Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Steven Dutch, Professor Emeritus, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay

In the many times I've driven across Pennsylvania, I often thought it would be interesting to bop down to Gettysburg and take a look.

In the words of one notorious television character, HAH-hah! One does not "bop down" to Gettysburg. Looking at the 1200 monuments on the battlefield would take days. Driving around to look at the salient features of the battlefield takes a full day.

The Start of the Battle

The battle actually began north of Gettysburg when Union scouts encountered Confederates advancing from the west, on July 1, 1863. Gettysburg was nothing in particular. In fact the Confederates had already occupied it once. The major objective was Harrisburg and its rail connections to Washington, and by late June the Confederates were spread out across a wide area north and east of Gettysburg. But when Union forces began arriving at Gettysburg, the Confederates found themselves in a major battle.

This was quite a week in the Civil War. In addition to the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, the Mississippi River port of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered on July 4, 1863, giving the Union full control of the Mississippi, and prompting Lincoln to say "The Father of Waters again goes unvexed to the sea."

Left: view of Gettysburg.

Below: views west to the Valley and Ridge Province.


Although the name had nothing to do with Gettysburg, it's fitting that U.S. Route 30, the Lincoln Highway, passes through Gettysburg.

The Lincoln Highway was one of the first transcontinental highways.
Gettysburg College is marked by this modernistic tower.

Gettysburg National Cemetery

Nobody knows exactly where Lincoln stood when he gave his famous address. Only the approximate area is known. But Lincoln wasn't even the lead speaker that day. That fell to famed orator Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours. His peroration included such gems as:

Lord Bacon, in "the true marshalling of the sovereign degrees of honor," assigns the first place to "the Conditores Imperiorum, founders of States and Commonwealths"; and, truly, to build up from the discordant elements of our nature the passions, the interests, and the opinions of the individual man, the rivalries of family, clan, and tribe, the influences of climate and geographical position, the accidents of peace and war accumulated for ages, - to build up from these oftentimes warring elements a well-compacted, prosperous, and powerful State, if it were to be accomplished by one effort or in one generation would require a more than mortal skill.

And there are fifteen hundred more like that. When he was done, people knew they had been well and truly orated at. Then Lincoln stood up and said:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

272 words, the majority of them one syllable. Which of the two embodies America the best? Everett looked to Europe for inspiration, and his oration is, frankly, decadent. It's an intellectually barren exercise in form for its own sake. Lincoln was short and to the point, and on point. Although many newspapers dismissed his remarks as insipid, Everett at least had the integrity to compliment Lincoln.

Seminary "Ridge"

Although Civil War histories wax dramatic in describing the "ridges" at Gettysburg, in reality they are topographically insignificant. The two ridges are Seminary Ridge to the west and Cemetery Ridge to the east. The Union was arrayed on Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates on Seminary Ridge.
Left: view of the Round Tops, a critical point in the battle.

The Round Tops

200 million years ago, when the Atlantic Ocean was beginning to open, the first act was faulting and igneous activity. Lava flows erupted in what is now the Watchung Mountains of New Jersey and masses of magma squeezed between rock layers to harden as sills. The rock formed was a dark coarse-grained rock called diorite. In New York and New Jersey, one such mass is now exposed as the Palisades along the Hudson River. The next major fault basin to the south is here, at Gettysburg. Erosion brings out the diorite as resistant hills at the south end of Cemetery Ridge. Other fault basins and sills are scattered from the Maritime Provinces to Georgia.

Joshua Chamberlain, commander of a Maine regiment (and later, governor), realized to his horror that the Round Tops were completely unsecured. If the Confederates occupied them they could roll up the length of Cemetery Ridge. He got there just in time and his forces drove off attacking Confederates in a desperate bayonet charge. But there was plenty more fighting as the Confederates continued to attack the heights.


Cemetery "Ridge"

Cemetery Ridge, like Seminary Ridge, is a scarcely perceptible ripple in the landscape. The Pennsylvania Monument (right and below) is its most conspicuous landmark. The road along the ridge is liberally dotted with monuments.

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Created 22 June 2007, Last Update 04 June 2020