GETTYSBURG – From camera-toting tourists to visitors eager to re-trace the footsteps of ancestors who fought in the Civil War, thousands of people have flocked to the Gettysburg battlefield to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the defining battle of the war.
Sightseers snapped photos Tuesday in front of the stately statues and monuments that mark positions of Union and Confederate forces, while military buffs quizzed park rangers on popular battlefield education programs. One on Little Round Top drew more than 500 people – 10 times the typical turnout – and attendees carefully walked the hilltop path and craned their necks to listen to the Civil War history lesson.
“Oh my gosh, there are so many people,” Park Ranger Allyson Perry said between stops on the Tuesday morning tour. “I’m so impressed.”
Farther down the trail, Valerie Josephson waited near the memorial for the 20th Maine Regiment, the unit that helped defend the hill from Confederates exactly 150 years ago Tuesday. Josephson, 72, of Stockholm, N.J., said she has visited Gettysburg 10 times – but never on July 2, the day that her great-grandfather Mansfield Ham got shot in the thumb while fighting on Little Round Top in 1863.
“I still get the chills when I start riding into Gettysburg. There’s such a feeling here,” said Josephson, who self-published a book about her great-grandfather’s unit. “I have been thinking about this for years. I’m going out here to do my part (to honor him) today.”
Up to 10,000 Union and Confederate troops died at Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863, with another 30,000 wounded. It’s the bloodiest battle fought on American soil.
Along with Little Round Top, some of the most desperate fighting on July 2 occurred at places that have become well-known to Gettysburg enthusiasts, including Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield.
The South gained ground on Day 2 but could not dislodge Northern defenders – setting up Gen. Robert E. Lee’s ill-fated decision on the Battle of Gettysburg’s third and final day to launch Pickett’s Charge. Thousands of people are expected to attend the Park Service’s commemorative march at 3 p.m. today, about the same time the failed assault took place.
Shelley Long of Orbisonia decided to head out to the battlefield for an early-morning walk with her husband before the crowds hit. Their route took them to Little Round Top, which Long said is her favorite spot on her favorite day of the battle.
“Just the challenge of it, with the South coming up this whole terrain, the North being up here, fighting downward and Maine running out of ammunition. I don’t know, it’s just my favorite day,” said Long, 45, a former U.S. military officer who studied tactics. She said she also had a distant relative who fought in the war. Long soon disappeared into the large group that gathered to hear the ranger program. It was even more crowded at one program Monday, when an estimated 1,200 visitors followed along to hear about the Union’s famed Iron Brigade, which suffered heavy casualties on the battle’s first day.
The Park Service has said it doesn’t keep official counts of visitors to battlefield programs, which are free and don’t require registration. Gettysburg National Military Park typically attracts 1.2 million visitors a year – a mark officials expect to easily exceed thanks in large part to the 10-day anniversary period that ends July 7.
At the Wheatfield site, David Runyon, 59, of Aliquippa was joined by his wife and son to remember Runyon’s great-great-great-grandfather, Union soldier Thomas Thornburgh. Runyon said Thornburgh was badly wounded at the Wheatfield before being taken prisoner and dying at a hospital in Virginia.
“It’s the first time we’ve been here on the day,” wife Terri Runyon said, “and something that we’ve always wanted to do on the 150th anniversary.”