Gettysburg: A Battle Worth Remembering this July 4th

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Mr. Gavin teaches history at the Prinecton Day School.

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Last week, the issue of race resurfaced through the Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action. And the past year and a half has made us all aware of terrorism and homeland security. But if you think that things are tense now, you should have been around in 1863.

Seven score ago (that’s 140 years) this week, the United States found itself with a “severe” homeland security problem. Terrorism was a daily reality. Race relations were on edge.

The occasion was the Civil War, the central act in this nation’s drama, and from July 1-3, 1863, Union and Confederate armies found themselves slugging it out in a small town in western Pennsylvania. Before the war, Gettysburg was a simple pastoral town; after three days of battle—the deadliest of the war—the town would be forever be associated with the horrific battle that was waged there—the Battle of Gettysburg. It was the bloodiest battle of the war (51,000 casualties) and it would deal the Confederacy (and its cause) its most fatal blow.

Coming off a string of successes down South, a confident Robert E. Lee decided to bring the war up North for the second time (his first attempt at Antietam had resulted largely in a draw). Although he was winning battles with legendary maneuvering and bravery, each clash came at a great cost, as they consistently lost a greater proportion of their troops than the North. Second, there was a presidential election coming up in a year, and if Lee could prove to wavering Northerners just how bloody and unbearable this war was (and would continue to be-- without a quick resolution), perhaps they’d kick that bum Lincoln out of office, elect a peace candidate, and end the shenanigans for once and for all. An offensive victory might also secure European support for the Confederate cause, or at least prevent them from siding with the Yanks. Lastly, Ulysses S. Grant was applying great force out West on the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg. If Vicksburg fell, so, too, would control of the Mississippi River fall into Union hands, and, subsequently, the landscape of the war would be forever altered in the North’s favor. An invasion into the North might take some of the pressure off Vicksburg.

So, in June of 1863, Robert E. Lee left his wife and kids and led 75,000 Confederate troops (his largest force since the beginning of the war) above the Mason-Dixon line and into Northern territory, hoping to deliver a final blow to the Federals.

The stakes couldn’t have been higher. Lee knew that he was risking everything by invading the North with such a large force. His last venture into Union territory gave him little reason to think that he would have any success this time around, and yet he realized that all of the South’s hopes hinged on this battle. One Confederate soldier remarked: “The army will never do such fighting as it will now.” For the North, the fall of Gettysburg could quite possibly have given the South easy access to DC and perhaps brought about the war’s conclusion and a Confederate victory. Additionally, Lincoln had just issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January of that year, forever altering the war’s cause; a major loss on his home turf would break the North's will.

Besides his wife and kids, however, Lee also seemed to have left his luck in Virginia. Immediately things did not go well for him. He had no clue as to the Union army’s location or size, since the man sent out to find out this information—Confederate Cavalry Officer Jeb Stuart—was unable to get around the advancing Union army fast enough in order to return to his boss with what would be very bad news (the Union army was 90,000 strong and advancing). When the Union and Confederate armies finally bumped into each other on July 1st, the Confederates performed remarkably well, forcing the Federals to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. By winning the day, however, the South had sealed its fate for the entire battle, since their successful aggression on Day One pushed the Union up onto the advantageous heights at Cemetery Ridge. Sometimes, the best things happen to those who wait.

At the end of Day One, Lee asked Lieutenant General Richard Ewell to grab the vacant Cemetery Hill in order to prevent the North's army from strengthening its position on the hills. Because Lee was a cordial, gentle man, he ended his declarative sentence with the polite remark “if practicable,” which was simply a General’s nice way of saying “do it now.” It’s akin to a parent telling their child to take out the trash, “if you wouldn’t mind.” You got the hint and, no, you didn’t mind. Ewell, however, took the advice too literally and decided that, in fact, seizing the hills that evening was not “practicable,” and, as a result, the Northern army spent the night fortifying their stronghold on the hills.

Ewell wasn’t the only one failing to heed good advice. Lee himself failed to listen to the wise counsel coming from his “right arm,” General James Longstreet. On July 2nd, Longstreet warned against Lee’s plan to attack the Union flanks, noting that the Confederates would be fighting uphill and against what appeared to be great numbers (Stuart still hadn’t returned from his intelligence mission so they were still operating in the dark). Longstreet pleaded: “There never was a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” Proving that he had lost the creativity that had served him so well down South, Lee responded: “The enemy is there General Longstreet, and I am going to strike him.” So much for imagination.

