Column: Charge and retreat in a return to Gettysburg

  • A cannon from the Civil War on the battleground in Gettysburg, Pa. (Wikimedia Commons)

  • Will Lange. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 4/16/2019 10:20:21 PM

I’m writing this a few days early; I’m not quite sure where I’ll be on deadline day. On the other hand, you’re reading this after I’ll have returned home. I hope all this confuses you less than it does me.

About a week ago, pretty fed up with the reluctance of the snow to return whence it came, looking ahead at a largely featureless April, and sort of dreading whatever the anniversary of Mother’s death might dredge up, I found myself dreaming of a road trip. Sort of like Ishmael in the first paragraph of Moby-Dick: “Whenever I find myself growing grim about the mouth; whenever it is a damp, drizzly November in my soul ... whenever my hypos get such an upper hand of me ... then, I account it high time to get to sea as soon as I can.” I did, in fact, think about a windjammer cruise in the Caribbean, but I’m going to need some money for outside work around the place come spring. So much for that.

So a road trip it would be. But where? The Maritimes are too far, especially with winter lingering. Quebec would be lovely; but it was always lovely because I was with an enthusiastic Francophile, and this time I’d be alone with no one to talk to in English. The South was out; the ambience is currently more than I can countenance. I decided to reprise a trip that Mother and I took several times: to Gettysburg, this time with Kiki. I dug out three books — Travels with Charley, On the Road, and Gettysburg — and dove in.

It’s amazing how a project like this can capture the imagination. Suddenly I’m looking at things in the refrigerator and asking if they’ll last till I’ve come back; wondering if I can find some vacuum-sealed wet dog food that’ll obviate the need to keep an open can cold; considering taking off the snow tires (no); trying to remember the crossovers from Interstate 87 to Interstate 88; informing the credit card company of a trip. (I got jammed in Yellowknife once with a charter flight charge for $17,000 that the card resisted. Never again!)

The weather, perversely, has not been encouraging, but go we will. On the first anniversary of Mother’s death we’ll be retracing the old route — Bethel, Rutland, Whitehall, Lake George, Amsterdam and finally onto the two interstate arteries that spear through New York’s somnolent southern tier and then straight south in company with hundreds of roaring diesel tractors to whom a little gray Prius must seem but a blot on the pavement. All the way, I’ll see her translucent shade beside me, black sweater and denim skirt, reading glasses perched on her nose, peering at maps, and asking, “Why do you always go this way?” That evening, if all goes well, I’ll be soaking in a hot tub in a motel located roughly where General Lee’s left-hand divisions mustered for their attacks on Cemetery Hill — which, decidedy, did not go well.

Saturday I’ll trudge again that fatal three-quarters of a mile from the heroic statue of Robert E. Lee at the location of the Confederate lines on Seminary Ridge to the stone wall where Hancock’s brigades, supported by massed and carefully ranged cannon, awaited. There are some muddy spots in that low stretch, so I’ll wear my Bean boots — as Yankee as you can get — and Kiki’ll get her paws wet.

In past years, Mother always drove around to meet me at the Union end. She won’t be there this time, so I’ll have to do the retreat, as well. In point of fact, she was rarely there; she generally got lost somewhere between the Wheatfield and Little Round Top. One year she showed up late as usual with one hand bound in a kerchief, a chipped incisor, and blood on her white blouse. She’d been watching the movie Gettysburg, and been impressed by the bravery of General Armistead’s men stepping out of the sheltering woods to form up for their charge. So she tried it herself, and tripped over a rock. She wouldn’t go to the hospital. Instead, she immobilized her broken finger with a drugstore splint, rinsed out her blouse, and got the tooth fixed after we got back home. All I could do was shake my head. That’s my woman!

The resolve and forlorn hope it must have taken to march that field in close order under a hellfire of cannonballs, percussion and finally canister is almost unimaginable. From the Confederate lines you can look into the barrels of the cannon across the way, as far as it is. At the Emmitsburg Road, Pickett’s brigades had to climb over high slab fences on both sides of the road — German farmers built firm borders — and the Yankee artillery had already sighted them in. A grand spectacle, some said. But madness, as well.

After our retreat, we’ll drive toward the Union lines through the lingering ghosts at the Peach Orchard, and spend a few minutes conversing mutely with Joshua Chamberlain and his 20th Maine. Thence to the position of General Stannard’s opportunistic Vermonters on the left of the Copse in Hancock’s lines.

That’ll be enough emotion for one day, at least. Palm Sunday, it’s off to aptly named Prince of Peace, whose rector is an old friend and whose secretary, a Vermonter, has said Kiki’s welcome in church. After that, we start the long road home, she and I, to try again to fill a quiet empty house.

Willem Lange can be reached at

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