Gettysburg 6/7/13-6/10/13

If the Civil War began at Fort Sumter then the turning point in the war was July 1-3, 1863 where the largest battle in the history of North America occurred at Gettysburg.  As we drove north from Lexington, VA Bev read about the history of the battle and its subsequent change in the direction of the war.

I- 81 north was a straight forward drive to about 30 miles from Gettysburg.  The smaller roads around Gettysburg were another story.  GPS guidance systems don’t take into account small, narrow streets in old historic towns.  With a lot of rejection of the GPS advice and a lot of luck we arrived at the Artillery Ridge Campground.  Don and Terry had just pulled in before us.  When we saw their coach near the entrance it seemed like we were home again.

Artillery Ridge is a busy 400+ site campground and riding stable.  Lots of kids.  Its was still pre season.  After one night in the trees and children we moved to a site remote from the rest of the park in an open field just beyond the horse stables.  Relatively flat.  Plenty of room.  We were essentially alone up here.  This worked.  It also allowed the satellite access Don required to watch “Mad Men” on Sun. night.

The Gettysburg battle field is huge.  6000 acres or 10 sq. mi.  Learning about this sprawling battle would best be done with a guide.  We decided to be the first in line Sat. am at 08:00 at the visitor’s center.  We read that, if you were lucky, you might get a guide that would travel with you in your car and interpret the history for you.

Arriving at 07:45 we entered the line of 30 or so folks who had preceded us waiting for the visitor center.  It turned out we were in time to get a guide for an 08:30 tour.  With some anticipation we met Dean Harry who, over the next two days, would share with us his incredible knowledge of these 3 days in American History.

My friend Don Cohen has written a brief description that is better than I could do.  My goal is to write like Don.  Here is his story of  our experience with Dean.

Gettysburg: A lesson finally learned

You can tour Gettysburg in a couple of hours by car to see all the battlefields, but it takes longer, a lot longer, to understand Gettysburg.  In the case of our guide, Dean Harry, it’s taken nearly a lifetime.

1.8 million visitors a year come to Gettysburg.  They tour by car, bus, vintage carriage, bike, foot, horseback and even Segway.  The dreary rainy afternoon we arrived at the Artillery Ridge RV Park we poured over various tour materials and the idea of having an in-car guide seemed very appealing.  The next morning we were early in line to sign up for a car tour at the large visitor’s center which also houses a panoramic video presentation, a vintage cyclorama painting, and a museum.

For $98 dollars we would get a three hour tour for the four of us.  Do the math: that works out to a very reasonable $25 per person.  The novel twist was that the guide assigned to us would actually drive our car.  As we waited in the lobby under the “Meet Guides Here” sign, I’d seen blue polo shirted men with baseball caps and lanyards with official badges emerge from a room across the grand hallway near the ticket counter.  They’d call out the name of the guest and head out to the parking lot.  Now of course you can’t judge a book by it’s cover, but it didn’t stop me from assessing a fit looking man in his early 60’s, balding, with close cropped gray hair who somehow fit my expectation of “friendly college professor.”  And sure enough when he said with a sly smile and a vague hint of a soft southern accent, “Who’s the 8:30 three hour tour?”, I happily answered, “us.”

Phil handed our guide, Dean Harry, the keys to his Explorer.  Dean pulled us out of one of three large parking lots with me in the passenger seat and Terry, Bev and Phil in the back. Within 30 minutes it became abundantly clear that we were going to spend the rest of the tour trying to drink from a fire hose.


Dean’s encyclopedic mastery of not only the battle of Gettysburg, but the whole civil war was nothing short of astonishing.  And while this historical retelling of history might have been as dry as reading my American history textbook in Miss Baldwin’s high school social studies class, Dean reanimated old complex tales of military strategy in an often amusingly contemporary way.  He spoke often of Confederate General Richard Ewell who’s physical characteristics and habits Dean would frequently refer to as “the bird-like general.”  The retelling of conversations between the generals and their subordinates, on both sides, were brought vividly to life by Dean’s contemporary tone and wry shadings of humor.

At one stop we got out of the car to examine a small battery of canons.  The guns themselves were actual weapons from the Civil War.  They were seated on replicas of the carts whose metal rimmed wooden wheels had long ago been replaced by sturdier cast iron.  Dean showed us exactly how a gunnery crew operated with a surprisingly confident sense of firsthand knowledge and it was here we learned of his long-standing interest in participating in Civil War re-enactments.  Reenactors come to this unique past-time driven by a mixture of passion and fascination of the rich and well documented history of the Civil War.  In reenactments the underlying politics and cultural attitudes of the times are stripped away and focus is applied to the military tactics, weaponry, garments and social customs.  It’s a passion that keeps our history alive and sometimes reaches younger generations more effectively than rote memorization of dates and battles.  The further one of America’s most important chapters recedes in the rear view mirror of history, the more important it becomes to keep it firmly anchored in our civic psyche.

