The Battle of Gettysburg began 145 years ago on July 1st, 1863. By July 1863, the Civil War was in its third year and had become a bloodbath for both sides. Many in the North were sick of the war. (Eventually, Southern sympathizers -- called “copperheads” -- would call for a negotiated peace.)
Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had soundly defeated a numerically superior federal force at the Battle of Chancellorsville two months before. Having found Union field commanders to be considerably less than competent, Lee had come to believe that being outnumbered was not that big a deal. He seemed to believe that his battle-tested army was nearly invincible. His men, for their part, were cocky and spoiling for a fight.
Confederate leaders believed that the South might very well be able to win the war in the summer of 1863 by invading the North, wreaking havoc, and frightening the Union into suing for peace. In any event, it was hoped that an invasion of the north would divert Union resources from the siege of Vicksburg (the last remaining major Confederate bastion on the Mississippi River), take pressure off the beleaguered Shenandoah Valley (a major Confederate breadbasket), and possibly (though not likely) bring help from European powers. Lee therefore assembled his Army of Northern Virginia, bolstered by all the resources he could scrounge up, and mounted his second invasion of federal territory (the first invasion having been blunted the preceding fall at the Battle of Antietam).
Lee would later be strongly criticized for diverting resources that should’ve been used to defend Vicksburg. Many Civil War historians insist that Vicksburg was a much more important battle than Gettysburg, but that is another story.
Lee marched his men west of Washington, DC, through Maryland, and into Pennsylvania, where he hoped to possibly capture Harrisburg, disrupt the railroad system, and gather supplies for his army. Before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia could reach Harrisburg, it was intercepted by the Army of the Potomac. The powerful Union army was commanded by Major General George Gordon Meade, the Army of the Potomac’s final and most successful commander (not General Ulysses S. Grant, who was busy at Vicksburg, and who never commanded the Army of the Potomac anyway).
The collision of the two armies happened at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and quite by accident. Being a regional transport hub, the town gathered road and rail traffic from every direction. And so it gathered the two armies – at first just a few units, and then the whole shebang. Some people today believe the myth that the rebels went to Gettysburg to get new shoes. That’s simply not true. They went there because they had entered an area of Pennsylvania where, if you wanted to go to a distant somewhere, you first had to pass through Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a drawn out event lasting three days. For details, see this site.
The opening day was an unplanned clash shaped by luck, skill, and bravery. Lee took the town of Gettysburg (not a main objective), but was unable to keep the federals from taking possession of key high ground south of the town. The federal line was now solidly ensconced in a fishhook-shaped configuration atop Cemetery Ridge and curving around Culp’s Hill on the right. (See the maps at this site.) On the second day, Lee orchestrated attacks against the Union flanks, with the main attack directed to the left flank. The latter failed to take a key hill called Little Round Top, and that was a major failing, indeed. Day two’s fighting just bled Lee’s army of men and munitions.
On the climactic third day, after Union troops secured Culp’s Hill on the Union right, an overconfident Lee massed around 12,000 of his troops – the only major reserves he had left -- and sent them across a mile of wide open terrain straight at the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, a position he believed to be only weakly defended. This assault, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, failed spectacularly and sealed the victory for the defending federals. Lee had unknowingly launched that final assault into the teeth of the Union artillery reserve and the battle-hardened troops of II Corps.
Lee got no help from the cavalry (under General J.E.B. Stuart) he had sent around his left flank toward the federal rear to create a diversion and exploit any success he might have had with Pickett’s Charge. Union cavalry under Brigadier Generals David M. Gregg and George Armstrong Custer repulsed that advance (with an almost suicidal charge in Custer's case) at a place now called East Cavalry Field. Some historians think that the Battle of Gettysburg would have turned out differently had it not been for J.E.B. Stuart's defeat at East Cavalry Field.
Pickett’s Charge (now termed Longstreet’s Assault by the Park Service) never came close to succeeding, and around two-thirds of the rebels who took part in it were killed, wounded, or captured. Meade didn’t even have to drain the still considerable reserves of manpower he had at his disposal. Thus, at the end of the battle Lee had committed every resource he had, whereas thousands of Union troops on the scene were not even called upon to fight.
