensed Battlefield Guide costs $40 (£27). Guides are available on a first-come, first-served basis at the Gettysburg National Park Service Visitor Center, open daily 8am-6pm in summer, 8am-5pm other times (closed Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day and New Year's Day). For full details, call 001 717 334 4474 or visit www.gettysburgtourguides.org.

Contact the National Park direct on 001 717 334 1124, or visit www.nps.gov/gett.

The Dobbin House is at 89 Steinwehr Avenue (001 717 334 2100; www.dobbinhouse.com).

For more information on Gettysburg and surroundings, call the Convention and Visitors Bureau on 001 717 334 6274 or visit the website at www.gettysburg.com. For information on Pennsylvania, go to www.experiencepa.com.

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