The Weather Channel is now in the habit of naming winter storms. The latest, dubbed “Winter Storm Saturn” was expected to sweep through Adams County dumping a solid 10 inches of snow across the battlefield. The Park Service and Gettysburg Foundation took the necessary precautions to ensure visitor, staff, and resource safety. On March 6th, the battlefield park and visitor center was closed. Employees (save our trusty Protection Rangers) were ordered to stay home, shovels were at the ready, milk, bread, and eggs flew off grocery store shelves.
Today, Gettysburg National Military Park was back in operation. We had intended to share with you, via the Fields of Gettysburg blog, some of the effects of the storm on the battlefield. Pictures of massive snow mounds, monuments buried under drifts, the Wheatfield a frozen tundra, etc., etc. This morning, with Government Issue boots laced high and camera in hand, we trudged out to Culp’s Hill expecting to find it a mountain of ice.
As it turns out, Winter Storm Saturn failed to live up to expectations. The snow, which was billed to be measurable by the foot, was barely enough to cover the grass. Trudging was unnecessary since conditions on the roads were about perfect. Nary a monument was buried. The only things in abundance were the birds and blue sky. Culp’s Hill, far from being a wintery wasteland, was rather spring like.
Not one to waste a beautiful morning on one of the most fascinating parts of the battlefield, we continued with our planned hike. Instead of photographing piles of snow, we found instead a hauntingly beautiful landscape at the beginning of a thaw.
We began our hike at the summit of Culp’s Hill, with an obligatory climb up the observation tower. The view from the tower, one of three remaining on the battlefield from the War Department years, always offers a fascinating view. The minor amount of snow from the storm covered the landscape for miles and served to highlight battlefield terrain we had not appreciated before. Take for example the open slopes of Power’s Hill. For many years Power’s Hill was completely wooded. Recent rehabilitation of that location cleared the eastern slope of vegetation, much as it was at the time of the battle. The significance of the hill as a platform for 12th Corps artillery becomes readily apparent, even more so during the winter time when foliage is at a minimum.
Never one for heights, the tower also offers a lesson in the finer points of engineering.
With the trees bare and much of the undergrowth gone, monuments and portions of the battlefield become much easier to locate. The position of the Iron Brigade on Culp’s Hill is one such example. At the height of summer you can spend 30 minutes dodging brambles and climbing over logs before locating the markers to the regiments of the Iron Brigade on the north-western slope of the hill. After their brutal fire fight north of town on July 1st, the 2d, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin, with the 19th Indiana and 24th Michigan, were positioned here. In the winter time the significance of the location becomes clear. A line of entrenchments dug during the battle and rebuilt in the early 20th Century, snakes up the hill. Through the open woods the slopes of East Cemetery Hill can be seen.
The same can be viewed on other portions of Culp’s Hill. Following the line of the Iron Brigade we eventually arrived back at the summit of the hill, and headed down a path roughly following the position of Greene’s brigade. George Sears Greene and his brigade of New Yorkers occupied Culp’s Hill during the Confederate night attack on July 2nd. Their stubborn defense that evening saved the hill from capture, though their story has never received the attention it rightly deserves. Through the relatively open forest floor we can glimpse the contours of the hill, a view virtually impossible in the summer.
Eventually we made our way down Culp’s Hill, past the lower summit, to Spangler Meadow. Once again, Power’s Hill loomed in the distance. Distinctly visible from Spangler’s Spring, the hill appears to be much closer to Culp’s Hill then we originally thought. Any units moving through the meadow, or assaulting the lower slope of Culp’s Hill would have been subjected to a galling fire from these guns.
All along the way we were struck by how beautiful the battlefield was this time of year. On almost every boulder along the 12th Corps line, bright green moss grew in patches in stark contrast to the blinding white of the snow. Animal tracks and birds were everywhere. Nothing could be heard save for the wind, the birds, and the sound of Rock Creek running at the foot of the hill.
While not what we expected, our morning hike was well worth the minimal effort. Perhaps this is the lesson we have learned from “Winter Storm Saturn.” Most visitors to Gettysburg come during the late spring, summer, and early fall months. This is understandable. Warmer weather, school vacations, the anniversary of the battle all combine to make it a natural time to come to the National Park.
The winter months often get the short end of the stick. True, it can be cold and the weather does not always cooperate. Yet, as our hike this morning demonstrated, the battlefield has a lot to offer this time of year. The white landscape and bare trees reveal a battlefield that is sometimes different from what we first thought or expected. Distances come into focus, subtleties in the ground make themselves known, forgotten swales, knolls, and rocks that meant life or death to the soldier become apparent. Winter might not always bring snow squalls and blizzards to Gettysburg, but it almost always brings solitude and a certain beauty to one of the most significant landscapes in the United States.
Chistopher Gwinn, Park Ranger