The Battle of Gettysburg epitomises the futility of war and offered people of the time a terrifying glimpse at the devastating future of conflict. It is a landmark moment not only in the American Civil War but in world history; a victory and tragedy in the same breath.
Fought from the 1st of July through to the 3rd, the battle marks the turning point in the American Civil War. It is from this point onward that we see the slow, drawn-out demise of the Confederacy and its ability to wage war against the Union.
Indeed, following the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate forces would never again set foot in the North.
In May of 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee struck a massive blow to Union 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, General 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, and in order 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, Confederate forces would once again face a difficult task in establishing a solid footing in northern territory.
President Lincoln, it seems had lost complete faith in the Union forces under the command of Joseph Hooker. A Confederate army this far north appeared to be a glaring indication of incompetency and Hooker’s lack of action in engaging the enemy force was deemed unacceptable.
On those grounds, he was replaced with General George Gordon Meade. Almost immediately, Union forces began to pursue Confederate forces, and it is at Gettysburg where the two forces met.
The Fighting Begins
An initial foray into the town of Gettysburg proved decisive for Confederate forces, who were able to push Union cavalry forces out and force a retreat some half a mile to the south. This brief retreat took Union forces to a position that will soon gain an infamous reputation; Cemetery Hill.
By the second day, Union forces were pouring into the area and fortifying elevated positions all along the southern tip of Gettysburg, from the Cemetery Ridge to Culp’s Hill.
With troops placed largely on higher ground and with a clear line of sight, Federal forces appeared to be at an advantage. However, while General Lee was determined to break Union forces, initially he cautioned restraint. Advancing on upon fortified positions, with open ground separating the two forces, would likely result in heavy bloodshed – and the Confederate host could ill-afford to shed manpower like their Union counterparts.
Despite this, the Confederate command structure had advised a full-on assault on the positions – utter madness considering the conditions, but sadly indicative of 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 Union 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 defence of the Union lines.
Union and Confederate forces also clashed fiercely at both Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge 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 stramash.
By the second day of this engagement, the heaviest losses of the war were incurred – losses totalling some 35,000 men from both sides.
Despite a staggering, ever-growing list of casualties, it seems General Lee sensed a lingering hope of victory amidst the bloodshed. On the 3rd July, he gave the order to advance.
Thousands marched forward through open ground toward Union positions at Cemetery Ridge in an event known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’.
Pickett’s troops were forced to advance under heavy fire while exposed in open fields, with Union forces dug in and positioned on elevated ground. Flanking manoeuvres from New York, Vermont and Ohio regiments also meant the men of the Confederate Army stood little chance. Thousands were struck down during the advance as relentless volley fire cutting through the lines.
Load, present, fire; Load, present, fire. One struggles to imagine the carnage; the sights, the sounds, the smell.
Line by line, rebel troops incurred devastating losses at the hands of a finely-tuned Union war machine, and nearly two-thirds of Pickett’s troops were killed or wounded in the engagement. The loss of life here is quite staggering – with an estimated 6,000+ Confederate troops dead.
With men now pouring back toward Confederate lines in disarray, General Lee prepared for a Union counterattack.
The counterattack never came, however. And for Lee, this was a small blessing. Had Union forces advanced, it is without a doubt that hundreds, perhaps thousands more would have perished in the same bloody manner as the 28,000 Confederate and 23,000 Union troops.
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In the dying light and bombarded by relentless rain, General Lee and his beleaguered Confederate forces withdrew 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 the north, and going forward, fighting would place an unbearable strain upon the southern states.
A victory secured by Ulysses S. Grant at Vicksburg on 4th of July inflicted more misery upon the Confederacy. Utterly demoralised, Lee offered his resignation, but the request was denied. He and the Confederates would still achieve a number of victories in the Civil War; however, the combined defeats of Gettysburg and Vicksburg placed the rebels firmly on the back foot.
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 very least, their ear – would force the Union into negotiations of some sort.
Ties with the world’s premier superpower at the time 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 through a successful invasion of the North might have forced them into negotiations and allow European powers to act as middlemen in any peace talks. Defeat at Gettysburg and a subsequent downward spiral, however, showed the world that their bets were safer with the Union.
Lincoln & The Gettysburg Address
In November of that same year, President 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.
“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 battle-field 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 can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not 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.”
Abraham Lincoln, November 1863.