A Long-Ago Distant Land That Looks Like Home

The first time I visited Gettysburg, Pennsylvania in March 1988, I was struck by how much the countryside reminded me of where I grew up in the southern Piedmont of North Carolina. The rolling up-and-down terrain could have been Stanly or Rowan or Cabarrus counties. The low blue hills in the distance could have been the Uwharrie Mountains.

I wondered if my great-grandfather, William C. Dry, had similar thoughts of home 150 years ago as he tramped past the tidy farms and through the small towns of southern Pennsylvania – Greencastle, Chambersburg, Cashtown – with Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

William was one of the dusty foot-soldiers in the 52nd North Carolina Infantry that marched through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. His younger brother, Thomas, was in the 5th North Carolina Infantry, which also made the long march from Virginia.

I’ve been to Gettysburg many times since that first visit, and I’ve thought that if a movie producer asked a location scout to find a perfect place to film a battle scene, it would be Gettysburg. The rolling terrain and low hills provide lots of interesting elevations and vistas – high ground to be defended to the last man or taken by daring, against-all-odds charges. Large boulders and exposed rock outcroppings dot the landscape and seem to beg for soldiers to hide behind them and cause headaches for opposing generals who must send troops to assault an impregnable natural fortress.

And I always get that haunting sense of familiarity. When I’ve stood on the summit of Little Round Top – a small mountain that was the site of a fierce and pivotal struggle on the second day of the battle – and looked down the slope at the rugged terrain, I’ve thought of the overlook at the summit of Morrow Mountain back home in Stanly County.

So when you walk the battlefield with these thoughts in mind, it’s easy to get caught up in schoolboy reveries and family stories of valor and glory and forget what this furious fight was all about. Something about this battle and the climactic event on July 3 that came to be known as Pickett's Charge has buried itself deep in the Southern psyche. As William Faulkner wrote about the Confederates’ ill-fated attempt to storm Cemetery Ridge in Intruder in the Dust, “For every Southern boy 14 years old ... there is the instant when it's still not yet two o'clock on that July afternoon in 1863.” And that 14-year-old boy and lots of people much older can think, as Faulkner wrote, “Maybe this time . . . ”

The courage Confederate soldiers displayed that day is remarkable, and we can only hope that all American soldiers show the same bravery in the service of their country. The cause for which those brave Confederates were fighting – which included the preservation of slavery – was not, in my opinion, worthy of such valor.

A few years ago, I hired Gary Kross, who’s been a licensed guide at the Gettysburg National Military Park for nearly three decades, to take me on a personal tour of the battlefield. I asked Kross to focus on the movements of the 52nd and the 5th North Carolina infantries.

During our tour, I told Kross about that odd sense of familiarity I felt when I visited Gettysburg, and wondered if similar thoughts had crossed my ancestors’ minds.

Kross smiled. “I’ve heard that before from a lot of North Carolinians who come up here,” he said. “I get that a lot.”

Many of Lee’s soldiers from other parts of the South also were impressed by the lovely countryside.

“Pennsylvania is the greatest country I ever saw in my life,” Lieutenant John B. Evans of the 53rd Georgia Infantry wrote to his wife, Molie, back in Jackson, Georgia in June 1863. “Molie if this state was a slave state and I was able to buy land here after the war you might count of living in Pennsylvania.”

For the soldiers who came to Gettysburg, the bucolic beauty and haunting familiarity of the land probably evaporated once they were fighting for their lives. The tour Kross led me on – and the horrific details about the fighting that he described – conveyed to me at least an inkling of the tragedy that happened between July 1 and July 3, 1863. And what happened was this: for three terrible days, around 160,000 men furiously hurled themselves at each other and did everything they could to kill each other. When the awful slaughter was over, any sane person forced to look upon the carnage would have been shocked and disgusted and sickened by the sight.

And civilians far away from Gettysburg got an unusually graphic depiction of the bloodbath when Alexander Gardner’s photos showing bloated, swollen corpses were publicly displayed in the North shortly after the battle.

Lee's army began moving north from Virginia in mid-June 1863. By late June they'd crossed into Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, a Union army under General George Meade had been shadowing Lee's movements, trying to stay between the Confederate army and the vital cities of Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.

Carlton McCarthy, who made the trek to Pennsylvania in a Confederate artillery company, later wrote about the extreme discomforts the soldiers endured during long summer marches. “In the summer time, the dust, combined with the heat, caused great suffering,” he wrote. “The sun produced great changes in the appearance of the men – their skins, tanned to a dark brown or red, their hands black almost, and long uncut beard and hair, burned to a strange color, made them barely recognizable to the home folks.”

By June 29, 1863, after more than two weeks of marching, William C. Dry probably resembled the soldiers McCarthy described when the 52nd North Carolina Infantry stopped at Cashtown, not quite eight miles from Gettysburg.

It was poetically appropriate, perhaps, that they got paid the following day in Cashtown before setting off for Gettysburg.

Lee came to Pennsylvania 150 summers ago looking for a fight that he hoped would end the war on Southern terms. But the epic three-day Battle of Gettysburg wouldn’t turn out as he’d hoped. And that battle, arguably the pivotal battle of the Civil War and undoubtedly one of history's seminal events, would be the beginning of a terrible 18 months for my great-grandfather and his family.

This is the third in a series of posts about my family's experience in the Civil War. Sources for this post included Lee Moves North, by Michael A. Palmer; Detailed Minutiae of Soldier Life, by Carlton McCarthy; Gardner's Photographic Sketchbook of the Civil War, by Alexander Gardner; research by Gettysburg battlefield tour guide Gary Kross; and exhibits in the museum at the Gettysburg National Military Park. The painting at the top of this post is by artist Mort K√ľnstler and shows General Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia on their march to Pennsylvania in June 1863.

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