Historical Field Trip: The First Day at Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest battle fought on American soil and the turning point of the American Civil War. The small farm town in Pennsylvania erupted into a clash between hundreds of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers. Many people simply known of the famed “Pickett’s Charge” on July 3rd or the fighting at Little Round Top on July 2nd. The day before was even more vital to the battle than the others, organizing positions, creating command problems, and yielded a massive amount of casualties.

1. Buford’s Cavalry

Brigadier General John Buford, commanding the Union’s 1st Cavalry Division ran into Henry Heth’s division early on July 1st and began to delay their advance while awaiting reinforcements. Gamble, Devin, and Merritt held off attacks by Archer’s brigade while Buford surveyed the land. Holding their position on McPherson’s ridge, the Union cavalry desperately put up a fight against the Confederate infantry streaming down the Chambersburg Pike. Look at Buford’s statue along the road as he looks up the road with his field glasses. One of the four cannon barrels at his feet has a small plaque showing that it fired the first shot of the battle.

2. “For God’s Sake Forward!”

Finally at about 9:30 in the morning, Buford’s weary cavalry saw the flags of James Wadsworth’s division of John Reynolds’ 1st Corps from the South. The cavalry dropped back as the infantry sped into the gap to repel the Confederates. Davis’ brigade arrived and placed even more pressure on the Union. General Reynolds ordered forward the legendary Iron Brigade, an elite unit of troops from Michigan and Wisconsin. The brigade hurled themselves against Archer’s brigade in Herbst Woods. Reynolds was struck by a Confederate bullet and fell off his horse. Abner Doubleday replaced the dead general. Trek up Reynolds Avenue and find his marker on the edge of the woods. The Pennsylvania native lends his name to the woods now, as many refer to it as Reynolds’ Woods. The Iron Brigade’s memorials are on the other side of the woods.

Monument on the spot where Reynolds fell. He is buried in Lancaster, PA.

3. The Railroad Cut

While the battle for Herbst Woods raged, three Union regiments rushed to cover their flank on the other side of the Chambersburg Pike. As Mississippians and North Carolinians under Davis slid down into an unfinished railroad bed, the Union troops charged their positions. Suffering one casualty for every foot they advanced, the troops were presented with a murderous Confederate fire. The 6th Wisconsin of the Iron Brigade, which had separated from the rest of its brigade, jumped into the cut and a fierce hand-to-hand battle ensued until the Confederates fell back. The railroad is now complete and operational, but is hardly ever used. You can go into the cut from the side. Feel free to charge down like the Union troops and when you’re in there, look at how exposed the Union troops were to volleys from the defenders.

The Railroad Cut

4. Oak Ridge

Continue north towards the metal observation tower. This is Oak Ridge where Union forces were pushed back by Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s Corps. Edward O’Neal and Alfred Iverson’s brigades attacked Doubleday’s Corps along the hill on what is now Doubleday Avenue. Robert Rhodes’ Confederate division continued to pound Union forces here until about 5 PM when the Union centre collapsed under constant attacks from Brockenborough, Pettigrew, and Scales. Doubleday gave up the defense of the ridge and rushed back towards Cemetery Ridge. Climb the tower to get a view of the Union positions on the hill and back towards the center of their lines.

View towards the town from Oak Ridge. This is the Confederate point of view as they marched to the town of Gettysburg.

5. Barlow’s Knoll

A young Union division commander, Francis Barlow, placed his troops along a small hill jutting out from their lines. These were the lead elements of Oliver Howard’s XI Corps made up of mostly Polish and German immigrants from Ohio and Pennsylvania. Rhodes sent Doles’ brigade north to fight them, as Barlow’s division was too far forward to be supported. Hays and Gordon’s brigades slammed into Barlow’s position and the Union brigades routed under pressure from the attack. Francis Barlow was wounded and paralysed from the legs down as his troops streamed through the town of Gettysburg. Left on the battlefield, Barlow needed help until Gen. John Gordon spotted him. Gordon got Barlow a litter and helped tend to him and the two would become great friends after the war finished.

