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Smells of the Battle of Gettysburg: death, blood, despair and agony

Smells of the Battle of Gettysburg: death, blood, despair and agony

By Rick Hinton

One imagines vacation as a time of relaxation, taking it easy and sleeping in. Our Gettysburg vacations seem to be a different animal. The alarm clock goes off at 5 a.m., coffee is gathered (perhaps a cigar) and it’s off to Little Round Top. We plant ourselves on the upper veranda of the 12th & 44th New York Infantry monument and take in sunrise over the valley below, watching the sun fill in the shadows, early morning joggers making their way up the incline and on high alert for spectral soldiers from another day and age. This has become Al Hunter’s routine for over 20 years and now has become ours.

Little Round Top: Routine dawn greetings from Little Round Top. (Photos by Rick Hinton)

Gettysburg sits in a palette of rolling hills and meadows dotted with stark white monuments, multitudes of cannons waiting for an enemy long gone, and staggered post and rail fences that line the roads and drives. A sense of reverence hangs thickly over the grounds regardless of vehicle traffic, McDonald’s, tourist offerings and stoplights. It’s a time stamp whose past is still very much aligned with the present. Mid-week is a good time to visit the battlefield before the weekend influx of tourists and countless tour buses. We pretty much had the place to ourselves and took advantage of that luxury. However, one visit (as we discovered in 2017, and Al coming to realize after two decades of visits) won’t cut it. There are never enough hours in the day, or days in the week, to take it all in; or try to come to grips on just what happened there 156 years ago.

New York Monument: Laura just below our morning perch on the New York Monument.

I have come to rely on Al’s insight and historical perspectives on the battle at Gettysburg that July of 1863. He introduced Laura and me to the event in 2017 … a glimpse of history unfolding under his tutelage, revealing the sense of urgency (and uncertainty) of battle, those in charge of leading the troops, the horrible aftermath and secrets and stories carried over to this day. Prior to our first trip, and after, I read extensively on the battle, yet, standing on the very grounds of where it had occurred, realized I’d never really gotten it. I believe you physically have to be there to get it! Al and Rhonda Hunter, along with the accompanying Scooby Gang, traversed hill, valley, park roads, monuments and isolated points along the three-day battle in search of a sense of revelation that we could call our own. And as usual, Al had a few surprises up his sleeve. …

Cemetery Ridge: Monuments and cannons on Cemetery Ridge.

Laura and I did not come hunting ghosts, but to hunt history. The general feeling among all of the Scooby Gang was, that if “they” did make an appearance, we would welcome them into the club. We did, however, keep our eyes open to the possibility because Gettysburg is a town of “stories.” Laura – sensitive and often uncomfortable with her abilities – had her moments during our first visit. On Cemetery Ridge – on the third (and last) day of battle, culminating with the infamous Pickett’s Charge – Laura walked into a “fog” of body odor. She could back out of it and subsequently return into the cloud at will. In addition to this odor she claimed she smelled death, blood, despair, agony. Three days of battle … no bathing … 90-degree heat … sudden and agonizing death? This was the subtle ending of our first visit.

The second visit to Gettysburg was a different experience. …

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