"UP, MEN, and to your posts," Gen. George Pickett told his soldiers, poised on Seminary Ridge in Gettysburg on a July day in 1863. "Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!"
And with that admonition, the commander of the division of Virginians attached to Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's corps led his men into one of the bloodiest and most famous charges described in history books. Nearly 12,000 began this assault -- "Pickett's Charge" -- and only about half made it through unscathed.
Earlier this year, my 8-year-old daughter, Natalie, and I were among a small group of people seeing the battlefields of Gettysburg from the backs of horses. It's no problem that neither of us is an equestrian: Natalie has ridden just a handful of times in her life, and although I rode for years, that skill is buried so far in my past as to be rendered nearly useless now.
If you paid attention to your Civil War history, you'll remember that the battle of Gettysburg was fought in just three days. As we ride along on the very parcel of earth on which Gen. Pickett once did, we can imagine his shout, almost see the throngs racing toward their meeting with death on that third day of battle.
It had been a little bit scary being introduced to my charge, a gentle appaloosa named Frisco. The other riders laughed at my jitters, pointing to Natalie -- already up on pony Rosie -- peering out from beneath her riding helmet and excitedly waiting for the tour to begin.
Lyndell D'Angelo, 43, a software representative from Mechanicsburg, Pa., was along for the ride as well -- and plenty nervous herself. "I gotta tell you, these horses are big, and they're a lot bigger when you're sitting on top of one," she said. But her horse, Susie, clearly was slow and methodical, "and that kinda makes me feel less nervous . . . that way I can enjoy the sights," D'Angelo said.
These horses know their jobs, pointed out guide Pam Grimes. Grimes is the co-owner of Hickory Hollow Farm, one of just two Gettysburg stables that provide horseback tours of the battlefields. Grimes has been offering these excursions for 20 years and leads the scenic rides, which we were taking.
She retains licensed battlefield guides, certified Gettysburg campaign and war-period experts, to lead the more in-depth historic tours. Grimes books groups of up to eight people per one- to four-hour ride and welcomes children ages 8 and up -- no riding experience necessary.
"You need to trust the horse," Grimes reiterated, "but you do have to steer him, though. We've got people who let them run into trees. But these are horses who know what they're supposed to do."
They certainly do. My horse knew just where he wanted to go, and it was right behind Rosie (but follow too closely and risk a squeal and a kick in the face from the offended party).
The horses walked calmly, single file, along a woodsy trail (blissfully ignorant when we riders would get slapped in the face by tree branches), and alongside a bucolic pasture of Scotch Highland cows. We crossed a little bridge or two, which took us past Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew's headquarters and the giant memorial to Gen. Robert E. Lee and his horse, Traveller, which was crowded with foot traffic that parted admiringly to let us pass.
"Gettysburg is a series of ridges," Grimes remarked. "This is a very interesting ride if you look at it from a battlefield perspective." And Gettysburg actually was much less treed than it is now, she said. "You look out at the woods and you wonder 'How did they know what was there?' Well, they didn't need to wonder because the woods weren't there."
We passed Henry Spangler's Woods as well as the Spangler family barnyard (the farm sits across the road from East Cavalry Battlefield, the site of the climactic cavalry battle on July 3), crossed Emmittsburg Pike, and then headed over to Trostle Farm, where the Union Army's Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles retained his headquarters. Trostle Barn -- perhaps one of the best-known structures on the battlefield -- provided shelter to the inexperienced 9th Massachusetts Light Artillery Battery and was shelled for hours by Confederate artillery. A cannonball hole is clearly visible from horseback. Interestingly, when Catherine Trostle appealed to the government for compensation for the carnage, she reportedly claimed "there were 16 dead horses left close by the door and probably 100 on the farm."
More than 140 years later, our very live horses walked amiably along, down United States Avenue and then in the direction of Little Round Top, maybe a mile in the distance. Then we turned around to head for home, fording tiny streams, clopping over small bridges, slogging through boggy woods, enjoying the solitude.
Such a tranquil experience contrasted with the account of events that played out here.
It's a wonderful way to view history, Grimes remarked, adding that participants would appreciate the tour even more if they boned up on Pickett and Longstreet before riding. "I'm very big on safety so we keep the groups small and on good horses. We get every type of person -- doctors, lawyer, blue-collar men. The children under 10 are usually more interested in riding, but sometimes we'll get a child who is right there with the guide, really listening, and this tour could spark an interest in them."
In the summer, Grimes said, the temperatures rise and the battlefields are heavy with foot traffic, so she usually doesn't offer tours in the middle of the day. "But the battle was hot, too, and some people like that," she said.
"And I loved it," said participant D'Angelo, stiffly dismounting after the ride. "It was absolutely peaceful."
That's the usual reaction, says Hickory Hill employee Jackie Green, who rode along that day.
"I've never seen anybody come back who wasn't relaxed by the time we returned. It's always like, 'Can we do it again?' "
HICKORY HOLLOW FARM -- Battlefield tours are offered seven days a week, March through November, to groups of seven or eight maximum. Riders must be at least 8 years old -- with possible exceptions -- and weigh no more than 250 pounds. One to two days' notice is required to book a scenic ride; four to six days for a historic tour. 219 Crooked Creek Rd., Gettysburg, Pa. 717-334-0349. www.hickoryhollowfarm.com. Cost is $35 per hour for a one- to four-hour scenic tour; $50 per hour for a historic tour of two to five hours, which includes a licensed battlefield guide.
NATIONAL RIDING STABLES, ARTILLERY RIDGE -- Tours are offered seven days a week, April 1 through Oct. 31; Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays in November, to groups of 15 maximum. Riders must be at least 8 years old and weigh no more than 250 pounds. Book up to four weeks ahead if possible. 610 Taneytown Rd., Gettysburg, Pa. 717-334-1288. www.artilleryridge.com. Cost is $33 for a one-hour scenic ride and $58 for a two-hour history tour (without a licensed battlefield guide).