The Battle of Gettysburg epitomizes the futility of war and offered those of the time a glimpse at the devastating future of conflict. It is the turning point in the American Civil War and a landmark moment for world history; a momentous yet tragic event.
Fought from the 1st of July through to the 3rd, the battle marks the turning point in the Civil War in that Confederate forces would fail to set foot in the north again, and propel the Union into the ascendancy.
In May of 1863 the Confederate Army of Virginia, led by General Lee, struck a massive blow to the Federal forces at Chancellorsville. This victory enabled rebel forces to advance further north for the second time in the war. Entering Maryland and advancing on Pennsylvania with some 75,000 men, Gen. Lee appears to have been brimming with confidence and very much on the front foot.
Any success for the Confederates in the North rested fully on the shoulders of the Army of Virginia. To secure positions and successfully repel a well supplied Union Army, they would be required to fight harder than they had done before – Far from home and stretched to the limit, their resolve would be tested in Pennsylvania.
A rebel incursion into Northern territory had occurred once before during the war, but was successfully repulsed by Union forces, on this occasion and under the command of a confident General Lee however, the going would be tough.
President Lincoln it seems had lost complete faith in the Union forces under the command of Joseph Hooker. A Confederate army this far north was a sheer sign of incompetency and Hooker’s lack of action in engaging the enemy force was unacceptable. For this, he was subsequently replaced with General George Gordon Meade. Immediately Union forces began to pursue their Confederate opposite numbers, and it is at Gettysburg where the ultimate clash occurred.
The Fighting Begins
An initial foray into the town proved decisive for Confederate forces, who were able to push Federal cavalry forces out and force a retreat some half a mile to the south. A position that will gain a notorious reputation in the battle; Cemetery Hill. By the second day, Union forces were pouring into the area, fortifying positions all along the southern tip of Gettysburg, from the Cemetery Ridge to Culp’s Hill.
With forces strategically placed on elevated ground and with a clear line of sight, Federal forces held a huge advantage. With an astute military mind Gen. Lee was determined to break the Union forces but cautioned restraint. Advancing upon a fortified position with open ground separating the two forces would likely result in heavy bloodshed.
Despite this, the Confederate command structure had advised a full on assault on the positions – Utter madness considering the conditions, but sadly an indictment of the combat seen throughout the Civil War – Reckless at times, with a complete disregard for rank & file infantrymen.
Commanders James Longstreet and Richard Ewell attacked the flanks of the Federal forces, with visceral fighting erupting on the left flank. It is here that the bloodbath commences. The position known as Little Round Top was valiantly defended by one Minnesota regiment, and despite losing surrounding positions, this proved crucial in the defense of the Union lines.
Union and Confederate forces also clashed fiercely at both Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, with heavy losses incurred on both sides. The close proximity of the fighting resulted in a bloody battle of attrition. This fighting gives us a glimpse at the brutal combat American forces would eventually encounter some 50+ years later on the Western Front. Rifle butts and bayonets bludgeoning and ripping their way through American flesh, the very earth beneath them a blood soaked soup.
By the second day of this engagement, the heaviest losses of the war were incurred. Losses totaling some 35,000 men from both sides.
Despite devastating losses, General Lee it seems sensed victory among the bloodshed. On the 3rd of July he gave the order to advance. 15,000 men marched forward through open ground toward Union positions at Cemetery Ridge, in an event known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’, the losses would be apocalyptic in nature. For earlier in the morning of the 3rd Union forces had successfully repulsed rebel troops after a seven hour firefight at Culp’s Hill. With positions fortified and dug in deep, the attack was nothing short of a massacre.
Pickett’s forces were exposed in open field, with Union forces dug in, positioned on elevated ground and with flanking manoeuvres from New York, Vermont and Ohio regiments, the men of the Confederate Army stood little chance. Thousands were struck down where the stood with relentless volley fire cutting through the lines.
Load, present, fire; Load, present, fire. The onslaught was near never ending.
Line by line the rebel troops incurred devastating losses at the hands of a finely tuned Federal war machine, and nearly two thirds of Pickett’s troops were killed or wounded in the firefight. Now with men pouring back toward Confederate lines in disarray, General Lee prepared for a Union counter-attack.
This counterattack never came however, and at the time General Meade was criticised heavily for his lack of action. In hindsight though, perhaps this lack of action is a blessing, given the losses already incurred on both sides? Were the Union forces to advance, it is without doubt that hundreds, perhaps thousands more would have perished in the same bloody manner as the 28,000 Confederate and 23,000 Union troops.
In the dying light and bombarded by relentless rain, Gen. Lee withdrew his forces to Virginia. With one third of his force decimated at Gettysburg this proves to be a critical moment in the Civil War. Confederate forces would never again set foot in Northern territory, and from hence forth the fighting would result in an increased strain upon the rebel state.
Additionally, victory for Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg on 4th of July compounded misery upon the Confederate state and proved the tide was turning.
Utterly demoralised, Lee offered his resignation but the request was denied. He and the Confederates would yet see more victories in the Civil War, however the combined defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg placed the rebels firmly on the back foot – Defeat was imminent.
With the North rejoicing at a hard fought victory, the south wallowed in despair. Such devastating losses would never be forgotten, nor forgiven for many.
A Lack of Recognition
An often overlooked aspect of Gettysburg is its political ramifications. For the south to thrive and prosper, it desperately needed the legitimacy of a sovereign state. By initiating diplomatic discussions with Great Britain and France, it was hoped that gaining their support – or at the least their ear – would force the Union into negotiations of some sort.
Ties with the world’s global superpower, Britain, would be a coup for the Confederacy and the Union would perhaps think twice about any escalation in the conflict. The negotiating table could be set.
Pressing the Federals harder and a successful invasion of the North could force them into negotiations and allow European powers to intermediate in any peace talks. Defeat at Gettysburg and a subsequent downward spiral however showed the world that their bets were safer with the Union, and history as we know it comes as a result of this.
Lincoln & The Gettysburg Address
In November of that same year, President Abraham Lincoln spoke at the site of Gettysburg in an address that would become arguably the greatest speech in American history.
Although not in the familiar flowing style many were accustomed to when Lincoln spoke, his concise and thought provoking address struck deep in the hearts of Americans. Championing the principles of the Declaration of Independence; Freedom, tolerance and inclusiveness for all men, his words echo in time and still retain their relevance today.
“The world will little note, not 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 honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion – that we were 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.”
Abraham Lincoln, November 1863.