PrologueWhat we are doing, and why we're doing it!
Gettysburg. It's difficult to comprehend the scale of the slaughter that occurred in three days in July 1863 outside that small Pennsylvania town. Gettysburg was of no strategic importance at that point in the Civil War. It's simply the spot where the fringes of two great armies brushed against one another, igniting a massive conflagration.
It all started when a Confederate foraging party was heading for Gettysburg to raid a shoe factory. Yes, supplies were that important. A statue near an old barn marks the spot where they were intercepted just outside of town by Union soldiers. The ensuing skirmish grew throughout the afternoon as the sound of gunfire rang out across the land. The Union troops faired poorly as the day wore on. They eventually withdrew across open fields to the cover of wooded hills, setting the stage for the coming battle.
The second day saw tens of thousands of troops flood in from both armies as each side struggled to gain advantage on the field. Go great was the influx of warriors to the field that even the skirmish activity reduced the trees to smoking stumps littered with the dead, sometimes piled 3 or 4 deep. The land has healed the scars of the past, but numerous memorials still stand in silent witness.
The clash was notable for more than it's scope and intensity. It was also extraordinary in the tactics, logistics, and heroism. The struggle for a hill known as Little Round Top is a prime example. General Lee had noticed that the hill, located on the flank of the Union lines was poorly manned. As he massed his troops in preparation for an attack, Union commanders became aware of the vulnerability and rushed reinforcements. Understanding the likelihood of horrifying casualties charging up even a poorly fortified hill, Lee applied what he thought would be an overwhelming force. As it happened, the Union reinforcements arrived just as the attack started. The fighting was vicious beyond belief, exhausting the ammunition of the Union troops at the top of the hill. Rather than yield such an important position, the Union defenders fell upon the Confederate attackers in a ferocious bayonet charge. General Lee's inability to flank the Union lines set the stage for an even more horrific action the next day.
Lee wished to beat the Union Army on Union soil in order to break the will of the North to fight. This desire for a decisive victory prompted him to order a massive frontal assault on the Union lines. In what is known as Pickett's charge, Lee assembled a line of troops three men deep and a mile wide. On that fateful day, General Robert E. Lee committed what was probably the greatest blunder of his career.
Roughly 12,000 soldiers of the Confederate Army swept across open fields toward the heart of Union lines. They walked for hundreds of yards into the withering fire of 7,000 massed Union troops. Only in the last hundred yards or so did the remaining troops break into a charge. Most of the wave of gray did not reach the Union lines. In one spot, however, the wave of bloodied humanity crashed onto Union defenders. The tumult of hand-to-hand combat marked the high water point of the War between the States. The assault was rebuffed. The next day, July 4th , Lee retreated south. For the remainder of the war, his armies were relegated to defensive actions.
While we were at the high water mark of the self guided auto tour, we saw a field trip of school children tracing the path of the Confederate soldiers during Pickett's charge led by a National Park ranger. As they approached the low rock wall marking the Union lines they broke into a run, whoopin' and hollerin.' It was cute, in a way, but the view of the open field from behind the cannons at the line made it clear how futile the action had been in reality.
The heroism of those days is well honored on the fields near Gettysburg. There is a greater concentration of memorials and statues than we have seen anywhere else in the United States. Each unit from each state from each side of the battle seems to have sponsored at least one memorial marker. Across from the visitor center is the cemetery where the Union soldiers are buried. Following the war, the remains of 3,320 Confederate soldiers were removed from the battlefield to cemeteries in the South.
It is in the Gettysburg National Cemetery that Lincoln spoke his Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. Arguably the most brilliantly poetic and succinct (272 words) speech in the English language it transformed Gettysburg from a scene of carnage into a symbol, giving meaning to the sacrifice of the dead and inspiration to the living.
Gettysburg truly is a monument to monuments.
It was a memorial in Washington D.C. that we saw later that finally put the events of this single Civil War battlefield into perspective. The Vietnam Memorial has some 53,000 names on it honoring the fallen in roughly 4 years of fighting. The Battle of Gettysburg saw approximately 58,000 casualties in three days. The enormous cost of the day presses on each of us to reflect on what was ultimately gained.