Here to return to
A FAMOUS BATTLEFIELD
I WAS on my way to Gettysburg. An elderly man got in at one of the stops of the train and occupied a seat with me. He was garrulously inclined and soon was telling me of some of his varied experiences and opinions, but he had not discoursed long when he remarked: “If it’s all the same to you I want to change places. I’ll tell you why. We’re all creatures of habit, and I chew tobacco. I want to sit next to the window so I can spit out.
“See here, my friend,” he continued as he settled down where I had been, “I make it a rule when I meet a better-looking man than myself to give him a lemon drop.”
He took a paper bag from his pocket, and I accepted a lemon drop. “I s’pose I’ve bought hundreds of pounds of ‘em,” he added. “Did you say you was goin’ to Gettysburg? I fought there in the great three days’ battle that began July first, 1863. Look at this,” and he showed me a pension paper; “that’s my name — Cap’n Eli Billings. And here’s a picture of three of my grandsons. That smallest boy is named after me — he’s a brick. They’re all good boys, but I’m sorry to say they’ve got a craze to go to all the moving picture shows that come along. I approve of such shows when they’re proper, but they give too many cowboy and Indian subjects. That ought to be stopped. It creates a disposition to have revolvers, and I see my grandsons playing fighting and saying to each other, ‘I’ll shoot you. I’ll kill you.’ It’s detrimental.
“Speakin’ of the war, I was in the whole of it right smack from the start. I enlisted the day after Sumter was fired on, and I served to the very end. More than a hundred days I was under fire, yet there was never a ball drew blood on me. I heard many of ‘em pass near my head, and they went through my clothes in detachments. A minie ball goes ‘Zip!’ with the same sound as you make on a fiddle by giving the E string a pick and running your finger up on it; and the sound of a shell is as if it said:
WHERE ARE YOU?
Where are you?
Where are you?
“Where are you? FOUND YOU!”
That last is when it bursts.
“I used to teach a music school, and I played a bass viol in the Methodist Church. Well, our division got to Gettysburg on the second day about seven o’clock in the morning. We marched into a field and had breakfast, and quite a good many done some washing and hung the things out to dry. We was lyin’ around takin’ it easy when the long roll sounded. That meant to fall in and get ready to move. So we packed up and then double-quicked it to Little Round Top. From there we made three charges across the swampy Valley of Death and past the wild rocks of the Devil’s Den. On one of the charges I came across Sam Ralston of our town goin’ to the rear. ‘Oh! Eli,’ he says, ‘our whole army is demoralized.’
“‘Sam,’ I says, ‘don’t think it, just because you’re demoralized.’
“He was a notorious coward and was always dropping out of the ranks during a battle, if he did n’t avoid it altogether by claimin’ he was sick before it began.
“I’ll tell you a little joke. You know General Sherman said, ‘War is hell!’ If that is so, what was us fellers that fought the battles? Why we was nothing more or less than the devil’s imps. Sherman made a mistake.
“After the war ended someone wrote to me to ask if I commanded a company in the battle of Gettysburg. I did n’t know whether I did or not! I wa’n’t thinkin’ about that or about the fightin’. I did my duty, but the main thing that concerned me was to keep close to Jim Mellin. He had a grudge against me, and I was afraid he’d take advantage of the confusion of the battle to be revenged. So I made up my mind to be so near that I could grab him if he tried to shoot me. But I had no trouble at all with him, and at the end of our third charge he shook hands with me and said, ‘Eli, did n’t we drive ‘em!’
“This was the way his bad feeling toward me begun: I was promoted to be sergeant, and had to see that every man took his turn at squad duty, and one of the first things I did after my promotion was to detail Jim to be on campguard. He swore that he would n’t. ‘Look a’ here,’ I said, ‘it’ll go hard with you if you don’t.’
“‘I don’t care a hang,’ says he, ‘I won’t mount guard.’
“Course military is military, and I reported to the colonel. He had Jim tried by a court-martial, and says to him at the conclusion of it: ‘You are under the sergeant’s orders, and those orders must be obeyed. I sentence you to thirty days close confinement in the guard-house and to forfeit one month’s pay.’
“At the end of the thirty days I was sent to the guardhouse to have Jim come and sign the payroll for the month he’d forfeited, but Jim said, ‘I won’t go with you, and I’ll be blessed if you can take me.’
“That stirred my ire. I went and got two men, and I had them come with me all armed and ready for business. As soon as we were in the guardhouse I said to ‘em, ‘This man is ordered to go and sign the payroll. If he don’t go when I tell him to, put the bayonet right into him. You’ll do it, too, or I’ll report you.’ Then I very calmly said, ‘Jim, you go;’ and he went.
