Our Country's Fiery Ordeal

A blog about the American Civil War, written and maintained by historian Daniel J. Vermilya, author of The Battle of Kennesaw Mountain (History Press, 2014) and James Garfield and the Civil War (History Press, 2015)

Dedicated to my great-great-great grandfather, Private Ellwood Rodebaugh, Company D, 106th Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry, killed at the Battle of Antietam, September 17, 1862.

"And may an Overuling Providence continue to cause good to come out of evil, justice to be done to all men where injustice has long prevailed, and finally, peace, quiet, and harmony to come out of this terrible confrontation and our country's fiery ordeal." -- Albert Champlin, 105th Ohio, Diary entry of June 19, 1864 (Western Reserve Historical Society)

Monday, July 8, 2013

Gettysburg 150 Reflections

Today is my first day off in about two weeks. While I am laying low today, visiting the fiancée in State College, I thought I would take a moment to post a few thoughts about the last few weeks at Gettysburg National Military Park.

To briefly recap my week for the 150th:

June 30: I worked the evening ceremony which began the 150th commemorations, handing out programs to thousands of visitors. I was blown away by how many folks remembered me from Antietam. Visitors remembering your programs from past visits, especially details of those programs, is the highest compliment a ranger can receive. Thank you all so much.

July 1: I worked the Visitor Center, leading Battle Overview and Civil War Soldier programs. Despite the hectic nature of things in the building, the programs went great and I had a blast.

July 2: I worked at the Cemetery Ridge Key Moment station, delivering a few programs and answering questions and providing informal interpretation non-stop from 9:30 am to 6 pm. I was joined by rangers Jared Frederick and Nate Hess. Jared and Nate are terrific park rangers, and together our interpretive trio did a great job telling the story of fighting on Cemetery Ridge on July 2. I was fortunate enough to have a Civil War Trust crew tag along on my one of my programs and take pictures (pictures to follow).

July 3: I did a live interview with Mark Zimmerman on WCRF at 7 am (thanks Mark!), and then went to the Visitor Center to prepare for the Pickett's Charge walk. Nate and I were at the Virginia Memorial answering questions for a  few hours, then at 1, we started gathering visitors into groups for the walk. I was leading Garnett's brigade with friend and colleague Chris Gwinn, who is a great ranger. Chris and I had a blast leading our group. By our estimate, we had anywhere from 2,000 to 2,500 people just with us. Garnett's actual strength was about 1,800 at the battle. Thus, Chris and I led a bigger group of visitors in Garnett's footsteps than Garnett actually had soldiers 150 years earlier. Simply amazing.

July 4: I was in the National Cemetery all day doing talks about the dead of Gettysburg and the meaning of the battle. It was the best July 4th of my life. All the graves had American flags on them. I led three programs, each with 75-100 + people. I ended each one at the grave of Sumner Paine, a lieutenant from the 20th Massachusetts who was killed on July 3, 1863, and whose grandfather Robert Treat Paine signed the Declaration of Independence. Words can't describe how powerful those moments were. Some of the best of my NPS career thus far.

Now, for some general overview thoughts...

1. I work with some amazing people. The professionalism and dedication of my colleagues on staff at Gettysburg is absolutely remarkable. For five days, from June 30 through July 4, the park was literally overrun by visitors. This led to enormous crowds on some of the programs. Several hikes numbered over 1,000 people. Over the days of the anniversary period, the interpretive staff did hundreds of programs for well over 100,000 visitors (just those going on programs alone, not all those in the park). While our voices began to fade, everyone continued working hard to get the job done. It was a remarkable event.

2. GNMP Supervisory Historian Scott Hartwig and the staff who planned the Gettysburg 150 event did a phenomenal job. The challenges they faced were overcome with incredible team work. The Gettysburg 150th should serve as a model to the entire National Park Service for what can be accomplished if individuals work together for the common good of the park and the visitor. The park's maintenance crew did a fantastic job of preparing the park for the flood of visitors, and everyone who worked on this event in any way shape or form deserves a resounding standing ovation for their tremendous efforts. This was one of the best and biggest events in the history of the National Park Service and a perfect example of why the NPS is one of the most important branches of the Federal government.

3. Gettysburg was very fortunate to have the great weather that we had. Each day rain and thunderstorms were in the forecast, but aside from some rain on the morning of July 3rd, the weather each day was great.