Union guns had a stellar position on top of Cemetery Ridge

6.Cemetery Hill

Union troops fell back through Gettysburg as the Confederates chased them. Howard’s XI Corps found a position on Cemetery Hill by the Evergreen Cemetery but still struggled to organize a solid resistance to Ewell’s Corps. The timely arrival of Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps provided much needed assistance for Howard and the Union managed to form a solid defensive line. Hancock took position on the hill while Howard drifted towards Culp’s Hill. Cemetery Ridge would mark the center of the Union line for the rest of the battle.

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Book Review: The Alps

Stephen O’Shea’s book, The Alps, is a quirky and charming account of the author’s trips through the namesake mountain range. Labelled as a “human history”, I figured I would give it a read after reading the inside cover to discover mentions of Hannibal Barca, Caporetto, Napoleon, and Adolph Hitler. The promises of military history were certainly there for the taking and considering O’Shea’s goof reviews from the press, it seemed like a good read. The book covers the author’s trip spanning Switzerland, France, Germany, Austria, Italy, and Slovenia along arguably the world’s most iconic mountain ranges. Stopping at Mont Blanc, Matterhorn, and other legendary sights, O’Shea’s down-to-earth writing style makes this book one for every historian’s list.

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Praise:

O’Shea is one of those writers who takes you with him. When he goes someplace, you go too. Linguists will certainly enjoy  The Alps for its wide use of language. The varying dialects of the Alps are conveyed beautifully by the author throughout the book. He does point out some very intriguing historical sights such as the Isonzo Front museum in Slovenia or Hitler’s Eagles Nest. His remarks on the collective nouns for groups of bikers (a goulash of Hungarian bikers, a pilsner of Czech bikers, etc.) are something to chuckle about too.

Criticism:

Dutchmen beware. O’Shea is custom to cracking jokes about the Dutch throughout the book as they appear to be the brunt of many jokes made by him or any Swiss or French he encounters. The most disappointing thing for me was the lack of military history in the book. I was enticed by promises of Caporetto, Napoleon’s Italy campaign, and more but was rewarded with maybe two or three pages entirely on each. This was certainly a disappointment; after all, this is a military history blog. The book was placed in the history section of my library, but, it would be much more properly placed in travel. It is more of a travel-history rather than history. He visits places, discusses the history, and describes his experience vividly. It just seems to lack a lot of military history, and focuses more on general history.

For any Hapsburg, language, Sound of Music, mountaineering, or travel enthusiast; this is a spectacular book. For military historians? No. I certainly enjoyed reading Stephen O’Shea and I am by no account saying “do not read his book.” This is just not what somebody interested in the battles of the Isonzo would want to pick up. Luckily for me, I am a Hapsburg and language junkie so this was perfectly fine for me. Notably, O’Shea has also written a book on travelling the battlefields of the Western Front in World War I. I am certainly intrigued and hope for a more military-centred book.

Rating: 3/5

Historical Field Trip: The Veneto

Italy’s history dates back to the times of the Etruscans and Romans, and one of the nation’s most memorable cities is Venice. The winding canals, seafood, and magnificent churches make it a massive tourist destination. While Venice and the surrounding region, the Veneto, are big tourist stops, many breeze over their complex history and the few interesting landmarks and monuments off the beaten path.

Venice:

Venice was a very complicated republic in its early history. Run by the doge, Venice controlled lands from Italy to Croatia and even parts of Greece. Both Byzantine and Classical influences spread throughout the city for its many magnificent buildings.

1. Doge’s Palace

The Doge, or Duke, of Venice controlled the Republic. You can tour the apartments of the Doge and also look at the judiciary chambers of the republic. The prison is connected to the palace as is the armoury, which contains many weapons from the 14th century as well as some artifacts from the Battle of Lepanto.

