The Enid News and Eagle, Enid, OK

Opinion

June 28, 2013

Three days in July

The Chambersburg Pike, Mummasburg Road, Carlisle Road, Harrisburg Road, Hanover Road, Baltimore Pike, Taneytown Road, Emmitsburg Road and the Hagerstown Road.

Unless you are a Civil War buff, unless you are a native of the small southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, these nine pikes on July 1, 1863 — 150 years ago this week —  probably don’t register on your radar.

Yet, in military history, they resonate like the words Stalingrad, Midway, Waterloo, Bastogne, Hastings and Orléans.

For U.S. history, there has never been a greater battle on the American continent. And, viewing maps from the day, it may have been inevitable — if any battle were to occur on Northern soil during the 1861-1865 trial by fire we call the War Between the States — it would be a nine-crossroads town like Gettysburg.

Large armies like the Confederate Army or Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac could not move through forests and mountains and across rivers with alacrity without roads of the day.

And I mean that in somewhat loose terms, since roads during the Civil War were not paved thoroughfares we travel today — vast ribbons of concrete and asphalt that daily see millions of cars and trucks traverse America.

They were dusty lanes in 1863, that would turn to mud in an instant when the heavens wept rain.

And not coincidentally, two great armies came together at this pivotal crossroads on three oppressively hot July days to basically determine the fate of the United States as one nation.

We look back on history, and we see the results as Monday-morning quarterbacks, who can pick apart troop movements, military decisions, planning and valor shown by American soldiers who fought one another wearing different uniforms, and say, “they should have done this, they should have done that.”

On July 1, 1863, if you were a Confederate infantryman far from home, or a Union private fighting on your native Pennsylvania soil, you weren’t much worried how history was going to judge you in 2013.

You just wanted to live through the day, get a decent meal and have enough good water to drink.

And that was all.

Some may have shared the visions of Abraham Lincoln, of generals like Robert E. Lee, George Mead or James Longstreet. My money is on the vast majority of men who fought for what they believed and their microscopic view of the Civil War. They just wanted to get home one day with all their limbs intact, and to no longer have to sight down an Enfield or Springfield rifle at a fellow American.

Literally thousands of anecdotes abound from this famous battle, from ordinary men who were asked by their generals to do the extraordinary.

On the second day at Gettysburg, the Confederate brigades of Gen. John Bell Hood included in its ranks Sgt. Randolph Smedley of the 15th Alabama, considered by his colonel one of the finest men in his regiment.

He went through the fierce fighting — in fact through the entire war — and was never wounded, never sick and never absent from duty.

He returned home from the war and strangely died of fever in the fall of 1865, after the guns had fallen silent the previous April.

Sgt. William Jones of the 50th Georgia was badly wounded in the leg on July 2, and taken to a Confederate field hospital.

Not trusting the regimental surgeon, who wanted to amputate Jones’ leg, the Rebel sergeant asked for a second opinion from the brigade surgeon, one Dr. George Rogers Clark Todd.

Dr. Todd agreed with the first opinion and performed the successful amputation, and Sgt. Jones survived his individual ordeal at Gettysburg.

Confederate Dr. Todd, in one of those many twists in Civil War history, was the brother-in-law of President Abraham Lincoln — the brother of Mary Todd Lincoln.

Cpl. John Stevens of the 5th Texas said he had to “fight for his life” among the boulders July 2 on Gettysburg’s Little Round Top. Stevens was captured in fierce fighting when a Union officer slapped him on the back with the flat of his sword and told him to “drop his rifle and behave himself.”

Only when he saw the woods behind him full of Yankees did Stephens realize he was a prisoner.

A fellow 5th Texan, Cpl. William Fletcher, recalled that after the battle at Little Round Top, he could only stay awake by rubbing tobacco juice in his eyes — the pain keeping him from falling asleep.

These are snippets from a sea of 94,000 Union soldiers, and 74,000 Confederates. Some 23,000 on each side were killed, wounded or captured at Gettysburg.

The guns are silent now on places like Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top — yet, the memory of that epic battle still resonates with us today.

Christy is news editor at the Enid News & Eagle. Go to his column blog at http://enid news.com/historicallyspeaking

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