The sesquicentennial of the Civil War battle of Gettysburg on the hot, humid days of July 1, 2 and 3 1863 is no ordinary anniversary. A place of pilgrimage for visitors around the globe, Gettysburg
resonates not just in the American past, but as one of the epic turning-point battles of history, like Waterloo and Stalingrad. This small Pennsylvania town was important 150 years ago as the confluence of ten roads, and remains significant because many of today’s social and political currents—from civil rights to the extent of federal power—continue to flow through this community that turned the tide of conflict leading to Union victory.
Gettysburg’s rolling terrain punctuated by north-south ridges and patched by fields and forest is beautiful not just for its pastoral allure or as a monument dotted sculpture park, but because armed with a modicum of information and imagination a visitor can clearly visualize the action merely by driving and walking the landscape.
It’s barely hyperbole to say that the landscape itself was the highest ranking general organizing the fight on those three bloody days. Thus, it’s not surprising that geographical features such as Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill and others are more widely known than the names of the victorious generals. Only iconic Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his subordinate General George Picket, whose ill fated charge across open fields was the crescendo of defeat, are as well remembered.
Covering approximately 15 square miles, the battle involved 170,000 troops and resulted in 23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate casualties. Most of the fighting occurred south of town. Federal soldiers held the high ground ranging from 785 to 570 feet above sea level and extending from Round Top three miles northward in the form of a fishhook through Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge until turning south and east to Culps Hill, the fishhook’s barb. By the second day, Rebel troops were arrayed on Seminary Ridge about a mile opposite the Union position at a height ranging from about 560 to 650 feet. Between them lay a broad valley of fields, fences and woodlots at roughly 500 feet. Confederate attempts to drive the Union army from its position formed the principal action.
While in many spots the landscape itself clearly tells a tale, perhaps none is more poignant than the view from Little Round Top toward a jumble of massive boulders below called Devil’s Den. These gray rocks are 500 yards distant across a low area now known as the Valley of Death, a name which alone tells a story. From the summit, the tactical advantages of the heights are obvious and the steep ledges defining the slope seem impregnable. The difficulty of Confederate assaults is evident.
Like other Gettysburg high points and exposed ledges, Little Round Top is made of diabase, a hard, erosion resistant igneous rock. This rock establishes the advantageous high ground, but also prevented the defenders from entrenching, a weakness that caused heavy losses. It allowed Confederate sharpshooters hidden in the diabase maze of Devil’s Den to pick off Union troops throughout the second day, and the confusion of rugged declivities and passages later resulted in bitter fighting.
Atop Little Round Top is a bronze statue of Major General Gouverneur Warren, who organized its defense. Grasping binoculars, he’s gazing at a landscape quilted in fields and punctuated with copses of trees all the way to Seminary Ridge. Down and to his left is the fortress of Devil’s Den. It’s practically impossible to stand beside him and not feel, as he undoubtedly did, the strategic potency of the site amidst compelling bucolic beauty. Though Warren’s perch is often crowded with camera clicking tourists and children use the elephantine outcrops of Devil’s Den as a jungle gym, the landscape conveys a silent, terrible and awe inspiring testament to those with even the slightest notion of what transpired here.
Military commanders have appreciated the importance of landscape for millennia, and nowhere is that better expressed than at Gettysburg. Remembering that pivotal battle, we would do well to consider how topography and it’s underlying geology affects our daily existence, determining the course of roads, the locations of homes and factories, the placement of our cities and our ability to grow food. Lessons from Gettysburg extend far beyond heroism, history and culture-war subjects to the way in which we live our daily lives. More than we commonly realize, topography is destiny.
Adapted from the Hartford Courant, 6/20/13