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In Gettysburg, poignant reminders of the battle are ever-present

Painting of Pickett’s Charge in July 1863. Photo/Getty Images

The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest in America’s Civil War and the town has the scars to show it.

Fifty-six kilometres is a long way for a smell to carry. I naturally assume there’s some embellishment going on, but Arlene, who’s telling the story, is adamant it’s a fact. That’s what happens when you have around 7000 men, plus 5000 horses and mules, lying dead in the open – at best in shallow graves – under a sweltering summer sun.

Downwind from Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the citizens of Harrisburg could probably hardly believe what their noses were telling them, from July all the way to Thanksgiving, but visitors to the battlefield today can’t avoid the bombardment of facts about those three decisive days in 1863.

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At the hub of a wheelful of roads, Gettysburg had the misfortune to be accidentally caught between the Union and Confederate troops in late June of that year. The battle that broke out on July 1 was the bloodiest and most decisive of the American Civil War. It ensured the town’s place in US history.

The town is pretty these days, full of well-preserved buildings with enticing restaurants and shops, and the surrounding countryside is dotted with apple orchards, which tourism people are keen to promote as an alternative reason for visiting. There’s a Wine and Fruit Trail, a farmers’ market, a harvest festival, craft breweries and wineries, and they tell me ghosts are big here, but it’s the battle that brings the crowds.

Snatches of conversations from among the memorials are proof that many visitors have done their homework. I arrived knowing little more than the name, but two days later, I left feeling as though I could pretty much rule at Mastermind on the subject.

President Lincoln at Gettysburg in November that year. Photo/Getty Images

The facts are everywhere, presented in various ways. The Museum and Visitor Centre has the biggest guns: a film narrated by actor Morgan Freeman tells the story clearly and explains the Battle of Gettysburg’s importance in the eventual abolition of slavery. The centre is also deservedly proud in its cyclorama, an 1880s painting that was the Imax of its day. Mounted in a 144m-diameter circle and reaching nearly 13m high, with a 3D foreground diorama and lighting and sound effects, it is a dramatic representation of the battle’s climactic and ultimately doomed Pickett’s Charge, on the final day of fighting.

For big – and small – thinking, however, the History Centre’s Gettysburg Diorama takes the prize. A scale model of the town and battlefield that took three years to create, it covers over 74sq m and incorporates more than 20,000 hand-painted figures. A narrated light-and-sound show tells the story of the three days of fighting as it ebbed and flowed over the nearby hills and valleys.

Groundwork laid, it was time to venture out to where it all happened. The battlefield is now a National Military Park, its nearly 2500ha of hills and farmland dotted with 1400 monuments, markers and statues. Those numbers make it a daunting prospect for independent exploration, so I take a National Riding Stables guided horse trek. Mounted on docile Robbie, I fall in behind Terry on her favourite mule and plug my earphones into her expert commentary.

As we clop quietly through the autumnal countryside, squirrels bounding away through drifts of coloured leaves, she gives us another view of Pickett’s Charge. Sitting precisely where the Confederate and Union generals sat on their horses, we can appreciate the difficulties presented by the undulating terrain and, with Terry’s help, understand the challenges involved.

Even better than the learning, though, is the sheer pleasure to be had from riding through such lovely scenery, beside zig-zag split-rail fences, over wooden bridges and past traditional farmhouses and barns, some of them still displaying cannonball holes. And everywhere there are monuments and memorials, small and large, marking significant moments or places in the battle.

A Union Army regiment charging on day two of the battle. Photo/Getty Images

Taking a walk near sunset, I pass through the peaceful green National Cemetery, where white stones curving across the grass mark the resting places of unknown dead, and up onto the battlefield again. It’s busy with joggers and dog walkers. Above the golden-leaved oak trees, a murmuration of starlings swirls and swoops. It’s all so beautiful. Part of the beauty, though, are the memorials and statues of soldiers and mounted generals, the cannons and elaborate temples of remembrance. It’s inescapable proof that this lovely place was once a killing field.

Back in town at the Shriver House Museum, matronly Arlene, wearing a demure period dress, takes us from the makeshift operating theatre in the basement up to the draughty attic, where a sharpshooter’s rifle is propped next to a cannonball hole in the brick wall. She describes in vivid detail the housewife’s reality: caught in the middle of a bloody battle, husband away fighting, the house requisitioned, young daughters forced to act as nurses, and amputated arms and legs piled up outside as high as the garden gate.

A few blocks away in the town square stands the David Wills House, where all this horror was transmuted into something eternally fine. This is where President Abraham Lincoln spent the night before speaking to the crowd at the consecration of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in November that same year. In his upstairs room, with its overstuffed mattress, he polished the “few appropriate remarks” he had been invited to deliver.

Following keynote speaker Edward Everett, who spoke for two hours, Lincoln stood and in two minutes and 272 words delivered what became one of history’s most famous speeches: the Gettysburg Address.

Simple and succinct, it honours the dead, restates the principle of equality from the Declaration of Independence and describes the Civil War as a test of the strength of the Union. It finishes: “… we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain – that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom – and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”

Pamela Wade was hosted by Destination Gettysburg.

This article was first published in the November 18, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.