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Looking back at Gettysburg: Writer Tom Desjardin discusses the legacy of the Civil War conflict

Gettysburg, which reaches its 150th anniversary this month, was a costly battle for both the Union and Confederate armies. Desjardin discusses how the town recovered from the events and some surprising stories about the battle.

By Randy Dotinga / July 8, 2013

Tom Desjardin is the author of 'These Honored Dead.'


A century and a half ago this month, the Battle of Gettysburg lasted for three days. Then the armies of North and South promptly skipped town. Generations of Civil War historians would follow their paths to victory and surrender at Appomattox. But what about Gettysburg itself, then a tiny southern Pennsylvania town just above the Maryland border?

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The residents of Gettysburg faced battles of their own: to cope with thousands of dead and injured men, to rebuild their shattered community, to find hope and resilience amid so much carnage. No other town ravaged by a Civil War battle faced quite the same struggles. "A town of 2,400 ends up being invaded by 170,000 combatants who leave 8,000 dead and 22,000 wounded and all this destruction," said Tom Desjardin, historian for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands.

Desjardin explored the legacy of the battle in his 2004 book "These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory." I asked him to describe the Gettysburg of 1863, the scars of the battle, and the long march toward recovery.

Q: What was Gettysburg like? What kinds of people lived there?

A: Like many American towns of that time, it was a farming community. It was also known for carriage-making and for being a crossroads on the road from Philadelphia to Pittsburgh and from Harrisburg to Baltimore and Washington.

There was a seminary, a small college, and a railroad. I'm sure there were wagon makers, a hardware store, and a place to sell grain. But there wasn't big industry or a big mill, and there weren't any big mansions or anything like that.

Q: The battle came as the Confederate Army tried to bring the war to the North by invading it. Would a town like Gettysburg ever have expected the Civil War to appear at its doorstep?

A: Not until General Lee headed north. Before that, no one thought of the war spilling into Pennsylvania. The idea that it would go that far north was a bit unthinkable.

Q: So was the battle itself a complete shock?

A: The Confederates had come through on June 26 and tried to ransom the town, [saying], Give us 1,500 pairs of shoes and X number of dollars and so many bales of hay, or we'll burn the town.

They didn't get their shoes or money. Instead, they said, Never mind, and they left, which wasn't an uncommon phenomenon. They weren't really in the practice of burning someone's town.

Q: How close did the battle come to the town itself?

A: On the first day, it was north and a little west of the town by half a mile, and then the second and third day, it was south of the town, a mile or two miles, maybe three. In the town, there were Confederate troops shooting at Union troops. There are a number of buildings that have bullet holes still in them.

Q: What was the state of things when the battle ended?

A: It was just horrible. The Union Army is still there, and the Confederates were making their retreat. Both armies would disappear to keep on fighting, leaving behind this carnage. On the battlefield, almost completely surrounding the town, there were 8,000 or more shallow graves with soldiers in them. There were about 22,000 wounded left behind by both armies and 4,000 of them would die over the next month.


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