Past Exploration: Gettysburg 158, Part 1

(Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; July 1, 2021) – The biggest, loudest, bloodiest, most violent single battle ever to burn the landscape in North America began today…158 years ago.

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was the culmination of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second campaign to invade the North, taking the war to the Yankees for a change while resupplying his Army of Northern Virginia and taking pressure of Virginia’s depleted resources.  It was a bold, daring move that promised great riches in political and military success for the Confederacy, perhaps even an end to the Civil War and the South’s realization of their dream of independence.

It didn’t go quite as Lee planned.

Union Major General George G. Meade skillfully and decisively dashed Lee’s hopes when he became the first Union officer to out-general General Lee, clobbering the seemingly invincible Confederate forces and forever destroying the mystique Lee had built of being an unbeatable military genius, an American Napoleon of staggering military prowess.

The Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Center is a great place to get the overall story of the Civil War and learn how the Battle of Gettysburg played out. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Nathanael Miller, 01 July 2021)

Meade’s achievement is the more remarkable when you realize he had only assumed command of the Union’s Army of the Potomac only three days before locking sabres with Lee in Pennsylvania.  Meade’s tenacity and military brilliance are often historically overshadowed by the later genius of Ulysses S. Grant (a genius that was well demonstrated throughout the war), but Meade is the first Union general to clock Lee, and he did it big.

158 years ago today Confederate forces were sweeping beleaguered Union cavalry back towards Gettysburg, gaining momentum and seeming poised to reenact their admittedly brilliant performance at Chancellorsville but weeks earlier.  By the end of July 1, 1863, Union forces were holed up on two hills while the Confederates held the first’s days fields and most of the town itself.

That’s the broad-brush picture of what was happening.  Lee and Meade were both unaware a general battle was developing until the afternoon, but men were fighting and dying, freed blacks and civilians had fled the area days before, leaving abandoned homes and farms behind, and Gettysburg was becoming a scene of urban warfare as bitter and deadly as anything seen in Afghanistan and Iraq in the 21st century.

This great, broad picture is painted by the blood of hundreds of thousands individual people.  Soldiers, wives, farmers, children, merchants—each one contributing something to the tale of woe, excitement, devastation, and horror.  A brief look at a couple of sites can turn the broad-bush gala orgy of war into a haunting tale of real human beings locked in horrific events that still shapes our nation today.

Multi-image composite panorama looking west-north-west from Oak Ridge towards Confederate lines from early Union positions back in 2018. Iverson’s Pits were located on the far left of this image, where the green grass meets the wheat field. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Digital illustration by Nathanael Miller. 07 May 2018)

Iverson’s Pits is the colloquial name given to a stretch of wheat field off Oak Hill on the northwest side of the field, just above and outside town as Southern forces were rolling them up like cheap fish in a newspaper.  Enter Confederate Brigadier General Alfred Iverson, an exemplar of the detached, ill-informed officer who screws his own men.

Iverson’s North Carolinians were advancing towards a low stone wall and woods on Oak Hill, absolutely confident they were about to decimate the fleeing, cowardly Yankees and achieve eternal military glory.

They achieved eternity, all right.  You see, Iverson didn’t advance with his men, and even in the 19th century that was considered a, shall we say, less-than-stellar stunt for a general to pull.  More over, he didn’t send out skirmishers to reconnoiter the ground in front of him.  The result was that the ‘cowardly’ Yankees had taken up position behind that low stone wall.  All at once, the Union forces (New York and Pennsylvania troops mainly) stood up and cut down Iverson’s men with all the lethal efficiency of a crazed lawn mower.  The North Carolinians literally fell in line just as they’d been standing and were initially buried in a series of long, shallow pits (‘Iverson’s Pits’) before eventually being re-interred south after the war.

For decades afterward, the farmers who cultivated that area said their wheat grew the highest and healthiest where Iverson’s Pits had been…

Today the name ‘Iverson’s Pits’ is common only among historians and ghost hunters.  For visitors getting the lay of the larger battle (especially on their first visit), those tragically misled North Carolinian soldiers and the pits where they lay for years are not even mentioned.  Iverson led them into history, all right—obscure history where they’re hardly remembered by anyone. 

The Rupp House in Gettysburg lay just outside the town’s southern edge in 1863.  Built by John Rupp, the original house became one of the quintessential scenes of urban warfare.  Hiding in his basement during the battle, Rupp recounted the horrific moment when his house became the line of battle separating the antagonists.  Union soldiers held the front porch, while Southern soldiers held the back porch.  They fired through the house, riddling it with bullets and blood.  Once the fighting moved on to other areas, Rupp’s house became a field hospital, pressed into service like every other surviving structure.  Whereas the bodies of the deceased were later disinterred and moved to the national cemetery, the pits where severed limbs (sawed off during hasty amputations) were buried were never cleared.  And area near the old house’s back window is the likely spot where a mass grave of dismembered arms and legs still houses is grisly souvenirs, and these type of pits are all over town.

Rupp expanded the house after the Civil War, and the modern front visitors see dates to the 1880s.  Go around back and you’ll be looking at the Civil War-era portion of the home.  Take a ghost tour at night and you’ll not only hear spooky stories, you’ll also learn a lot of local lore, such as what the Rupp family endured during and after the battle, even as you might encounter a ghostly visitor intent on reminding the living that they were once living too.

Outside the Rupp House. The portion that existed during the Civil War is on the far right with the flood light hanging off it; the rest was built in the 1880s. The blue light in the upper-most right attic window was NOT visible to any of us during the tour; that window was complete black. Ghost tour around Gettysburg. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. (Nathanael Miller, 01 July 2021)

Gettysburg was never meant to happen.  Lee didn’t want a general battle at that time or place, and Meade was still figuring out his command when the greatest battle on North America lit off.  Despite his handicaps, Meade would lead the Union forces to prevail, but the cost was so staggeringly high it’s difficult to understand the scope of the horror unless you seek out one or two specific stories where you can get to know the people that made the gory pageant happen.

July 2 would dawn with more bloodshed on the horizon…and end up being a day in which that rare event actually happened: the fate of the nation literally turned on actions of an obscure colonel on an obscure hill in an obscure town in Pennsylvania.

Check out Part 1 of my video about Gettysburg’s 158th at: https://youtu.be/SZQnNTkoC50

Check out the Gettysburg National Military Park at: https://www.nps.gov/gett/planyourvisit/visitorcenters.htm

Check out Gettysburg Ghost Tours & Gettysburg Paranormal Association at: https://gettysburgghosttours.com/

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Nathanael Miller’s Photojournalism Archives:

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