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?