Recapping History: A Look at the Battle of Gettysburg

It’s summer in the third year of the great war between the States. It’s scorching hot, supplies are dwindling, and the armies turned north after the last engagement at Chancellorsville, Virginia in May. General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia are trying to draw the Army of the Potomac (or Union Army) into the open for another defeat and boost Southern morale in the process. What happens next will live in the history books and will be one of the biggest and bloodiest battles in American history on American soil.

Why Gettysburg?

Like other Americans, I grew up with vague ideas of what happened during the American Civil War. I knew a few of the names of the soldiers, generals, or major battles. It wasn’t until I was in an advanced education class while in middle school did I learn way more. The course was centered around the Battle of Gettysburg and part of the course work was having to read the novel “The Killer Angels” by Michael Shaara. I realize the book is a work of historical fiction, based on the facts while embellishing the words and motives of the men involved.

I went on to watch the movie based on the novel way too many times, aptly named “Gettysburg”, to the point where I can quote most of the movie. I get attached to the men and their stories each and every time. In addition to that, I’ve seen Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War almost as many times as the movie. I figured it was time I shared my knowledge and passion for the battle with someone other than my immediate family. (They may be sick and tired of me telling them about it by now…)

Gettysburg cannons at sunset
The Battle of Gettysburg was a three-day fight (July 1-3) in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union army would see victory and push the Confederate army out of the North. [Photo credit: P. Miller]

The Battle Begins

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over three very hot days in July in and around the hamlet of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. After the Union army was defeated at Chancellorsville in May of 1863, General Lee turned his attention to the north and started to drive the Army of Northern Virginia in that direction. In part, he wanted to revive Southern morale and keep it going with a defeat of the Union army on their own turf. Using the mountains of Virginia as a screen, Lee was able to make it past the Potomac River and into the lands of the North. Historians state there was a letter demanding President Lincoln’s surrender after the next win by Lee’s army.

As the Army of the Potomac (the Union Army) pursued the Confederate forces back north, they had standing orders to protect the cities of Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, and positioned the men between Lee and the cities. With those two cities safely behind the Union Army, Lincoln appointed a new General, replacing General Hooker with General George Meade on June 28th. The two armies converge on the small town of Gettysburg, with Confederate General Heth first to the area on June 30th, nine miles outside the town on the Chambersburg Pike. Joining them at the field was Brigadier General Buford commanding a division of calvary for the Army of the Potomac.

Gettysburg Day 1 battle lines
Gettysburg Day One battle lines.

Lee wanted his army to be on the field of battle in full force before he engaged. That didn’t happen. On the morning of July 1, men under Heth engaged the dismounted enemy cavalry soldiers to the west on the McPherson Ridge near the Seminary, thinking it was a local militia. Spoiler Alert: it wasn’t. Buford’s division of men, along with cannons, held out against the larger force of Confederates until well into the afternoon. The Union forces were finally overpowered and driven back to the east to Cemetery Hill south of town. The positions held until nightfall, and the full force of the Union army was able to reinforce the battle lines with the full force of the army. Additionally, the Confederate Army was able to get more men into position on the west side of the town along Seminary Ridge.

Long Day of Fighting

As morning dawned, Lee had a new plan of attack. With the Union Army positioned along the crest of Cemetery Hill in the shape of a fishhook, Lee wanted different Longstreet’s division of Confederate troops to attack the flanks on the left and the right and make the line collapse in on them. This led to one of the most pivotal engagements of the battle later in the day.

The southern, or right flank, flanking attack was to sweep through an area named Devil’s Den and up over Little Round Top. General Hood was instructed to take his men and attack those two key points along the flank of the Union army. He drove his men through the orchards and fields and into the Devil’s Den which they took relatively easily. The next portion of the engagement was a harder task. The Confederates were fighting uphill against the Union army, notably the men of the 20th Maine.

Little Round Top
The fight for the Little Round Top happened on the second day and was be one of the pivotal moments in the Battle for Gettysburg. The Union forces on the top of the hill repeled the Confederate forces multiple times to maintain control of the hill and the flank of the army. [Photo credit: Library of Congress]
The fight for Little Round Top was be hard fought with wave after wave of attempts to clear the top of the hill by the Confederates. Led by Colonel Chamberlain, the men were the extreme end of the Union line, tasked with keeping the Confederate army at bay. They had no choice but to hold the line and not let the Confederates take the hill. In the end, the Union line charged downhill against the Confederate men and repulsed them one more time. This event is one of the more well-known parts of the Battle of Gettysburg.

By the evening of July 2nd, the other portion of the flank attack was to happen, this time on the north or left flank of the Union army. General Ewell of the Confederacy found some success with his flanking maneuvers but ultimately was pushed back and unable to use it to their advantage. Thus ended the fighting on the second day at Gettysburg.

The Last Charge of Gettysburg

The morning of July 3rd, the third day of the battle, started with a bang quite literally. The Confederate battery started shelling the middle of the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. General Lee directed his men to charge the Union lines, across a mile of open fields and take the ridge. General Longstreet tried to dissuade him from the plan but gave up eventually. This movement is known as Pickett’s Charge and was a disaster for the Army of Northern Virginia.

the open fields at Gettysburg
On the third day of the battle, General Lee ordered a charge of infantry across the battlefield to the Union Lines. What came to be known as Pickett’s Charge, was a disastrous event for the Confederates. [Photo credit: P. Miller]
For two hours, the shelling of the Union lines continued. When the cannons paused, the Confederate men stepped out of the woods on Seminary Ridge and started their mile-long walk across the fields to the Union lines. Confederate men did make it to the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge but were repulsed by the Union army who were dug in behind a rock wall. In the end, over 5,000 men were killed in less than an hour. The Confederate men retreated as the Union army was heard yelling “Give them Fredericksburg” in reference to an ill-fated Union charge in December of 1862. In the end, Pickett’s Charge was the second pivotal moment of the Battle of Gettysburg, and some see it as the downward slide of the Confederacy to its ultimate demise by April 1865.

After The Battle of Gettysburg

As the sun dawned on July 4th, 1863, General Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia had quit the battlefield and were heading back toward Virginia. In the months and years after Gettysburg, the battle would be analyzed and dissected to reveal its overall meaning, beyond that of a battle.

photograph of three Confederate soldiers
The Confederate army saw defeat on the fields at Gettysburg. But the war continued on for almost another two years after this battle. Many men, like the captured soldiers seen above, spent the rest of their war in a Northern prison. [Photo credit: Library of Congress]
President Lincoln visited the battlefield in November 1863 to deliver his famous speech, the Gettysburg Address. While the former dean of Harvard College and celebrated orator of the day, Edward Everett pontificated for over two hours, Lincoln stood and delivered a very short and succinct message in less than two minutes. But those two minutes have withstood the test of time.

“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live.

It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.

The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that 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.”

In time, the battlefield became a place of hallowed ground that people visit time and again to experience the awe and history of the place. We all know how the war ultimately ended, but that doesn’t negate the importance of those fields outside of the small Pennsylvanian town. Smaller monuments mark the important places along the battlelines of the different units from both the north and south, each giving their own importance to the viewer. Survivors of the great battle would meet year after year, as brothers in arms and not as enemies. 

Patti Miller is one of the most awesome females in the tactical/firearm (or any) industry. Imagine a tall, hawt, dangerous Laura Ingalls Wilder type with cool hair and a suppressed blaster and you'll be getting the idea. What's interesting is that in addition to being a willing brawler and intrepid adventuress, she's also an Ent/Ogier level gardener and a truly badass baker.

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