2. Revolution

Venice’s uprising took place in European rebellion’s favourite year- 1848. A monument to the battles remains in the backstreets of Venice in the San Marco area at Corte Tagliapietra. The monument is to the “heroic resistance” of Austrian rule at the time and a plaque has been put up next to a statue of the Venetian Lion. The plaque is lined with Austrian cannonballs fired at the Venetians. Daniele Manin led a revolt in order to create a new Venetian Republic, but it ended in disaster for the Italians

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Austrian cannonballs used in the 1848 uprising
The Venetian Lion atop the monument

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Northern Veneto:

The Northern Veneto was the sight of many battles of the First World War between Italy and Austria-Hungary. Though many overlook the Italian Front, it is one of the most intriguing topics of the war.

3. Travel to the town of Asiago in the Italian mountains to see the Asiago War Memorial. The Italian Front cost both nations massive casualties, and some 50,000 remains are housed in the memorial. The arched monument is quite large and opened in the 1930s. Also in Asiago is a selection of trenches preserved on Monte Zebio. The trenches are both Austrian and Italian, and are exceptionally well preserved.

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Trenches on Monte Zebio

4. The Strada delle 52 Gallerie is a section of 52 roads through the Italian Alps which were built by the Italian army during WWI. These allowed the transfer of supplies, food, troops, and munitions to the front with less danger of enemy rifle fire or artillery. There are some scenic hikes and you can drive through some of the tunnels.

Verona:

Remembered primarily as the city of Romeo and Juliet, Verona is one of the more interesting cities of Italy that doesn’t get much attention. While they don’t have many historical sights, apart from sights of the Shakespeare play, there are still a few interesting spots.

5. On Via dietro Anfiteatro, a plaque sits on the wall of some Italian soldiers. These are members of the Pasubio Division, one of the Italian army units stationed in Verona. They fought in Africa, Russia, Yugoslavia, and in Italy from their years of service from 1866 to 1943.

Pasubio Division

6. The equestrian statue of King Vittorio Emmanuele II sits by the Roman amphitheater in Verona. The unifying king of Italy, Emmanuele is immortalized in Italian history and his image appears all over the country.

The Coronation of Napoleon

Napoleon Bonaparte, arguably history’s most famed general, is the topic of controversy; movies; and art. The Coronation of Napoleon by Jacques Louis David is possibly the most recognizable of paintings about Napoleon. The painting was commissioned in 1804 after Napoleon was crowned as Emperor of France, and was completed two years later. The painting is massive- 20 ft. by 32 ft. It is currently housed in the Louvre Museum in Paris.

Bonaparte holding his wife’s crown

Why was Napoleon even having a coronation? Well, Napoleon wanted to cement his claim to the French Empire. By crowning himself, he felt that he was completely safe from any other dangers from France. The coronation was very peculiar and contradictory. Though Napoleon claimed to be Emperor, he also was acting as a defender of the French Republic. Perhaps the most important event during the coronation came when Pope Pius VII was about to place the crown on Bonaparte’s head. Napoleon took the crown from the Pope’s hands and crowned himself, taking control of the entire situation.

 

Josephine Bonaparte

Jacques Louis David’s painting captures the scene just after, where Napoleon crowns his wife. Bonaparte stands in the centre, holding a crown in his hands. His wife, Josephine kneels before him and looks down toward his feet. Josephine Bonaparte was older than Napoleon and had two children from her late husband. The marriage caused much controversy among Napoleon’s family and the French population. Eventually she was divorced in 1810.

 

 

Napoleon’s brothers

Napoleon’s brothers, Joseph and Jerome, stand at the far left of the painting. Joseph Bonaparte was crowned King of Spain by his brother and was famous for his battles against the Duke of Wellington in the Peninsular Wars. Jerome was crowned King of Westphalia. The two brothers were not exiled like Napoleon, and they lived in relative peace until their deaths.

The painting still remains one of the most revered painted by a Frenchman. Though it doesn’t depict a famous battle or engagement, the painting immortalizes one of history’s greatest tacticians and generals.