The Army of the Potomac had prevailed, not least because the federals fought with that extra zeal one musters when he is defending his homeland.
The Confederate bastion at Vicksburg fell to Grant’s troops on July 4th, the day after Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. The mighty Mississippi was now a Union river and a Union wedge driven deep into the Confederate states. July 1863 certainly proved to be a banner month for the Union and a dismal one for the Confederacy. Historians often refer to the combined Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg as the "turning point of the war."
Much to the dismay of President Lincoln, who had hoped for a knockout punch at Gettysburg, Meade was in no position to mount an immediate counterattack against what was still a potent adversary. Meade’s federals had just been in one hell of a fight that left them exhausted, hungry, and low on ammunition. Lee was in even more desperate straits, so he had no choice but to gather his surviving soldiers and limp to safety south of the Rappahannock. The war would continue for nearly two more years, and much of the worst fighting and dying was yet to come.
If it can be said that there was a “High Tide of the Confederacy,” it was at Gettysburg, and it was marked by heaps of battle detritus and metal-torn bodies.
Gettysburg was not just one of the most important battles of the Civil War; it was also by far the biggest and bloodiest battle ever fought in the United States. Around 165,000 soldiers had gathered on that battlefield, and when the smoke cleared on the third day about 51,000 of them (23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate) had been killed, wounded, or could not be found.
Certainly, if there is such a thing as ground hallowed by human sacrifice, it is at Gettysburg. Small wonder that so much energy was directed toward venerating the dead, preserving the battlefield, and permanently marking places considered significant by those who fought there.
The most famous veneration of them all, of course, was President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which was delivered on November 19, 1863 (four and a half months after the battle) at the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery (then called the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at Gettysburg) on Cemetery Ridge. Lots of folks who have never visited Gettysburg, and never intend to, can recite this remarkable short speech word-for-word. “Four score and seven years ago.…”
In 1894 Congress finally enacted legislation authorizing the War Department to acquire 522 acres of battlefield land, and on February 11, 1895, Gettysburg National Military Park was finally established. The park was transferred to the National Park Service (together with many other battlefields and other historic sites and buildings) in 1933. Gettysburg National Military Park now encompasses 5,906 acres, which is a little over nine square miles. This includes the 20.58-acre Gettysburg National Cemetery. An adjacent national park, the 690-acre Eisenhower National Historic Site, is administered by Gettysburg National Military Park.
These days, most of what people think they know about the Battle of Gettysburg and the national park that commemorates it has been learned from books, documentaries like Ken Burns’ acclaimed TV series The Civil War, and perhaps movies like Ted Turner’s 1993 film Gettysburg.
Given this, we might reasonably ask why people bother to go to Gettysburg at all. For some, the prime motives are curiosity and the universal desire to be able to say “been there, done that.” However, it seems fair to say that many people go there for deeper reasons. They want to understand the battle as a human experience, and if you are going to do that, you need to go to the battlefield to see it at first hand, walk the ground, and try to imagine what it was like for the combatants.
According to official National Park Service visitation statistics, 1,647,745 people visited Gettysburg National Military Park in 2007. The adjacent Eisenhower National Historic Site tallied nearly 70,000.
What specific things did last year’s 1.6 million Gettysburg visitors learn or come to more solidly appreciate? I’ll wager a six-pack of Newcastle Brown Ale that none toured the battlefield without coming to a better understanding of 19th century warfare and a greater appreciation that geographical factors, especially terrain, influenced the conduct and outcome of Civil War battles. There are some other takeaway facts and concepts, too. They’re discussed below, though not in the detail they deserve.
