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)

Sunday, June 30, 2013

Gettysburg 150: The words of Dr. Joseph L. Harsh

Today, Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Foundation officially begin our commemoration of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. This evening, the park is hosting a ceremony to begin the commemoration. Afterwards, there will be an illumination with candles in the Soldier's National Cemetery. Over the next several days, Gettysburg will host hundreds of media members, hundreds of thousands of the general public, and the eyes of the United States and those of the world, as we remember those "who here gave their lives that that nation might live."

What follows is an article which I posted on here last year for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Antietam. It was written by Dr. Joseph L. Harsh for the Hallowed Ground magazine in 2002. Dr. Harsh's work has had a tremendous impact on me as a young historian, and I find his words here to be particularly appropriate as we begin our commemorations of what occurred at Gettysburg 150 years ago. His words remind us all why we have gathered at Gettysburg once again.

They are all gone now.
The dewy cheeked boys, who left home before their first shave; their older brothers, who marched away from young wives clutching infants in their arms; and their grizzled fathers, whose gray streaked hair and beards belied arms as stout as their hearts.
They are all gone.
The men who discovered at Bull Run that war was not a lark, but a vulture; who crept through the Bloody Cornfield and knelt in the Bloody Lane; who crawled through the snows on Marye’s Heights; who would not yield on Little Round Top and who climbed the post and rail fence on the Emmittsburg Pike amidst a hail of bullets; they who lay among the burning trees of the Wilderness; and who endured the dank, stinking trenches of Petersburg.
They who surrendered at Appomattox, and they who did not jeer the vanquished there.
They are all gone.
The men who lost a leg, an arm, an eye, a career, a farm, a fortune. Also gone are their women, who gave up a husband, a son, a brother, a father, a sweetheart.
They are all gone.
They who learned that life is passionate, precarious, and precious. They, who generation was touched with fire.
They are all gone.
And so are their children, for whom they fought. Even their grandchildren are few and very old.
We who are their great, and great-great, and great-great-great grandchildren can never know them now. We can never see them, or hear them, or touch them.
We can know them only through the ancient photographs of faded brown and white, where they stand mute, unmoving, mysterious to our gaze.
Or, through their music, which seems romantic, naïve, and sometimes sickly sentimental to our ears.
Or, through their relics, the torn flags, the moth-eaten uniforms, the dented swords and the rusted buttons, resting on silken pillows, behind glass panes in climate controlled museums, beyond our touch.
Or, through their words, in their diaries and letters and reminiscences, which sometimes approach but never quite convey to our understanding the true meaning of why they fought and what they experienced.
Even more than through any of these, we can come nearer to them when we stand on the ground where they fought, where they sweated in the summer and shivered in the winter, where their blood seeped into the soil, where they risked their lives and many lost the risk, where they faced the ultimate test of loyalty to an idea and a cause.
But, perhaps, we come closest of all to them, when we simply value the legacy they left being. For, WE ARE the future for whom they fought.
Said one of them, who was not a soldier but who also forfeited his life in the war, while standing among the freshly dug graves of Gettysburg, the world “can never forget what they did here.”
But he was wrong. We can forget. We have too often forgotten. We forgot when we built cookie cutter town houses on the fields of Chantilly, and pricey, pseudo-chateaux on Longstreet’s Wilderness, and motels and t-shirt shops on Cemetery Ridge. And, it cannot be that we were remembering, when we contemplated building a racing track at Brandy Station.
Yes, they are all gone now.
And the least that we can do—and, sadly, the most that we can do—to reach back through fast receding years and thank them for the pain, the suffering, the sacrifice, to thank them for our United States, is to preserve, to protect, and to defend the ground they hallowed.
But our obligation is much greater than to thank them. Our most sacred duty, our ultimate loyalty, is to remember, to keep alive, and to pass on their willingness to sacrifice, their love of country, their devotion to freedom.
We are the future now, but ultimately we are only a link between the past and the future. This generation may never be called upon to make huge, soul-wrenching sacrifices of life and fortune.
But someday—and it is as inevitable as the rising of the sun—a future generation will again be touched with fire and will be summoned to defend our country and our freedom.
If our children, or grandchildren, or great-grandchildren, when that call comes, are too soft, too lazy, too uncaring to meet the challenge, not only will they fail, but we fail also, and so will fail every generation which has preceded us.
Antietam, Gettysburg, and Appomattox will have been in vain.
Yes, they are all gone now.
And soon—in a blink of the cosmic eye of time—we also will all be gone. But we are all connected.
The Civil War is not a closed book.
It is a continuing story that never ends.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The Greatest Job in the World

