The American Civil War Eastern Theater Tour Review & Gallery - October 2017
Take a look at our 2017 tour review and gallery. The tour was guided by Fred Hathorne and tour diary by Billy Grimes.
Our mid-morning flight from London Heathrow, boarded and departed on time and cruised over to Washington very smoothly. On arrival, we made our way very efficiently through the dreaded immigration process. We all gathered up our luggage and met our guide Fred Hawthorne as we exited departures. After a short wait for our distinctive Wolf’s bus, we loaded up our cases, introduced ourselves to or driver, Ron and headed to our first stop. In transit, Fred introduced himself and gave us a brief day-by-day overview of the tour ahead of us. We arrived at the Manassas visitors centre, in glorious mid-afternoon sunshine and settled down to watch the interpretation movie on both battles but were quickly interrupted by a fire alarm. A short wait outside gave us all a chance to get to know each other better before re-entering for the very informative movie. We then headed to our hotel, checked-in, dropped off our luggage and met for a welcome drink in the bar. Fred then gave us our pre-tour talk and we all introduced ourselves, and our knowledge of the Civil War to the rest of the group. It was then time to head to dinner at the Red Lobster, where we enjoyed a great seafood dinner and had our first taste of the huge American food portions. It was then back to the hotel, for a well-earned night’s sleep.
After a hearty breakfast we loaded up the coach once again and headed out eagerly for our first proper day of the tour. The focus today was the two battles of Manassas and our first stop was the Stone Bridge, over the creek of Bull Run. The union forces delayed their crossing of the creek here, and gave the confederate army time to ready for themselves for a defensive battle. After a few photos and an introduction to some of the key figures in the battle we headed uphill to the location of the Van Pelt house. It was from this high position that the confederate army discovered the union’s movements. We then descended the hill and headed to a building known as the Stone House. It was used as an aid station during both battles, and still had some carvings left by wounded confederate soldiers in the original floorboards. It was then time to turn our focus to the climactic point of the battle. We first heard of how the union managed to repulse an attack by the outnumbered confederate force. We followed the Confederate retreat back to Henry’s Hill. Here the southerners re-grouped and were joined by General Jacksons brigade, and repulsed numerous union attacks with superior artillery and J E B Stuart’s cavalry. It was here that Jackson earned his nickname ‘Stonewall’. During a particularly big union attack, Gen. Brig Bernard Bee observed;
‘There is Jackson, standing like a Stonewall. Rally behind the Virginians!’
The name stuck, and the confederate once again rallied and managed to extend their lines beyond the union flank. A counterattack turned into a rout and the union forces were forced into a disorganised retreat back to Washington, getting tangled up with the picnickers who had come out to watch the great battle for an afternoon’s entertainment. All this expertly and entertainingly delivered by Fred. Atop Henry’s hill we also saw the house in which the wars first civilian casualty was killed. The elderly and infirm Judith Henry was in her bed when confederate, sharpshooters used her house to pick off Union artillerymen. Capt James Ricketts turned his gun to the house and fired two shells into the building, killing Judith and wounding the other inhabitants. We ended the morning at a rather idealistic statue of Stonewall Jackson, known to Fred as ‘Jackson on Steroids’.
After a quick lunch stop we headed back out to the battlefield and shifted our focus to the second battle of Manassas (29-30 August 1862). Another southern victory that cemented Robert E Lee’s reputation as a brilliant tactician and paved the way for the first northern invasion. We visited the Brawner Farm, where at the start of the battle Jackson engaged with a brigade of Midwesterners under Brig. Gen. John Gibbons. The lines were barely 80 yards apart, firing volley after volley into one another. The fight went on to last for several hours and resulted in stalemate. Gibbons’ men from that point on would be known as the Iron Brigade. Fred then led us in the footsteps of the numerous union attacks up a slope to an unfinished railroad, known as the Deep Cut. Jackson repulsed the attack and even resorted to throwing stones when running low on ammunition. We ended the day at Chinn Ridge, where James Longstreet’s confederate reinforcements plunged into the union left and sent them once again retreating to Washington. A fantastic day, in glorious sunshine, on a wonderfully preserved battlefield came to an end with our transfer to our Fredericksburg hotel. We headed into town to the Bavarian Chef for traditional German fare and beer set in the Civil War era train station.