“But he was mad and said he’d kill me, and I thought very likely he would if he got a good chance. That’s a sample of the ugly side of war. Now, I’ll give you a sample of the pleasant side. It’s a little romance.
An old smokehouse
While our army was here in Pennsylvania, me and five other fellers was given a day off and we went for a long walk out into the country. When we started back we conversed together about the chance of getting something to eat at the houses along the road, for we was awful tired of hardtack it was so dry and so often had worms in it. I was chosen to stop at the next house, and the others were to come right along behind to support me. Well, I rang the doorbell, and a nice young lady came to see who was there. My courage kind o’ failed me, but I made her a military salute, and says, ‘Will you be so kind and condescending as to give us some — er — water to drink?’
“I did n’t have the nerve to ask for food. She brought us a pitcher of ice-water, and she was so friendly we all see that she’d have been glad to give us food if I’d only asked for it. Soon we went on, and by and by we passed over a hill, and found a picnic in progress close by the road in a grove. There was a bunch of older people in one place, and children in another, and they insisted we should stop and eat with them. We knew they would n’t take, ‘No,’ from us, so we tried to excuse ourselves, and then went along with ‘em. But each of the two parties wanted us, and finally I told the children that we’d only eat half enough with the older people, and come back and finish with them. They said they’d go along and tell us when we’d got half enough. A little girl named Maggie — a black-eyed, smart little thing, nine years old — kept with me, and after I’d eaten a while she begun to ask if I had n’t got half enough. ‘No,’ I said, I’m pretty hungry.’
“At last, however, we soldiers went and sat down with the children to finish our feast. When I’d eaten about all I wanted I said to myself, I’ll get out of this trundlebed trash.’ But as I was rising Maggie flung her arms round my neck and made me stay. I got acquainted with her folks at the picnic, and they were very cordial, and once or twice in the days that followed I was at their home. Later I had typhoid fever, and while I was recovering I went and stayed with them. I married when the war was over, and pretty soon afterward my wife and I went to visit Maggie’s folks. But Maggie, who’d always been specially friendly with me, would n’t hardly speak to either of us. I asked her mother what was the matter, and she said it was because of my wife. Yes, sir, back in the war that little girl of nine had fallen in love with the soldier of twenty-three. Time passed on and she married and went to live in New York. But I’ve always had a certain feeling of affection for her, and in late years we’ve occasionally written to each other. Now I’m a widower, and if Maggie was a widow woman, and she would have me, I would n’t marry any other woman on the face of the earth. But the last time she wrote she said her head troubled her terribly and she was sick and tired of takin’ medicine. Her letters have stopped, and I think she’s dead.”
My companion reached his destination about this time, and we parted, and a little later I arrived at Gettysburg. The town is a prosperous county-seat of four thousand inhabitants — about the same number it had in wartime. It has changed in the intervening years, yet much of the old still remains, and it has a serenity and quaintness that are very charming. In the business center is an open market square. Thither the farmers resort in the early morning on the three market days of the week, back their wagons up to the sidewalks, display their bags and boxes of fruits and vegetables and crates of chickens and dicker with the townspeople who hover about examining and purchasing. All the streets are lined with trees, which, with their suggestion of cooling shade in the heat of summer, give the place a touch of the idyllic. The houses are very apt to be snug to the uneven brick walks, and elbow each other quite closely. Porches, steps, and little porticos extend out from the front of the residences onto the walks, and the people sit on them in summer evenings. They make an interesting architectural feature, and they promote comfort and sociability. Most of the houses had gardens behind them, and though it was mid-October there had as yet been no frost, and they were full of green growing things and a wealth of gay blossoms. Little alleys branched off from the main streets, and appealed agreeably to the eye with their whitewashed walls and fences contrasting with the vines and flowers and foliage that overhung them.
Many of the town buildings date back to war days, and among these are several built of logs. One log structure is a negro store. Its commercial character was made apparent by a few lonesome tomatoes and cabbages on a stand outside, and by a liberal display of advertising posters tacked up on the whitewashed logs. Here and there I observed holes in the logs made by bullets in that long-gone battle. I thought the holes seemed rather large, but the proprietor said that was the result of the boys digging out the bullets with their jackknives.
Many another town building bears the scars of battle, yet not one was intentionally harmed or seriously damaged except an outlying tavern. “Some Rebel sharpshooters got into that,” my informant said, “and they were picking off the Union officers. So the Federals trained their cannon on it and smashed it all to pieces. I’ll tell you what the conditions were here. Before the war this was a great carriage-building town, and our trade was in the South. We’d sell and take notes, and the payment was dependent on the cotton and tobacco. If either crop was a failure the notes would go over for another year. The war meant ruin. Our market was gone, and the money due us could n’t be collected. My father got sixty-five dollars out of about twenty-six thousand.