* Geography – meaning terrain, cultural features, relative location, and other characteristics of site and situation -- greatly influenced the conduct and outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. Terrain, especially higher ground, profoundly shaped the course of the battle and largely dictated its outcome. You can pour over maps of the battlefield, such as the one at this site, but until you see that landscape with your own two eyes you cannot fully appreciate the advantage the Union gained by taking early possession of critical high ground (most particularly Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top), and what an uphill struggle (literally as well as figuratively) Confederate troops faced as they tried, by sheer force of will and arms, to cross large expanses of open terrain (as in Pickett’s Charge) and drive Union troops from their commanding positions. (BTW, we all owe a vote of thanks to the National Park Service for their wonderfully successful vista restoration program at Gettysburg, which has cleared sight lines and restored much of the battlefield to ita 1863 appearance.)
* The 19th century warfare tactics employed at Gettysburg gathered large numbers of troops into fairly compact areas and compelled them to pound away at each other at close range. Massed fire delivered from tight formations was deemed necessary to effectively control the battlefield. Given the lethality of Civil War weaponry, especially highly accurate rifled muskets and artillery that fired cannister rounds (like a giant shotgun blast) at close range, this basically Napoleonic approach to combat insured massive casualties. Maneuver, though important at times, was ponderously slow by modern standards.
* Discipline and bravery were hallmark features of Civil War combat. Troops assembled and marched into combat in an orderly manner, having been rigorously trained to remain in close contact with their fellow soldiers (shoulder to shoulder, where possible) and to heed the orders of their leaders. Smokeless powder hadn’t been invented yet, and the gunpowder in use at that time quickly created a stinking, cloying fog that often reduced visibility to scant yards. It was important for soldiers to stay in formation and remain where they could see battle standards and hear shouted orders. They had to be very brave, too. Minié balls and cannister that didn’t kill men outright often shattered bones and invited the surgeon’s saw. Many died from infections after suffering horribly. Why would men march shoulder to shoulder into what must seem like certain death or painful mutilation? One very big reason is that units were generally made up of men from the same town, city, or state. A man marched into battle with his friends, neighbors, and perhaps even family members. If he wanted to be able to return home with his honor intact and his head held high, he had better not show cowardice in the face of the enemy. Unit pride was another factor. Confederate units (brigades and batteries) were generally known by their commander’s name, and federal units were known by state, by familiar names earned on the battlefield (such as the Iron Brigade), or by ethnic makeup (such as the Irish Brigade). A man took pride in his unit and would die to defend its colors. There was often a “last man” or “last bullet” mentality to hold or take positions against enormous odds.
* Luck played an important role in the outcome of the battle. There are lots of examples, large and small. Gen. George Meade, a very competent commander, was put in charge of the Army of the Potomac on June 28, taking it out of the hands of the less competent Gen. Joseph Hooker (who had been ignominiously defeated by Lee at Chancellorsville) just days before the battle. On the second day of the battle, one of the most grandly fortunate strokes of luck in the war put General Gouverneur Kemble Warren, Meade’s chief engineer, on Little Round Top in time to see rebels moving around the Union left flank. Had Warren not gotten a Union brigade to defend that strategic hill in the nick of time -- with just minutes to spare -- the rebels would have installed artillery up there to put the entire federal line on Cemetery Ridge in enfilade, possibly rolling up the Union left flank and compelling Meade to order a retreat. Lee, for his part, was dogged by bad luck. He got no help from his best general, Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, because Jackson had been mortally wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville. Another of his commanders, A. P. Hill, performed poorly during the early fighting at Gettysburg because he was ....ahem….battling a bad case of VD.
* Because the battle affected people individually, it yielded an abundance of personal tragedy, irony, and amazing coincidence. The battlefield guides, commercial tours, and signage at Gettysburg tell many interesting stories oriented to these themes. The best story of that stripe is the one about Mary Virginia Wade and Wesley Culp. Jenny (or more properly, Ginnie) Wade was the only civilian who died during the battle. She was cut down by a stray bullet (probably fired by a Confederate) that punched through two wooden doors and struck her in the back, killing her instantly as she was standing in her kitchen baking bread for Union soldiers. Wesley Culp was a local man (and harness maker) who had moved to Virginia and then signed on to fight for the Confederacy in 1861. Serving with the famed Stonewall Brigade, he ended up coming back to Gettysburg with the Army of Northern Virginia and was killed near his own home on land owned by his uncle. As the story goes, Wes died before he could keep a promise to an old schoolmate, Jack Skelley. While on a prison visit, Wes had told Jack (a badly wounded Union soldier), that he would take a message to Jack’s girlfriend in Gettysburg if he ever got back there. The girlfriend’s name was Jenny Wade. A lot of romantic nonsense has been disseminated in connection with this story, but the basic facts are pretty amazing.
