GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Maneuvering around snarling traffic along narrow roads, scores of visitors have flocked to the Gettysburg battlefield for the 150th anniversary of the Civil War’s defining conflict. Many traveled to honor ancestors who fought on the hallowed grounds as soldiers.
Some tourists snapped pictures in front of the stately statues and monuments that mark positions of troops of Union and Confederate forces, while military buffs quizzed park rangers on popular battlefield education programs. One on Little Round Top drew more than 500 people – 10 times more than the typical turnout – and attendees carefully walked the hilltop path and craned their necks to listen to the Civil War history lesson.
“Oh my gosh, there are so many people,” Park Ranger Allyson Perry said between stops on the Tuesday morning tour. “I’m so impressed.”
Farther down the trail, Valerie Josephson waited near the memorial for the 20th Maine Regiment, the unit that helped defend the hill from Confederates exactly 150 years ago Tuesday. Josephson, 72, of Stockholm, N.J., said she has visited Gettysburg 10 times – but never on July 2, the day that her great-grandfather Mansfield Ham got shot in the thumb while fighting on Little Round Top in 1863.
“I still get the chills when I start riding into Gettysburg. There’s such a feeling here,” said Josephson, who self-published a book about her great-grandfather’s unit. “I have been thinking about this for years. I’m going out here to do my part (to honor him) today.”
Up to 10,000 Union and Confederate troops died at Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863, with another 30,000 wounded. It’s the bloodiest battle fought on American soil.
Along with Little Round Top, some of the most desperate fighting on July 2 occurred at places that have become well-known to Gettysburg enthusiasts. Among them are Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield.
The South gained ground on Day 2 but could not dislodge Northern defenders – setting up Gen. Robert E. Lee’s ill-fated decision on the third and final day of the battle to launch Pickett’s Charge.
The battlefield today is under the care of the National Park Service, which has been preparing for the 150th anniversary for years. A commemoration ceremony was held Sunday night, while various ranger and educational programs have held the interest of visitors since then.
Bus traffic wasn’t around in the 1860s, though. Nor were there curiosity-seekers riding around on bikes or tour groups traveling by Segways.
“It’s like an army,” one frustrated visitor mumbled under his breath to a friend on the crowded Little Round Top tour. “If they had this many troops back then, then maybe they wouldn’t have as much of a problem.”
Shelley Long of Orbisonia, Pa., decided to head out to the battlefield for an early-morning walk with her husband before the crowds hit. Their route took them to Little Round Top, which Long said is her favorite spot on her favorite day of the battle.
“Just the challenge of it, with the South coming up this whole terrain, the North being up here, fighting downward and Maine running out of ammunition. I don’t know, it’s just my favorite day,” said Long, 45, a former U.S. military officer who studied tactics. She said she also had a distant relative who fought in the war.
“She’s the buff,” her husband, David, said with a smile. “I like it, but I don’t know as much as she does.”
Then the two disappeared into the large group that gathered to hear the ranger program. It was even more crowded at one program Monday, when an estimated 1,200 visitors followed along to hear about the Union’s famed Iron Brigade, which suffered heavy casualties on Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Park Service has said it doesn’t keep official counts of visitors to battlefield programs, which are free and don’t require registration. Gettysburg National Military Park typically attracts 1.2 million visitors a year – a mark that officials expect to easily exceed thanks in large part to the 10-day anniversary period that ends July 7.
Many visitors seek to re-trace their ancestors’ footsteps after investigating family roots, said Park Ranger Andrew Newman, normally a curator at the park’s museum who was helping with crowd control and traffic Tuesday at the Wheatfield.
“They learn that they’ve been at a certain event or a certain part of this battle, then they learn more of their stories and there are letters they find,” Newman said. “Maybe there’s a comrade that they can get an account” of the battle.
At the Wheatfield site, David Runyon, 59, of Aliquippa, Pa., was joined by his wife and son to remember Runyon’s great-great-great-grandfather, Union soldier Thomas Thornburgh. Runyon said his distant relative was badly wounded at the Wheatfield before being taken prisoner and dying at a hospital in Virginia.
“It’s the first time we’ve been here on the day,” wife Terri Runyon said, “and something that we’ve always wanted to do on the 150th anniversary.”