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Visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park take part in a commemorative march where Pickett's Charge took place during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Associated Press/Photo by Matt Rourke
Visitors to Gettysburg National Military Park take part in a commemorative march where Pickett's Charge took place during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

Charging for history

History | Anniversary of Gettysburg battle brings thousands to commemorate Civil War’s climatic moment

GETTYSBURG, Pa.—“Attention, Brigade! Forward, March!”

With those words, thousands on Wednesday afternoon began a nearly mile-long trek across a Pennsylvania field in commemoration of the most famous moment in the Civil War’s most famous battle.

The 150th anniversary of what became known as Pickett’s Charge drew thousands of history buffs from all over the world for an unforgettable prelude to Independence Day. On the same day and hour of the July 3, 1863, attack, the crowd at the Gettysburg National Military Park walked in the footsteps of the Confederate soldiers who endured shot, shell, and shrapnel as they assaulted three divisions of the Union Army waiting a mile away on a hill ominously named Cemetery Ridge.

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When they came out of the trees here 150 years ago, it was a watershed moment in American history. Troy Harman, a park ranger, told the visitors he led in the memorial march that the field was a part of the nation’s collective DNA.

More than 200,000 visitors are expected to visit the sprawling battlefield during the 10 days of events here that began on June 29 and end Sunday. With area hotels booked months in advance, some tourists are sleeping in their cars.

“There is a pull to Gettysburg,” said Rae Egglestone, 32, who traveled from Cheshire, England, and had spent the last three days in a tent on the battlefield.

In 1863, more than 165,000 soldiers from both armies descended on this tiny town that had a population then of just 2,400. During three days of fighting, the soldiers fired 7 million bullets in the fields, ridges, orchards, and streets surrounding the town. When the battle ended, 51,000 were dead, wounded, missing, or captured, making Gettysburg the bloodiest battle ever fought on U.S. soil.

Its climax, and the centerpiece of this commemoration, was Pickett’s Charge. The Confederates briefly penetrated Union lines during the doomed assault. To many historians it marked the closest the South came to victory during the four-year struggle that ended in 1865.

With their bayonets shining in the afternoon sun, the Confederates, more than 12,000 strong and spread out over a mile, had little protection when they stepped out into the vast open field. When the Union line opened up on them, the thickening banks of black smoke obscured the sun and forced soldiers to shoot at the only thing they could see: the feet of their enemies. One 16 by 14 plank of fence was later found to have 836 bullet holes in it.

The Union army came closest to being broken on July 3. But it held. And when the Confederates retreated, they left a field covered with discarded guns, blankets, canteens, and haversacks scattered among the scores of dead and wounded.

“It was the bloodiest and most desperate battle in this bloody and desperate war,” wrote a Civil War correspondent.

One Virginia regiment charged with 200 men and came back with 10. When a retreating general was stopped and asked where his brigade went, he wordlessly pointed to the sky. 

“Not all the glory in the world can atone for the widows and orphans this days has made,” said the charge's namesake, Gen. George Picket, who lost two-thirds of his listed strength in just one afternoon.

Now, 150 years later, thousands began their own march by taking off their hats and waving them in the air while giving a 21st century version of the Rebel Yell.

“Dress your lines! Dress your lines,” Harman, the park ranger, told his group, ordering them to stay in straight rows, shoulder to shoulder. But that was hard to do with so many of the participants in this modern march snapping photos with smart phones and shooting videos with their iPads. One marcher yelled that the commemorative charge was trending on Twitter. Missing from this march was the artillery fire of 150 years ago that rained down the ranks, cutting some Confederate soldiers in half.

“You guys look good,” Harman said. “This is a fit group.”

Among those following Harman was Dianne Walsh, 67, of West Chester, Pa. On this day back in 1863, Walsh’s great-great grandfather, Calvin Parker, marched across these same fields as part of a Confederate regiment from Virginia. Having already survived wounds from two previous battles, Parker, then a 26-year-old corporal, was hit in the leg during Pickett’s charge. Left where he fell on the field for two days, including a rainy Fourth of July, Parker endured a Union surgeon sawing off his wounded leg on July 7. He survived and was promoted to sergeant major for his actions to protect his company’s colors. But he never fought again.

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