Top 10 Interesting Facts About Gettysburg

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From July 1 to July 3, 1863, Gettysburg was the site of one of the largest battles of the American Civil War, the deadliest by a wide margin, and one that is widely considered the closest the South came to winning.  On top of that, on November 19, 1863, it was the location where Abraham Lincoln delivered the most celebrated speech in American history, referenced by such great people as Martin Luther King.  But such an historic battle has more to it than our history books often care to mention, so clearly Gettysburg is worth getting to know better.

10.  The Whole Battle Started Over Shoes

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It sounds like a stereotype about Southern people but, during the war, many of the soldiers fighting for the Confederacy did not have shoes, as most of the shoe factories were in the North.  So the battle was started by a contingent of soldiers going to Gettysburg because there was a shoe factory present.  They found out, the hard way, there were actually thousands of Northern soldiers present, and thus it was on.

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9.  The Oldest Soldier Of The Civil War Volunteered In The Middle Of It

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John L. Burns, a resident of Gettysburg, was 70 years old when the battle started.   Hearing the sounds of war, and being a former soldier, he grabbed an eighteenth century flintlock rifle and ran out to take part (which would be the equivalent of taking a Tommy Gun into the Gulf War). On the way to the battle, he found a wounded soldier and traded his gun up.  After volunteering his services, he was sent to the front line.  Three bullets struck his arms during the battle, and he was abandoned as the Northern soldiers abandoned the position.  Southerners found him, and he lied to them, claiming non-combatant status so he could receive medical attention instead of being shot.  Yes, shot; in keeping with the rules of war at the time, any soldier not in uniform was technically a spy and could be killed on the spot.  He outlived the battle by seven years, even though it was unusual in his day to live as long as he had when the battle started.

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8.  Lee’s Heart

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On a night just before the battle started, Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Southern Army, had a heart attack.  This has been cited as an influence on his judgment during the battle, such as why he made such mistakes as the notoriously costly, and foolhardy, Pickett’s Charge. So generations of people owe that heart attack a big debt of gratitude.

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7.  The Northern Commanding General Was Brand New

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George Meade had been appointed commander of the Northern Army (known as the Army of the Potomac for the river Washington D.C. is situated on) just three days before the battle started. This was due to previous General, Joseph Hooker, losing the Battle of Chancellorsville at long odds, and humiliating the Army.  Thus, Meade didn’t really have the confidence of his staff, and the battle really was not very well organized by the North.  Half the combat units were barely even engaged, and the other half took extremely heavy casualties.  It was only due to extremely heroic performances by some of the soldiers in the field that the battle was not a Northern defeat.  Not only that, but Lincoln would blame Meade for the fact that, after the Confederates began to retreat, the Army of the Potomac didn’t pursue and destroy them.

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6.  One Of The Heroes Of The Battle: George Custer

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While the most famous thing that happened during the battle was the previously mentioned Pickett’s Charge (since it was elaborate and suicidal), but another important event of the day occurred miles away.  The Southern cavalry, under General J.E.B. Stuart, was attempting to ride round to the rear of the Northern position, where they could have wreaked havoc on the Northern supplies and greatly compromised the Northern position.  They were intercepted by the brash Brigadier General George Custer, known to most today only as the guy who got killed by Native Americans at Little Bighorn.  He managed to stop a much larger Confederate unit, and said of his own attack, “I challenge history to cite a more brilliant cavalry charge.”  Even if no one had ever heard of him again, he praised himself enough to make up for it.

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5.  The Soldier With the Horrifying Fate

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In any battle where an estimated 50,000 people were killed or wounded, some people are going to have some very unpleasant fates.  Something especially nightmarish happened to one of the Southern soldiers.  During the battle, he was wounded and passed out.  The position was then taken by the Northern soldiers, who took him and some other dead soldiers into a barn.  Several dead bodies were piled on top of the soldier, and he awoke far too late. It wasn’t until several days later that a burial detail found him still alive underneath a pile of corpses.  By then, he was sick in the head and body, and died shortly thereafter.

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4.  The Horrifying Aftermath

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Of course, after the battle, the situation Gettysburg was stuck with, wasn’t much less horrifying than what happened to the soldier mentioned above.  A little town, with a population of around 2,000, was now stuck with having tens of thousands of wounded soldiers around without the massive hospitals required and thousands that needed to be buried.  One incident that really sticks out: during the battle, around 3,000 horses were killed.  A bonfire of all the dead horses was started, and the stench became so bad that the population became violently ill.