* It proved exceedingly difficult to clear the battlefield of wounded soldiers, corpses, and debris. The Letterman medical system in use by this stage of the war employed far forward treatment of the wounded, dedicated ambulance support, etc., but nothing of this scale had ever been encountered. The militia units that took over after the armies departed were supposed to patrol and clear the battlefield, but they were also overwhelmed with the sheer scale of their task Dead bodies, dead draft animals, and human waste created a tremendous public health hazard. Looters of government property (essentially anything left on the ground) were caught, tried, and sentenced to help clear the battlefield. Disposing of the thousands of dead draft animals (burning was the preferred method) was in itself a mammoth task. Gathering and burying dead soldiers was a similarly gargantuan (not to say gruesome) job. Contractors eventually finished the job, being paid a specified amount for each corpse.
* The battle heavily impacted civilians who lived on or near the battlefield. Land was covered with debris that had to be removed. Crops were ruined. Fields, woods, and yards were pocked with thousands of hastily dug graves. There were food shortages, water supply problems, and not enough lodging for the huge influx of outsiders, including relatives seeking dead and wounded soldiers. Of course, locals recognized the tourist value of the battle almost immediately, and have profited from the visitor industry ever since by providing food, lodging, guide services, etc. At one point they even built a trolley service that defaced some of the battlefield. It was not as bad as the famously demolished National Tower, of course.
*Great effort has gone into memorializing this battle and honoring the sacrifices of those who participated in it. The Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association was established in 1864 while the war was still raging, but efforts to preserve the battlefield and install appropriate markers and memorials were slow to get underway. The Soldier’s National Monument was erected in 1869 and the first regimental marker (2nd Massachusetts) was erected on the battlefield ten years later. It wasn’t until 1886 that the first marker for a Confederate unit position was erected on the battlefield. Today Gettysburg National Military Park has more than 1,400 monuments, memorials, and markers. That’s an awful lot. In fact, the War Department, which “owned” the battlefield until 1933, finally had to limit the number of monuments and unit markers to prevent excessive clutter and confusion. The Park Service has banned further markers. Unfortunately, many existing markers are in the wrong place, having been installed more than 30 years after the battle and situated with more regard to convenience and accessibility that to historical accuracy. Today we visit these monuments, memorials, and markers so we can learn about the battle, and so we can say that we’ve stood on The Very Spot (TVS) where something noteworthy happened. A visit to Gettysburg allows one to collect an awful lot of TVS experiences in memory and (as we used to say) “on film.”
Interested readers are heartily encouraged to explore this subject more deeply by visiting Gettysburg National Military Park. If you do that, it'd be a great idea to take along the Gettysburg tour podcast available at this site. The unscripted podcast, narrated by an Interpretive Ranger, provides real-time interpretation for a walking tour of the battlefield. As the Park Service explains:
In partnership with Civil War Traveler, Gettysburg National Military Park has developed the first battlefield "podcast" tours. Podcasts are file systems that can be downloaded onto an iPod or mp3 player, then taken to the park for a 90-minute walking tour of a Gettysburg battlefield landmark. Podcasts are located on our partner's website at CivilWarTraveler.com. There you will find detailed instructions on how to download the tour as well as maps that are essential for the listener to locate stops on the tour.
For fascinating photos and facts pertaining to camp life and day to day existence for the soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, go to this site. This extremely well-illustrated discourse on camp living, a production of the National Park Service Museum Management Program, is one of the most interesting and authoritative you’re ever likely to see.