Roy Frampton bends down to plant a small American flag in the ground at Gettysburg National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pa. (pop. 7,490). Walking from tombstone to tombstone, Frampton and a group of 60 volunteers place flags over the graves of 3,512 soldiers who died during the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.
“The men who are buried here deserve this honor,” says Frampton, 57, a licensed battlefield guide since 1968. “If not for them, this nation would not be what it is today.”
Each July 1 for the last 15 years, Frampton has participated in the flag-planting ceremony to commemorate the fallen soldiers and to ensure that, in the immortal words of President Abraham Lincoln, the world “never forget what they did here.”
The epic battle, which raged in and around Gettysburg from July 1 to 3, 1863, forever changed the town, turned the surrounding farmland into hallowed ground and left an indelible mark on the nation.
Of 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, an estimated 6,650 were killed during the battle and 44,400 others were wounded, captured or reported missing during the ferocious fray, which pitted Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia against Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
At the time, townspeople spent weeks tending the wounded and burying the dead, and months trying to put their homes, farms and lives back together after the massive armies swept through their once-tranquil streets. Today, residents remember the tumultuous time with an annual battle re-enactment, a dozen Civil War museums and theaters, and daily tours of the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park.
The park, which nearly encircles the town, contains more than 1,400 granite monuments, bronze statues and cast-iron cannons that memorialize the Union and Confederate troops who fought in the pivotal battle.
Nearly 144 years later, evidence of the armed struggle can be seen around Gettysburg. More than 100 of the town’s original structures remain, including barns, homes, schools and churches, many of which served as makeshift hospitals during and after the battle. At least nine buildings have unexploded artillery shells embedded in exterior walls, while several homes and businesses along Baltimore Avenue are riddled with bullet holes.
“If you look, you’ll see holes in the woodwork around the windows,” says Brian Garlach, 49, referring to the battle scars left in the two-story brick home bought by his great-grandfather Henry Garlach in 1855. During the battle, his great-grandmother, Catherine, fed and provided shelter to a Union general caught behind enemy lines.
For Civil War buffs, Gettysburg is a treasure trove. Visitors can retrace the steps of history at Gen. Lee’s Headquarters; the Jennie Wade House, named for the 20-year-old woman—and only civilian—killed during the battle; and the Wills House, where President Lincoln stayed the night before he delivered his famous Gettysburg Address. Local shops are packed with relics, weaponry, clothing and books of and about the period.
For many Gettysburg residents, the Civil War never ended. They keep it alive by dressing in period clothing and portraying soldiers and civilians of the 1860s, especially during the town’s annual Civil War Heritage Days each June and July.
“The capital of Civil War re-enacting is Gettysburg,” says Frank Marrone Jr., 34, a member of the 23rd Pennsylvania infantry re-enactment group. “Whether you are from the North or South, if you are interested in the Civil War, you are interested in Gettysburg.”
Marrone and members of his troupe of living historians regularly participate in Civil War battle re-enactments and make a pilgrimage each July to the monument on the Gettysburg battlefield that pays tribute to the soldiers they portray.
Gettysburg, long known for the monumental battle and President Lincoln’s immortal speech, will forever be remembered as long as townspeople continue paying homage to the soldiers who made their hometown a piece of hallowed ground.
“I’m trying to make sure we do not forget what they did here,” Frampton says before leading a tour of Gettysburg National Cemetery.