On Little Round Top—the extreme left flank of the Union army—the Union’s strategic position was almost single-handedly preserved by 300 troops from Maine who were short on ammo, experience, and time. They were led by an English professor from Bowdoin College—Joshua Chamberlain—who had no professional military experience. With only ten minutes to prepare, the 20th Maine fought off countless Confederate assaults. Shortly before what would be the final Confederate assault, the Union army quickly realized that it was out of ammo, and Chamberlain ordered what can only be described as a desperate suicide mission: a bayonet charge down the hill. Miraculously, it worked and the Union line held and Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his bravery. I’ve taught English before, and were I to face a charging force of screaming Rebs, I would have ditched my bayonet, grabbed my Whitman, and booked it out of there.

The Battle of Gettysburg may be most infamously known for the events of Day 3, when Lee (going against the advice of his generals once more), launched the bulk of his army on an enormous frontal assault on the Union center which he thought had been weakened by the previous day’s flank assaults. He was wrong. Perhaps Lee’s poor judgments were caused by the dysentery he was rumored to have had. Pickett’s Charge, as it would come to be called, was largely a death march and it resulted in devastating losses for the South. When it was all over, the traditionally stalwart and proud Lee broke down, profusely apologizing to his troops and generals, saying “It was all my fault” and even dramatically offering his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis in the weeks ahead.

The next day, July 4th, a disgraced, depressed, and defeated Lee packed up his things and went down south. On the same day, out west, Vicksburg fell to the Union army and the war would never be the same. It’s hard to imagine a better July 4th.

Although the war raged on for almost two more years after the battle of Gettysburg, the Confederacy would never be able to fight with the same power and spirit that they had on those hot summer days in Pennsylvania. The North’s size, industry, and diplomatic advantages would prove to be too much for the South to handle in the long run. Indeed, Gettysburg proved to be a microcosm of the war itself: unparalleled fearlessness, initial success, and ultimate failure.

One can’t escape the thought, however, that Gettysburg ranks high in the folklore of history not entirely because of those three bloody days, but rather because the president of the United States found the occasion so significant that he made a personal visit to the battlefield four months later to “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.”

Why hasn’t Bush visited Tikrit yet with similar intentions? Or Tora Bora? With a brief, but beautiful, eulogy, Lincoln proved that, with presidential addresses, it’s quality, not quantity, a lesson that has yet to be learned by Lincoln’s successors.

Near the conclusion of his speech, Lincoln remarked, “The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.” Who was he kidding? One hundred forty years later, it’s impossible to forget.

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Frederick Thomas - 7/5/2005

I need not repeat what has been often said here about snotty Bush comments-'nuff said.

But I would invite all to consider the devastation and loss of this most unwise and destructive of American wars, which has corroded our sense of decency and set a pattern of military violence which has cost us much.

Over 600,000 soldiers died in this war, almost equalling all of the other wars combined. More than an entire generation was lost, from a population about 20% of today's. Millions of productive young men became invalids. One section of the country was invaded successfully by the other, permenently affecting our national consciousness and sense of decency.

War profiteers and abolitionists won, and everyone else lost one way or the other. The economy of the South, by far the stronger of the two, with exports to the entire world, was completely destroyed.

Southern high culture, expressed in such publications as the "Southern Literary Messenger", was completely destroyed, together with the South's leading intellectual position. Civilians were killed and starved in uncounted numbers, particularly in the Tennessee and Georgia campaigns. People got used to the sight of piles of bodies in photographs by Brady etc.

Of course, the argument is often made that slavery was abolished, which prima facie is a benefit. But what did the freed slaves inherit? Perhaps a new kind of slavery based upon economics and exploitation as vote-slaves by unethical politicians, which is still going on to some extent today.

Meanwhile the black diet was reduced from 3300 balanced per day to only 2100, unbalanced, a misery they shared with most whites. Slavery would have fallen soon anyway-the last Western Hemisphere country to get rid of it was Brazil in 1884.

All the others did it peacefully-only the US had to throw away half of its economy and en entire generation of its kids to achieve it. There is no doubt that the protectionist North benefitted.

I would like to have seen, rather than Lincoln calling for 75,000 volunteers, a call instead for a Constitutional Convention, to resolve this matter without such awful death and destruction.

But barring that, I would have liked for Lee to have been a little more himself on July 3, and instead sent Pickett South, deep around the Union left, which we all can imagine may have resulted in a less destructive overall outcome. Perhaps if Stonewall were there wisdom would have prevailed.

maggie david - 7/4/2003

really now comparing pres.bush to pres. lincoln is truly a stretch. I mean to begin with that was 140 yrs. ago,, and on
friendly soil. Today in that region esp. you have the suicide bombers, bombs that can be detonated at least 500 ft away.And men from the Taliban/middle eastern men fighting with the Taliban/Iraqis that they could easily blend in with
the common peasents. The circumstances are quite different without inserting your liberal pointed-head view.