Once again, we arose to hot and sunny day and made our way into Fredericksburg. Our first stop was the Chatham Plantation on the banks of the Rappahannock River. From here, Fred recounted how General Ambrose Burnside pontooned the river just below us and took the town after some bitter street fighting. We had some time to explore the house and gardens, and hear of Lincoln’s visit here during the war and its use as a field hospital during the Battle of Fredericksburg. We then had the coach climb to Prospect Hill, a confederate artillery position and where Stonewall observed the battle. It was here that the northern main assault was to take place, but was repulsed by a combination of a lack of reinforcements and stubborn artillery fire. We then made our way to the most iconic section of the battlefield, the stone wall at the base of Marye’s Heights. Burnside was to deliver a diversionary attack here, he ended up throwing at least 13 waves of attacks against what was the perfect defensive position and a rifle pit. The union casualties at the stone wall numbered almost 9,000. At the top of Marye’s Heights, Fred pointed out how the topography meant that this was destined to be nothing but slaughter. We went onto pay our respects in the national cemetery, and then into the visitors centre for a look around the small museum and make some purchases in the bookshop.
A quick ‘provision stop’ for lunch and we were off to our second battlefield of the day, Chancellorsville (April 30, 1863). This was seen as Lee’s greatest victory, as he split his outnumbered army and took a huge gamble, that payed off and inflicted a pretty crushing defeat for the army of the Potomac and General ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker thanks to Stonewall Jacksons daring flanking mission and surprise attack. We started at the visitor centre and watched the interpretation movie before walking out to the spot where Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded. Fred vividly recounted the story of how Jackson, returning from a scouting patrol, dressed in black, was shot by his own men upon his return to the lines. We then moved to Hazel Grove, a key piece of high ground held by the Northerners at the start of the second day of the battle. However, as soon as the confederates approached it was given up without a fight. The keen walkers amongst us followed the route of this retreat and met the rest of the group at the new and inferior union position at Fairview. Fred talked us through the huge artillery battle that then ensued. Hooker and his army were eventually surrounded and once again beaten back over the Rappahannock River. We were then amused by hearing ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker’s confidence before the battle;
‘My plans are perfect. May God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.’
General Lee and Jackson more than made him eat his words at Chancellorsville. Lincoln is heard to have said;
‘My god! My god! What will the country say?’
We returned to Fredericksburg and sat down for some good ol’ southern BBQ at Smokey Joe’s restaurant.
We said goodbye to Fredericksburg this morning and headed back out west to The Wilderness, our first battle following U. S. Grant’s Overland Campaign of 1864. Fred chose one of the numerous clearings within a heavily forested battlefield, called Saunders Field to recount the story of what was one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War. It was here that Fred told us a great tale of the relationships between the normal soldiers. Running through the centre of the battlefield, was a shallow ditch that through the course of the action a soldier from each side took cover in. On coming across each other, they had a discussion on what they should do. They decided to put down their weapons, head out into the road between the two lines and have a fist fight. Both sides stopped firing and cheered on their respective soldier. The Johnny Reb, knocked down the Billy Yank, who agreed to be taken as prisoner, the two sides then duly resumed firing. The next stop was the Widow Tapp farm (one of many widows we came across on the tour). This was the site of another famous incident, ‘Lee to the rear’. As a brigade of Texans prepared to repel a union attack on A P Hill’s artillery Lee found himself amongst the troop and ready to lead the charge. Shouts of ‘Lee to the rear’ went up through the ranks and eventually they grabbed the reins of his horse Traveller and forced him back for his own safety. The Texans then went on to check the union attack.
We then moved south to the battlefield of Spotsylvania Courthouse. The battle began a day after the stalemate at The Wilderness. We focused our attentions on the area of the battlefield known as the Mule Shoe, a strong entrenched confederate positon. Grant threw numerous attacks, over a number of days at this position. The bloodiest fighting occurred her on the 12th May, in the angle of the defensive bulge. It was bitterly fought over in hand-to-hand fighting with heavy casualties for both sides, it became known as ‘The Bloody Angle’. We enjoyed Fred’s account of this stage of the battle on the still existing earthworks, in some much sort after shade. We also heard about Maj. Gen. Sedgwick who stood on the battlefield exposed. When warned of his safety he exclaimed ‘they couldn’t hit an elephant from that distance’. He was shot immediately afterwards by a southern sharpshooter.
