July 4 Gettysburg Campaign: Worst 4th of July Ever

Happy 4th of July…2013.

I can assure you, your Independence Day is going far better than the July 4th spent by the soldiers who had just fought the battle, their relatives, and the townspeople of Gettysburg in 1863.

I was pleased to hear Superintendent Bob Kirby, in his opening remarks for the commemoration ceremonies, use the same figures for troop strengths and casualties that we had used in the Park Service in the 1970s. The most horrific of all, of course, is the figure of 51,000 casualties.

That’s not the number of dead, but of killed plus wounded plus missing or captured. And it does represent both sides. The numbers are almost beyond comprehension. But keep this in mind: The next time you visit or see Yankee Stadium on TV, it holds about 52,000. Imagine all those people, helpless, thirsty, hungry, bleeding, in need of medical care, lying in the fields or strewn through the small town of Gettysburg  with a population of 2,400. There were about 400 buildings in the town (200 of which still stand) and about 700 structures in the area, including barns, farmhouses and outbuildings. Not all the outbuildings were used as hospitals, nor were some of the houses in town, so the ones that were used filled to overflowing with the broken bodies of men and boys.

Some observers of these buildings from a distance were struck by the odd “pyramids” below the ground floor windows, then horrified when they got closer and saw they were piles of bloody hands, arms, feet and legs amputated and tossed out by harried surgeons working non-stop.

Then there were the dead. The “optics” were something that would make the worst modern 3-D movie pale in comparison. Men, or what appeared to once have been men, were eviscerated, headless, torso-less, limbless. Bits and pieces of humans were tossed about the farmers’ fields gathering flies, waiting for some unfortunate to pick them up.

The smells were probably the worst, and the least mentioned in the histories. One hundred eighty thousand men (probably more), some with acute diarrhea from lousy food, water, and just plain fear, did not observe the niceties of Victorian Society. Who was going to run across a bullet-swept yard to use the outhouse when there was a nice chimney corner two feet away? Multiply that 180,000 by two or three times a day for four days and that’s just one of the smells permeating the town.

Then there were the horses. Ninety thousand horses were used by the armies. A horse produces about 10 pounds of manure per day. That’s 900,000 pounds of manure per day, or 2,700,000 pounds for three days—and 3,600,000 pounds if you include the Glorious Fourth.

And of those 90,000 horses, some 5,000 were killed. After they were left to rot in the hot sun for days, someone realized how hard it is to bury a horse and decided to burn them. Add to the smell of manure the smell of 4,500,000 pounds of rotting horsemeat, bones, and sweat soaked horsehair wafting on the smoke-filled air.

Then there were the human remains. According to one respected source, there were approximately 7,700 dead left on the battlefield when the armies departed. I would add between 1,000 and 2,000 to that figure, because tucked among the 10,800 missing were those so completely mutilated by canister, or liquefied by an exploding shell that they would not be counted among the dead, but were still on the field, “missing.” Adding those figures up and multiplying gives us, in Civil War soldiers’ terms, a “butcher’s bill” of between 1,200,00 and 1,350,000 pounds of putrifying human flesh left lying around for several days in July.

And no one in Gettysburg could escape it. Gettysburg women took to carrying handkerchiefs soaked in rosewater to cover their noses when the wind blew in from the fields. Townsfolk would notice a strange taste and foul smell to their well water that kept getting worse, until they finally dredged up pieces of bodies blown into their water supply. And weeks after the battle, on rainy days, women would look out into their gardens and to their horror see a grizzled arm, or head emerge from a hasty grave.

Suffice it to say, the Gettysburg of today is nothing like the Gettysburg of July 4th 1863.

Mark Nesbitt Ghosts of Gettysburg Quote


One comment on “July 4 Gettysburg Campaign: Worst 4th of July Ever

  1. The people of Galveston,Texas found that out the hard way ,too,in 1900 when a hurricane wiped out most of the town.They buried all the dead at sea,but the sea said “no,thanks,not today,and threw them all back on the shore next tide

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