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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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.Skip to next paragraph
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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.