After lunch, we took a break from the Overland Campaign and turned our attentions back to Stonewall Jackson. Earlier in the morning we had visited Ellwood, the summer home of the family who owned Chatham, to see the burial place of Stonewalls arm amputated after his wounding at Chancellorsville. Quite a strange thing to see, but in beautiful surroundings. Then this afternoon, we visited Guinea Station, where he was tended to buy his doctors and his wife Julia. The local ranger gave us a very entertaining and detailed account of the time Jackson spent here before he contracted pneumonia and passed away. The very room and bed have been brilliantly reconstructed to how they were on the day.
After a brief stop and description of the battle of North Anna, we made our way deep into Virginian suburbia, to Yellow Tavern. The locals must have been pretty puzzled as we disembarked our large bus to observe a monument to the spot where cavalryman J E B Stuart was killed as union troops retreated past his counter-charging cavalry. Before long we were back on the bus and down to our last battlefield of the day, Cold Harbour. Once again we were standing amongst the remains of the original confederate earthworks, facing the union position. Fred recounted the battle from here, and told us how a delay of 24hrs waiting for reinforcements allowed Lee’s men to construct such formidable positions. The sun was starting to set over the battlefield, which gave it a more touching feel, as the attack was launched at dawn in similar light and conditions. Cold Harbour was described by one confederate general as ‘not war, but murder’. Grant threw two huge attacks at the position but was brutally repulsed both times. He would later write;
‘I have always regretted that the last assault at Cold Harbor was ever made, no advantage whatever was gained to compensate for the heavy loss we sustained’
Darkness approached, so we headed to our hotel in Chester, and sat down for a tasty pizza meal.
A morning in Richmond lay ahead of us. It started at the Museum of the Confederacy, which had some great exhibits including Lee’s field tent, as well as many uniforms, weaponry and battle flags. We then took part in an immersive and fascinating tour of the ‘White House of the Confederacy’, the home of Jefferson Davis. We learned a lot about the man himself, a very complex character, as well as his family and the role he played during the war. The house had been immaculately restored, right down to the wallpaper. At the beginning of the tour one of our guests Ann stated that she felt the Civil War was just ‘men with beards, shooting at other men with beards’ the facial hair of the numerous generals on both sides became a subject of much amusement, especially when we came across over the ‘beards of the civil war’ t-shirts in the museum shop. We left the museum for a short drive around Richmond, taking in Monument Avenue, home to huge statues of the great confederate figures (for now) including Lee, Jackson and Davis. There was also Lee’s post war home and the State Capitol.
We then headed out to the Tredagar Ironworks, which provided much of the military equipment to the confederacy and now home to another fascinating museum. There was especially a lot of interest in the example of a Vandenberg Volley Gun, which could fire 121 rounds at once! After a quick lunch stop, we were back on the battlefields and back to 1862, to the Seven Days battles. Our first stop was at Gaines Mill, the third of the six. We heard of how numerous confederate frontal attacks, eventually pushed the Union Army of the Potomac back to the James River. It was hear that the group really got a hold of McLellan’s negativity, and lack of conviction to take opportunities. We then headed to Malvern Hill, another bloody affair. This was the last of the Seven Days battles, and saw the Union occupy a strong position on top of a ridge. The confederates were forced to attack frontally across open and narrow ground, and suffered heavy losses and ultimately defeat. However, McLellan still decided to continue his retreat, essentially back to Manassas and the Potomac River.
A much deserved steak dinner at the Outback Steakhouse was had tonight, and enjoyed by all before settling down to prepare for another in the field.
