July 1, 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of one of the Civil War’s bloodiest and most important battles. The Battle of Gettysburg represented a critical turning point in the Civil War. Leading up to Gettysburg, the Confederacy wrangled an impressive victory over Union forces at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to seize this momentum by pressing his troops up to Pennsylvania in late June 1863. Gen. Lee knew that if the Confederacy could advance north across the Potomac river and capture major cities such as: Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington the whole of the north would fall into southern hands. On July 1,1863, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia clashed with Gen George O. Meade’s Army of the Potomac. Over the next 3 days, the total casualties would exceed 51,000. Historians and scholars still have lively debates over the military tactics used during this battle. However, certain facts regarding the battle are widely accepted. The first day of fighting saw roughly 30,000 Rebel troops defeat 20,000 Yankee soldiers. Union troops fell back to the hills south of town and regrouped awaiting the next day’s action. The second day saw even heavier action with roughly 90,000 Union troops fighting a determined Confederate force of about 70,000 soldiers. Gen. Lee’s strategy was to attack the left and right flanks of the Union Army. There was heavy action and the Confederates gained ground, however, the Union troops were still dug into the hills and occupied strong positions. On July 3, Gen. Lee will make one of the most crucial decisions in military history. After two days of brutal fighting, Lee believed that Union troops were battered and near defeat. When dawn broke, he would gamble on a frontal assault to the center of Meade’s forces. With a force of between 12-15 thousand troops and fighting still raging along the left and right flanks, Lee ordered Gen. George Pickett’s troops(who were fresh) to attack(it should also be noted that it is called Pickett’s charge but Gen. Pickett was not the only Confederate leader on the battlefield that day). Unfortunately for Lee, Union artillery started pounding rebel forces at 4:30 am driving them from the safety of their trenches. Instead of retreating, Confederate troops regrouped and attacked at 8:00 am. This began a 3 hour struggle to charge the hill that Union soldiers occupied. Rebels advance but are beaten back each time. Bodies are shredded by rifle and artillery fire. It was a bloodbath. Lee is forced to retreat and take his battered Army back to Virginia. The Confederate Army, as a result of this battle, would be placed on a permanent defensive posture for the duration of the war. In a letter to Colonel A. J. Lyon Fremantle of the British Army, Gen. Robert E. Lee said after the battle, “This has been a sad day for us, Colonel, a sad day; but we can’t always expect to gain victories.” This battle had profound implications for both sides and for our country as a whole. The carnage that remained on the battlefield was unprecedented. David Willis, a banker and civic leader, wrote a letter 3 weeks after the battle to then Governor of Pennsylvania Andrew Curtain describing the 3 day engagement. He said, ““In many instances arms and legs and sometimes heads protrude and my attention has been directed to several places where hogs were actually rooting out the bodies and devouring them”. I am hard pressed to think of a more fascinating military battle and a more sobering reminder of the great sacrifices that have been made by our ancestors past. In their honor, I’ll be making a few very special posts regarding Gettysburg and the Civil War this week. Enjoy!
Full History Channel Documentary on Gettysburg Battle