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Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg by James M. McPherson


Rating: (Recommended)


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Pulitzer Docent

Thanks to James McPherson’s new book, Hallowed Ground, one need not be a Princeton student to get to hear his wise words while walking the battlefield at Gettysburg. Virtual or real walkers will gain insights into the facts and myths of the battle by reading this short book. Here’s an excerpt from day two of the battle, July 2, 1863 (pp. 76-79):

Just across the road north of the Peach Orchard is the foundation of a farmhouse. In 1863 John and Mary Wentz, both in their seventies, lived in this house. Their son Henry, a carriage-maker, had moved to Martinsburg, Virginia (now West Virginia), several years before the war. In 1862 he enlisted in a Virginia artillery battery and fought at Gettysburg with that unit. Soon after the battle a legend arose that "Captain" Wentz had commanded a battery that shelled his parents' house after Wentz had sent them to the cellar to protect them. Then he was killed in a Union counterattack and buried in his father's backyard, his parents refusing even to look at their apostate rebel son. An enthralling story, but there is not a bit of truth to it. Henry Wentz was a sergeant, not a captain; he was nowhere near the house during the battle; and he survived both the battle and the war.

From the Peach Orchard we will head south on the Emmitsburg Road and bear left onto South Confederate Avenue. One-third of a mile farther on the right is the Alabama state monument, which marks the position from which Evander Law's tired and thirsty brigade led off Longstreet's attack. Looking to the northeast we can see the highest part of Little Round Top looming above the intervening woods. In 1863 most of those woods were not there, and the five Alabama plus two Texas regiments would have been visible from Little Round Top as they moved across the open fields toward the Round Tops in late afternoon. If the Park Service carries out its restoration plans, eighty-eight acres of woods that were not there then will be gone again by the time this book appears. Maybe.

In 1863 these troops were spotted from Little Round Top. When Longstreet's assault began, the only Union soldiers at this key position were a handful of signal corpsmen. Meade had sent the army's chief of engineers, Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, to check on affairs at Little Round Top. As Warren later told it, he asked a Union cannoneer to send a shot toward a woodlot a mile away. Confederate soldiers concealed there jerked suddenly, and Warren saw the glint of sunlight reflected from their rifle barrels. The story sounds rather fanciful, especially since the late-afternoon sun was behind the Confederates. More likely the signalmen told Warren there were Confederate troops across the way, and he soon saw them moving out from the treeline. Hurriedly sending orders for reinforcements to double-time to Little Round Top, Warren earned his niche in history.

The brigade that came was commanded by Pennsylvanian Strong Vincent, recently promoted from colonel to brigadier general. As millions of readers and viewers of the novel The Killer Angels and the movie Gettysburg know, one of the regiments in this brigade was the Twentieth Maine, commanded by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, ex-professor of rhetoric and modern languages at Bowdoin College. Vincent posted the Twentieth at the left of his four regiment brigade, getting the whole brigade in position just minutes before enemy regiments began their assault on Little Round Top.

We can easily find our way to the Twentieth Maine monument, about 250 yards southeast of the Little Round Top parking area. When I first visited Gettysburg in the 1960s, scarcely any tourist knew about the Twentieth Maine, and few ever saw its monument, which is tucked away from the others that are back on the west face of Little Round Top. After The Killer Angels was published in 1974 and won the Pulitzer Prize, the Park Service put up a sign pointing to the regiment's monument and position. After Ken Burns's video documentary The Civil War in 1990, which prominently featured Chamberlain, and the movie Gettysburg in 1993, two interpretive markers, more directional signs, a paved walkway, and an auxiliary parking lot just below the monument materialized. Now this site is the most heavily visited in the Park.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain became an iconic figure in the 1990s. More people on the tours I have led want to see where he fought than anything else. Powerful emotions have gripped some of them as they stared at the simple stone and bronze monument and their imaginations drifted back to those desperate moments about 7:00 P.M. on that July 2. I remember one such occasion in particular. In April 1987 I took a group of Princeton students on a tour of the battlefield, as I have done many times. This year one of those students had written her senior thesis on Chamberlain, but had never before actually been to Gettysburg. As we came to the place where the Twentieth Maine fought, she could no longer hold back the tears. Nor could the rest of us. Although I have experienced other powerful emotions while walking Civil War battlefields, none has ever matched that April day in 1987. The world has little noted what I said there, but it can never forget what they did there.

Hallowed Ground is a tightly packed book that will delight pleasure readers about the Civil War, and cause true buffs to want to hear more, which McPherson will clearly deliver through his many other books.

Steve Hopkins, July 25, 2003


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The recommendation rating for this book appeared in the August 2003 issue of Executive Times

URL for this review: Ground.htm


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