Today we headed south towards Petersburg, which saw a gruelling nine month siege between June 1864 and March 1865. We started at City Point, where Grant had his headquarters during the campaign. Fred did brilliantly to conjure up the image of what would have been a huge complex and operation, with ammunition stores, bakeries, a railway, barracks and houses for generals. All that was left on the site (apart from the plantation house) was a reconstruction of Grant’s very humble cabin where he spent the duration of the siege, interestingly with his wife as well. We then headed onto the Petersburg battlefield itself, starting with the visitors centre and interpretive film. It was then a short drive along the defensive line to an intricately reconstructed defensive artillery battery. Fred gave us an overview of the campaign from here, and we gathered for a group photo. We then moved onto the battlefields most iconic site, the Crater. During late July 1864, some Pennsylvanian miners decided to dig a tunnel underneath the confederate defences (the entrance to which still survives), plant explosives and blow a hole in their line. Everything went smoothly until the northerners advanced, and instead of going around the huge crater left by the explosion they ran straight into it, which resulted in them being picked off like fish in a barrel by the surviving southern defenders. The next wave of the attack was followed up by troops from the United States Colored Troops who suffered huge losses, being shot or bayonetted even after surrendering. There were also reports that white union troops killed their black counterparts during the retreat. Also, Brig. Gen. Ledlie, whose brigade was selected to lead the attack, was said to be drunk well behind the lines and failed to brief his troops properly. All in all, a pitiful day for the union, and Petersburg remained out of touch.
This afternoon we headed to the fantastic Pamplin Park, where we took advantage of its many features and exhibitions. We started in its wonderful interactive museum, in which you select a soldier whose story you follow throughout the war via the audio guide. We then went out to the reconstructed army camp and met Sergeant George who talked us through the trials and tribulation of camp life and gave us a demonstration of the loading and firing of a musket. Our guide, Jim, then took us to the point where the Union forces finally made the breakthrough in the early hours of 2nd April 1865. Jim very entertainingly told us the story of Capt. Charles Gould, the first man into the confederate earthworks. After some confusion in the darkness, Gould ended up behind enemy lines well ahead of his regiment, armed only with his sword. He was stabbed through the cheek, but managed to kill the man. He was then bayonetted through the shoulder and clubbed numerous times with musket butts, the whole time slashing his sabre and fighting off his attackers. His men eventually pulled him free of the battery and took over the fighting. Now, almost exhausted by Jim’s energetic storytelling we headed to the reconstructed Tudor Hall plantation. Here we could see a working example of a small slave holding farm complete with main house, crops and livestock, smokehouse, storehouse and an example of slave quarters. We left Pamplin Park for Petersburg itself, and dinner at the atmospheric and very English looking pub the Brickhouse Run. Fantastic food, including southern favourites such as fried green tomatoes, were enjoyed by all.
We said goodbye to our Chester hotel and headed out to what was going to be the hottest day of the tour, with temperatures hitting 30 degrees with high humidity. We started in another quiet suburban caul-de-sac at a small monument where confederate Gen. A P Hill was killed when he came across two union troops in the woods just after the breakthrough. We listened to Fred recount the story of the incident, and left after undoubtedly raising the eyebrows of the still sleepy residents. We then headed to the Five Forks battlefield that set the stage for the breakthrough. We started at the great little visitors centre to view the interactive map and also admire their hands on display of weaponry, uniforms and other equipment. It was then out on to the Five Forks junction itself where Fred led us through the battle. Despite being crucial for Lee’s supply line, Gen. Pickett’s defence of the junction was poorly organised and on the day of the Union attack he was way behind the lines at a ‘shad bake’ which is a traditional southern lunch ‘he couldn’t possibly refuse’. A combined infantry and cavalry attack was successful and cut off the supply line, resulting in Lee informing Jefferson Davis that Richmond and Petersburg needed to be abandoned.
