The American Civil War was truly a war to end all wars. North vs. South, town against town, literally brother against brother! After two years of maneuvering and fighting neither side could claim true momentum. The South could not afford a long drawn out affair — it just did not have the human capital or the treasure to sustain such a fight unless it could attract some strong allies. Confederate leadership was fast approaching a crossroads. General Robert E. Lee and his Northern Army of Virginia would push and probe usually with battlefield success; and yet the South had done little to date except maintain a stalemate.
The Union was dispirited and anxious — although superior on paper the Union Army’s leadership proved incapable of really taking advantage of it manpower, industrial superiority and wealth. Earlier in 1863 Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation–ending slavery in the United States. His action was both scorned and praised in the North (and the South). Lincoln yearned for a Union victory that he could use to “seal the deal”, in other words, if the Union could achieve some battlefield success he could use this as a platform for continuing the war. Lincoln was also counting on the freed black slaves to become a new source of manpower for the Union Army. Why, because by freeing the slaves he had given them a reason to fight. This would prove to be an important strategic consideration later in the war — remember the war would drag out for two more years. If Lincoln could obtain the upper hand now his political fortunes would benefit too.
Although the presidential election was over a year away he was looking ahead because he knew once the fighting ended the period of reconciliation and the rebuilding of the South would be just as challenging. He wanted to ensure that the wounds created by the Civil War would heal and that recriminations against the South could be avoided. Unfortunately his assassination eliminated any chance of that since his successor lacked the capacity for bringing the country together.
So there you have it–both sides were looking to change the dynamics of the Civi War and so it would appear that the Battle of Gettysburg was inevitable. Or was it?
Since the start of the War a little over two years ago (1861) casualties on both sides were mounting to levels never seen by our country–later we would realize that no war ever fought by Americans would ever be bloodier. For some, Gettysburg conjures only memories of horrific warfare — the terrible mass slaughter of an entire generation of young Americans–the very flower of our youth. Since the victors write history Gettysburg has generally been considered mainly a Union victory and a significant turning point in prosecution of the Civil War. What is rarely discussed is the blundering of leadership on each side, the coincidence of the battle site and the absolute reliance on an ill advised fighting methodology.
Lee was a masterful general and politician and what led to Gettysburg was of his own making. If his army could successfully take the fight into Union territory he hoped to take advantage of the North’s malaise. Clearly no one had foreseen the war dragging on for two years nor did they think it would be two more years before the conflict would end. For Lee forcing Lincoln into a compromise in order to halt an “unwinnable war” seemed to be a realizable goal. He also knew that the British and French were making noises about joining the South as an ally. If an incursion into the North could weaken the North’s resolve so much the better for Lee and the South’s strategy — stalemate equated to victory, an end to hostilities and eventually a free Confederate Nation.
Lee moved up from Virginia through the Shenandoah Valley moving his 75,000 troops into Pennsylvania with the hope of out-flanking the Union Army. What he did not and could not know is that Union scouts tracked his progress which enable the Union to move 82,289 troops to the area around the town of Gettysburg, PA. The table was being set for the largest land battle to ever take place in North America. Eventually 157,289 soldiers would fight for three days — July 1-3, 1863 with 51,112 deaths (by comparison during the entire Vietnam War 58,209 Americans died).
Why was the battle fought at Gettysburg? Was it planned this way? Actually the entire event was a coincidence. Neither side expected to be fighting over the 4th of July holiday period–so this was not tied to patriotic fervor by the Union or the South’s attempt to rub the North’s “nose in the dirt” on Independence Day. The battle was fought at Gettysburg because it just so happened that 10 roads bisected the town. This conveniently enabled the two armies to easily move men, supplies, and munitions into the area. The topography of the area would also play a role since both armies would strive to take high ground for cannon and rifle placements.
