This really chaps my saddle.
I spent the weekend in Gettysburg, not just for Remembrance Day but to do some ground research for a few final touches to the new book by myself and Steve Stanley, The Complete Gettysburg Guide. Sunday morning, I took Steve out the Hanover Road to do a quick interpretation of the July 2, 1863 fight for Brinkerhoff’s Ridge so that he could get some photos. One of the best places to stop there is along Hoffman Road, right in the middle of the battlefield, which affords a vistor a view of most of the terrain.
Late on the afternoon of July 2, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the cavalry division of Brig. Gen. David Gregg came onto the right flank of the Federal Army and engaged the Stonewall Brigade of Confederate infantry there along the Hanover Road. The fight, which lasted until dark, pulled the vaunted and experienced Stonewall Brigade out of the Confederate assault on Culp’s Hill, perhaps making a difference in the results. The vortex of the fighting was an old stone wall that lined Hoffman Road (an unnamed road in 1863, more of a glorified farm lane that led to the many properties in that area north of the Hanover Road). Gregg’s men took possession of that stone wall, and there were several Confederate assaults on it. It was a natural breastwork that the Federal troopers took advantage of and were able to hold it until both sides withdrew.
There were, however, several consequences of that fight that had great impact on events of the final day, July 3.
Earlier in the fighting, newly-arrived Confederate commander Jeb Stuart watched much of the skirmishing. Stuart sized up Gregg’s force, and saw how the area of Cress’ Ridge and the all-important intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch Roads lent itself to cavalry fighting. Undoubtedly, Stuart used what he saw to make his dispositions and calculations about a possible attack on Gregg the following day. Gregg, in turn, realized the vulnerability of the road intersection – one that led right into the right rear flank of the Federal Army – and that it couldn’t be abandoned at any cost.
Many of us know the events of the following day. Just a short distance away, Jeb Stuart battled with Gregg at the same time Pickett’s Charge began to the west. Stuart’s movement back to the area had absolutely nothing to do with Pickett’s Charge (contrary to popular myth about Stuart’s attack being somehow coordinated with the infantry assault), but Stuart felt if he could successfully assail Gregg’s position there, then he could exploit any breakthrough and wreak havoc on the Federal lines of supply and retreat.
That old stone wall along Hoffman Road, then, has been all-important to the interpretation of the events of the fighting there on July 2, as well as the grand cavalry action at East Cavalry Field on July 3.
Well, yesterday I drove Steve there and turned onto Hoffman Road, intending to show him the stone wall (which had probably stood in that position for nearly or more than 200 years) and interpret the fighting so he could take pictures for the book. As soon as I turned onto the road I got a shock I didn’t expect.
The stone wall, which I, Eric Wittenberg, and others who have studied this fighting, and which we use to demonstrate the actions, was completely gone. And I mean gone. Not a single pebble remained. Nothing.
The property owner had cleaned up the field east of Hoffman Road (now admittedly affording a better view of the eastern part of the battlefield in that area) but he or she had also completely removed every single stone of the stone wall. As I said, it had likely stood along this road for around 200 years. There are Union trooper accounts of the Federals actually knocking rocks out of the waist-high stone wall in order to shoot through it.
That damn wall only stood about 2 feet high in recent years, and only took up about 3 feet of space along the road for a distance of maybe a couple hundred yards – a far cry from what it was 150 years ago, of course – but a tangible representation of what were there and fought over by both sides nonetheless. The Stonewall Brigade made several valiant attempts to capture that wall, and Gregg’s troopers put up a very stubborn stand to protect it – many paying for it with their lives and blood.
Now it’s gone. Lord knows where the rocks even are. Of the thousands of stone walls in the area, some original and many not, this one had to be removed. I don’t know if the landowner even realized the significance of the wall. Perhaps not – it’s amazing how many folks you talk to around the battlefield who don’t have a clue that anything happened anywhere near them. I can’t count the times I’ve spoken to landowners who had no idea that something of importance happened on their ground – whether it be an encampment, movement, skirmish, or even full-scale battle. When they don’t know, they certainly have no reason to care.
Well, like the plowing under, development, and destruction of so much historic property on and near the battlefield, this is yet one more example. And when I take folks on Hoffman Road to interpret the fighting for them, now I’ll be saying “you have to imagine the stone wall that used to be here.” They can no longer see it, touch it, imagine what the rocks would say if they could speak. Most of those rocks probably fill in some hole somewhere, never to be appreciated as a mute witness to a historic event ever again.
Thank you, Progress. That 3 feet of ground the wall took up was, I guess, either too precious to waste (for what, I don’t have a goddamn clue) – or the owner was simply ignorant of what it meant. Either way, we’ve all lost.