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Walking Gettysburg: Sites where N.H. men fought during Civil War visited 150 years later

  • Tim Jenkins of Virginia views the Devil's Den from Little Round Top during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Monday, July 1, 2013, in Gettysburg, Pa.  The Wheat Field can be seen just beyond the oak tree in the top right corner. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

    Tim Jenkins of Virginia views the Devil's Den from Little Round Top during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Monday, July 1, 2013, in Gettysburg, Pa. The Wheat Field can be seen just beyond the oak tree in the top right corner. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

  • A view towards Little Round Top.  <br/><br/>Mike Pride for the Monitor

    A view towards Little Round Top.

    Mike Pride for the Monitor

  • Tim Jenkins of Virginia views the Devil's Den from Little Round Top during ongoing activities commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Monday, July 1, 2013, in Gettysburg, Pa.  The Wheat Field can be seen just beyond the oak tree in the top right corner. Union forces turned away a Confederate advance in the pivotal battle of the Civil War fought July 1-3, 1863, which was also the war’s bloodiest conflict with more than 51,000 casualties. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)
  • A view towards Little Round Top.  <br/><br/>Mike Pride for the Monitor

The southwest corner of the Peach Orchard tips toward Emmitsburg Road. Once Union Gen. Daniel Sickles moved his corps forward at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, this slight slope became one of many crucial points on the battlefield. There to defend it lay a regiment of New Hampshire boys.

Walking up over the Peach Orchard from the Second New Hampshire Volunteers monument today, you step on tiny peaches that have fallen from little wind-bent trees planted in rows. The trees are part of an endless and often futile effort to make the fields, woods and hillsides look as they did during the three days of fighting at Gettysburg 150 years ago this week.

The battle did not end the war, but it decided it. By turning back Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invading army at Gettysburg, the Army of the Potomac ended a bold stroke aimed at convincing a demoralized and divided North to sue for peace and accept Southern independence.

Seen in retrospect, the battle was a three-act play on an immense undulating stage. One act unfolded each day, July 1-3. The Confederates won the first day by getting a large force to Gettysburg first and chasing the Union army through the town and up onto Cemetery Ridge just beyond it. On the second day, Gen. George Gordon Meade’s army, reinforced by troops streaming in from the south, held off a fierce rebel flank attack in the bloodiest five hours of fighting of the war. The third day was a gory aftermath, as the Union line on Cemetery Ridge crushed Pickett’s Charge. Casualties over the three days ran to nearly 50,000, including 8,000 dead.

For a six-day stretch in late June, I walked part of the battlefield every day. Although I had been to Gettysburg many times before, I am no expert on it. Partly this is because my spatial-relations gene is faulty. Set me down in a place on the battlefield where I have been a dozen times and ask me where Little Round Top is, and I’ll point the wrong way. That said, the battlefield speaks to me in a voice that rings ever clearer as the years pass. The voice is constantly reshaping and enriching my narrative of the battle.

In my work as an amateur historian, I have a particular interest in the three New Hampshire infantry regiments at Gettysburg. They were the Second, the Fifth and the Twelfth, and they all fought on the second day, July 2. If you start from the corner of the Peach Orchard where the Second fought and walk north on Emmitsburg Road, in less than 10 minutes you will reach Klingle Farm, where the Twelfth fought. Or, if instead you cross the Peach Orchard and turn east down Wheatfield Road, in 10 minutes you can stand in Rose’s Woods beside the Wheatfield, where the Fifth met the enemy.

The Fifth had started the day on the south end of Cemetery Ridge. After arriving at 7 a.m., the men waited there for 10 hours in the rising heat for the call to move out. When it came, they left for the Wheatfield without even forming a line of battle. It was a perfect, if backward, example of the four-word reality of military life then and now: Hurry up and wait.

There was no hurrying 15 years ago when I made the same walk with Mark Travis, now the Monitor’s publisher. The woods were too thick. We trudged through the brush and brambles, over walls, streams and boulders, to the edge of the Wheatfield. But we were walking in the footsteps of the regiment, or imagined ourselves to be. We occupied the space they had occupied on their way to a dangerous, and often brief, future. The Fifth lost 32 killed at Gettysburg, the three New Hampshire regiments a total of 105.

