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Mares: Running at Gettysburg

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http://www.vpr.net//audio/programs/56/2013/03/vpr-commentary-mares-running-in-gettysburg-03272013.mp3

(Host) Even in this sesquecentennial year of the Battle of Gettysburg, Commentator Bill Mares recently found that you can beat the crowds if you get there early and are fleet of foot.

(Mares) There are several advantages to sight-seeing in running shoes. It's faster than walking, not as noisy as a car, less cumbersome than a bike and less crowded than a bus.

A few weeks ago, at 6 a.m. with morning light just beginning to reflect off the film of overnight snow, I had the whole battlefield of Gettysburg to myself. Well, I did share it with about 160,000 ghosts and my imagination, as I trotted across hillock and hollow, ditch and field and past some of the more than 1300 monuments and statues that cover those 15 square miles of hallowed ground.

I began my run east of town where now-silent cannon still face Culp's Hill. I headed south toward Little Round Top, where I huffed up to its rocky promontory. Next to the statue of Gen. Gouverneur Kemble Warren I could see why he quickly sized up the importance of this anchor for the whole Union force and quickly called for reinforcements. Some of those forces were under Joshua Chamberlain who charged downhill in a surprise bayonet attack that routed the rebels. Plunging through thicket and brambles, I too joined the charge.

Across the Valley of Death I made my way into the pile of trailer-sized rocks known as Devil's Den. I paused at the famous sniper nest where photographer Alexander Gardner had dragged a dead rebel soldier and labeled the resulting image Death of a Confederate Sharpshooter.

A quarter mile away I came upon a statue to Gen.(then Major) William Wells of the Vermont Cavalry. It's identical to the statue in Burlington's Battery Park, except that his sword is intact at Gettysburg. Then I wove along the peaceful Wheat Field, which changed hands six times in savage fighting on the battle's second day leaving 4,000 dead and wounded.

I made my way to Seminary Ridge where Robert E. Lee, having exhausted troops on the two flanks, gambled that a frontal attack would break the Union center. As the light rose in the East, I trotted onto the wide field where this courageous but suicidal attack occurred and was reminded of the Tennyson lines from the Charge of the Light Brigade: Cannons to the right of them, cannons to the left of them, Volleyed and thundered.

I headed for the tall spire of the Vermont monument crowned by the one armed Gen. George Stannard. Here, on Pickett's right, in the words of the New York Times A Vermont brigade held the key position at Gettysburg and did more than any other body of men to gain the triumph which decided the fate of the Union.

From this high water mark of the Confederacy, I trotted over to the Soldiers Cemetery where President Lincoln delivered his immortal 272 words. I pulled a copy of the Address from my jacket pocket, and in a biting north wind that still spat snow I read to myself that now-sacred text. As I came to the end, I shivered, but not from the cold.