Herodotus - 7/2/2003

No, that's the other Gettysburg.

Markham Shaw Pyle - 7/2/2003

I'm not even going to address the broad statements, such as 'terrorism was a daily reality,' here. (Young Dahlgren, your office is on Line Two....) And others have already addressed the location of Gettysburg within the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (no wonder Ewell was tired, after a forced march to 'Western' Pennsylvania from waaaaay over towards Harrisburg).

However. For the same reasons and to the same extent it behooves us to remember Gettysburg, we are obligated to get it right, are we not? Mr Gavin's simplistic discussion of the options available to the ANV are inadequate in the light of what Pfanz, Gallagher, Sears, McPherson, and others have considered. He ought perhaps reconsult his Dowdey and Manarin for the precise text of the orders involved, before plunging into the still contested issues of what II Corps ought to have done regarding Cemetery (or, ahem, Culp's) Hill on 1 July. He might profit by the discussions collected in the three volumes Harry Pfanz edited before he makes the sweeping statement, valuable only for its alliteration, that Lee was not only defeated but 'disgraced' by the result. And at the very least, Mr Gavin might want to refrain from referring to Dutch Longstreet by the sobriquet of 'Lee's right arm,' insofar as that title belongs of course to 'Old Jack,' 'Stonewall' himself, 'Old Blue Light' Thomas J Jackson - who, had he been then alive and present in command of II Corps, would in some reasonable likelihood have anticipated Lee's orders, seized the commanding ground ('Press on!'), and ensured a Confederate victory.

Perhaps Mr Gavin was much better as an English master than as a teacher of history, but surely even prep school lads deserve better than this blatant lack of mastery of the most elementary facts.

Chuck Heisler - 7/2/2003

I second the comment about the gratuitous comment of the writer that smirked up the otherwise capable article. Even the dullest of historians can see that the analogy of Gettysburg, four months after the battle, and Tikrit and Tora Bora does not hold.
Lincoln was 45 miles from his home base amongst supporters of his cause. It is interesting to note that Lincoln did not appear in Nashville, Chattanooga, Vicksburg, etc. after any battles and while he did enter Richmond shortly after the capture of that city, he made no stirring addresses.
Give our President a break here. Are there some brownie points given out in academia for snotty comments about Republican politicians? Don't answer, I know!

Andy Weiss - 7/2/2003

South central Pennsylvania would probably be the best description.

Hans Vought - 7/2/2003

Surely it's in southern central Pennsylvania, rather than either eastern or western Pennsylvania.

Herodotus - 7/1/2003

I am surprised to learn that Gettsyburg is in western, not eastern, Pennsylvania.

NYGuy - 6/30/2003

Mr. Gavin,

Thank you for remembering this day and presenting a fine overview of the Battle. My great grandfather's unit was one of the first on the field that day. Fortuneately, one group was placed on Cemetery Hill while the rest of Corp. advanced on the enemy. They were quite successful in the beginning but had their right flank turned and had to retreat through town and back up to Cemetery Hill which was then being fortified by the soldiers who remained behind. Many of these men were taken prisoner and a good number went to Andersonville prision.

It might be noted that Lee did not intend to fight at Gettysburg, but a chance encounter by two scouting units from each side accidently met at about 7:00 am that morning. After this the battle took on a life of its own.

I too was sorry that you sought to make a political statement at the end of the article. I think there was more to Lincoln's comments than you indicated, and I don't believe is necessary for an American president to visit those places where the U. S. may achieve a victory.

As for Lincoln, he was trying to hold the Union together and he went to Gettysburg to consecration the Battlefield. and remember both the Union and Confedate soldiers who were buried their. Therefore, I believe Lincoln's comments:

“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.”

These words in my opinion were very specific to keeping this country together at this difficult time in our history. The other events you mention did not have a similiar import.

Roxman - 6/30/2003

Nice article on the importance of Gettysburg - except for the end.
Was it really necessary to drag in President Bush? Neither Tikrit nor Tora Bora are in the United States. It was highly proper for President Lincoln to visit Gettysburg - the battlefield was within the confines of the United States, and his speech was made to Americans. I believe it would have little meaning for President Bush to address the citizens of Tikrit or Tora Bora. A more meaningful parallel is the speech President Bush made at the World Trade Center - the battlefield which led to the above campaigns.

Bill Heuisler - 6/30/2003

Professor Gavin,
Your excellent summary was marred by one small error and a graceless tinge of politics.
You wrote, "Longstreet warned against Lee’s plan to attack the Union flanks..."
In fact, Longstreet warned against the frontal attack. On three occasions Old Pete urged a Division-sized attack to flank the Union Left, but Lee refused.
Mentioning President Bush in derogatory terms was unnecessary.
Bill Heuisler