A reasonably long drive lay ahead of us, so we all enjoyed a DVD of the 1938 reunion of veterans from both sides at Gettysburg and Fred explained how because of the healthy pensions received by these veterans, many married much younger women in later life. The last civil war widow died in 2004, nearly 140 years after the war ended! We stopped briefly at Sailors Creek battlefield, the last major engagement of the Eastern Theater. It had a great little visitors centre, with some great battlefield archaeology. We headed back onto the bus and onto Appomattox Courthouse and the end of the campaign, but by no means the tour. A big proportion of the village has been reconstructed, however the group headed straight to the McLean House and the very room in which Lee surrendered to Grant. Fred then took us down to the Surrender Triangle where Lee’s army laid down their weapons before simply making their way home, paroles in hand. We were then free to roam around the village looking in the various buildings, such as the old county jail, and the tavern which had been turned into a printers producing the parole papers that ensured the southern soldiers safe passage back to their homes. After a quick chat to the various re-enactors or enjoying the sun on one of the verandas, we made a short stop to the gravesite of the last soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia. We headed to our Lynchburg hotel and walked out to the Main Street Eatery for another hearty meal and lively chat on issues past and present.
An early start today saw us head north west and deeper into Virginia to Lexington. Our first stop was to the gravesite of Stonewall Jackson. We had now seen where he earned his nickname, where he was wounded, where his arm is buried, where he died and now where he is laid to rest. We then headed down to Washington-Lee College, where Robert E Lee became president after the war, he is also buried here. Unfortunately, the chapel where the ‘incumbent Lee’ memorial is situated was occupied for a service, however we could still enter the crypt where the great General is laid to rest, not far from his horse Traveller. From here we made the short walk through the campus to the Virginia Military Institute (VMI) which produced the great Stonewall Jackson himself. The campus was buzzing with life as there was a home football game and we were treated to a full military parade of the cadets. The fantastic museum had some great exhibits such as Jackson’s horse Little Sorrel, the coat he was wearing when he was wounded, and a fantastic arsenal of weaponry through the ages. We made our way back through the bustling campus and out to the New Market battlefield.
New Market is very important to the cadets at VMI as when it was fought in May 1864, a regiment of the cadets was thrown into action and fought heroically losing 10 men in the process. We went into the visitors centre to watch the movie, and learnt of the ‘field of shoes’. The field the cadets had to cross was thick with mud and many lost their boots in the advance towards the union lines. The confederates managed to force the union force out of the Shenandoah Valley, and back towards Washington. The fresh cadets at the VMI still recreate the charge across the field today, to formally confirm their admittance to the institute.
We then headed out to one of the real highlights of the tour, the Skyline Drive through the Shenandoah Valley. We were once again treated to a sunshine filled day, this along with the fact the forests were starting to develop their autumnal colours of yellows, browns and reds made for one of the most spectacular afternoons scenery one could ask for. Numerous photo stops were taken advantage of and gasps of wonder and delight echoed around the coach at each turn of the mountain road. The highlight of the afternoon however was the sighting of a black bear, foraging for its last few meals before retreating into the wilderness for hibernation. After the mandatory group photo we headed to our simple but satisfying dinner in the small town of Front Royal before checking into our Winchester hotel for the night.
This morning we were greeted by rain for the first time, however we didn’t let this dampen our spirits and off we went into the centre of Winchester. The town itself changed hands at least 72 times throughout the war! We stopped at the confederate cemetery and Fred gave us an over view of the Winchester campaign from here. We then headed for a quick stops at Jackson’s HQ throughout the campaign, Cedar Creek battlefield visitors centre to view the interactive map and the Belle Grove plantation. This battle is famous for ‘Sheridans Ride’, after a surprise morning attack that forced the union army into a retreat, Maj. Gen. Sheridan hearing the sounds of battle increasing rode out from Winchester to meet his retreating men. He rallied them by shouting;
"Come on back, boys! Give 'em hell, God damn 'em! We'll make coffee out of Cedar Creek tonight!
The union lines reformed and routed the confederate force. The victory ended the last attempt to invade the north and helped secure Lincoln’s re-election in 1864.
