Midshipmen Tour Gettysburg

April 2012


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

Midshipmen struggle to maintain alignment while scaling a fence during Pickett’s Charge

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.

Posted by jjames in History, Navy

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  • Byron

    I also recommend the tour of Antietam. I did it a couple of years ago with my brother in law. The National Park Service guide was incredibly knowledgeable about the battlefield and made the entire trip (you rode your car to various spots of the battle in the order in which it was fought). It was one of the best battlefield tours I’ve ever been on. Not as awe-inspiring as Gettysburg (I get the cold chills when I look over the cemetaries and the Ridge), but a great battlefield tour nonetheless.

  • UltimaRatioReg

    Kudos to Midn Kinsler!!!! Sounds like the 13th Company had themselves an educational day at the physical and intellectual level. The ability to understand and relate to the sacrifices of those whose legacy we uphold is essential to the building of a warrior leader.

    Concur with Byron, as well. Antietam is another must-see. Standing near the sunken road on a muggy September morning should awaken the ghosts of the North Carolina boys in butternut and the Irishmen in blue….

  • efisp

    If you enjoy being “under fire” and touring a battlefield at the time of year and day when much of the fighting actually occurred, allow me to recommend the Breakthrough Anniversary tour at Pamplin Historical Park in Petersburg, Va. The park is on the site of the decisive Union breakthrough on 2 April 1865 that ultimately led to the evacuation of Richmond, and to the Confederate surrender at Appomattox a little more than a week later.

    Unfortunately, the anniversary is over and done for this year.


    Nevertheless, it is worth a trip in 2013 (and certainly 2015). Outstanding guides and incredibly well-preserved fortifications.

  • Jay

    BZ! Lol…ummm…Sal – call your office…

  • This is how it’s done, ladies and gentlemen. BZ 13th company!

  • Wally Georg

    I strongly second the recommendation to tour Antietam, as this year is the 150th commemoration, with the same march, run and charge methodology. Specifically, the Burnside Bridge, the Mumma Farm and Sunken Road, West Woods and Dunker Church. Visit during the week of 17 September and you will not be disappointed. See you there!

  • Jeff Withington


    So glad to see you guys did a tour of a battlefield for the plebes. I had always meant to get something organized like that, but failed to put a plan together. Awesome to see you and Kistler pulled it off.