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.

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

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.

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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.

The wounded are scattered in just about every hog pen, barn, and basement where you could put them out of the rain and sun. On top of that, there are another couple thousand dead horses and mules. The lives of civilians are completely wrecked. Their barns were burned, their crops are gone.

They'd gathered their wheat for harvest, and the armies had marched all over it and destroyed it. Their orchards were wrecked, their trees and fences trees cut for firewood, their animals confiscated or killed, their hay confiscated.

Q: What was the attitude like among the people?

A: Stricken. They were just horrified as to what happened. Many had fled, and they came home and found they had no water because their spring had a dead horse in it, they had no crops and the battle had left explosive ordnance under the ground. Your livelihood was gone, and you had nothing but a house with bloodstains deep into the floorboards. The government focused on the wounded and dead, leaving the people of Gettysburg to fend for themselves.

They were also besieged by what we call lookie-loos today: reporters and people from neighboring communities. Tourists started to come and started looking around.

Q: What surprised you when you did your research?

A: The stories are amazing when you think of the fortitude. It was just a situation where everything was damaged and awful. People suffered but also rose the occasion. They provided food, shelter and clothing both to the soldiers who were wounded and the people who were displaced.

There was a woman named Elizabeth Thorn whose husband was caretaker of the town's cemetery. At seven months pregnant, she and her stepfather had to bury 72 soldiers who were lying dead around their property. There was a union general named Joshua Chamberlain who said war is a test of character that makes bad men worse and good men better. In Gettysburg, you had a lot of both.

Q: The town of Gettysburg is still there, surrounded by a kind of national shrine full of statues and tourists amid the rocks, fences, and fields. Are there other physical signs of the battle?

A: There are probably as many as 1,500 bodies still out there that aren't accounted for. The last one was found in 1995. And every once in a while, someone will find an unexploded shell.

Q: What kind of role did the Gettysburg Address – at the dedication of a national cemetery – play a few months after the battle?

A: The government had managed to relocate about half of the Union soldiers and the Confederates were beginning a process where the people in the South could generate funds to relocate their soldiers. That's why the event that prompted Lincoln's address was so important. They could envision a day when the bodies wouldn't be buried in their fields. And winter's coming, which tends to help with germs and flies and the smell. Symbolically, this is going to be over.

He gave the speech on Nov. 19, and declared that the last Thursday of the month would be a day of Thanksgiving.

Q: What lessons can we learn from all this?

A: The armies fought like crazy, took a day off and then left, leaving 2,400 people to deal with the carnage and waste and destruction without much in the way of help. They managed. They're still there.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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