GETTYSBURG, Pa. — Peaches again now grow in the “Peach Orchard” in the Gettysburg National Military Park in eastern Pennsylvania.
It’s been 160 years since musket Minie balls and artillery shells ripped through the famed orchard during the second day of the famous Civil War battle that turned the tide of a four-year struggle — and helped to save a nation.
Hundreds of men from the North and South died and thousands more were wounded in just a few hours in that orchard at the junction of Emmitsburg Road and Wheatfield Road on July 2, 1863.
That moment came when U.S. Gen. Dan Sickles advanced his entire 3rd Corps beyond the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge and occupied the orchard. A Confederate assault pushed Sickles’ soldiers into a retreat at around 6:30 pm that evening.
Smoke from roaring cannons and firing muskets filled the air. Bodies littered the hilly ground.
Cries of the wounded filled the air as a country fought alternatively to either survive — or tear itself apart.
(The National Park Service video above describes the Battle of the Peach Orchard.)
Yet, peaches again now grow in the orchard located between Seminary and Cemetery ridges.
As I walked the battlefield for the first time during my vacation last week, that’s what struck me the most.
More than 51,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in just three days of hate-filled combat on a brutal killing field of nearly 18 square miles in a tiny borough in Adams County.
The war’s bloodiest battle
It was the single bloodiest battle of a war that featured massive blood spills. An estimated 618,222 soldiers died (360,222 Union and 258,000 Confederate) during a war that began in April 1861 and ended in April 1865.
The Union victory at Gettysburg turned the tide in the war. But the struggle continued for two more years until the United States was again made whole.
Yet, peaches again now grow in the orchard.
In the past few years, I have often heard many people say the United States has never been more divided. I often disagree, reminding them this country literally had an armed civil war to preserve its imperfect union.
Spend five minutes on the grounds of the 6,000-acre plus Gettysburg National Military Park. Visit the 1,328 monuments, memorials, markers, and plaques. Read the stories. Tour the museum.
Understand the topography, i.e. the value of the “high ground.” Use your imagination and wonder what it must have been like during those three brutal days.
I visited the monument honoring the 59th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment at Cemetery Ridge. That’s where 1st Sgt. James Wiley from Bellville, Ohio, stood shoulder to shoulder with his comrades on July 2 and July 3, repulsing Confederate assaults. Wiley earned the Congressional Medal of Honor for his heroics.
Visit the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Stand at the site where President Lincoln delivered his famous address about four months after the battle ended.
Stop at the cemetery or on any of the battlefields and listen quietly with your mind and your heart — not just your ears.
You will understand what I mean.
“It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that 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.“
November 19, 1863
History cannot be ignored
Gettysburg teaches lessons we choose to learn — or ignore at our own peril — during these perilous times. The battle helped this country earn the start on “a new birth of freedom.”
But it’s not guaranteed to anyone.
“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” wrote Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana in “The Life of Reason” in 1905, a thought repeated perhaps more famously by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
The United States was still a fairly young nation in 1861, less than a century old. It was a babe in the woods when compared to the world’s oldest countries. It had stark differences it could not overcome, primarily the horrific issue of slavery in the southern states and its potential abominable spread into western territories.
The ultimate solution became the worst possible solution, an armed conflict that nearly ended the experiment called the United States of America.
One of the nation’s founders, Benjamin Franklin, certainly saw potential trouble on the horizon when the country was founded.
There is a story, often told, that upon exiting the Constitutional Convention, Franklin was approached by a group of citizens asking what sort of government the delegates had created.
His answer was: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
That struggle “to keep it” continues well into the 21st Century. Many of our divisions remain. But we simply cannot make the mistakes of our forefathers.
We must find a way through the current white-hot fog of heated political discourse. We must use our many areas of common ground to build bridges and strengthen relationships, not deepen silos of isolation.
I saw the peaches growing last week at Gettysburg, a clear sign that time can indeed heal wounds, if we simply stop and allow it to happen.
I heard the voices last week on battlefields all around Gettysburg.
History speaks to us.
We must only listen.
GALLERY: Below is a photo gallery from a tour of the Gettysburg battlefield taken last week. It begins in “Reynold’s Woods” west of the borough and ends with images from the Gettysburg National Cemetery.