Out of the Past
History Lessons


Battle of Gettysburg

By Patrick W. Gavin
June 30, 2003

Seven score ago (that’s 140 years), the United States found itself with a “severe” homeland security problem. Terrorism was a daily reality. Race relations were on edge.

The occasion was the Civil War, the central act in this nation’s drama, and from July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate armies found themselves slugging it out in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Before the war, Gettysburg was a simple pastoral town; after three days of battle—the deadliest of the war—the town would be forever be associated with the horrific battle that was waged there—the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest battle of the war (51,000 casualties) and it would deal the Confederacy (and its cause) its most fatal blow.

Coming off a string of successes down South, a confident Robert E. Lee decided to bring the war up North for the second time (his first attempt at Antietam had resulted largely in a draw). Although he was winning battles with legendary maneuvering and bravery, each clash came at a great cost, as they consistently lost a greater proportion of their troops than the North. Second, there was a presidential election coming up in a year, and if Lee could prove to wavering Northerners just how bloody and unbearable this war was (and would continue to be-- without a quick resolution), perhaps they’d kick that bum Lincoln out of office, elect a peace candidate, and end the shenanigans for once and for all. An offensive victory might also secure European support for the Confederate cause, or at least prevent them from siding with the Yanks. Lastly, Ulysses S. Grant was applying great force out West on the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. If Vicksburg fell, so, too, would control of the Mississippi River fall into Union hands, and, subsequently, the landscape of the war would be forever altered in the North’s favor. An invasion into the North might take some of the pressure off Vicksburg.

So, in June of 1863, Robert E. Lee left his wife and kids and led 75,000 Confederate troops (his largest force since the beginning of the war) above the Mason-Dixon line and into Northern territory, hoping to deliver a final blow to the Federals.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Lee knew that he was risking everything by invading the North with such a large force. His last venture into Union territory gave him little reason to think that he would have any success this time around, and yet he realized that all of the South’s hopes hinged on this battle. One Confederate soldier remarked: “The army will never do such fighting as it will now.” For the North, the fall of Gettysburg could quite possibly have given the South easy access to DC and perhaps brought about the war’s conclusion and a Confederate victory. Additionally, Lincoln had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of that year, forever altering the war’s cause; a major loss on his home turf would break the North's will.

Besides his wife and kids, however, Lee also seemed to have left his luck in Virginia. Immediately things did not go well for him. He had no clue as to the Union army’s location or size, since the man sent out to find out this information—Confederate Cavalry Officer Jeb Stuart—was unable to get around the advancing Union army fast enough in order to return to his boss with what would be very bad news (the Union army was 90,000 strong and advancing). When the Union and Confederate armies finally bumped into each other on July 1st, the Confederates performed remarkably well, forcing the Federals to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. By winning the day, however, the South had sealed its fate for the entire battle, since their successful aggression on Day One pushed the Union up onto the advantageous heights at Cemetery Ridge. Sometimes, the best things happen to those who wait.

At the end of Day One, Lee asked Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to grab the vacant Cemetery Hill in order to prevent the North's army from strengthening its position on the hills. Because Lee was a cordial, gentle man, he ended his declarative sentence with the polite remark “if practicable,” which was simply a General’s nice way of saying “do it now.” It’s akin to a parent telling their child to take out the trash, “if you wouldn’t mind.” You got the hint and, no, you didn’t mind. Ewell, however, took the advice too literally and decided that, in fact, seizing the hills that evening was not “practicable,” and, as a result, the Northern army spent the night fortifying their stronghold on the hills.

Ewell wasn’t the only one failing to heed good advice. Lee himself failed to listen to the wise counsel coming from his “right arm,” General James Longstreet. On July 2nd, Longstreet warned against Lee’s plan to attack the Union flanks, noting that the Confederates would be fighting uphill and against what appeared to be great numbers (Stuart still hadn’t returned from his intelligence mission so they were still operating in the dark). Longstreet pleaded: “There never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” Proving that he had lost the creativity that had served him so well down South, Lee responded: “The enemy is there General Longstreet, and I am going to strike him.” So much for imagination.

On Little Round Top—the extreme left flank of the Union army—the Union’s strategic position was almost single-handedly preserved by 300 troops from Maine who were short on ammo, experience, and time. They were led by an English professor from Bowdoin College—Joshua Chamberlain—who had no professional military experience. With only ten minutes to prepare, the 20th Maine fought off countless Confederate assaults. Shortly before what would be the final Confederate assault, the Union army quickly realized that it was out of ammo, and Chamberlain ordered what can only be described as a desperate suicide mission: a bayonet charge down the hill. Miraculously, it worked and the Union line held and Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. I’ve taught English before, and were I to face a charging force of screaming Rebs, I would have ditched my bayonet, grabbed my Whitman, and booked it out of there.

