American Civil War - Gettysburg

If you just happen to be browsing the internet and you find yourself on the Powell’s Books website and just happen to decide to do a search for...say, “Gettysburg,” you will get  826 results. 826 books about Gettysburg. That’s a bit daunting. If you were to narrow that search to “The Battle of Gettysburg” the load becomes a little bit lighter with only 184 books listed. Needless to say, I have not read them all. I just want to point out that the Battle of Gettysburg is without question a big deal. And while some of those book titles are about the Gettysburg Address, I think the Battle of Gettysburg would still be a pretty big deal, famous Gettysburg Address notwithstanding.

It was, statistically, the bloodiest of all the battles.  After three days of fighting there were over 50,000 casualties, including the dead, the wounded and the missing.

When I first visited Gettysburg I was somewhat naïve as to what a battlefield actually looked like. I guess I was expecting something comparable to a big football field of sorts, with a scrimmage line drawn down the middle and maybe a wienie stand on the sideline. For some reason I thought a war was fought like a football game. Us on one side. Them on the other. And then everyone just aims their guns and starts shooting. Well, now, wasn’t that a silly notion!  I realized just how wrong I was when I drove through the park on my self-guided tour and stumbled upon a jovial guide talking to a rather engrossed family. So I pulled out my trusty Canon and feigned a little photo taking as best I could, while getting as close as possible so that I could eavesdrop on that rather smart tour guide.

In 2010 I hired my own smarty pants tour guide!

Well, strike me dumb. He was talking about strategy. Really? There’s actually strategy to this thing called war? It was “right flank” this, and “left flank” that, with an “intelligence briefing” here and a “boy, did he call that one wrong” there. Seriously, I still don’t completely understand the strategy of this particular battle, but knowing there was a strategy. . . well, it shed a whole new light for me as I continued on my journey. 

Gettysburg Battlefield (2001)

The battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863. The Confederate forces, led by General Robert E. Lee, were marching north. A Confederate brigade was sent on up ahead of them to get more supplies and while on its mission stumbled upon  a column of General George Meade’s Union Cavalry at McPherson Ridge, just west of the town of Gettysburg. 

The first shots were fired at about 6 A.M. The Union Cavalry made the first move. While the Confederates were slow to advance there was already a skirmish underway. Because this was 1863 and there was no Twitter, communications were rather pokey. So, our dear Union General, John F. Reynolds, didn't know what was going on and did not arrive on the scene until 10:30 that morning. Seeing that his Union men were a bit outnumbered, he sent word to General Meade that he was in desperate need of reinforcements. After the note was delivered Reynolds was shot and killed on that same battlefield.

By noon, Team Confederate pushed the right side of the Union line off of Seminary Ridge and on through Gettysburg. By 4:30 Team Confederate was in the lead as they continued to push Team Union up to the fittingly named Cemetery Hill. 

North Carolina Monument on Seminary Ridge (2001)

Then General Lee, thinking like a coach whose team is first and goal, called a timeout. He hung back to assess the situation. This was his first mistake. He should never have let them rest.

At about 5:00 A.M. on July 2, maneuvers began again. The day started with Team Union (46,000 strong) and Team Confederate (43,000 not so strong). Both sides lined up and positioned themselves for the long day ahead. Unfortunately there was some miscommunication. A Union commander by the name of Major Daniel E. Sickles, who was supposed to stay put at Little Round Top until receiving further orders, instead inexplicably moved his guys down the hill and into The Peach Orchard. Bad move for the Union. Sickles probably didn’t realize that Confederate General James Longstreet’s Corp was just arriving at the southern tip of Seminary Ridge.  The confederate cannoneers took this opportunity and opened fire from Devi’ls Den to The Peach Orchard. It was a slaughterhouse. 

The Wheatfield (2001)

That day’s battles were arduous and bloody.  Men fell from both sides in The Peach Orchard, as well as The Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and later, Culp’s Hill. By the end of Day Two it looked like the Union was holding its own. But the battle had not yet been called. 

