Gettysburg 150th: A historic battle, an amazing town

GETTYSBURG, Pa. — You know the story of the Battle of Gettysburg. You know that the two sides met on a 9-square-mile battlefield in the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania, and you know that for three days in July 1863 cannons boomed and guns fired and soldiers died by the score and that, in the end, the Union triumphed and sent the South scurrying home.

If that battle launched the town of Gettysburg onto the national stage, it is its aftermath that has kept it there — and has kept it from becoming more than just a dusty repository of history. Some will say it is overtouristed and point to the tattoo parlors and the cupcake stores. Unless you have a hankering for ink or sugar, they're easily overshadowed by one of the most amazing towns in America.

I probably wouldn't have said that before a recent visit, but I had forgotten. As a junior high student in northern Virginia, I was required, along with the rest of my squirmy classmates, to make the 125-mile trek to the town that's just a hair over the Maryland border. For me, a big battle probably translated into a big bore.

Today, Gettysburg has many more ways to tell the story of the three days that changed history. The visitor center, opened in 2008, hosts the restored Cyclorama painting, a film narrated by Morgan Freeman and a museum of diverse artifacts. Gettysburg's Town Guides offer walking tours on a host of topics, and private battlefield tour guides can drive while you gawk and learn. And the Seminary Ridge Museum, which is set to open Monday, helps put what you have seen and learned into perspective.

That history made human, plus a plethora of books and maps, helped me understand more fully how the ugliness of the battle that shaped the town should give rise to any country's prayer for peace. Here are some of the surprises and highlights of a visit here, in the Battle of Gettysburg's sesquicentennial year.

Gettysburg was an accidental battlefield. It's often said that Gettysburg was a target because Southern troops needed shoes. By 1863, the South was feeling the pinch of war, and some supplies were scarce. That lends credence to the notion that Confederate Maj. Gen. Henry Heth detoured to Gettysburg in search of footwear for his troops.

Some historians dismiss that idea. Today, if you drive through Adams County, of which Gettysburg is the county seat, you'll see acres and acres of farmland — about half the county, in fact, producing about $200 million in agricultural products.

And so it was in the 1800s, which explains why maps of the battle are often marked with such names as Peach Orchard, Plum Run and Wheatfield.

Agriculture, not shoe manufacturing, was the economic engine. In "Hallowed Ground," James McPherson writes that the "22 shoemakers listed in the 1860 census … were barely sufficient to make or repair the footwear worn by county residents."

What is certain is that Gen. Robert E. Lee was ready to invade the North, having scored psychological and military victories. Neither side was completely sure where the other was, but Heth's troops ran into Union cavalry led by Gen. John Buford, and the ensuing skirmish set the stage.

It's not what you know; it's whom you know. A statue of Gen. G.K. Warren peers down from Little Round Top, a strategic position for the Union that his actions helped to save. Warren realized that one corps of men was out of position. Its leader, Gen. Daniel Sickles, a onetime congressman from New York, had decided he knew better than Gen. George Meade, who was leading the Union troops. (Gen. Ulysses Grant was in Vicksburg, Miss.)

Warren called Sickles' maneuver to Meade's attention. To this day, some will argue that Sickles' decision to move men wasn't the wrong one; his insubordination was. And I swear that Warren's eyes have a trace of "What … was he thinking?"

Sickles was never disciplined. Indeed, wounded later in the battle, he was visited by Abraham Lincoln and eventually awarded the Medal of Honor. Keep in mind that Sickles was a politician and that he had once successfully defended himself on a murder charge by claiming insanity.

What happened to Warren seems just as lunatic: The Hero of Little Round Top was later relieved of his command by Gen. Philip Sheridan at the Battle of Five Forks, near Petersburg, Va., just before the end of the war. Sheridan was dissatisfied with Warren's performance, but he didn't disobey any commands, as Sickles had. It ruined Warren's career. He was exonerated ultimately — after his death. Some say Sickles' connections kept him from the fate that befell Warren, proving, once again, that all is not fair in war.

Warren's bravery at Little Round Top helped the Union hold on Day 2. By Day 3, the South's disastrous Pickett's Charge, led by Gen. George Pickett, failed, and Lee and his remaining men were forced to retreat.

The aftermath was as horrifying as the battle itself. The number of dead — more than 7,000 — was only part of the problem. More than 20,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were wounded. Gettysburg was a town of about 2,400, and suddenly it had to care for, feed and cure almost 10 times that number.

As you walk around town today, you'll see numerous buildings marked with red flags signifying their use as hospitals. On a chilly May morning, I stood before Christ Lutheran Church and watched the red flag unfurl in a stiff breeze as guide Linda Seamon explained how every church in town — save one — became a hospital. The one that did not was a church for African Americans, which closed when they fled in terror.

Townspeople took in patients. One such volunteer was Sadie Bushman, who was living with her parents when the fighting broke out. She had charge of her younger brother, but they were separated from their parents for two long weeks and were presumed dead. What Sadie was doing in those two weeks — and continued to do after the family was reunited — was helping to tend the wounded.

She fed them, wiped their brows and even assisted at an amputation, which scared her, according to the Gettysburg Compiler of Jan. 12, 1892. Sadie was well-loved by the soldiers and surgeons, and her bravery was unquestionable. More so than others in town? Perhaps.

During her service to the sick, she was just a few weeks shy of her 10th birthday.