Across the Mason Dixon line was farm rich Pennsylvania. Lee followed the line of the mountains, hoping to hide his troop’s movements. The bulk of Lee’s troops had already passed Gettysburg on their way to the Harrisburg when a small group encountered scouts from the Army of the Potomac. Their skirmish drove Union troops back to Seminary Hill where they dug in to hold their ground. The next morning, July 1, 1863, as both armies scrambled to get their men in position, Confederate forces attacked the Union troops on Seminary Hill.
The North Carolina Brigade was the first to fight. They were the largest unit in the Confederate army with eight hundred and thirty men. By the end of the first day’s fighting, two hundred and twelve remained standing. But their efforts were successful. They overwhelmed the Union soldiers and sent them running back through the streets of Gettysburg.
Confederate troops spread out beneath a line of trees. Across the Pennsylvania farmland, the Union troops were ensconced on the high ground. Lee knew if he could get his canons onto a high point called Little Round Top, he could fire down the entire line of the Union Army. It would not only be a decisive victory, it would destroy the Army of the Potomac and probably end the war.
But he had to have all of his men in place. General Longstreet’s men were still in the mountains, twenty miles away. They were woken at four a.m. and without breakfast, marched toward the battle ground. By nine a.m. they had run out of water. They never stopped marching all day long in the humid, July weather. At about four p.m. they arrived at Gettysburg. Many of them were barefoot. Their shoes had fallen apart as they literally marched out of them. They were given a fifteen minute break and told now would be the time to write their loved ones.
Then they were sent out to take Little Round Top. They marched across an open field called the Peach Orchard. On the opposite side of the field they encountered Union troops and sent them running. Then the Federal troops rallied and pushed the Confederate troops back across the field. The Confederates rallied and pushed the Union forces back. Three or four times the troops swept across the field, causing massive casualties until, on the last advance, the field was covered. The men had to run on the bodies of the fallen. That day, Union troops held Little Round Top, but not without a price.
The next day, Lee launched what become known as Picket’s Charge. Confederate troops marched across the open fields, straight into the lines of the Union troops. Before the march began however, both sides began a massive canon fight. There was so much smoke in the air, the targets couldn’t be seen.
One Union officer, certain they were overshooting, stopped firing his canons. Southern commanders thought that meant the canons had been destroyed so they sent their troops in. As the smoke cleared, the Union canon opened fire on the Confederates with devastating effect. Still the Confederate troops fought back and broke through the Union lines at a place called The Angle. Union troops quickly flooded in and drove them back. However, the battle at The Angle is considered the high mark of the Confederacy forces, a well-deserved acknowledgment of their courage, dedication and breakthrough at Gettysburg.
At the end of the day, July 4, 1863, Lee withdrew his troops. He headed back over the Mason Dixon line never to return. It was the turning point of the Civil War. There were fifty seven thousand two hundred and twenty five casualties in the three day battle. The North Caroline Brigade that started off with eight hundred and thirty nine men walked off the field with one hundred and fifty two, the highest percentage casualty rate of any regiment, North or South.
Twenty years after the war, survivors began returning to the battlefield. They erected monuments on the exact spots where they fought. One New Jersey regiment’s monument was a bullet because they used more bullets in three days of fighting than they had used during the entire war previous to the battle. One regiment built a small castle because they had held Little Round Top like a fortress. The Louisiana survivors erected a beautiful statue with an angel standing over a fallen soldier, blowing his trumpet and calling the fallen to heaven.
Each monument tells its own story of astonishing feats of courage, endurance and horror. They are incredible reminders of the events and men that shaped our country over a hundred years ago. As we stood beneath the towering trees and looked across the field, a breeze picked up and swept over us. It whistled around, sounding forlorn. It made us feel sad, as if the battle had not been so long ago and far away, especially since Gary’s great-great grandfather, Samuel Neel Stowe was one of the commanders of the North Carolina brigade that lost so many men.
He was injured and captured but survived and went home. Before the war, the Stowe’s had been wealthy Carolina landowners. They lost everything and afterwards, Samuel Neel moved west to Texas. One of his sons became a sheriff in Oklahoma territory. Another son went as far west as Arizona and worked on the roads carved out of the west’s last frontier territory. One day while working, he had a heart attack and died on the roads he maintained. His worker’s union paid for a headstone and buried him in their union cemetery.
Exactly two weeks after my trip to Gettysburg, I found myself on a lonely, two-lane Arizona highway. My sister, my daughter and I were on a search for the cemetery where we think Gary’s great-grandfather, James Larkin Stowe, might be buried. What started out as a beautiful sunny, August day turned dark, as often happens during monsoon season. As we drove down the road, we could see dark, billowy clouds in the distance, spiked with streaks of lighting. The road, sandwiched between green fields and stark sand cliffs, turned a corner and we found the old worker’s cemetery. We hurried out of the car, anxious to find some connection, some hint as to how or why James Larkin ended up here in this isolated corner of Arizona. We found no hints, no clues. Nothing.
But we do know his sons went further west, all the way to the coast. Gary’s grandfather lost his first wife and child to the influenza epidemic of 1918. She’s buried in a cemetery not far from downtown Los Angeles. He and his second wife, Gary’s grandmother, witnessed the birth of Hollywood and the gilded and tarnished age of silent pictures.
The war and events at Gettysburg pushed Samuel Neel Stowe to Texas. His sons and grandsons went on to Oklahoma, Arizona and finally to the shores of the Pacific Ocean. It was one family’s story, their trek across the American west…my children’s legacy.
As we took a picture of James Larkin’s headstone, a breeze came up and whistled through the leaves of the short, dark green, Palos Verdes trees. It sounded a little sad, like the breeze at Gettysburg. It reminded me that all things are connected and this was more than one family’s story. It was the story of our nation.