With the rain easing up a little we headed to Harpers Ferry where we would spend the afternoon. On arrival whilst standing on the point where the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers meet, Fred talked us through how Stonewall Jackson expertly took the crucial but poorly defended town prior to Lee’s invasion of Maryland and the battle of Antietam. He also told us a great story of daring and pure audacity. A union cavalryman and Mississippian, Col. Benjamin ‘Grimes’ Davis decided he was going to sneak his men out of the town before it completely fell into the hands of Jackson. He successfully got them across a pontoon bridge and into the Maryland heights overlooking Harpers Ferry. He eventually came across a confederate wagon train. Davis, with his southern accent and the fact his men were disguised by both their black raincoats and the dark managed to convince them to follow him in the opposite direction. When morning broke the waggoneers found themselves surrounded by federal troops, and Davis had managed to capture 40 enemy ordinance wagons without losing a man. We had the rest of the afternoon free to explore the town when most took the opportunity to follow the story of John Brown’s raid of 1859. A fierce abolitionist, Brown gathered up a small force, broke into the armoury and hoped that he would be able to raise an army of slaves. His plan was poorly executed and ultimately ended in his capture and eventual execution. He became a martyr to the abolitionist and in a way the northern cause despite being a brutal murderer and religious fanatic. In his final testament he wrote;
'I John Brown am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty, land: will never be purged away; but with Blood.’
He was ultimately proved emphatically right. We left Harpers Ferry, crossed through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. We reached out hotel for the next three nights, the historic Gettysburg Hotel, in the centre of town. This evening we headed out to the Appalachian Brewing Company for good beer and hearty food in a lively atmosphere.
We awoke this morning to what felt like a tropical downpour, but once again we soldiered on full of excitement for visiting the battlefield of Antietam. First though, we stopped off at the battlefield of Monocacy (July 1864), known as the ‘battle that saved Washington.’ Confederate Lt. Gen. Jubal Early had already fought his way through the Shenandoah Valley and was now getting dangerously close to Washington. Despite being a defeat for the Union force under Maj. Gen. Lew Wallace (who would go onto write Ben-Hur and sign Billy the Kids death warrant) they managed to buy enough time for Grant to send seasoned troops from the siege of Petersburg to sure up the defences around the capital, and ultimately push Early back over the Potomac river. We then headed toward Antietam, and back to 1862.
On the way, Fred told us the story of Special Orders 191. These orders detailed Lee’s plans to split his army and where each of these factions was supposed to go. A couple of days later, a union soldier found 3 cigars wrapped in a piece paper. That piece of paper turned out to be a copy of Special Orders 191, and now Gen. McLellan knew exactly where Lee and his army were and where they were going. A blunder that would lead to the bloodiest single day in American history, the battle of Antietam. The rain had now stopped, but was replaced with stifling humidity giving us a feel of how it may have been on that September day.
After watching the interpretation movie and exploring the visitor centre, which offered a great panoramic view of the battlefield, we headed out for the tour. McLellan’s plan for the battle was simple, he would essentially conduct three separate battles. By attacking the confederate flanks, Lee would be forced to weaken his centre to reinforce the flanks. McClellan could then hit Lee in his centre and destroy his army. However, as would become common place with McClellan, the attack didn’t play out the way he planned. The right and the centre attacked before the left, making a much more bloody and disorganised battle than anticipated. We started on the Union left with ‘Fighting’ Joe Hooker. We stopped on the union side of what would become known as ‘The Bloody Cornfield’. The target for this attack was a small white building visible in the distance, the Dunker Church. Vicious fighting ebbed and flowed across the cornfield with heavy casualties on both sides. We eventually crossed the field to the southern position and continued our story. We then headed into the West woods, where the Iron Brigade withstood vicious confederate counterattacks before being pushed back. Later, Maj. Gen. Sedgwick also found himself in the west woods and was hit heavily by artillery, and forced to withdraw after losing half his men. It was then onto the Dunker Church itself. The church was eventually reached by a small union force, but because Hooker had been wounded in the Cornfield there was a lack of leadership to reinforce and follow up on the success. Lee’s left flank held.
We moved onto the centre of the line and down to the Mumma Farm. From here some of us chose to walk the route of the Union advance, across the open ground, and up the slope to a sunken road that would become known as the ‘Bloody Lane’. The sunken road acted as a natural breast work for the confederate troops, and allowed them to decimate many of the 10,000 mostly untested and green northern troops who advanced towards them. When we reached the crest of the ridge we realised how exposed we were, and how fruitless this attack would have been. However, in the heat of battle a southern officer accidentally called out ‘about face’ causing many of the soldiers in the road to turn and fall back. This presented the opportunity for the federals to advance past the road, which we ourselves were now on. Once again due to delays and the wounding of the general in charge of the attack, the success was not followed up. McClellan could have thrown a number of reserve divisions into the attack on the centre and broken Lee’s army. He didn’t, and Lee’s centre reformed and held. In the sunken lane there was an observation tour which offered an unrivalled view over the whole battlefield which most took advantage of.
