Over the weekend I read a fascinating memoir called Route 15 to Gettysburg: A Journey. The author is John Thomas Ambrosi, a retired Marine Corps officer who grew up in Rochester, New York. JT has traveled the road dozens of times over the past several decades and as seen many changes both on the battlefield and along the route to get there. Gettysburg is roughly equidistant from Rochester to Quantico, Virginia, which made visiting convenient during his military years. Gettysburg still resonates with JT today and continues to play a large role in his life. What I found so intriguing was the way he incorporates the battlefield and its rich history in with other events: his growing up years, his service in Desert Shield and Desert Storm, his family history, Rochester’s changing circumstances, and all the things he has seen over the years traveling Route 15 to Gettysburg. JT recently sat down and generously answered a few questions.
The Strawfoot: Your memoir is about Route 15. Where does this road begin and end, and what has it meant to you?
John Thomas (JT) Ambrosi: A lot of my life has been spent on and around the northern portion of Route 15 in New York and Pennsylvania but Route 15 extends much farther than that. It stretches almost 800 miles from Rochester,
NY to Walterboro, SC. Because of its proximity to my home and
Gettysburg, it became a natural focus for my memoir. The road acts as
a symbol tying together my childhood in Rochester, my love of studying
the battle of Gettysburg and my career in the US Marines as I used it
to travel to and from Marine training in Quantico, VA.
When did you decide to write the book?
I had just finished up a wonderfully productive decade at a local
telecommunications firm and wanted to try something else. So, while I
transitioned, I decided to put my thoughts on paper. It was a lot of
When you were younger were you conscious of Route 15 as
a heritage tourism destination?
No. Researching for the book opened my eyes, though. Route 15
intersects with quite a few remarkable geologic and historical places
in the eastern United States.
It is almost like there are two Route 15s, one through
scenic southern Pennsylvania, Maryland and Virginia and another
farther north through post-industrial America. You grew up in
Rochester in the 1970s. A major theme in your memoir is how towns like Rochester went from prosperity to Rust Belt malaise fairly quickly.
It’s so true. Rochester is a much different place now than it
was in the early part of the 20th Century. There are several complex
reasons why but mostly its because of the loss of manufacturing, white
flight to the suburbs and the concentration of poverty in the center
city. You see it in a lot of places in the northeastern United
States. The city is trying to make a come back, though. There are
lots of new developments and what is particularly exciting is the
number of new residential units going up in the city. But, it’s a
long, tough row to hoe. Route 15, the northern portion anyway, tells
the tale of Rust Belt America.
This was also the post-Vietnam era. Did you find your
interest in Gettysburg at the time to be anomalous?
In hindsight, interest in American military history would have
been anomalous but I was too immature to think about it that way in
high school and, frankly, probably wouldn’t have cared. As an aside,
my experience coming home from the First Gulf War was accentuated by
the number of Vietnam veterans who showed up to the airport and at our
parades/celebrations because they wanted us to feel welcome back in
our country. That was simply awesome. Those guys deserved so much
and the country treated them badly. But, they put their past in the
rearview mirror and said, “Never again.”
How, if at all, did being a Marine influence your
views on Gettysburg?
Quite a bit. Being in the military teaches you not only tactics
but how to understand terrain, weather, etc. and how those factors
influence a battle. You can better understand why the decision makers
at Gettysburg did what they did. For example, why did Dan Sickle’s
decide to disobey General Meade’s orders on July 2, 1863 and push his
3d Corps out to the Emmitsburg Road? You get a different perspective
of that when you look at the terrain through military eyes.
Uniformed Service Persons are a frequent sight on the
battlefield. Indeed staff rides were a stated reason for putting Civil
War battlefields under the jurisdiction of the War Department in the
1890s. Ways of war change over time, but did Gettysburg have any
lessons for you as a Marine officer?
Absolutely. The Marines call an attack like Pickett’s Charge
the “Hey, diddle, diddle, right up the middle.” It’s one of the
simplest, and deadliest, forms of maneuver. It’s not the preferred
way to go after bad guys but sometimes you have no choice. Also,
required reading at officer training was Michael Shaara’s “The Killer
Angels.” It’s a tired and, perhaps, trite phrase but those who forget
history are indeed condemned to repeat it. The Marines do a great job
making sure their officers study the past and learn from it.
Col. Patrick H. O’Rorke memorial, on 140th NY Infantry monument (1889), Little Round Top
Tell us about Patrick O’Rorke and what he means to you?
A transplanted Irishman. His family made their home in
Rochester. He worked hard and got a ticket to West Point. He
excelled there and was quickly promoted after graduation. He was a
natural fit to command the 140th NYVI made up of men recruited in his
native Rochester. He and his regiment were headed out to bolster Dan
Sickle’s collapsing 3d Corps line on July 2, 1863, when the Union
Army’s Chief Engineer, seeing a bad situation developing on top of
Little Round Top, ordered him and his regiment to that peak’s defense.
It was in the nick of time too as Hood’s Texan’s were almost to the
peak. As he led the charge to repel them, a Confederate minie ball
hit him in the neck and he died on that hill. But, the 140th stopped
the attack. He is buried here in Rochester and I am a member of the
Patrick O’Rorke Memorial Society which keeps his name in the public
eye. He is a true American hero.
You were in Gettysburg the weekend after 9/11. What
was that like?
Two memories jump to the front. First, I remember the thousands
of people lining Route 15 in Pennsylvania just waving flags and
showing support for America. The second memory imprinted on my brain
is the eerie sight of contrails of jet aircraft back in the sky after
the attacks. The US had grounded all air travel for a couple of days.
But, when we arrived in Gettysburg on Friday evening the week of the
attacks, the jets traveling that particularly busy east-west corridor
painted a beautiful picture in the sky as the sun set over South
Since the publication of the book have you learned the
whereabouts of the banner from the U.S.S. Constellation?
I was serving as executive officer of the Marine Detachment on
board USS Constellation, a Vietnam era aircraft carrier. During a
visit to the Philippines, I had some local craftsman make me a banner
that we could hang in the Marine Detachment berthing. It was a
motivational piece of art quoting Henry’s band of brothers speech
before the battle at Agincourt. I never saw it again after I left the
ship and I’ve asked some of the Marines who served with me if they
recall where it went. No luck. Constellation is no longer around.
She was decommissioned and torn apart for scrap. I hope the banner is
in good hands!
Is there anything else you would like to add?
You too are a student of history and guys like me appreciate your
work in keeping people interested in it. Good luck with your work and
your blog and I appreciate you contacting me.
(images/Penn Motel by Mellinger Studios, Lancaster, PA; O’Rorke by Doug Kerr of Albany, NY, uploaded by GrapedApe; both via Wikimedia Commons; other image taken by The Strawfoot)