Which reminds me: be sure to stop in at The Pike Restaurant if you ever visit Gettysburg!  Good eatin’, and a rating of 3.5 stars on Google Maps!

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3.  No-Casino Campaign

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Starting in 2010, a massive protest started when word got out there was a plan to build a casino within half a mile of Gettysburg.  The campaign ultimately lasted for twenty months, demanding a distance of at least ten miles.  Ultimately it was ruled against 45%-41%.  That 41% voted for it, in the face of a nationwide protest, showed that the community locals must have really wanted that casino.

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2.  Lincoln Was Really Ill While Delivering His Address

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While giving one of the most concise, humble, heartfelt, and celebrated speeches in American history, Lincoln was actually suffering from smallpox.  It wasn’t life-threatening, but he still was described by people in close proximity as looking pale and sickly.  So, on top of the fact Lincoln reportedly had a high-pitched voice under the best of circumstances, all of those deep, dramatic readings you sometimes hear couldn’t have less to do with the real thing.

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1.  Many Thought The Address Was Awful

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The Chicago Times called it “silly, dishwatery utterances.” Journalist Gabor Boritt, who was present, said of other journalists that “they could not find much good to say about it.”  Lincoln himself said, “it is a flat failure, and the people are disappointed.”  Part of the issue seems, in hindsight, to be that the speech was 247 words, which seems way too short for the message it was intended to convey.  It was even too short for a photographer to get a picture of Lincoln giving the address.  Something that brief can’t help but seem a bit dashed off, like something that should be little noted, nor long remembered.  But now we can appreciate the quality of those words over their small quantity.

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8 Comments

  1. Good list, made moreso by the fact that it doesn’t depict Confederates in the negative light that other authors may have. War is hell and only a small percentage of southerners (and northerners) owned slaves, and it wasn’t them fighting. The concern of most soldiers was a) not dying, and b) to be left alone, but history repeatedly sends the young to fight for the causes of the old and powerful. A shame as there would certainly be millions of additional ‘old families’ around to preserve a dwindling culture.

  2. Great list! I knew a few of those facts but only because my Dad is a big American Civil War buff so it has seeped into my head over the years. I had no idea people were crazy enough to try and build a casino there.

  3. In solemn reverence my additions below;

    1. The shear scale of the battle is massive it takes a whole day to DRIVE the battle field.
    2. You can still see the ramparts made by the 20th maine up on Little Round Top.
    3. People live in the battlefield, I talked to two Gettysburgians setting up a deer blind next to the first day’s battle monuments.
    4. Dwight D. Eisenhower used to live next door.
    5. Kennedy’s eternal flame was inspired by Gettysburg’s eternal flame
    6. The visitor center up until recently was a small building next to the cemetery.
    7. The Cemetery with mass graves, Lincoln’s address, and the New York monument is sobering

  4. “which would be the equivalent of taking a Tommy Gun into the Gulf War”

    The Tommy Gun would’ve done fine. The .45 subgun is still alive and well; the modern KRISS and HK UMP bear this out. Aside from lighter weight neither are all that ahead of the Thompson in use.

  5. A couple other tidbits on Gettysburg…
    The creepiest and most haunted area of the battlefield is Devil’s Den. Its one of the few places on the battlefield where the energy of the place has not been diluted by 150 years of tourists. Even so, it was pretty rough to see families having picnics and playing in the exact spots where brave Confederate soldiers had died, as verified by old pictures.
    There is a small foot bridge that crosses a creek near Devil’s Den. If you can make it across the bridge you’re a better man than I am. The despair coming from the field beyond the bridge made the skin crawl off my arms. When you go to the top of the hill where the Union fired from, you can see it was like shooting fish in a rain barrel. No way to advance, no way to retreat, nowhere to hide. Just wait to be shot. I didnt see any pictures of that particular field but bet the dead were in the hundreds.

  6. George A Albany on

    The shoe thing is all wrong. The Confederates had been through Gettysburg several days before the battle and had pretty much taken any valuable stores. The shoe story emerged later as a part of the “mythos” of how the battle began much later. Also, there were no significant shoe factories in Gettysburg, most were in the nearby town of Hanover. Also, Lee MAY have had a heart attack, but it was not on the eve of the battle. If in fact he did have a heart attack, it was several weeks before the battle. Nonetheless, it may well have clouded his judgment. Also, Lincoln did not hold Meade solely responsible for the outcome and failure to pursue Lee after the battle, that was created by Dan Sickles who may well have almost turn victory into defeat by advancing beyond his assigned position. Sickles spent the rest of his life trying to discredit Meade. I could go on at great length, but there is not enough space here.

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