My family’s greatest hardship on the Fourth of July is most likely the time spent retreating from the fireworks displays. The big displays take hours to exit. In the past, before we learned our lesson, we’d sit in bumper-to-bumper traffic in our air-conditioned car. We were tired, starting to get hungry and someone had to use the bathroom. What could be worse?!
While doing research for my novel I discovered a Fourth of July without family reunions, barbecues and fireworks, but it did however include a retreat that made any modern-day traffic jam seem desirable. It was July 4, 1863, Gettysburg, PA., after a three-day battle that ended with an estimated 51,000 American casualties on American soil. The soldiers who’d survived the horror were left to cleanup and retreat.
I looked closely at the Confederates’ retreat since my characters, Adam and Aleks, were traveling south on their journey home. What I found were staggering numbers of wounded being moved in intolerable conditions that would break the healthiest of human spirits; no food, no water, no time to stop for medical attention and wagons without springs on rugged terrain.
“They caught up with the Confederate wagons and traveled with them toward Chambersburg, Pennsylvania. Heavy clouds overhead continued to deliver a cleansing rain to the bloodied battlefields. The soil refused more water. The dirt turned to mud, and the puddles turned to ponds. In some areas, the water was so deep it came to their armpits.
The seventeen-mile wagon train was escorted by more than two thousand cavalry and trudged along at two miles an hour. From Chambersburg, they headed south in the direction of the Potomac hoping to cross at Williamsport, Maryland. At one point, the entire wagon train came to a halt when the soldiers and officers on horseback fell asleep in their saddles.
Few words were spoken between the boys on the journey; their thoughts were filled with the voices of those around them. The wounded men sang a song of sorrow to the rhythm of the rain. It was a never-ending song, for when one man died there was another who took his place in the chorus of the suffering. The song served as a cadence for the five thousand who marched by their side.
There was no end to the rain. It continued all day, all night, and into the next day. The men and horses trudged along in the muck and mire, finally reaching the shore on the afternoon of July 5.” Excerpt From: “Jumpin’ the Rails!” Sheila W. Slavich.
Brig. Gen. John D. Imboden, under orders from Gen. Lee, provided the escort for the forty-mile “wagon train of wounded” from Gettysburg to Williamsport. Imboden said, “During this one night I realized more of the horror of war than I had in all the two preceding years.”
Now, it’s time to stop writing my blog. Time to plan our food, our drinks and our sparklers for our holiday weekend. But, when the fireworks begin and sounds of John Philip Sousa play in the background, my thoughts will return to our Nation’s history and my heart will flood with gratitude for the men and women who suffered and died and those who currently serve for our freedom, our union.
Happy Fourth of July!