Coming from Minnesota I had a parochial interest in the battle because the 1st Minnesota Infantry Regiment fought with the Union Army. The regiment consisted of 262 volunteers. During the three day battle the unit would lose all but 47 men to death and injury as it fought to stem the Confederate battle charges. These photos show the Minnesota monument which is comprised of a plaque and memorial. The other photo shows Cemetery Ridge the site of Picket’s Charge.
Pickett’s Charge was the denouement of the three day battle. The Minnesota 1st Infantry — what was left of it — stemmed the charge and won the battle for the Union. How it was won is a story of bravery and blunder. Gen. Lee thought he had the Union Army pushed back on its heels. He ordered a full frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge with 12,000 Confederate troops. Picture these men marching up the main battlefield shoulder to shoulder taking the brunt of horrendous cannon and rifle fire. As a soldier fell due to death or injury the ranks move to the center of the marching wall of soldiers until the Confederates reached the top of the Ridge. This particular battle lasted for several hours. When it finally ended the there were only 250 Confederate soldiers left to cross over the ridge–all the rest were killed. Those 250 brave souls were vastly outnumbered and overwhelmed once on the Ridge and most died or were wounded too. Lee’s subordinates took the brunt of the criticism for the loss of so much life. By the end of the day the South was in retreat with the North so battered and beaten that their pursuit as meaningless–but the North had won a stunning victory over Lee.
By coincidence, on July 4th the Union finally captured the Confederate port of Vicksburg, MS after a long siege led by General Ulysses S. Grant. The combination of the two victories set the Confederacy back on its heels and gave the North the impetus to vigorously prosecute the remainder of the Civil War. Lincoln had a clear path to ensure the success of the Emancipation of black slaves and eventually his re-election in 1864.
Visiting Gettsyburg National Military Park is a must for any American. To trod the very battlefield and walk through the killing fields with names like “Devil’s Den, The Wheatfield, Warfield Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, Little Roundtop and Big Roundtop” helps us better understand the horror of war and appreciate the sacrifices our forefathers made to maintain the Union and put an end to slavery.
The National Park Service offers attendees many options for viewing the battlefield that include taking a bus tour which operates with an onboard guide, use existing brochures and signage for a self-guided tour or purchase a CD that provides a narrative of the battle. In the past few years Gettysburg started offering more personalized tours involving a guide that rides in the one’s car. The guide fee is by the vehicle so the more the merrier. They can either drive the vehicle or ride along while spinning their tale of the Battle. If you want a more intimate conversational tour then the personal guide is the best way to go. My guide was Bill, a retiree from Connecticut who is a Civil War junkie.
Personal guides are available from two to five hours and it is well worth it. No question went unanswered as he drove me from site to site. We got out and tramped around as I got closer to history. He was instrumental in finding the Minnesota monument and in explaining the role of that regiment during the Battle.
After we returned back to the main visitor center I saw a film on the Battle and then strolled through the museum which was full of artifacts, maps, etc. Over the course of the day melancholy attached itself to me–so much death, so much destruction and so little joy. The piece de resistance was going into the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The Cyclorama is a depiction of the final skirmish that ended the Battle — Pickett’s Charge. It took a year to complete and was first displayed in 1883; it was recently reinstalled at Gettysburg after five year period of restoration. The restoration was a fabulous success–many years ago a viewing of the Cyclorama was rather uneventful because the painting has dulled due to age. The colors are once again vibrant, the scenes are realistic and the theatrical lighting provides just the right ambience. The lighting moves from sunrise to sunset with spotlights on the cannon fire. These photos cannot do it justice:
Driving out of Gettysburg one can drive past the National Cemetery that was created to bury the Union dead. Visiting this hallowed ground was an important moment reminding us that many, many people have suffered and died for our freedom and that civil political discourse is the best way to resolve our differences.
Lincoln took part in the dedication ceremonies for the cemetery on November 19, 1863. Although he was not the primary speaker it is his short but elegant speech that time has remembered:
For 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…
That we here highly resolve that these dead shall not shall not have died in vain. That this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom; and the government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.