The Battle of Gettysburg may be most infamously known for the events of Day 3, when Lee (going against the advice of his generals once more), launched the bulk of his army on an enormous frontal assault on the Union center which he thought had been weakened by the previous day’s flank assaults. He was wrong. Perhaps Lee’s poor judgments were caused by the dysentery he was rumored to have had. Pickett’s Charge, as it would come to be called, was largely a death march and it resulted in devastating losses for the South. When it was all over, the traditionally stalwart and proud Lee broke down, profusely apologizing to his troops and generals, saying “It was all my fault” and even dramatically offering his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the weeks ahead.

The next day, July 4th, a disgraced, depressed, and defeated Lee packed up his things and went down south. On the same day, out west, Vicksburg fell to the Union army and the war would never be the same. It’s hard to imagine a better July 4th.

Although the war raged on for almost two more years after the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy would never be able to fight with the same power and spirit that they had on those hot summer days in Pennsylvania. The North’s size, industry, and diplomatic advantages would prove to be too much for the South to handle in the long run. Indeed, Gettysburg proved to be a microcosm of the war itself: unparalleled fearlessness, initial success, and ultimate failure.

The Gettysburg Address
Gettysburg Address
November 19, 1863.
Lincoln's address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery
Lincoln's address at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery

November 19, 1863.
One can’t escape the thought, however, that Gettysburg ranks high in the folklore of history not entirely because of those three bloody days, but rather because the president of the United States found the occasion so significant that he made a personal visit to the battlefield four months later to “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.”

With a brief, but beautiful, eulogy, Lincoln proved that, with presidential addresses, it’s quality, not quantity, a lesson that has yet to be learned by Lincoln’s successors.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Lincoln remarked, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” Who was he kidding? One hundred forty years later, it’s impossible to forget.

Reprinted from History News Network

Patrick W. Gavin teaches history at the Prinecton Day School..

Classic Civil War Stories
Twenty Extraordinary Tales of the North and South
edited by Lisa Purcell 
The Lyons Press, 2004

The Civil War profoundly affected generations of Americans and forever changed its literature.

This anthology of Civil War writings -- some fictional, most nonfiction -- focuses on personal accounts that explore the impact of the war on the lives of individuals and their families.

From Missouri novelist Winston Churchill's  romantic description of "Secession Monday" in St. Louis at the start of "the trouble" to Dolly Sumner Lunt's journal entry of April 29, 1865 at the end of the war, the collection spans 20 distinctive voices from poignant moments in history.

"The war history of Vicksburg has more about it to interest the general reader than that of any other of the river-towns," writes Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi. "It is full of variety, full of incident, full of the picturesque."

The same may be said, in general, of all the stories in this collection. With authors ranging from Ambrose Bierce and Louisa May Alcott to Stephen Crane and George Washington Cable, the book is diverse, moving and informative.

Stories in this volume include:

"Camp Jackson" by Winston Churchill from The Crisis (1905)

"The Blue or the Gray" by John Fox, Jr. from The Little Shepherd of Kingdom Come (1903)

"Bull Run" by Joseph A. Altsheler from "The Guns of Bull Run" (1914)

"The Tedium of Camp" by John McElroy from The Red Acorn (1883).

"What I Saw of Shiloh" by Ambrose Bierce (1881)

"A Prisoner" by G.A. Henry from With Lee in Virginia (1889)

"A Night" by Louisa May Al;cott from "Hospital Sketches" (1863)

"My Cave Life in Vicksburg" by Mary Ann Loughborough (1864)

"Completing My Disguise" by S. Emma E. Edmonds from Nurse and Spy in the Union Army (1865)

"The Charge in the Lane" by George Washington Cable in The Cavalier (1901)

"A Night Ride of the Wounded" by Randall Parrish from My Lady of the North (1904)

"A Grey Sleeve" by Stephen Crane from The Little Regiment, and Other Stories of the American Civil War (1986)

"A Horseman in the Sky" by Ambrose Bierce from Tales of Soldiers and Civilians (1891)

"The Last Shot" by Violetta from Under Both Flags (1896)

"The Burial of the Guns" by Thomas Nelson Page from The Bural of the Guns (1894)

Raiders of the Civil War
Raiders of the Civil War

Untold Stories of Actions Behind the Lines


Book Search

Robert E. Lee's Civil War and His Decision That Changed American History
by Jonathan Horn
Scribner, 2015

This biography describes the Civil War waged in the heart and mind of Robert E.  Lee, the greatest military general of his day, as he chose to lead the Confederacy against the Union he professed devotion to  and the heritage he had sworn to defend.

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