“When Lee came marching up in this direction the goods in the stores were loaded on wagons and carted off, and some of the women and children struck out for safety along the Baltimore Pike, hoofing it and taking with them what they could carry.
“A good many thought the rebels could n’t drive our soldiers, but they did the first day of the battle, and as our troops retreated through the town they hollered, ‘Citizens, to your cellars!’ That was in the afternoon. In the earlier part of the day lots of people got up on the housetops to watch the fighting.
“An hour after it began every public building in the place was a hospital, and soon every barn and shed likewise, and the town women were kept busy cooking for the wounded.
“I worked in a store. The proprietors were Quakers, and therefore non-combatants, and they had gone away. Food was scarce, but I took some salt bacon, chopped it in small pieces and mixed it up with corn flour for flapjacks. Those flapjacks were a rather palatable article. And I toasted a little rye, and poured some molasses into a pan and sort of burnt it, and then I stirred the rice and molasses up together, and after I’d put some condensed milk to it I had pretty fair coffee.
“When there was heavy cannonading I’d go to the cellar, and at night I slept on the floor downstairs. Hundreds of houses had balls go through their windows and roofs, and once in a while a shell that was shot over the town fell short. Yet of all the townspeople just one young woman was killed. Her name was Jennie Wade, and its a curious fact that she was the only outspoken rebel in Gettysburg. Jennie was a bright, pretty girl, but because her father was a Virginian, she sided with his state, and from the beginning of the war she would n’t go out and sing with the other girls for our soldiers when they were marching through the town. As a result she was ostracized. During the battle she was taking care of her sister who was sick. They had a little meal hidden away somewhere, and while she was bending over mixing up some in the bread trough that she had put in a chair, a bullet came through the door, struck her in the back, and killed her.
In the course of time, after the war, all the states were putting up monuments to their troops that were engaged in the battle. As it happened, no Iowa troops fought at Gettysburg, and the people there were not altogether pleased at the prospect of not having their monument like the rest. Meanwhile, Jennie Wade’s sister become head of an important Iowa Woman’s organization, and the project was hatched of honoring this sister by putting up a monument to Jennie. They’d got the impression somehow that Jennie was a heroine, and that she went out on the battlefield to assist the wounded with water, and was killed while baking bread for the soldiers. So sentiment was worked up, and a monument was contracted for that represented her as a sort of angel of mercy with several canteens hung from her shoulders. Of course there was quite a celebration when the monument was brought here and set up, and Gettysburg was in a predicament. But we did n’t let the truth get the better of our courtesy, and the newspapers and every one kept quiet.”
The house in which Jennie Wade met her death has been preserved and appears much as it did in war time. It is a story and a half structure of brick. Two of the lower rooms are open to the public and are full of battle relics and souvenirs. More interesting than anything else is the door still in use through which the fatal ball passed. Bullets picked up on the battlefield were prominent among the souvenirs for sale. “We find more or less in our gardens every year,” the caretaker said, “but most of ‘em come from ploughed farm fields. After a rain is the best time to find ‘em. The dirt gets washed off, and the bullets look like bluish lumps of earth. The boys go out in their gum boots to pick ‘em up, and men go, too — lots of ‘em. You see ‘em walking slowly along looking down at the ground, and a stranger would wonder what they was about. The owners don’t like to have ‘em tramping there it beats the ground down so hard. They sell the bullets to the souvenir shops.”
The severest and most critical fighting took place only a short distance southward out of the town, and when I walked thither I found the region as a whole had the aspect of a fertile, well-tilled farming country. At intervals there were groups of whitewashed farm buildings that contrasted pleasantly with the crimson and gold of the tree foliage. The land was mildly rolling, except for a few rocky uplifts like Little and Big Roundtop, but on the western horizon were blue lines of mountains. All over the field of action are monuments varying from the small and inexpensive to the imposing structure erected by the state of Pennsylvania, with its tablets containing the names of more than thirty thousand state troops who were engaged in the battle, and costing one hundred and fifty thousand dollars. Some are graceful and beautiful, but many are commonplace, and the bronze or stone figures are not infrequently of the scarecrow order — that is, they are theatrical in their supposedly heroic poses rather than convincingly human. Numerous cannon are placed at the vantage points where the batteries were in the fight, and there are earth breastworks and stone fences that figured in the conflict. The most interesting house on the battlefield is the little two room log cabin that Meade occupied as his headquarters.
