This Day in History: The three-day Battle of Gettysburg

Tara Ross Blog:

On this day in 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg begins. Our nation should have been celebrating its 87th birthday that week. Instead, we were engaged in a brutal, 3-day battle that would end with as many as 51,000 dead or wounded.

At the time, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was fresh off a victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. He decided to head to Pennsylvania, with the intent of collecting more supplies. He also had another goal: Some northerners wanted out of the war. Perhaps he could encourage that sentiment by moving the fight to their own backyards.

In the meantime, newly appointed Major General George Meade led the Union army toward Lee’s troops. The two sides ended up clashing in Gettysburg when Confederate infantry ran into some Union cavalry, more or less by chance. The situation quickly took a serious tone, because Union commanders did not want to lose the town. Many roads converged there.

The fighting was intense. Confederate troops drove the Union cavalry down the streets of Gettysburg, pushing them back toward Cemetery Hill. At this point, Major General Richard Ewell made a choice that may have cost the Confederate army a victory. It was the end of a long day of fighting, and Lee had given him some discretion in the matter. Upon seeing Union artillery at the top of the hill, he declined to pursue the attack further. He thus failed to capture an important position before the first day of fighting came to a close.

More reinforcements arrived that evening. The fighting that had begun on July 1 continued into a second day. Then it continued into a third day. The battle finally swung decisively in favor of the Union army when the Confederate army launched an attack at the center of the Union lines. At least 12,000 Confederate soldiers marched across an open field in the attack known as Pickett’s charge. That attack lasted about an hour and ended miserably for the Confederate side. Half of the Confederate soldiers were lost, and the army soon began a hasty retreat toward Virginia.

Meade declined to pursue Lee, perhaps echoing the mistake that Ewell had made two days earlier. Some speculate that Meade could have ended the war then and there, if only he had taken up the pursuit. Abraham Lincoln certainly thought so. He wrote a letter to Meade (although he never sent it).

Lincoln wrote: “Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape—He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war—As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely.”

The aftermath of the battle was gruesome. One teenage girl, a resident of Gettysburg, later recounted what she saw:

“I fairly shrank back aghast at the awful sight presented. The approaches were crowded with wounded, dying and dead. The air was filled with moanings, and groanings. . . . [A]mputating benches had been placed about the house. I must have become inured to seeing the terrors of battle, else I could hardly have gazed upon the scenes now presented. . . . To the south of the house, and just outside of the yard, I noticed a pile of limbs higher than the fence. It was a ghastly sight! Gazing upon these, too often the trophies of the amputating bench, I could have no other feeling, than that the whole scene was one of cruel butchery.”

Only a few months later, the Gettysburg Address would be given on this battlefield.

“The brave men,” Lincoln stated, “living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. . . . 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.”

It’s a resolve that bears repeating, isn’t it?



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3 Responses to This Day in History: The three-day Battle of Gettysburg

  1. jeans2nd says:

    We were blessed to have a school system well-off enough to take us on field trips. One of those trips took us to Gettysburg, 5th grade iirc.
    To a fifth grader, Gettysburg was large and imposing. The hindsight of age renders things in their proper visual perspective.

    Fifth graders also have no frame of reference for the carnage of Gettysburg, also rendered to its proper perspective with age.
    And it is so sad our progeny will never be afforded the opportunities like visiting Gettysburg afforded.
    Lord Willing, we may once again find our proper Americcan roots.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. czarowniczy says:

    COL Joshua Chamberlain,commander of the 20th Maine, was marching back to Masine when he received orders to head home to Maine. Before the regiment could go back, though, they received orders to double time march to Gettysburg. By the time they reached the Gettysburg area it was dark and neither Chamberlain nor any of his soldiers knew where they were or which way to go. They continued on until they ran into a fork in the road – they didn’t know which way to turn. According to Chamberlain and over a hundred of his soldiers the clouds suddenly parted, the moon shone down on a horseman mounted on a pale horse. The horseman was wearing a bright coat and a tricorn hat and was standing in the middle of one of the forks in the road. He turned towards soldiers and motioned them to follow him. They did and he disappeared, no one knew whom it was, where he came from or where he went, it was a complete mystery.

    When Chamberlain arrived at Gettysburg he was assigned to be part of the defense of Little Round Top, arriving only minutes before Confederate General Longstreet attacked. The 20th held the Union’s left flank and kept the Confederates from rolling up the Union lines.

    During the battle the man that had directed Chamberlain up the correct road appeared again in the midst of the battle. Hundreds of Union and Confederate soldiers reported seeing him, the Rebs even concentrated fire on him, but he was never hit. Instead he drew his sword and directed the Union soldiers of the 20th, now out of ammunition, to follow him as he charged the Rebel lines. The Union forces made a bayonet attack on the already unnerved Confederates and their forces were caught in a Union pincer movement and strategic Little Round Top was saved. None of the Union or Confederate forces saw where this man came from, where he went or had the foggiest idea about his identity.

    The story’s memorialized in Union and Confederate battle reports and in the book Chamberlain wrote some years later about the battle. Your choice as to what you believe.

    Liked by 3 people

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