Three days of the bloodiest fighting of the American Civil War have forever etched these hallowed fields into the memory of a country and a people. But in the hundred-plus years since the last shot was fired and the last man fell, there continue to be reports from the fields of the fallen: reports of spectral armies still marching in step, of ghostly sentinels and horsemen, of mournful women in white, and the ghostly wails of orphans and animals alike.
The Gettysburg Battlefield was the site of the Battle of Gettysburg, fought July 1 to July 3, 1863, in and around the borough of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, the county seat of Adams County, which had approximately 2,400 residents at the time. It is now the site of two historic landmarks: Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg National Cemetery.
The town was the center of a road network that connected ten nearby Pennsylvania and Maryland towns, including well-maintained turnpikes to Chambersburg, York, and Baltimore, so was a natural concentration point for the large armies that descended upon it.
To the northwest, a series of low, parallel ridges lead to the towns of Cashtown and Chambersburg. Seminary Ridge, closest to Gettysburg, is named for the Lutheran Theological Seminary on its crest. Farther out are McPherson's Ridge, Herr's Ridge, and eventually South Mountain. Oak Ridge, a northward extension of Seminary Ridge, is capped by Oak Hill, a site for artillery that commanded a good area north of the town.
Directly south of the town is Cemetery Hill, at 503 feet (153 m) above sea level, a gentle 80 foot (24 m) slope above downtown. The hill is named for the Evergreen (civilian) cemetery on its crest; the famous military cemetery dedicated by Abraham Lincoln now shares the hill. Adjacent, due east, is Culp's Hill, of similar height, divided by a slight saddle into two recognizable hills, heavily wooded, and more rugged. Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill were subjected to assaults throughout the battle by Richard S. Ewell's Second Corps.
Extending south from Cemetery Hill is a slight elevation known as Cemetery Ridge, although the term ridge is rather extravagant; it is generally only about 40 feet (12 m) above the surrounding terrain and tapers off before Little Round Top into low, wooded ground. At the northern end of Cemetery Ridge is a copse of trees and a low stone wall that makes two 90-degree turns; the latter has been nicknamed The Angle and The High Water Mark. This area, and the nearby Codori Farm on Emmitsburg Road, were prominent features in the progress of Pickett's Charge during the third day of battle, as well as General Richard H. Anderson's division assault on the second.
Dominating the landscape are the Round Tops to the south. Little Round Top is a hill with a rugged, steep slope of 130 feet above nearby Plum Run (the peak is 550 feet (168 m) above sea level), strewn with large boulders; to its southwest, the area with the most significant boulders, some the size of living rooms, is known as Devil's Den. [Big] Round Top, known also to locals of the time as Sugar Loaf, is 116 feet higher than its Little companion. Its steep slopes are heavily wooded, which made it unsuitable for siting artillery without a large effort to climb the heights with horse-drawn guns and clear lines of fire; Little Round Top was unwooded, but its steep and rocky form made it difficult to deploy artillery in mass. However, Cemetery Hill was an excellent site for artillery, commanding all of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge and the approaches to them. Little Round Top and Devil's Den were key locations for General John Bell Hood's division in Longstreet's assault during the second day of battle, July 2, 1863. The valley formed by Plum Run between the Round Tops and Devil's Den earned the name Valley of Death on that day.
Northwest from the Round Tops, towards Emmitsburg Road, are the Wheatfield, Rose Woods, and the Peach Orchard. As noted by General Daniel E. Sickles in the second day of battle, this area is about 40 feet higher in elevation than the lowlands at the south end of Cemetery Ridge. These all figured prominently in General Lafayette McLaws's division assault during the second day of battle.
After the battle, the Army of the Potomac and the citizens of Gettysburg were left with appalling burdens. The battlefield was strewn with over 7,000 dead men and the houses, farms, churches, and public buildings were struggling to deal with 30,000 wounded men. The stench from the dead soldiers and from the thousands of animal carcasses was overwhelming. To the east of town, a massive tent city was erected to attempt medical care for the soldiers, which was named Camp Letterman after Jonathan Letterman, chief surgeon of the Army of the Potomac. Contracts were let with entrepreneurs to bury men and animals and the majority were buried near where they fell.
Two individuals immediately began to work to help the town recover and to preserve the memory of those who had fallen: David Wills and David McConaughy, both attorneys living in Gettysburg. A week after the battle, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin visited Gettysburg and expressed the state's interest in finding its veterans and giving them a proper burial. Wilson immediately arranged for the purchase of 17 acres (69,000 m²) next to the Evergreen Cemetery, but the priority of burying Pennsylvania veterans soon changed to honoring all of the Union dead.
McConaughy was responsible for purchasing 600 acres (2.4 km²) of privately held land to preserve as a monument. His first priorities for preservation were Culp's Hill, East Cemetery Hill, and Little Round Top. On April 30, 1864, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was formed to mark "the great deeds of valor ... and the signal events which render these battlegrounds illustrious", and it began adding to McConaughy's holdings. In 1880, the Grand Army of the Republic took control of the Memorial Association and its lands.
On November 19, 1863, the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated in a ceremony highlighted by Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. The night before, Lincoln slept in Wills's house on the main square in Gettysburg, which is now a landmark administered by the National Park Service. The cemetery was completed in March of 1864 with the last of 3,512 Union dead were reburied. It became a National Cemetery on May 1, 1872, when control was transferred to the U.S. War Department.
The removal of Confederate dead from the field burial plots was not undertaken until seven years after the battle. From 1870 to 1873, upon the initiative of the Ladies Memorial Associations of Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah, and Charleston, 3,320 bodies were disinterred and sent to cemeteries in those cities for reburial, 2,935 being interred in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond. Seventy-three bodies were reburied in home cemeteries.