Sacred Ground

Story by Michael Wereschagin

GETTYSBURG — The crowd built to more than 4,000 on a gentle slope just over the hill from Soldiers' National Cemetery. 

     The United States Military Academy Band tuned its instruments as families gathered on blankets and in clusters of folding chairs on Sunday for the opening ceremony commemorating the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. 

     Behind them, Cemetery Hill was quiet. A whisper of a breeze lifted the corners of 3,512 small U.S. flags — planted in the thick soil atop each grave of a Union soldier, soil defended during the vicious three-day battle that began 150 years ago on Monday. 

     “This is one of America's sacred places,” National Park Service Director Jon Jarvis said during the ceremony. “In terms of the ferocity of what occurred here, because of sheer drama, because it was a turning point of the war, and the way it became a symbol of reconciliation, Gettysburg is one of the touchstones of the American experience.” 

     As he spoke, Lisa and Tom Donnelly, wearing Civil War-era clothing, lit luminaries at each grave, which represent a fraction of the 51,000 killed, wounded and captured here on July 1-3, 1863. 

     As many as 200,000 people are expected to flood this small town of slightly more than 7,600 during the 10 days surrounding the battle's anniversary. More than 158,000 Union and Confederate troops clashed in this pastoral corner of Adams County during the largest battle ever fought in North America. The Battle of Gettysburg was the Civil War's bloodiest battle

and a turning point of the country's bloodiest conflict. 

     “Not to belittle any other Civil War town, but it just feels like Gettysburg has embraced its history on a level that is special,” said Lisa Donnelly, 42. 

     She grew up visiting Civil War battlefields with her mother. Tom, 51, proposed on a vacation here, and the couple, who live in Kissimmee, Fla., honeymooned here. 

     Country singer Trace Adkins sang the national anthem to begin the ceremony, which ended with the procession to Soldiers' National Cemetery, near where Lincoln redefined the Civil War with the Gettysburg Address in November 1863. 

     “No event and no president holds greater meaning for our country than the Battle of Gettysburg and President Lincoln,” said historian Doris Kearns Goodwin, author of the bestselling “Team of Rivals,” which served as the basis for the 2012 movie “Lincoln.” 

Two re-enactments, each with about 10,000 reenactors and stretching over several days, bookend the battle's three-day anniversary. The Blue-Gray Alliance is wrapping up its re-enactment on Monday; the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee's re-enactment begins July 4. Neither takes place on the actual battlefield. 

     As the Confederate reenactors retreated Sunday during a re-creation of Pickett's Charge, Eric Huisimtveld, 45, of the Netherlands, marveled at “the fact that you keep it alive.” He and his twin brother arrived on Saturday for a trip that will wrap up in Washington, D.C. on July 4. Eric said he became fascinated by the U.S. Civil War – particularly the South – while watching a television series about it in his home country. 

     “You keep it alive,” he repeated, as hordes of brown- and gray-clad reenactors walked, limped and shuffled in 90-degree heat past thousands of spectators. Behind them, cannons representing a lost cause thundered, belching rolling clouds of white smoke. 

      “We have buildings. You have this.” 

      Organizers have spent years planning the events, which will culminate Wednesday with a hike in the footsteps of Pickett's Charge, the doomed Confederate assault on Union troops along Cemetery Ridge during the third day of the battle, considered by many to be the high-water mark of the Confederacy. 

      More than 12,000 Southern troops charged across more than a mile of open field, and more than half of them were killed, wounded or captured. 

The walk will end with the playing of taps, the simple, somber composition of Union Gen. Daniel Butterfield, who was wounded by a shell fragment on that field on July 3, 150 years earlier.