As I have written on here numerous times, I have wanted to be a park ranger at a Civil War battlefield for as long as I can remember. Having worked the past few years at Antietam has been a blessing beyond belief. Having the opportunity to work at Gettysburg, especially for the 150th anniversary, is a dream come true as well. And, perhaps most importantly, it has reminded me why I go through everything I do to continue being a park ranger. Going several months every winter without knowing what my NPS future holds is rough. I have to be frugal, save money, and do everything I can to find outside work to support myself. There have been many times where I wondered if it was all worth it.

Days like today remind me that it is.

-While sitting at my desk upstairs today, James McPherson walked past me on his way down to speak at the Sacred Trust lecture series at the Visitor Center.

-On my afternoon Civil War Soldier program today, I had 100+ visitors. It was an awesome program. The visitors were great, very interested, very responsive, and I had a blast. I wrapped up by reading letters from two soldiers killed on July 3, 1863 at Gettysburg. One was Union and one was Confederate. Each was a letter reminding their families that their deaths were simply a result of them doing their duty, and that their families should not give up or fall into despair, but continue on with the work they were leaving unfinished. One letter was written by a soldier from Mississippi, and the other from Pennsylvania. Yet, they each said the same exact thing: that the soldier was proud to do his duty for his country. It was, as some rangers like to say, an awesome "interpretive moment."

-This morning while working the Visitor Center lobby, I talked to a nine year old boy wearing a Union hat who was absolutely psyched to be at Gettysburg for the first time. Seeing how excited he was reminded me of how awesome it was to be a kid and drive past the Reynolds monument on Route 30, knowing that after a long car ride I had finally arrived at Gettysburg once again.

I could go on and on, but you get the point. What other job would afford someone like me these opportunities?

The answer is none. I work for and with some great people here at Gettysburg, and being here has reminded me, once again, how fortunate I am to have this opportunity to work for the National Park Service as a park ranger at some of our nation's most hallowed historical sites.

Oh, and I almost forgot. What other job would give someone the opportunity to live in a historic farmhouse in the middle of the Gettysburg battlefield so that every evening he could walk out his front door, take a short hike, and take pictures like these (all from the last two evenings)?

The answer?  Only the greatest job in the world.

Friday, June 28, 2013

June 28, 1863: "No one ever received a more important command"

150 years ago today, major changes were being implemented for the Army of the Potomac.

Major General Joseph Hooker, a man who turned the defeated and demoralized army around following the disastrous tenure of Ambrose Burnside, only to lead the army to another failure at Chancellorsville, submitted his resignation as commander of that force to President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck on June 27. With Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia on the doorstep of Harrisburg that very day, Hooker wanted complete control over all the Union soldiers in his vicinity to deal with the Confederate invasion. Specifically, Hooker was requesting the authority over some 10,000 Union soldiers stationed at Harpers Ferry. Halleck had denied Hooker this authority, leading to his resignation. Lincoln and Halleck, wanting someone new to take the reins of the army, accepted the resignation. They had already tried offering command of the Army of the Potomac to John F. Reynolds, who had decline the responsiblity. Now, news was being sent to the next possible choice, another man who called Pennsylvania his home. That man was George Gordon Meade.

