One hundred forty seven years ago over 170,000 men faced each other in a three day battle. The fate of a nation depended on the outcome of that fateful struggle. When it was over, nearly one third of its participants would be casualties. But that wasn’t the real tragedy.
The real tragedy was that they were all Americans.
Gettysburg, a small town of 2400 people, would become the site of the greatest battle of the Civil War. Southern forces under General Lee had taken the offensive and moved into Pennsylvania for two reasons: to ease the burden on northern Virginia, which had seen its share of battle for the last two years; and to draw the Army of the Potomac into battle at a location of his choosing. He felt that another confederate victory would tip the scales in Washington toward ending the war.
Union forces under General Hooker moved north as well, paralleling Lee and staying between him and the nation’s capital.
The battle started innocently enough when confederate troops under General A.P. Hill encountered Union Brig. General John Buford’s mounted cavalry. Thinking the cavalry was nothing more than local militia, Hill sent a column of troops to investigate. The ensuing battle west and north of the town became the spark that ignited a major battle. Over the course of the first day the Union forces were driven back through Gettysburg and into the surrounding hills southeast of town. But they had held long enough to allow the Army of the Potomac to arrive (also from the southeast) and take possession of the high ground.
Lee had wanted to choose his site, but he was denied his wishes. But the first day had gone well, and encouraged, he decided to attack.
On July 2, Lee attacked the flanks of the Union Army (now well established in the hills). The fighting was furious and despite repeated attacks on both flanks, the confederate troops were unable to unseat the Army of the Potomac. Iconic names like “Little Round Top”, “Devil’s Den”, and “The Wheatfields” became part of the historical lexicon as a result of fighting on Day Two.
By July 3rd, Lee believed that his best chance of victory was to attack the middle of the Union line since most of the action the previous day had been on the flanks; consequently he believed the northern troops would be massed on either end of the line.
To plan and lead the attack he relied on his trusted General, James Longstreet. Longstreet was given three divisions to spearhead the attack, comprised of about 18,000 men. After a furious cannonade, Longstreet’s troops moved forward, focusing on a point where a stone wall formed a corner (The Angle) near the center of the Union Line. The attackers faced a furious defense from well-prepared defenders, and although they briefly broke into the northern line, they didn’t get far. In less than an hour the confederate forces were broken, retreating in disorder back to where they had begun.
The next day, General Lee began his retreat back to Virginia on a road leading inevitably toward Appomattox. Casualties for both sides have been estimated at 51,000 – more than were suffered during the entire Revolutionary War.
Gettysburg will forever remembered as the “high water mark” of the confederate struggle for independence. The young republic – not yet a century old – would eventually emerge from the pain of a war where brother fought against brother, embrace, and grow into a great nation.
(The National Parks Service has put together one of the best accounts of the Battle of Gettysburg I have ever read. It can be found at www.nps.gov/archive/gett/getttour/main-ms.htm.)