Slender framework lookout towers have been erected at various points, but it is more satisfactory and natural to view the scene from the boulder-strewn height of Little Round Top where some of the fiercest fighting occurred. There I talked with one of the veteran guardians of the battlefield, and he pointed out the Valley of Death and the Devil’s Den, and he indicated the Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge where the Rebellion reached its flood tide when Pickett made his disastrous charge up the long gentle slope. “And over yonder,” he said, “is where Longstreet licked the wind out of Sickles, who’d disobeyed orders by failing to stop on the battleline. He thought he could beat the rebels, and he went out with both flanks in the air. One of his legs was shot away, and he nearly got our whole army defeated. Yes, he lost his leg, but he saved his bacon. A good deal of talk was made about his performance, and it was only the kindness of Lincoln’s heart that saved him from a court martial.”
The Devil’s Den
A party of sightseers passed near us in charge of a professional guide. My companion spoke rather scoffingly of the information the guide was reeling off. “Most of those fellows are ignoramuses,” he affirmed. “They are careless, or they exaggerate in order to make what they say interesting. Day after day they repeat the same story in the same sing-song fashion. They start with it, and they go through to the finish whether you want to hear it or not. You can’t stop ‘em. They talk you to death.
“We have a hundred thousand visitors a year. Some of ‘em come scattering, and some come in big parties on excursions. They require watching because so many of ‘em kind o’ want to get a-hold of something to carry away. If we let ‘em alone they’d get every monument there is here, fragment by fragment, and I don’t know but they’d take Little Round Top, too. You see that statue?”
He pointed to a bronze effigy of General Warren standing a little out of plumb on a great flat boulder. “Once we found the spurs had been filed off, and again that the end of the saber was gone. The statue has been repaired and a sign has been put up forbidding people to get onto the rock. Yet they seem bound to climb up there, and I have to warn them off. The rock is shelly on one side, and often I’ll hear a little tapping, and I’ll go there and find some one has got a stone and is trying to knock a piece loose. Lots of ‘em have a hankering to carry off a piece of the Den rocks, and every now and then we ketch a feller tryin’ to scratch his name on the rocks. They used to write their names on these lookout towers when they were first built. The fools had their names and everything all over the towers, and we had to put up notices.”
When I had retraced my steps from the battlefield I went out from the town eastward to where Rock Creek loiters through the lowlands. Here was an ancient stone bridge that climbed over the stream in a succession of arches, high in the middle, and low on either side.
Close by, in a wet nook that had recently been mowed with a scythe, was an old farmer poking the grass into piles. I accosted him, and we soon were talking about the great battle which so overshadows all other events in the region.
“As soon as we heard that the rebels were comin’,” he said, “there was a powerful excitement through here. You bet there was! and nearly everyone was goin’ off with their horses to get ‘em across the Susquehanna, about forty miles away. Out where I lived, quite a distance east of the town, we had a neighbor, formerly of Maryland, named Jacob Brown. He said:
“I ain’t goin’ to move my horses. I’ll just tell the Rebels I’m from Maryland and that they can examine the records and prove the truth of what I say.’ But the rebels took his three horses without giving him a chance to prove he was a Maryland man. Jacob would n’t put confidence in no soldiers after that.
“Some of the troops stopped on his place and started their campfires. ‘There goes my rails,’ he says. ‘If only one or two men was doin’ it I’d talk to ‘em, but there’s a whole army; so what can I do?’
“He was a big stout man, and once I heard him make a brag at a muster on the drill field north of the town that he could lick any man under the sun. Well, he was about three parts in whiskey or perhaps he would n’t have been so loud about it. He juked around in the crowd makin’ his brag until a little man named Murch jumped in front of him and said, ‘You’re a blame liar;’ and at it they went. They fought a good while and neither of ‘em said ‘Ouch!’ But at last Murch got Bailey down on the ground under him. He pounded him well and made him take back his statement about bein’ able to lick any man under the sun.
“The three days of the Gettysburg battle was an anxious time for the older people, but I was young then. I know I slept all right. It did n’t bother me any even when the fightin’ ran on into the middle of the night. One day I clumb up in a clump of chestnut trees and watched the battle from a distance.
“People ask me if I was in the fight at Gettysburg, and I say, ‘No, but I was just where the bullets flew thick and fast.’
“‘And did you get hit?’ they say.
“‘There never a ball touched me,’ I say. ‘I was where the bullets flew thick and fast, but not until three days after the battle.’”
