The Gettysburg Civil War battle lives again

Road Trip 2010: If it's Fourth of July weekend, that means it's time to reenact one of the most famous battles of the Civil War. CNET's Daniel Terdiman is on hand to see the action.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
4 min read

Each summer, hundreds, if not thousands of Civil War buffs come to Gettysburg to reenact one of the most famous battles of the war. CNET Road Trip 2010 was on hand to chronicle the Wheatfield Battle, one part of the battle for Gettysburg. Daniel Terdiman/CNET

GETTYSBURG, Pa.--If you're a Civil War buff, or even an amateur historian, you no doubt know the history of the battle for Gettysburg. One of the most famous battles of the Civil War, it was also one of the bloodiest. Over three days of intense fighting, Federal troops led by Major General George Gordon Meade fought off Robert E. Lee's Confederate troops, and the battles in and around Gettysburg are often thought to be a turning point in the war.

Each summer, hundreds or thousands of enactors travel here to take part in the annual Gettysburg Civil War Reenactment. On Saturday, I also traveled here as part of Road Trip 2010 to see what the action was like. Over the course of four days, the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee holds several battle reenactments, as well as a wide variety of other period events. I was only able to make it to Gettysburg for the reenactment of the so-called "Wheatfield" battle.

Click here for a full photo gallery from the Battle for Gettysburg

Battle of Gettysburg (photos)

See all photos

Rather than try to explain the details of the battle, or its importance to the larger war, I've decided to quote from the official battle reenactment program, and to let the above photos illustrate what went on Saturday. Please also see the videos from the event, below.

On the morning of July 2, 1863, the Confederate forces were jubilant; they had driven the enemy from the field and now occupied the town of Gettysburg. General Robert E. Lee decided to remain at Gettysburg to defeat the defending Federal force, now deployed on high ground south and east of town. Deciding on a Napoleonic flanking maneuver against the Union troops, Lee ordered an attack, with General Longstreet's 1st Corps engaging the Federals on Little Round Top, and General Ewell's 2nd Corps hitting the Federals on "Cemetery and Culp's Hills" as a diversion.

General Longstreet's troops had not arrived yet on the morning of July 2nd, and determinedly traveled surreptitiously in a counter-march to avoid detection. As a result, Dan Sickles, commander of the Union 3rd Corps, ordered his men off the rocky hill and positioned them in fields and knolls in the shadow of the Round Tops. He believed the Confederates would not attack his men on high ground; rather, Lee was probably going to skirt around the Union forces and run toward Washington.

When General Longstreet's troops arrived at Gettysburg on the afternoon of July 2nd, he was amazed to find men in blue in the "Peach Orchard" that ran along the Emmitsburg Road. General Sickles had deployed most of his men there, leaving a brigade under Regis deTrobriand in a wheat field and another in "Devil's Den," under the command of Hobart Ward.

Longstreet launched his troops against the Federals, hoping to gain the high ground of "Little Round Top" before Union General George Meade discovered that his flank was void of protection. Soon Sickles found himself in desperate trouble and as "Devil's Den" fell, he asked for reinforcements for the "Wheatfield." General John Caldwell's division of the Union 2nd Corps was dispatched in reply; his division consisted of four brigades, commanded by Colonels Cross, Kelly, Brooke, and Brigadier General Samuel Zook. These troops were immediately engaged in fierce, hand-to-hand combat as the "Wheatfield" became enveloped in smoke and musketry. Six times the field changed hands in just over two hours as Cross and Zook fell mortally wounded, and Kelly's Irish Brigade rushed to the stony ridge to stop their foes in gray. Men from Georgia and South Carolina collided with men from Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, and Ireland, leaving many dead and wounded.

The "Wheatfield" extracted a gruesome toll of death and carnage from both sides. The Confederates suffered causalities of 1,394 and the Union 3,125, which was not a typical ratio of causalities for attackers to defenders. This small expanse of agricultural ground would long be remembered by veterans as a name unique in the history of warfare given the unwavering ferocity of this fight.

For the next few weeks, Geek Gestalt will be on Road Trip 2010. After driving more than 18,000 miles in the Rocky Mountains, the Pacific Northwest, the Southwest and the Southeast over the last four years, I'll be looking for the best in technology, science, military, nature, aviation and more throughout the American northeast. If you have a suggestion for someplace to visit, drop me a line. In the meantime, you can follow my progress on Twitter @GreeterDan and @RoadTrip and find the project on Facebook. And you can also test your knowledge of the U.S. and try to win a prize in the Road Trip Picture of the Day challenge.