And how did our genial North Carolinian guide, raised in Virginia and descended from Civil War ancestors come to wind up behind Phil’s steering wheel?  Between historical insights and expansive explanations we learned the Dean graduated college from Washington and Lee with a degree in political science.  As is often the case, the randomness of life twisted in interesting ways.

Over thirty years ago as Dean was on his way with a business partner to close on a loan to open a restaurant, the MG they were in was in a serious accident.  With a severe head injury Dean’s restaurant plans were derailed with a six month convalescence.  Needing a job, a friend of his suggested he might come to work for wine distributor.  And though he was educationally overqualified for the entry level position, it’s easy to understand how he rose in seniority to ultimately become a wine buyer.  Feeling limited, Dean and some other partners set out to create their own new wine distributing company.  And as if this wasn’t enough of a challenge, Dean also went back to law school, studying at night and working in the day.  It’s hard to fathom that he had any capacity left to continue to pursue his love of Civil War history. After a couple of decades the opportunity came to sell their company to a larger distributor and Dean and his partners could now comfortably walk into retirement.

While, in Dean’s words, some of his partners are “laying on beaches and playing golf,” he’s taken a decidedly different approach.  “I think my golfing buddies got tired of me talking about all this Civil War stuff, so I decided to work toward becoming a tour guide where people might actually want to hear about this stuff.”

And how does one become a licensed tour guide?  “Well, it took me about six years,” Dean explained.  With a gentle smile he continued, “You probably need to read about three hundred books, and then there’s a test where you go out with seasoned guides.  During the field test they’ll ask you random questions like, ‘I’m from New York.  Where did the New Yorkers fight?‘ You never know what questions they’re going to ask.”

For the last four years Dean drives up from his home in Raleigh and stays for weeks long stints at the local Travelodge where he shows up each day at the visitor center to be randomly assigned to the next carload of tourists.  He makes enough money to cover his expenses, but that’s merely a secondary consideration.

Toward the end of our tour another revelation popped up — Dean also provides tours by bike! It was an instant sell to the group when I asked if Dean would be available for a half-day bike tour to take us a bit deeper into Gettysburg history. And so the four of us convened the next morning at 8:30.  As we drove up he was lifting his bike off of the back of his Hyundai Sonata, sliding in a self-assembled tour book into the pannier and checking his Gettysburg iPhone app.

Off we went into the lightly overcast morning with fresh legs ready for a brief climb up Culp’s Hill and then up three stories of steps to an observation tower that overlooked the town and big parts of the battlefield. It was a Sunday morning and the bike driven breeze was energizing as, with little tourist traffic on the roads, we rode up and down gentle inclines, lined with thicker forests and underbrush than the battle year of 1863.  We rode by intricately carved stone monuments, rough low rock walls that served first as markers between farms and then as merciful protection from rifle bullets.  We rode through the edges of Gettysburg where period brick homes still stood, well tended, and a few with red, white and blue bunting displayed in advance of the upcoming sesquicentennial a few weeks away.  Dean would stop, we’d dismount our bikes and take a few steps deeper into the stories of Gettysburg.  Each return to the saddle of our bikes brought a growing feeling of exhilaration.  It was one of those rare moments when you clearly knew that the events of the day would forever be a special memory and looking at Terry, her wide smile back at me assured that this day would be a story told for many years to come.

The Gettysburg story is far too complex and layered to retell here, but there are impressions I formed with the help of Dean’s rich narrative and the act of physically standing in the battlefields that finally helped me finally understand the lessons of Gettysburg.

Of all the Civil War battles, what is it about Gettysburg that, mid-way through the war, made it the focal point of historical remembrance?  It was a battle that could have been won by either side.  Perhaps the Union fought harder as, this time around, they were defending home turf. Perhaps the battle was venerated for the defeat of Lee who, leading up to Gettysburg had a string of impressive victories.  Perhaps it was the sheer number of combatants (165,000), killed (7,800), wounded (27,000) and captured or missing (11,000) that burrowed deeper into the abyss of horror for both sides.

Miscalculation, pride, fallibility, weather and plain dumb luck pushed the Union and Confederate armies across a chess board of stone divided fields, treed ridges, and wagon traveled roads.  And it was because of the ten roads, all necessary for military operations of that time, which intersected at the town of Gettysburg, that made this tranquil southern Pennsylvania village of 2,000 the center of an uninvited maelstrom that rained lead through a fog of gunpowder haze, where the fertile country soil was soaked red, and the intermittent stillness of the guns replaced by anguished cries from the wounded on the battlefield.

Five months later the Governor of Pennsylvania decided that this special battleground deserved both preservation and recognition.  The fractious politics of the day were such that the keynote address would be given by a well respected public orator and, shortly before the dedication, it was agreed that President Lincoln would be allowed a few brief words.  The orator’s name isn’t important, though Dean knew who he was and also the exact location where Lincoln stood (not marked and only revised recently through photographic triangulation).