Our final stop on the battlefield was to the union right, controlled by Ambrose Burnside. Burnside was tasked with crossing Antietam creek himself. However, his attack was delayed deep into the morning due to late receipt of orders and insisting on splitting his corps in two to find another way across than the narrow bridge in front of him. His thousands of men faced 400 Georgian sharpshooters and 12 cannons. At the third attempt Burnside succeeded in crossing the bridge and pushing the confederates back up the hill. However, he took two hours to get his men over the bridge, in which time A P Hill had arrived with reinforcements from Harpers Ferry and repulsed the attack when it eventually came. Lee’s right held. Fred took us through this part of the battle underneath a ‘witness tree’ on the union side of the river that stood during the battle.
We ended the day on the outskirts of Sharpsburg, Maryland at the national cemetery and reflected on what was the bloodiest day in American history, more so than Pearl Harbor and D-day. We also discussed McClellan and his refusal to follow up what was three successful attacks. Lee waited, in the area where the cemetery now stands, for a day for another attack. His army was reduced to 30,000 and was there for the taking. McClellan did nothing and was eventually removed from command. 23,000 men were killed, wounded or missing by the end of the day. Five days later, the bloodshed at Antietam led to President Lincoln announcing the Emancipation Proclamation. This was made even more poignant to us as we drove back through Sharpsburg and passed one of the last surviving slave auction blocks in the USA. We stopped for one of the best dinners of the tour at the Carriage House Inn on our return to Gettysburg. We bedded down in preparation for another big day and another big battle tomorrow. Gettysburg itself.
We awoke to dry weather and with much anticipation for the day ahead. Fred firstly directed Ron though the Union lines and up to Culps Hill which offered a great view of battlefield. Our first proper stop was on the confederate side at Oak Hill. This offered a clear panorama towards the union defensive prior to the battle. From here we could see Culps Hill, the town of Gettysburg itself, Cemetery Hill and Ridge, and both Big and Little Round Top. From this vantage point Fred played out the first day of the battle. You could almost see the row of grey clad confederate units pushing the union army back through the fields below us and into the town itself. After the first day both armies were pretty much up to full strength, with the Union forces positioned on the high ground in in front of us. As we made our way along the lines we heard the heroic story of John Burns, who lived on the battlefield. A veteran of the war of 1812, Burns grabbed his flintlock muscket and set out to join the union ranks. He was equipped with a modern weapon and fell into line. He stood with his new comrade all day at one point with the Iron Brigade. He was hit three times and had to be abandoned. He managed to hide his weapons and convinced the advancing confederates he was a non-combatant who had been caught up in fire. He was patched up ad would go onto live for another eight years after the war and became something of a national hero and accompanied Lincoln on his visit to Gettysburg when he gave his famous address. There is now a fitting memorial to him on the battlefield itself.
The story of the second day of the battle was told in two places. Firstly to right of the confederate line where Fred talked us through their battle plan for the day. We then headed up to Little Round Top, a highlight for many. From here we heard of the union debacle involving the infamous Gen Sickles, who decided to abandon Little Round Top in favour of lower more exposed ground. When the 6 mile long confederate line attacked that afternoon Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren saw that Little Round Top was undefended and there for the taking. It was hastily reinforced, just in time to repel repeated attacks from southern regiments. The attacks were eventually beaten back by a brave and now famous bayonetted charge by men from the 20th Maine led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain. After some more vivid descriptions of the actions below where we were standing, we descended Little Round Top, to where Sickles had repositioned his men. We stopped at The Wheatfield, which saw some of the bloodiest fighting of the battle changing hands six times. Here we heard the heroic story of the 1st Minnesota Regt, who were ordered into a suicidal bayonetted charge and lost all but 47 of the 262 who took up the charge. However, by the end of the day the union lines held and Lee would be thrown into a desperate act the next day.