Twice last week, I stopped to pay my respects at the Second New Hampshire monument in the Peach Orchard and then headed down Wheatfield Road toward the Fifth’s position. This short walk down a paved road stirred big thoughts. The biggest was that the names people gave to geographical features after the battle – Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Cemetery Ridge, Rose’s Woods, Little Round Top – turned them into discrete locations when they are, in fact, a single landscape. Together these places and others became the complex set for the main act of a human drama as bloody as any Shakespeare ever imagined.

It is a quiet landscape now, especially in early morning. From Wheatfield Road, you can look up and see the gentle slope of Cemetery Ridge and pick out the spot where the Fifth awaited the call to battle. Your eyes can follow the trajectory of the ridgeline down to where they fought.

At one point in the walk from the Peach Orchard to the Wheatfield, the rock-strewn west side of Little Round Top comes into view, and you realize these four places literally form a line – Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Rose’s Woods, Little Round Top. This is in fact the line the two sides contested July 2.

In a chapter of Our War, my book on the state’s Civil War experience, I quote a letter from Pvt. Martin Haynes of the Second New Hampshire to his wife, Cornelia, in Manchester. As he looked west from his regiment’s position in the Peach Orchard, he saw “a rocky pinnacle belching flames like a volcano.” This was Little Round Top – the other end of the line on which Haynes’s regiment held out for as long as they could.

The Second’s end of that line eventually broke, leading to disaster for the Twelfth New Hampshire as well. As for the Fifth, it fought two hours, but its position also became untenable. As darkness fell, it seemed to these soldiers that they had lost, but in fact they had held back long enough to keep the Confederates from breaking through to the Union rear.

On that line from the Peach Orchard to Little Round Top, our country took one turn instead of another. I’m not fan of “What if?” history, but had Confederate troops taken Little Round Top or punched a hole through the Wheatfield or overrun the Peach Orchard earlier in the day, the Army of Northern Virginia might have destroyed the Army of the Potomac piecemeal, just as Lee hoped it would do. And had that happened, the South might have won its independence and slavery survived.

Searching for the colonel

One reason I had come to Gettysburg was to lead a tour for the Civil War Institute, an annual conference on the war. My topic was the Fifth New Hampshire’s actions on July 2. I had led the tour before, but I was hoping to add a new last stop this year.

Years ago, when Travis and I wrote My Brave Boys, our history of Edward Cross and the Fifth, one of the closing scenes was Cross’s death at Gettysburg. A rebel marksman shot him in the belly button in Rose’s Woods just as he was about to order his brigade to attack through the Wheatfield. He was carried to the rear and died several hours later. Travis and I had descriptions of where Cross died but could not find the place.

While researching Our War, I discovered a firsthand account of the moment of death and used it in the book. Now, back in Gettysburg, I renewed the hunt for where it happened. After two false starts, I identified the site of the Second Corps hospital on July 2. It was on Granite School House Road on the grounds of the long-gone school. The area where I thought it had been was overgrown, so, as a last resort, I asked the friends who had joined me for the search to stop at a nearby house.

The man tending his garden there turned out to be Dan Rathert, a veteran battlefield guide. He sent us straight to the spot. Soon we were tromping through thick woods looking for the school’s cellar hole and trying to guess how the land would have looked without thick brush and trees. We found no cellar hole, but the landscape seemed to match the hospital site described by those at Cross’s side. Unfortunately, the land was too wild for a visit by a tour group.

As always, the tour ended in Rose’s Woods at the Fifth’s rough-cut stone monument. This stands on the spot, as his men determined it, where Cross was shot. I closed my spiel with news that although I wasn’t 100 percent sure, I believed I had found the place where he died.

A man raised his hand and asked politely whether he could comment. He was a doctor, and he explained why the surgeons who treated Cross would have known his wound was fatal. Essentially, trauma to the intestines would cause sepsis, for which there was no treatment. The infection would kill him. Had Cross been wounded in the same place today, he might have been saved.

The doctor added that as he understood it, severely wounded men would first be sent to intermediate aid stations behind the lines. If they had mortal wounds, they would be laid out in the field to die and not sent on to the corps hospital.

And so, my search for the place where Col. Cross died continues – as if I needed more incentive to walk the Gettysburg battlefield again.

(Tomorrow: July 3, 1863.)

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