I have mentioned the heroine of Gettysburg. The battle also produced a local town hero. This was John Burns, an elderly, old-fashioned shoemaker and constable, who got out his gun and went forth into the ranks to fight for his country. His story is not, however, universally accepted as fact. “He was a regular coward, that man was,” one citizen informed me. “As constable, if he had a hard case he got some one else to discharge his duties. Some time after the great fight, he was showing a senator from Ohio around the field, and the senator says, ‘You were in the battle, wa’n’t you?’
“‘No,’ Burns says.
“‘Why, yes you was,’ says the senator, and they fixed up a fancy story between ‘em.”
This illustrates the uncertainties of even recent history. I quote the words of another townsman to give what is probably a more accurate view of John Burns. He said: “There’s a couple of lunatics here in this place who spread that story about Burns not being in the battle, and they did it out of pure cussedness. It’s a blame lie that he did n’t fight. He was erratic, but he had courage all right, and when he set his head you could n’t stop him. In his early days he drank a good deal, but later he became a sort of temperance fanatic. In the poems that have been written about him he’s represented as going to the battle in an antique yellow vest and a blue swallow-tail coat with great gilt buttons on it. That’s poetic licence. He was no such gay romantic figure. The facts are that he wore just ordinary clothes with an old linen duster over ‘em. On his head he had a bell-crowned black felt hat.
“Perhaps you’ve heard of poisoned bullets being used in the battle. Oh thunder! that’s all tommy-rot. You’ll find in the base of certain bullets a zinc rivet, and a lot of these roosters claim that when a man was hit the rivet separated from the rest of the bullet and let loose some poison. The truth is it was simply a device for keeping the guns clean. Every tenth bullet had that rivet, and the discharge flattened it a little and made it extend enough beyond the edges of the lead to clean the barrel as it went out.
“Another thing that people talk folderol about is Meade’s inaction after his victory. They say he ought to have annihilated Lee. But the two armies were very evenly matched. If Meade had done the attacking here at Gettysburg he’d have been licked out of his boots. After the battle it would n’t have been wise to follow Lee closely because he knew the mountain passes by which he retreated much better than Meade did. Besides, Meade was hampered by a lot of old maids and grandmothers down there in Washington. How can you expect a board of strategy, studying maps in the government offices, far from the field of action, would have any value? They ought to have had their blamed heads blown off. They gave the men in the field no power, and again and again let ‘em get defeated while waiting for the strategy board’s orders. There’s where Grant had the advantage of his predecessors. He would n’t be dictated to by a board of inferior and timid officers at a distance.”
NOTES — Gettysburg is only 7 miles from the boundary between Pennsylvania and Maryland, which marked the northern limit of slavery before the war. The town itself is interestingly quaint, and the adjacent battlefield was the scene of what is regarded as the chief contest of the Civil War — the turning-point of the Rebellion. The struggle was between 80,000 Union troops and 73,000 Confederates. In no other battle of the war were as large numbers actually engaged. The Union loss in killed, wounded, and missing was 23,000, the Confederate loss, 20,000.
On the southern borders of the town is a national cemetery, at the dedication of which Lincoln made the famous 20 line address which is considered his most immortal utterance. Beyond the cemetery is the portion of the battlefield that was most hotly contested, including Little Round Top, the Valley of Death, the Devil’s Den, and the Bloody Angle. A good walker can visit all the more important points comfortably on foot, but many will prefer to hire carriages or to take advantage of a trolley line that traverses the battleground. Everywhere on its 25 square miles are monuments — over 400 of them in all, and fully $7,000,000 have been expended on them and the grounds. Probably no other battlefield in the world has been marked with such care and completeness.
The main motor routes out of Gettysburg are these: North to Harrisburg, 38 miles, most of the way a fair road; east to Philadelphia, 118 miles, roads both very good and very bad; southeast to Baltimore, 54 miles, mostly good roads; south to Washington, 78 miles, fair road; southwest to Hagerstown, 34 miles, over a stone road. Nearly all the highways are tollroads, and the interruptions to pay toll are pretty frequent on some of them.
An attractive route from Harrisburg is westerly up the beautiful valley of the Blue Juniata. The road is bad in places.
Philadelphia abounds in features of great interest, and the briefest sojourn there should include visits to Independence Hall, Franklin’s grave, the Betsey Ross House, Fairmount Park, and to the city hall, which is the largest municipal building in the world and cost over $20,000,000.
Bryn Mawr with its famous girl’s college is 10 miles west of Philadelphia. Bryn Mawr is Welsh for “great hill.” At 22 miles on this route, a little beyond Norristown, the road to the left leads to Valley Forge, 4 miles, Washington’s headquarters in the winter of 1777-8. At Pottstown on this route, 39 miles, is a wonderful group of rocks, known as “Ringing Rocks,” which give forth a musical sound when struck.