Battle of Gettysburg: A Defining Moment in the American Civil War

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, stands as one of the most pivotal encounters in the American Civil War and, indeed, in the annals of American history. This three-day conflict was not only the largest battle fought on American soil but also marked a turning point in the war, symbolizing the high-water mark of the Confederacy. The events at Gettysburg have been etched into the national consciousness, embodying themes of sacrifice, valor, and the enduring quest for unity.

Learn more about the American Civil War battle that may have been the defining battle. Could the Gettysburg battle have been the turning point?

The Clash of Armies

The battle commenced on July 1, with Confederate forces engaging the Union’s Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George G. Meade. Initially, the Confederates were successful, pushing back Union forces through the streets of Gettysburg to the high ground south of the town. However, as more Union troops arrived, they fortified their positions on Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and eventually, Little Round Top.

It must have been an eerily haunting scene to behold them marching across that open field. With Union cannons and rifles firing directly into their lines, they continued advancing. Were they aware that death was imminent, but the only choice was to follow the General’s orders?

Were they thinking of wives and children left behind? Were memories of siblings or girlfriends being conjured in their minds? So many were just boys. Do they remember their mother tucking them safely into bed? Were they praying? Conceivably, many were praying. A tear in the face of such peril, perhaps? Surely, those fellow soldiers surrounding them would not have noticed if a tear of fear fell.

How many more tears from these boys and men might have fallen if they had the knowledge that only one-third of them would return? How many more prayers might have been fervently offered? Tears or not, this high-water mark and turning point of the Civil War was fought by mighty patriots and heroes for their cause. If there was a tear, I would wager that it was for fallen comrades and for the massacre that surrounded them.

The Battle of Gettysburg Illustration
The Battle of Gettysburg Illustration

It was the third day of the battle that had raged in Gettysburg on the first three days of July in 1863. The days were scorching and overcast. It is one of the most famous military charges in American history: Pickett’s Charge.

Confederate General Robert E. Lee felt that day three of this clash would be critical and decisive. General George Pickett’s division had arrived on July 2 and had been ordered by Lee to stay where they were so they would be strong for a third-day attack on the Union’s left while Lee planned for Ewell’s troops to attack the Union’s right. This is not the way things turned out, however.

On the previous day’s battle, July 2, there were some delays in planned attacks, and the Union Army was able to strengthen itself. Some of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War were fought that day. Battles raged at the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, the Round Tops, and the Peach Orchard. Confederate General Longstreet was successful at the Peach Orchard but then later was stopped at Little Round Top.

By the end of day two, the Union held a strong defense all along Cemetery Ridge. Union General Meade’s plan was to wait for Lee’s attack on the third day. General Meade had predicted that Lee would attack the middle but later changed his mind and started preparing for an attack on the southern end of his line. When Pickett’s charge began with its 13,000 troops, there were less than 6,000 Union infantry soldiers to encounter them.

After several meetings with General Longstreet, who tried to convince Lee his plan would not work, Longstreet was told to bring Pickett. Each time it arose, Longstreet voiced his concern about such a thing not working. But Lee had it all planned out. The Union line was going to be split in half. Later, when the advance was about to begin, Longstreet simply lowered his head and nodded when Pickett asked if the charge was to continue. Longstreet must have had the weight of the world on his shoulders at that moment. He could foresee the future, but General Lee had ordered this, and the General’s orders must be followed.

When the time came for the charge to begin, 13,000 Southern troops began their walk in the sweltering July afternoon sun. Confederate cannons had opened fire earlier to prepare for the charge. The fire, of course, was returned, and thick smoke covered the area.

For a short while, the Union decided to save ammunition and stopped firing for a while. Naturally, the Confederate troops thought the firing was over and must have breathed a sigh of relief that their objective might be a little bit easier to reach.

The stoppage of firing didn’t last long, however. The Confederates were soon walking directly into the cannon fire and became part of what history has never, nor will ever forget. The line was more than a mile long. A line of gray advancing toward the blue that was threatening to plow them down like weeds.

A few actually reached the Union line at a stone wall. Hand to hand combat ensued. The confederates who had reached that far didn’t know that there was no backup behind them. They could now fight for their very life, run, or surrender. But those were their only options. Each one chose his own option of the three.

It is easy to look up and research the facts of this battle called Pickett’s Charge. It is easy to find out where all the troops on both sides were positioned. It is even easy to know what conversations passed between General Lee and his officers because of all the records kept and letters written. But it is nearly impossible, except for letters that have endured from the troops who survived this blood bath, to ever get a sense of what those few hours were like.

The Aftermath

The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in an estimated 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured, or missing, making it the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. While it did not end the war, which would continue for two more years, it marked the last major offensive by the Confederacy in the North. The Union victory at Gettysburg, coupled with the fall of Vicksburg in the West on July 4, represented a turning point, after which the Confederacy’s defeat seemed inevitable.

In the aftermath, with so many of his southern troops lying dead and wounded, Robert E. Lee never got over the feeling of guilt for having caused it. It must have haunted him until his dying day.

I have stood at the copse of trees that was in the center of this turning point of America’s Civil War. Looking out over that field, one can almost feel the tension that has survived, for whatever reason, for these nearly 140 years. There is a feeling of reverence. It is not an eerie feeling, as some experiencing it have described it. No, it is more like pure respect for those men and boys who marched to their deaths with such bravery.

Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park serves as a solemn reminder of the battle’s cost and its significance in the American saga. Monuments and markers dot the landscape, each telling stories of bravery, sacrifice, and the complex tapestry of the American experience. The park not only preserves the history of those three days in July but also offers lessons on leadership, strategy, and the resilience of the human spirit.

Gettysburg National Military Park

Gettysburg remains a symbol of national identity and unity, a reminder of what can be achieved when a nation, however divided, comes together to uphold its most cherished principles. The battle teaches us about the importance of understanding our past, not only to honor those who fought and died but to draw strength and wisdom from their experiences as we face the challenges of the present and future.

Both Northern and Southern inhabitants visit the site of Pickett’s Charge and remember. Side by side, they stand. Many shed a tear. It is difficult not to be touched by the story of this land, which has been, as Abraham Lincoln stated, dedicated, consecrated, and hallowed by “the brave men, living and dead, who struggled here.”

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