4. The American public still cares about Gettysburg and about history. The numbers of people who came out to pay their respects to those who fought for their freedoms 150 years ago was astonishing. And, perhaps even more remarkable was the tone of the general public. Despite massive crowds, parking troubles, shuttles all across the battlefield and town, the vast, vast, vast majority of the visitors we encountered were delightful. They even went out of their way to thank us. It was something which doesn't happen often in this line of work. Working in the NPS means that you will normally have lots of people yell at you for no reason at all. That did not happen once this week in all my visitor interactions. For that, we at Gettysburg thank the amazing folks who came to visit us this week.

5. My view of Gettysburg has been forever altered by what occurred this week, specifically in regards to Pickett's Charge. Leading what was likely over 2,000 visitors in the footsteps of Richard Garnett's brigade on July 3rd 150 years to the moment from when they made their march was remarkable. When we first saw the thousands gathered on Cemetery Ridge to watch our approach, I heard gasps and exclamations from the visitors behind me. It was one of the most remarkable moments of my life. I turned and told the visitors to picture all those to their front as Union soldiers, and then to ask themselves why they were still going forward. It was, as we like to say, an interpretive moment unlike any other.

The answer to that question lies with every individual soldier who made the charge that day, and it is as simple as the answer given by a kid on my Join the Army program yesterday. Every soldier at Gettysburg fought and made the attacks that they did because they thought it was the right thing to do. They could have deserted. They could have run away. They could have feigned illness. But those who went forward into battle did not shirk their responsibility. They embraced it and did their duty as they understood it. This is a question at the heart of understanding Civil War soldiers. I have tried to include it in every program I lead at Gettysburg, especially those that discuss Pickett's Charge and Day 3. Those soldiers, North and South, were remarkable individuals, and remembering their combat motivations is one of the most important aspects to studying the American Civil War.

The Gettysburg 150th was an amazing event, and I can't recap it all in one blog post. I will do another post (or two or three!) with some pictures and more reflections. There is however, one final thought I would like to post.

Over the winter, things were very difficult for me. I did not know whether or not I would have a job with the NPS again this year. I had essentially told myself that I was likely done working as a ranger, and that I had gotten great opportunities and needed to move forward with whatever opportunities God would give me next. Then, just before Easter, I learned from Keith Snyder at Antietam that I could return there in the spring and fall, and from Scott Hartwig that I could work at Gettysburg for the summer season. I can never say thank you enough to my two bosses, Keith and Scott, for giving me the opportunity to remain in the NPS and work at the two premier Civil War battlefield parks in the country.

As thankful as I am for everything Keith and Scott have done for me to give me the chance to continue my NPS career, I am even more thankful that God has given me these blessings as well. God has a way of reminding us what his plans are for us when we are feeling discouraged and down. Over the winter I truly believed I was done in the NPS. Yet, this past week I was working the Gettysburg 150th as a Gettysburg ranger. There were countless times over the past week when visitors came up to me to tell me that they remembered me from Antietam and that my tour or program had had a big impact on their life or their view of history and America. Many told me that they remembered the story of my ancestor who died at Antietam for their freedom. Those are the moments where I would start tearing up and feel as though God was nudging me, saying "don't give up". Those comments are the highest compliments rangers can receive, and they mean the world to us.

My most important take home thought from the Gettysburg 150th is that God has blessed me with some tremendous opportunities, and I am very proud and humbled to have taken part in these events. All the credit for whatever successes I have had in the NPS goes to God for helping to lead me along on this path. Going from no NPS work to working the Gettysburg 150th as a park ranger reminds me that no matter what happens, God has a plan, and if we just trust in Him and work hard, He will provide and keep turning a few pieces of fish and a few loaves of bread into a bountiful feast (or, in my case, a dead end in the NPS to one of the most amazing opportunities of my life in the NPS).





This is my favorite picture from the Gettysburg 150th. It was taken on my cell phone by Ranger Troy Harmon on the morning of July 4th in the Soldier's National Cemetery. The American flags behind me are a stirring reminder of the price paid for our freedoms on the fields of Gettysburg 150 years ago...













  1. Gettysburg is lucky to have you serving on staff this year!

  2. Hey Dan your pictures are the best! Outstanding morning shots! Im working on a Gettysburg documentary. . ."Under A Gettysburg Sky"wondering if I may use some for the feature?

    Kind Regards

    Jullian Crowe

  3. Julian, which pictures would you like to use? What will the documentary be about specifically? If you can tell me more about the project that would be helpful.

    Good Luck!