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The Battle of Gettysburg

The 150th Anniversary reminds us of the heroism that kept the Union alive

We are marking the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 1st – 3rd, 1863.  This battle was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and, indeed, the bloodiest single battle in US history.  The Confederate and Union armies each suffered more than 20,000 casualties.  Descriptions of the battlefield in the immediate days after the battle were chilling in their depiction of the scope of human misery.

It has been said by many historians that the battle represented the highwater mark of the Confederacy.  While the Civil War went on for almost two more years, this was the last battle fought on Northern soil.  General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia did not again seriously threaten the North.

In spite of my long-time interest in Civil War history, I had never visited the battlefield until earlier this year.  My wife Sally and I joined a small group of friends for a day at Gettysburg.  We were given a special tour by one of the senior National Park Service historians.  The richness of his knowledge and the respect that he held for the battlefield and its traditions were inspiring.

One of his favorite parts of the tour is the visit to the famous Little Round Top where Colonel Josiah Chamberlain led the 20th Maine Regiment in perhaps the most critical chapter of the battle.  The 20th Maine anchored the left flank of the Union lines on the second day.  If they failed to hold, the Union line could have been rolled up.  Chamberlain’s orders were that his position must be held at all costs.  Subjected to a series of ferocious and chaotic attacks by the 15th Alabama, one of Lee’s best regiments, the Mainers refused to give up their position.  When they ran out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a last-ditch bayonet charge, finally routing the Alabama regiment.  Chamberlain and one of his men both won Congressional Medals of Honor for their heroism.

Many credit the 20th Maine with playing the most important role in the series of ferocious battles that spanned the three days of Gettysburg. Our guide certainly agreed.  He had a soft spot for the Maine regiment that refused to be beaten in spite of the odds.

Stepping back from the three days, most historians agree that the battle could have gone either way.  Indeed the fate of the Union hung in the balance.  Had the Army of Northern Virginia triumphed, our guide acknowledged that a negotiated settlement, leaving much of the Confederacy intact, would have been a likely outcome.

In fact, it is something of a miracle that the Union did win.  Lee had bested every Union general he had faced over the first two years of the war.  General George Meade, only given command of Union forces three days before the battle, was not Lincoln’s first choice.  He was cautious, ill-tempered, and difficult.

Most historians agree that had Lee’s brilliant Corps Commander, Stonewall Jackson, been on the field, the Union troops would never have been allowed to gain the high ground at Gettysburg that first day.  But Jackson had fallen two months before, shortly after engineering a brilliant turning of the Federal lines at Chancellorsville.  Indeed, even without the high ground, the second day at Gettysburg may well have turned out differently if Lee’s other veteran Corps Commander, James Longstreet, had attacked first thing in the morning, as Lee had ordered.  For reasons still mysterious after all these years, Longstreet waited until late afternoon, giving the Union time to bring up forces to cover its left flank – including the critical positioning of the 20th Maine.

Jackson was killed, Longstreet was slow, and the Union was saved.  Turning back what has become known as Pickett’s charge on day three, the spent rebel army was forced to retreat back across the Susquehanna River to Virginia.

The Gettysburg victory combined with the surrender of the Confederate forces at Vicksburg, led President Lincoln to journey to Gettysburg that November to deliver his famous Gettysburg Address.

One hundred and fifty years have passed, but the Gettysburg National Military Park stands as a living monument to the heroism of both sides in this epochal fight.  The Park has been meticulously restored to replicate the terrain just as it looked in 1863.  Our guide took us to the spot on Seminary Ridge from which the vast wave of Pickett’s Confederates swept across the long field to attempt the breach the center of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge.  It is lovely there, just a wide field gently rising to Cemetery Hill’s ridge line about three hundred yards away. The Confederate lines were resplendent as they came out of the woods and started across the field toward the heavily fortified center of the Union line. The proud soldiers of the South were decimated by Union cannon and cut down by Union infantry.  Standing there today it doesn’t seem possible.  The whole scene is simply too beautiful to permit the understanding of what must have happened.

War is, unfortunately, ever thus.  Lee’s famous quote:  “It is good that war is so bloody else we would grow to love it too much” came back to haunt him this day. And the Union was saved.