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Rodney's Ramblings: Insights From Past Battlefields -Part 1

...Nowadays it is easy to appreciate the field of battle, with ridges and hills on either side of a broad valley, and many replica artillery pieces still occupying the positions deployed on those days. More than anything else, though, is the ability to walk the same land of The Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, which lets you appreciate and understand what was asked of the troops involved...

Rodney Gascoyne surveys the site of the battle at Gettysburg.

During my travels, I have had a chance to visit a few battlefields and to see and try to understand how the fighting went, and local physical features that must have influenced events.

This is greatly aided at Gettysburg because the main battlefield has been largely retained and preserved as a monument and historic centre to commemorate the battle. It is often thought to be the turning point in the American Civil War, even though the war lasted a further two years, and the events that dented General Lee’s previous reputation of near invincibility.

Details of the 3 day battle are easy to follow on the Internet. Neither side chose the site for an engagement, happening almost by accident, and against Lee’s wishes for his troops not to seek a major incident. Union forces were lucky in that during a disastrous first day, the advantage was not pressed, but they realized they had been pushed to very defensible positions, they then held for the next two days. On that basis, it was General Meade’s people who decided to stand and fight a full battle there. Lee’s overconfidence and temporary illness, may have overruled any judgment of the wisdom of accepting the site, as appropriate to his forces’ strengths.

The second day was a bloody affair with attacks on the Union flanks but with swift moves by Meade to support areas under threat, and so effectively counter whatever Lee could throw at him.

On the final day, a well anticipated attack on the Union centre led to a withering defense that halted the assault and turned the battle into a Union victory. Afterwards, many criticized the tactics used by Lee while others cited poor execution by his generals as the major causes of the defeat. Lee’s stunning victory at Chancellorsville, and loss of his second in command, Stonewall Jackson, in that battle, just two months before, may have also contributed to his overconfidence in his troops’ prowess, and their inability to perform as expected, under replacement generals.

Nowadays it is easy to appreciate the field of battle, with ridges and hills on either side of a broad valley, and many replica artillery pieces still occupying the positions deployed on those days. More than anything else, though, is the ability to walk the same land of The Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and Little Round Top, which lets you appreciate and understand what was asked of the troops involved. It is the site of the last day’s Pickett’s Charge against Cemetery Ridge, the heavily reinforced centre of Meade’s line, defended by dug in infantry and flanking artillery, which bewilders the onlooker as being the height of madness. The Ridge has an obvious, commanding and simple dominance over the wide valley below, and any attack faces odds that seem insurmountable, even to a non military person.

The whole battlefield is impressive, and preserved almost as it was in July 1863, making it very easy to form an opinion and impression of the actual events and the questionable wisdom of some of the decisions made and movements attempted. Maybe this appreciation is the clearest and best available on any ancient site I have so far visited. It is the nearest we can get to seeing events through their eyes, and to wonder what ifs.

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