The ninety minutes Ellis Spear spent on Little Round Top during the afternoon of July 2nd, 1863 were among the most confusing of his life. As an officer in the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry he had commanded men in the battle for the hill, had seen friends shot down around him, and had participated in a chaotic charge down the rocky slope which
drove back the Confederate attack. Afterwards, he had trouble putting events together. His sight was often blinded by thick clouds of acrid smoke, the roar and crash of battle drowned out almost all sound, and a physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion left him deeply fatigued. The more he talked to others that witnessed the fight, the more confused he became. No one seemed to remember the battle in the same way. Forty seven years after he was still trying to make sense of it. “I fear you will never know all about it,” he wrote his granddaughter Mildred in 1910. “Nobody does, and nobody ever did or ever will. It was a very mixed up and extensive affair.”
For the 160,000 men that fought in it, the battle of Gettysburg was a confusing assemblage of fear, death, and chaos. Plans went awry, wrong roads were taken, men got lost, and orders were misinterpreted. Over the course of three days, battle lines and objectives were in a constant state of flux, leaders were killed or wounded, and vacuums in command were created that rippled down to the lowest ranks. The man from whom you took orders one minute might not be the man you answered to a second later.
It was a confusing battle to fight and it remains a confusing battle to study. One hundred and fifty years later, trying to make sense of it all is still a daunting task. Over the 150th Anniversary, Gettysburg National Military Park will be offering a series of programs designed to put the major events of the battle into perspective and offer some understanding of what happened at Gettysburg. For each Key Moment of the July 1st – July 3rd battle, as well as on July 4th, National Park Service Rangers will conduct thirty minute programs at multiple locations within the park, explaining each phase of the battle and its importance to the larger story.
Each program at every Key Moment station will be offered multiple times, a new program being presented on an hourly basis. This will allow visitors to explore the battlefield at their own pace. The progress of the fighting can be followed chronologically or those who wish can linger at a particular battlefield location. Visitors can also experience the battle in real time, visiting each site at roughly the same time the historical event occurred. In addition to ranger programs, each station will also offer information and interpretive kiosks to make your Gettysburg visit easier and more informative.
Key Moment programs will begin on July 1st at 9:00 AM. Visitors can join rangers at McPherson Ridge, Oak Hill, Barlow’s Knoll and Cemetery Hill to immerse themselves in the first day of the battle as the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia collide.
They will continue July 2nd with seven Key Moment stations. At Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard and the High Water Mark, rangers will examine the desperate fighting that Lt. Gen. James Longstreet called, “The best three hours of fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield.” The night fighting on Culp’s Hill, as well as the desperate assault of Confederate General Jubal Early’s division on East Cemetery Hill, will each have their own station – at Spangler’s Spring and Cemetery Hill, respectively.
On July 3rd, from 8:00 AM to 11:00 AM, the Spangler’s Spring station will tell the story of the most sustained fighting of the battle, as Union and Confederate soldiers vied for possession of Culp’s Hill.
The aftermath of the battle and its consequences will be the focus on July 4th. Key Moment stations at the Brian Farm and Meade’s Headquarters will examine the story of Gettysburg’s civilians and the thousands of men taken prisoner. At the Soldier’s National Cemetery the story of those killed in the battle, and those they left behind, will be pondered. The George Spangler Farm, site of the 11th Corps hospital and recently purchased by the Gettysburg Foundation, will relate the gripping tale of the over twenty six thousand men wounded and maimed during the battle.
Those exploring the battlefield are encouraged to make use of the free shuttle system offered during the battle anniversary. Nearly every Key Moment location will be serviced by the shuttle, making transportation to and free program sites easy. Cemetery Hill, the Brian Farm, and Meade’s Headquarters will not be on the shuttle route but can be accessed by walking from the Visitor Center or by utilizing the National Cemetery parking lot off of the Taneytown Road. On July 4th, visitors can access the historic Spangler Farm via a free shuttle from the Museum and Visitor Center.
A listing of every Key Moment station can be found in our Commemorative Events Guide, along with shuttle routes, maps, and program times. It is recommended that you plain ahead by downloading a digital copy. While these programs require minimal walking, proper footwear, sun screen, tick repellent, and water are a must. Follow the link below for a digital copy of the Commemorative Events Guide, along with other information to make your Gettysburg visit more rewarding.
Like Ellis Spear, we will never fully understand the battle of Gettysburg in all of its confusion and complexity. Yet, by standing on the same ground these Key Moments occurred, and by hearing the stories of the men who at Gettysburg made history, the events of 150 years ago can be brought a little closer.
Chris Gwinn, Park Ranger