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Gettysburg's 'Hallowed Ground'

Author James McPherson stands near a railroad cut at Gettysburg. During the battle, Confederates tried to sneak through the cut, but were detected by Union forces, who moved in and trapped them.
Bob Malesky, NPR /
Author James McPherson stands near a railroad cut at Gettysburg. During the battle, Confederates tried to sneak through the cut, but were detected by Union forces, who moved in and trapped them.

Seven score years ago this week, the Army of the Potomac met the Army of Northern Virginia at a crossroads in Pennsylvania as the Civil War entered its third summer. The three-day clash between Union and Confederate forces in the market town at Gettysburg stopped Gen. Robert E. Lee's momentum and is seen now as a pivotal moment in the course of the conflict.

The hilly battlefield is one of the best-preserved and most accessible sites available to Americans who enjoy peering into their past. James McPherson, a professor of history at Princeton University, has written a new book that provides a sort of tour in print. He recently revisited Gettysburg's hallowed ground with NPR's Liane Hansen.

Figures both familiar and obscure populate a conversation that focuses on the first day of the epic struggle, including:

The dashing Confederate cavalry leader, Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart, whose failure to keep tabs on the Union Army in the days leading to the battle left Lee poorly informed about the strength of opposing forces.

Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, credited with firing the first shot of the battle on July 1, 1863.

Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, the highest-ranking officer killed at Gettysburg.

John Burns, a 72-year-old Gettysburg shoemaker who picked up a fallen soldier's rifle and joined the fray. Wounded three times, he survived to live nearly a full decade longer and is now honored by a statue on the field.

Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, long criticized -- perhaps unfairly, McPherson believes -- for choosing not to press exhausted Union forces who had retreated to Cemetery Hill near the end of the first day of fighting.

To McPherson, Gettysburg represents "the awareness of how the present might be radically different, had it not been for what took place on the very ground where we're standing... These ghosts of events that happened 140 years ago are still present in our imagination and if our imagination is vivid enough, they're palpably present here as we stand."

Recommended Reading:

Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg, by James M. McPherson (Crown Publishers, 2003)

Gettysburg : A Testing of Courage, by Noah Andre Trudeau (HarperCollins, 2002)

The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, by Edwin Coddington (Touchstone Books, 1997)

Gettysburg: The First Day (Civil War America), by Harry W. Pfanz (University of North Carolina Press, 2001)

The Killer Angels: A Novel, by Michael Shaara (Ballantine Books, 1996)

Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863, by Shelby Foote (Modern Library, 1994)

Gettysburg: A Battlefield Guide, by Mark Grimsley and Brooks D. Simpson (Bison Books Corp, 1999)

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Liane Hansen
Liane Hansen has been the host of NPR's award-winning Weekend Edition Sunday for 20 years. She brings to her position an extensive background in broadcast journalism, including work as a radio producer, reporter, and on-air host at both the local and national level. The program has covered such breaking news stories as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the capture of Saddam Hussein, the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy, Jr., and the Columbia shuttle tragedy. In 2004, Liane was granted an exclusive interview with former weapons inspector David Kay prior to his report on the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. The show also won the James Beard award for best radio program on food for a report on SPAM.
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