It would take two more years for America to end its conflict and a hundred years after that to formerly dissolve the last vestiges of legal racism, which, post-Civil War existed in insidiously different ways in the North than it did in the South.

As we rolled off of Culp’s Hill down along a bike path that, as it left the battlefield, ran below a line of modern homes slightly uphill to our left, I pulled alongside Dean and asked a question, “For the horror and carnage that was Gettysburg, what do you think its participants would think of seeing how it looks today?

Dean slowed his bike and we stopped in the empty parking lot in front of the town middle school.  From his look and slight smile I knew I’d asked him something far from the questions of the licensed guide test.  “I think they’d be shocked at what a big role our federal government plays in our lives.”  He paused for just a moment, perhaps to guage the political correctness of his statement, perhaps simply to shape his next thought.  “Maybe some might think that this never needed to happen.  But I think most them would be proud.  Proud that they didn’t die in vain.”

America has and will again make reckless and unintended mistakes.  But we do learn from them.  We obsess introspectively on them.  And we are brave enough to put them on display, for our citizens and for the rest of the world.  Gettysburg reminded me of that lesson and made me proud of the miracle of American progress.  - Don Cohen June 2013.

You can see why I let Don tell this story.

We learned that the purpose of the battle was to control the roads – 10 of which converged on Gettysburg.  This was the only way the military could travel in those days and so the roads had strategic importance.  For the control of those roads – 3 days left 52,000 casualties.  Roughly equal numbers on both sides.  Around 10,000 were killed while the rest were wounded or missing.

We visited most of the historic sites.  Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top.  We saw the site of Pickett’s charge.  The sacrifice on each side was the most dramatic memory.  Bravery and futility.

In the end the leadership on both sides was pretty equal.  Probably luck had the most to do with providing the Union victory.

We enjoyed Dean so much from the car tour we asked for a bike tour the following day.  He was available.  We met him in the Battlefield parking lot and soon departed for another moving tour of Gettysburg.


The Battlefield and its 1800 monuments were in pristine shape as this July marks the sesquicentennial of the battle made more famous by Lincoln’s few words given at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg on  November 19, 1863.

The monuments are what bring this silent Battlefield to life.  You almost have to be there to appreciate the sacrifice they represent.  Here are a few that stood out for me.






The Battlefield and its 1800 monuments were in pristine shape as this July marks the sesquicentennial of the battle made more famous by Lincoln’s few words given at the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg on  November 19, 1863.

The Gettysburg Address

This year they estimate that between 3 and 4 million folks will visit Gettysburg because of the sesquicentennial.  Hopefully, the lessons of history will impart some wisdom for the future.

When we returned to Artillery Ridge it was a warm spring afternoon.  Fortunately, there was a high overcast because around 4pm our air conditioning system failed.  This has always been one of my fears.  The coach has 3 individual air conditioning units.  It turns out they are controlled by a circuit board in the forward most unit.  I watched them fail one after another and the  digital read out on the thermostat indicated a fault code suggesting the control board or cable to the control board had failed.  The Newmar weekend advisor said I needed a service person to sort out this electronic issue.

Two mobile RV techs were listed in the Artillery Ridge advertising.  I called them both.  It was Sunday afternoon.  What did I expect?  Bev headed out for Walmart to buy a fan to help us get through the night.

The next morning I reached S&S RV repair.  I spoke to George who informed he was only 2 mi. from Artillery Ridge and that if I had any documentation on the Dometic air conditioners I should bring it to him.  As his advertisement said he was an authorized Dometic repair shop I now had some hope.  I hopped in the Explorer and headed for his shop.

When I arrived there George informed me his “air conditioning man” was out sick but probably would be in the next day.  He said I should bring in the coach then.   They would diagnosis the problem and order the parts.  He suggested I would be there a few days. He also discovered that the newness of the coach suggested this would be warranty work and they didn’t like doing that.   I took the appointment for the following day and, discouraged, headed back to the coach.

On a long shot I called JR’s RV repair.  JR himself answered.  I told him my problem.  He walked me through a reset procedure over the phone and all of the air conditioners miraculously returned to life.  Our week had been saved.  I was so grateful to JR  I went to his shop on the other side of town to personally thank him.  When I returned to Artillery Ridge we hooked up the Explorer and said good bye to our friends Don and Terry.

The Cohen’s were scheduled to head back to Denver as we headed north toward Nova Scotia.  We had shared some great adventures over the past few weeks and it seemed awkward to think of traveling without them.  We bid them a sad farewell as they hooked up their Honda Fit to their Winnebago Navion and departed into the light mist.  We would miss Don and Terry.  They were great traveling companions.  But we each had our own journey and it was time for us to go our separate ways.

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