At roughly 3:00 am on June 28, 1863, George Meade's life changed forever. No doubt, that morning Meade would have preferred to simply remain asleep. Yet, when a messenger came into camp with news for him, Meade awoke to meet Captain James Hardie, sent directly by Halleck himself. The message that was handed to Meade during those early, predawn hours on June 28, 1863, changed the course of American history. It read, in part:

General: You will receive with this the order of the President placing you in command of the Army of the Potomac. Considering the circumstances, no one ever received a more important command; and I cannot doubt that you will fully justify the confidence which the Government has reposed in you (OR, Vol. 27, pt 3, 369).

In his orders, Halleck told Meade he was free to act as he saw fit. The only specification was a reminder that the Army of the Potomac was to defend Washington D.C. and Baltimore, both major cities threatened by Lee's invasion. Meade was also given the authority to remove any officer from command and appoint any officer to any post as necessary. This last classification would become extremely important as the fight at Gettysburg began on July 1, just a few days later. It gave Meade the authority to send Winfield Scott Hancock to Gettysburg as his deputy to assess the situation, despite Hancock being outranked by Oliver O. Howard, who was already on the field that day.

Upon seeing Captain Hardie that morning, Meade initially thought he was being placed under arrest. His initial reaction to the news speaks to this, as he stated, "Well, I've been tried and condemned without a hearing, and I suppose I shall have to go to execution". Meade's official response to Halleck was considerably more measured, telegraphing the General-in-Chief that he would accept his new task: "As a soldier, I obey it, and to the utmost of my ability will execute it." (OR, Vol 27, pt 1, 61)

Meade would soon issue General Orders Number 67, proclaiming to the army that he was in command, and informing them of the gravity of the hour. At that moment, the fate of the nation hung in the balance. The fighting to the west around Vicksburg has slowed to a siege, and Union forces were on the verge of taking the crucial Mississippi River town. It had been over half a year since Abraham Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation. Union armies occupied vast portions of the South. Yet, Southern victory was still possible. Confederate soldiers were on Pennsylvania soil, looking for a dashing military victory. Should Lee and his army crush the Army of the Potomac, on Pennsylvania soil no less, Lee would have the North at his mercy, and could move against a major Northern city. This would give the Northern peace movement overwhelming support, and it could potentially cripple and destroy the Lincoln administration and, along with it, the United States itself. At this crucial hour, Meade rose to the task at hand, recognizing the historic importance of the moment:

The country looks to this army to relieve it from the devastation and disgrace of a foreign invasion. Whatever fatigues and sacrifices we may be called upon to undergo, let us have in view, constantly, the magnitude of the interests involved, and let each man determine to do his duty, leaving to an all-controlling Providence the decision of the contest.

At the time of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia for over one full year. He had led that army in numerous battles, and achieved numerous victories. Lee believed, as he wrote to John Bell Hood that May, that the Confederate army was "invincible" if it was properly led. Lee was, in seemingly every way, the hands on favorite to win the campaign in Pennsylvania. He had only been stopped once before by George McClellan at Antietam. Now, Lee was trying his bold offensive strategy once again. This time, Lee would be met in battle not by the "Young Napoleon," but by a man who had only been in command of the Union army for three days before the engagement began. 150 years ago today, George Meade had lots of work to do, and very little time to do it.

Monday, June 24, 2013

6 Days Away...

Greetings again from Gettysburg!

I haven't been on the blog as much this year, simply because things are so busy right now. In the past few weeks, I have developed and given five new programs, and in the week ahead, I need to finish preparing my programs and interpretation for the Gettysburg 150th. Things are really starting to kick into high gear at Gettysburg. The crowds are growing, the town is getting busier, and the reenactors are starting to appear everywhere.

Note: As I have explained a million times to visitors over the past week alone, reenactments are not allowed on Park Service property. We still welcome reenactors to stop by on their way to and from their separate events though.

As of today, we are six days away from the 150th beginning. June 30th is the big kick off event with numerous dignitaries and special ceremonies. One week from today is July 1, the first day of the battle. Thus, time is moving right along.

The park has been doing a series of videos to mark the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg campaign, much as Antietam did last September. I was fortunate enough to take part in one of these, which you can find here.