On the morning of July 3, around 6 A.M. Culp’s Hill was decided for Team Union. The Confederates retreated.  Just after 1:00 the Confederates’ artillery barrage began. But, like that gang that couldn't shoot straight, ammunition went high and long, missing much of the front lines and landing toward the rear. The front lines were able to respond for a period of time that which for a rousing little battle. But after a time, the Union, wanting to conserve ammunition and catch its collective breath, called another timeout but neglected to tell the other team of its plans. Meanwhile, the Confederates, realizing that it had suddenly gone quiet on the Union front, thought they had made a substantial hit.

View of Seminary Ridge from Little Round Top (2010)

At 3:00 that afternoon General George E. Pickett and his band of Confederates, confident that they had just destroyed the guns of the Union, began their march up to Cemetery Hill. Picketts’ men maneuvered through a field completely exposed to Union soldiers occupying Cemetery Hill. The Confederates’ march suddenly became a suicide march and is hereafter known as “Pickett’s Charge.” At  4:00 on July, 1863 the battle was decided. 


View of Seminary Ridge from Little Round Top (2010)

epending on what you read and who actually wrote it, The Battle of Gettysburg is either a major turning point in the war or just another big battle. There is some controversy in the aftermath of this bloody campaign. While the Union claims complete victory, the Confederates claim that it is more of a stalemate. In hindsight it appears that this is a turning point of the war, mainly because General Lee stopped thinking offensively and instead played defense for the rest of the war. (I think he felt really bad about that Pickett debacle and just got cold feet. But clearly I’m no war general!) 

I also think it was quite simply a psychological boost to the Union. When your supporters are getting weary of the battle, the players are fatigued as well. This was a win that gave everyone in the Union a bit of hope that they could prevail.

The one thing that people don’t really talk about is the aftermath of a battle. We get all hopped up on goofballs talking about the “strategery” and the winnings and the losings but once it’s played out where are the stories about the effects of this? 

Once both teams picked up their toys and started moving to the next big game it was up to the townspeople to clean up their mess.  Just think about these rough statistics:

•    5,500 soldiers dead
•    22,000 soldiers wounded
•    5,000 horses dead

In an area measuring about 25 square miles and in a town with a population of 2,400, what does one do with all of those dead and wounded? Area citizens pitched in and offered up rooms to the wounded. They opened up their churches, schools and homes. But what was of an even more urgent nature was how to deal with the dead (including the horses). There are many descriptions about what that was like, but for me it doesn’t bear thinking or repeating. 

Within six weeks of the battle, land had been purchased by the Pennsylvania legislature and parceled out to each Union state so that they could bury their dead. 3,500 soldiers were removed from the field of battle and reinterred in this cemetery. It was not until seven years later that the Confederate dead were removed from their original burial spots in the fields and returned to the south. Thanks to the Ladies Memorial Associations of Richmond, Raleigh, Savannah, and Charleston, 3,320 soldiers were disinterred and sent south for reburial. 

The Gettysburg Cemetery, the final resting place of the Union dead, was dedicated on November 19, 1863. The program that day included a procession of fancy pants officials, the Marine Band, and an oration by “the outstanding orator of his day,” the Honorable Edward Everett of Massachusetts. Almost as an afterthought, an invitation was sent to President Lincoln. The committee was completely bowled over when Lincoln accepted the invitation. So as not to slight the President, a formal request was then sent to him, asking him to take part in the program.

The ceremonies began at high noon, an hour late because all were kept waiting for the infamous Mr. Everett. So the bands played, a prayer was given, another band played and then the famous Mr. Everett spoke. For two hours. About funeral customs, the purpose of war, and a play-by-play of the Battle of Gettysburg. 

And then Old Abe stood and famously delivered the 257-word* speech that would go down in history as one of the most historically significant pieces of orations in American History. 

Gettysburg Address (2001)

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom— and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Amen to that. 

*The number of words in the speech is disputed as there are approximately 5 unique manuscripts of the speech and there are slight variations in wording.

NOTE: I am not an historian and I do not play a historian on TV. For accurate historic data on any of these sites please go to your public library for more information.