We now headed to the visitors centre where we were left to have a spot of lunch, peruse the brilliantly detailed museum, and spend some money in the large book and gift shop. We reconvened for our viewing of the film, which went through the battle day-by-day in good detail and then headed in to the cyclorama, a 360˚ painting of Picketts Charge complete with sound and light effects. A very immersive experience.
We headed back out onto the battlefield, to cover the third day of the battle. The crux of the confederate attack this day was in the centre of the lines and was to be a full frontal assault led by Gen. George Pickett, who had the only fresh division left in the confederate army. We now embarked on what is a highlight of this tour, walking in the very footsteps of Picketts Charge. We set off across the one mile of open ground, up a gentle slope, with a running commentary from Fred on the movements of the lines across the field. We eventually reached the crest of the hill at the Codori Farm, where the southern troops would have started coming under rifle fire. Like the charge itself we pressed onto a wooden fence across the Emmitsburg Road, which would have had to be climbed by the confederate troops under intense, enfilading rifle fire. We eventually reached a stone wall at what was known as the angle. This resembled the high watermark of Picketts Charge, from here union men poured rifle fire into the enemy chanting ‘Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg’. The Confederates were forced back to their starting positions, scarcely half of those who undertook the charge returned. Lee immediately admitted ‘it’s all my fault’, he had rolled the dice, but for the first time his northern counterpart (Gen. George Meade) had out guessed him and had seen the attack coming. When Lee asked Pickett to rally his division for defence of a counter attack he replied ‘General, I have no division’. Fred’s description and commentary of Picketts charge really bought home the brutality and destruction of the climax of largest battle of the Civil War.
Some opted to walk back through town and grab the last few souvenirs and take in the remaining Civil War buildings. This evening we sat down at the Dobbin House. A wonderfully preserved 18th century building, with wait staff in period costume and once again wonderful food. A very pleasant and atmospheric final meal of the tour. We headed back to the hotel to pack for the last time and ready ourselves for departure the next day.
We were once again greeted with rain for our final morning. We loaded our cases for the final time and made our way across town to Gettysburg National cemetery. The main focus for our visit here was the Gettysburg Address. President Lincoln was invited to give ‘few appropriate remarks’ at the dedication of the cemetery in November 1963, however his 272 word speech has gone down in history. It reiterated the importance of not only preserving the union, but also highlighting how the war was a fight for human equality. After time walking amongst the cemetery, we headed back into town to the Shriver House. Here we were treated to a fantastic guided tour by Bonnie, dressed in period costume around the home come tavern that had been reconstructed to exactly how it was during the civil war. Some of the rooms had been made up to how the Shriver women would have found it after the battle after being occupied by confederate troops. We eventually bid Gettysburg farewell and after a satisfying lunch and some shopping at Cracker Barrel we headed into Washington and to Arlington Cemetery. We boarded our tram tour and headed up to the tomb of the Unknown Soldiers. We paid our respects, and watched the tombs guard go through his drill of 21 steps, turn, 21 second wait, turn, 21 second wait, and 21 steps. He has to do this for an hour. Next we made our way up to Arlington house, formerly the home of Robert E Lee and his wife Mary Custis.
From here we were treated to a fabulous view of the centre of the Washington, and could see the Washington, Jefferson and Lincoln monuments, as well as the Capitol building. After a quick stop off at the Kennedy family gravesite we headed back to the coach. We bid farewell to Max who was staying on in the capital, and headed to what was going to be bonus visit to the Air and Space museum. Here we were treated to an impressive array of avionic hardware from the birth of flight to space travel. Highlights included; Concord, SR-71 spy plane, Enola Gay, and an actual space shuttle! After an hour or so we reconvened and made the short hop to the airport, where we said goodbye to Stephen and Suzanne who were heading back to sunny California and George, who was heading back to Perth. We also all gave our personal thanks to Ron who had been a more than capable driver and fantastic company throughout the tour, and of course Fred who had bought the Civil War vividly to life at every stop we made and made the tour the memorable experience it was. The rest of us made our way back to Blighty on our overnight flight and reflected on what had been jam-packed, but fun, fascinating and fulfilling tour.
View details of this tour - The American Civil War: Eastern Theater Tour