As far as what I will be doing for the upcoming 150th anniversary events at Gettysburg, I am quite excited. On July 1, look for me around the Visitor Center providing the battle overview programs and the Civil War soldier talks. On July 2, you can find me along Cemetery Ridge, and the Key Moments station discussing the fighting between Hancock's Second Corps and Richard H. Anderson's division. Specifically, I am looking forward to talking about Ambrose Wright's brigade going against John Gibbon's division, as well as the advance of the 106th Pennsylvania to the Codori farm. On July 3, I have the privilege of taking part in the Pickett's Charge commemorative walk. My friend and colleague Ranger Chris Gwinn and I will be leading Garnett's brigade as we walk across the fields of Pickett's Charge 150 years to the moment from when it occured. On July 4, I will be in the Soldier's National Cemetery talking about commemorations and remembrances of the battle.

If you asked me to pick what I would want to do for the anniversary, this would be it. I am extremely excited, and blessed, to have this job and to have the opportunity to take part in these events. The interpretive staff at Gettysburg is tremendously talented, and I look forward working with my colleagues here during the upcoming onslaught of visitors, media, reenactors, and all the national attention that the 150th anniversary of the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil will bring. After all, it is only six days until this whole thing gets under way...

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Rangering at Gettysburg: The Summer Season Begins...

Yesterday, the summer interpretive season got underway at Gettysburg. I finished my seasonal training classes that all new rangers and interns at Gettysburg go through, and I began my ranger programs. First off for me was the 3rd Day and Beyond program, which is essentially a walking tour of the area where Pickett's Charge was repulsed on July 3, 1863. My first program yesterday went well, and today's was even better.

My program this afternoon was one of the more memorable moments that I have had in the NPS. When I started my tour stop at the angle, the final stop on my program, I told the visitors we were standing at one of the most famous and hollowed pieces of ground on American soil. Having done programs at Antietam's Cornfield before, I am used to this feeling, but today was different. I didn't phrase things that way yesterday, and doing so today gave me goosebumps. For the first time the fact that I was actually a park ranger at Gettysburg hit home.

As I stood there with my group, I told the story of the Philadelphia brigade bravely repulsing Pickett's Charge and more and more visitors began to gather.By the time I was done, I had 25 people listening in. I concluded my program by telling them that we, as Americans, have a duty to defend freedom and rush forward when our country is in need, just as certain individuals rushed forward to the stone wall when Pickett's men broke through. I told them of 19 year old Anthony McDermott of the 69th Pennsylvania who, despite having orders to stay off the front lines, picked up a musket from a wounded soldier and rushed forward into danger. McDermott later wrote that in doing so, he was simply doing "my duty as a soldier, and as an American." We share that responsibility today, whether we are parents rushing to help our kids, teachers rushing to defend their students in a moment of danger, firefighters rushing into a burning building, police rushing towards an active shooter, or common citizens rushing the cockpit in a highjacked airliner. The duty is the same.

While I was talking I couldn't help but think of how surreal the moment was. When I was a kid, I loved visiting Gettysburg, and one of my favorite places on the battlefield was the Angle on Cemetery Ridge. In recent years, when I spend a day visiting at Gettysburg, I often like to just sit at the Angle and take in the view. I have found that, so long as there isn't a tour or school group there, it can be a very solemn and reflective spot. Today, I stood there as a park ranger and told the stories that inspired me to love history many years ago. There really aren't words to describe how powerful that feeling is. All I can say is I am very blessed and grateful to have this opportunity.

I haven't posted very much from Gettysburg thus far because I have been so busy. It is already the second week of June, and the summer season is underway. Life at the Codori house is great, as is my job at the park. I have some amazing new colleagues, and getting to tell the story of the Battle of Gettysburg this year is an incredible blessing which I will never forget. I have learned so much and became a much better ranger and interpreter in just the few weeks I have been here thus far, and I can't wait to see what the rest of the summer season has in store. For now, here are a few sunset shots from the battlefield that I took a few nights ago...