Historical Field Trip: The Wilderness

Battle Summary:

On May 5th, 1864, the Army of the Potomac crossed Germanna Ford near Fredericksburg, Virginia. Union General Gouverneur K. Warren’s V Corps crossed into the woodland known as the Wilderness early in the morning, unaware of an immediate Confederate threat. Ulysses S. Grant thought the Confederate forces under Robert E. Lee were 7 miles away, but in reality they were marching down the Orange Turnpike about to stumble upon Grant’s lead elements.Warren’s force collided with Gen. Richard Ewell’s Corps, igniting the Battle of the Wilderness. The VI Corps under Gen. John Sedgwick marched to aid Warren, but ferocious fighting in Saunders Field halted both corps. Ewell’s troops held a line of fortifications and waited for any more attacks by either Federal corps. That night, Gen John Gordon assaulted the Union left and forced a withdrawal while Union infantry rushed to hold the crossroads of the Orange Plank Road and the Orange Turnpike

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The dense forest in the Wilderness frequently caught fire in the battle, burning the wounded to death.

The next day, Sedgwick’s corps struck Ewell’s lines north of the Orange Turnpike. While the fighting raged on, Hancock’s II Corps and Burnside’s IX Corps attacked two Confederate corps to the south at the Chewning and Tapp Farms. These fields were a break in the dense forest fighting for the troops, and attempted control of these areas was crucial to the battle. General Lee rode out in front of Gregg’s Texas Brigade and called them to action. Lee, under fire, inspired the troops to hold until Longstreet could send reinforcements to AP Hill. Longstreet arrived, slamming into Hancock’s flank, but the dense wood and fires caused confusion. Longstreet was wounded in the neck by his own troops in the confusion, and the battle began to wind down. A final attempted assault by confederate troops proved indecisive, and the Battle of the Wilderness drew to a close.

  1. The Orange Turnpike

The Orange Turnpike, modern day Constitution Highway, was the initial route for Union troops marching towards the Confederate troops. Notice the woodland to either side and how troops would have felt marching through the trees. Warren’s V Corps led the Union advance along this road on May 5.

  1. Saunders Field

The battle began in Saunders Field, one of the major clearings of the battle. Get out of your car and explore the site, walking from the woods on your right across the open ground. This route shows the march of the Union forces under Charles Griffin as they met Gen. Edward Johnson’s Division. There is a trail that leads into the woods which is a good walk to experience in order to see how disorganized you can become while marching through thickets and woodlands. You may notice a monument as you walk across the field. This commemorates the 140th NY as they, along with many other Union troops, furiously assaulted the Confederate lines.

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Saunders Field

 

  1. Earthworks

While you continue along the road, get out to investigate the Confederate entrenchments constructed by Ewell’s corps. The line at the top of Saunders Field is well preserved and shows the extensive fortifications that the Confederates used throughout the Overland Campaign.

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Ewell’s entrenchments
  1. Gordon

Further along the line of fortifications you will come to the very top of Saunders field. The view in front of you is that of the attack Gen. John Gordon launched in the late afternoon to smash the V Corps back. Gordon swept through the field and pushed back the Union troops. The cannon in Saunders Field is a monument for the position of the 1st NY Artillery whose guns were captured in Gordon’s attack.

  1. The Higgerson Farm

One of the main clearings of the battle, The Higgerson Farm was controlled by Confederate troops for the majority of the battle and they stopped attacks from Burnside’s IX Corps.

  1. Tapp Field

On May 6th, a furious engagement raged on in the Tapp field between AP Hill’s corps and the II Corps. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, rode out in front of his soldiers and urged them on. This act inspired a Confederate counterattack- one that gave Longstreet time to bring up reinforcements. Walk across the field to see artillery trenches, the Tapp farm, and a monument to the Texas Brigade.

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Artillery positions in the Tapp Field
  1. Longstreet Arrives

Longstreet’s Corps arrived to support AP Hill just in time, smashing the Union left flank back along the Brock Road. Longstreet suffered a wound in the confusion of battle, keeping him out of battle for 6 months. There is a small trail leading to monuments and markers.

  1. Union Trenches

Hancock’s II corps entrenched along the intersection of the Orange Plank Road and the Brock Road on the night of May 5, encountering fierce combat. The trenches are still along the road, but are very hard to get a picture of, due to their proximity to the roads. An attack on this position after Longstreet’s arrival on May 6 was held and concluded the battle