Every Saturday morning at Annapolis, Plebes and select upperclassmen participate in six hours worth of midshipman-led professional training. These evolutions vary by company and season, including such activities as running through the obstacle course, discussions with combat veterans, and, most recently, a trip to Gettysburg National Battlefield.
Midshipman 2/c Hobart Kistler, a native of Central, PA, has led tours of that most Hallowed Ground for the past eight years, and, needless to say, knows the place inside-out. Under Kistler’s supervision, 40 midshipmen (I among them) from the Academy’s distinguished 13th Company made the trip two weekends ago, departing Annapolis at 0530- early even by a midshipman’s standard for a Saturday.
Having visited numerous Civil War battlefields growing up in Virginia, I assumed Kistler would give the standard tour with our bus driving us between points of interest. I was quite surprised to hear that we would march, run, and charge over the entire field, just as Confederate and Union soldiers did 149 years ago!
Heavy dew still covered the grass as we stepped off the bus at just after 0700 on that chilly morning. Apart from the specter of a few silent cannons visible in the early morning haze, the terrain looked much like any other section of the Pennsylvania Dutch Country. Kistler began our tour at the site of the first day’s fighting- July 1st, 1863. Marching in columns of four, we entered Herbst’s Woods, where a rebel sniper shot Major General John Reynolds as he desperately deployed his men to stem the Confederate attacks. Next came a sharp rush into the Railroad Cut, where hundreds of North Carolinians squared off with the Union’s elite Iron Brigade. We wrapped things up with a mile-long run up to the Eternal Peace Memorial, dedicated by FDR on the battle’s 75th anniversary, in 1938. There, Kistler told us the story of John Burns, an elderly Gettysburg resident and War of 1812 veteran who donned his faded uniform and flintlock and was wounded five times that day while fighting to keep the Secessionists from overrunning the homestead he had risked his life to defend almost a half-century earlier.
A short time later, we reassembled on Cemetery Ridge, where the Pennsylvania Monument lists the names of all members of the Keystone State to have defended their Commonwealth at Gettysburg. The Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, and Slaughter Pen followed in quick succession as we followed the course of Lieutenant General James Longstreeet’s attack on the Union left on Day Two, struggling to keep an orderly formation through dense, stony woods. The highlight of the morning for many was our charge up Little Round Top, the hill famously defended by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine against repeated Confederate assaults. The 13th Company guide-on was borne during the charge by Midshipman 4/c Brian Wasdin, a descendant of a Confederate soldier from Georgia. The spectacular view from the summit helped many to understand the hill’s strategic importance; indeed, the entire battlefield spreads out to the north and west, as a board game seen from above. When we reached the top, we realized that a group of West Point cadets had been at the top the entire time watching us ascend (I can’t help noting the irony). Descending the rear of the hill, via the route taken by Chamberlain’s men as they made their gallant bayonet charge, we finished our review of Day Two at Devil’s Den, where we explored the numerous sniping positions used by the Confederates to shot at the Union troops atop Little Round Top.
Midshipmen atop Little Round Top
The fighting on July 3rdcentered on Pickett’s Charge, the most infamous assault in American military history. In an effort to recreate the reality of the High Tide of the Confederacy, Kistler instructed all midshipmen to
remove their boots- by 1863, most Confederate soldiers were barefoot. Forming up rank and file in the same woods where Pickett’s men slept, we proceeded into the mile-wide field separating the woods from the famous Copse of Trees for which the soldiers aimed. Marching at first, and then double-timing, we arrived at the Emmittsburg Road, where Union canister began decimating Pickett’s men. By then the warm noonday sun had us sweating, but we scaled the double fences and broke into a full sprint. All 40 midshipmen let out the Rebel Yell as we charged for the stone wall that marked the Union lines. Arriving breathless, Kistler reminded us that at this point, Confederate soldiers would have just begun the hand-to-hand fighting that in 20 minutes left 10,000 men (twice our killed in Iraq and Afghanistan) on the field.
I’m glad the Naval Academy provides us with opportunities to tour local battlefields. 13th Company’s visit to Gettysburg, while brief, was an excellent reminder to all participants of the hardships endured by our antecedents in service. As we midshipmen prepare to enter the Fleet as ensigns and 2nd lieutenants, we will undoubtedly face challenges of our own; yet recognizing the not-so-remote heritage of valor, suffering, and triumph made evident through our tour of Gettysburg will provide reinforcement in moments of trial.
Many thanks to Midn Hobart Kistler for helping with this article.