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For 50 years, Howard Wilkinson has been covering the campaigns, personalities, scandals, and business of politics on a local, state and national level. He's interviewed mayors, council members, county commissioners, governors, senators, and representatives. With so many years covering so many politicians, there must be stories to tell, right?

How A Boyhood Visit To Gettysburg Sparked My Love Of History

Courtesy of Howard Wilkinson
Col. Patrick O'Rorke, commander of the 140th NY Infantry, who died in battle at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863 - the second day of the battle of Gettysburg. His nose is so shiny because visitors are encouraged to rub it for good luck.

I would wager that there are not many 11-year-old kids in this country who could tell you who General Gouverneur K. Warren was and what role he played in American history.

I was one who could.

I could because, at age 11, in July 1964, I stood on top of the rocky west front of Little Round Top on the Civil War battlefield at Gettysburg, Pa., looking at the statue of Gen. Warren that has stood there for generations, looking out across the fields below with binoculars in his hands.

Warren was on the boulders at Little Round Top on July 2, 1863, and was the first to spot a massive number of Confederate troops mostly from Alabama and Texas, marching silently through the woods and wheat fields toward Little Round Top hill.

The general from New York sounded the alarm through signal corps flags and summoned regiments of Union troops to the hill to defend it from the rebels. Warren knew that if the Confederates took that hill the whole of their army could have attacked the Union army from behind.

The battle of Gettysburg would have been a disastrous rout, leaving the Confederates free to keep rolling north to Harrisburg and Philadelphia, possibly New York City and even Washington D.C.

But five regiments of troops from Maine, Pennsylvania, New York and Michigan fought bravely and chased the rebels off the hill.

I learned that too, as an 11-year-old kid, standing on Little Round Top, listening to a battlefield tour guide tell the story while I wore my Union kepi cap and a Union-style pop gun slung over my shoulder.

I was enthralled. I was transported back 101 years, trying to imagine what that place was like on July 2, 1863.

Since that trip, I have been back to Gettysburg at least 25 times, possibly 30, along with visits to dozens of other Civil War battlefields large and small.

Each time, I ask myself the same questions I did in 1963: Why here in an obscure little Pennsylvania town? Why did the Confederate foot soldiers fight so hard in a cause so evil and cruel – the preservation of the institution of slavery? What would make men of both sides march across open fields in a hail of gunfire knowing that their next steps may well be their last?  

And, most importantly, what was gained and what was lost when the Confederates finally surrendered, nearly two years after Gettysburg? Is it a war that, in some ways, has never ended?

What would have happened on July 4, the day after the three-day battle of Gettysburg, if Gen. George Meade, the Union commander on the field, had pursued the broken Confederate army as it scurried back over the Potomac River into Virginia?

President Lincoln was furious they did not pursue the rebels, believing Meade missed his chance to crush the Confederate army once and for all. How many lives would have been saved had that happened? Instead, the bloody war ground on for another two years.

All of these questions. All the searching for answers I have done for the past 57 years.

And all because, on a hot summer day in July 1964, my parents drove me and my sister over two Pennsylvania mountain ridges from my grandmother's house about an hour away and let me romp through the fields with my kepi hat and pop gun, pretending I was a Union soldier, defending Pennsylvania and doing the bidding of my hero, Abe Lincoln.

This fascination with history began even earlier than this trip, when I was in the fourth grade at Cleveland Elementary School in Dayton, Ohio.

My fourth grade teacher, Mrs. Nellie Partlow, was a wonderful human being and an excellent teacher. She is the one who lit the flame of my passion for history by teaching us about the settling of Ohio and the Northwest Territory, making sure we understood that the Northwest Ordinance forbid slavery in the whole of the territory.

A photographer from the Dayton Journal Herald stopped by our classroom one day when we were having "Frontier Day." Mrs. Partlow had cooked up a frontier staple food – a big pot of mush, an oats and corn meal concoction, with cinnamon and some sugar – and ladled it out to us. Some kids hated it. I loved it. I was only ticked off because I didn't get in the photo that appeared in the newspaper. I was a ham even then.

Mrs. Partlow encouraged me to write – even when it wasn't a class assignment. She thought I had potential as a writer.

And so I wrote about history; and even some poetry. She encouraged me every step of the way. She even let me play Gen. Ulysses S. Grant in a school play that included several scenes from American history, including the Confederate surrender at Appomattox. A kid named Billy Moore played Robert E. Lee. I remember gallantly refusing Billy's sword as he tried to surrender it to me.


It wasn’t long after that I found myself on Little Round Top, rubbing the bronze nose of a bust of Col. Patrick O'Rorke, commander of the 140th New York Infantry, who died in the Confederate assault on Little Round Top. The Irishman's nose is shiny because so many thousands of visitors have rubbed it so many times. Including me, many times.

Colonel, I hope to come back soon and rub that shiny nose. It would make Mrs. Partlow smile.

tales from the trail
Credit Jim Nolan / WVXU

Read more "Tales from the Trail" here.

Howard Wilkinson is in his 50th year of covering politics on the local, state and national levels.