One hundred fifty years ago, on July 1-3, 1863, the most important battle of the American Civil War was fought.
"General Robert E. Lee concentrated his full strength [leading the Army of Northern Virginia] against Major General George G. Meade’s Army of the Potomac at the crossroads county seat of Gettysburg at what would come to be known as the Battle of Gettysburg. On July 1st, Confederate forces converged on the town from west and north, driving Union defenders back through the streets to Cemetery Hill. During the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides. On July 2nd, Lee attempted to envelop the Federals, first striking the Union left flank at the Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Round Tops with Longstreet’s and Hill’s divisions, and then attacking the Union right at Culp’s and East Cemetery Hills with Ewell’s divisions. By evening, the Federals retained Little Round Top and had repulsed most of Ewell’s men."
"Late in the afternoon of July 2, 1863, on a boulder-strewn hillside on the left flank of the Union line, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain dashed headlong into history, leading his 20th Maine Regiment in perhaps the most famous counterattack of the Civil War. The regiment’s sudden, desperate bayonet charge blunted the Confederate assault on Little Round Top and has been credited with saving Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac."
"During the morning of July 3rd, the Confederate infantry were driven from their last toe-hold on Culp’s Hill. In the afternoon, after a preliminary artillery bombardment, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Pickett-Pettigrew assault (more popularly, “Pickett’s Charge”) momentarily pierced the Union line but was driven back with severe casualties. Stuart’s cavalry attempted to gain the Union rear but was repulsed."
The assault line of Pickett's Charge, comprised of approximately 12,500 Confederate soldiers engaged in the attack, extended a half-mile in width. "The hapless attackers were required to advance one mile through an open field and over a stone fence before they could engage their enemy. The majority of this distance was covered at a rank-and-file walk while Union troops poured deadly cannon and rifle fire upon them. The Confederates could not fire back. The Union troops, however, maintained a murderous hail of rifle fire by organizing themselves into efficient lines of four soldiers. After the first in line fired, he would move to the back of the line to reload his weapon while the next in line fired."
"The impact of this efficient killing machine on the approaching Confederates was devastating. As their comrades fell, their units would reorganize and tighten their ranks. Smoke from the cannonade from both sides soon drifted over the field dramatically reducing visibility. The noise was deafening. As they approached within a a few feet of the Union line, the Confederates charged. Some were able to scale the low stone wall separating them from their enemy, but the devastating fire from the Union troops forced a retreat. The battle was over."
Approximately 10,000 Union and Confederate soldiers died over three bloody days at Gettysburg, while another roughly 30,000 were wounded.
"Gettysburg holds significance for many reasons:
• It was a turning point in the war, ensuring the preservation of the nation [under the Constitution].
• Four months later, it was the site of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, where he described his vision for a “new birth of freedom” for America. It was what many consider the best summation in our nation’s history of the meaning and price of freedom.
• In the decades following the battle, it became a symbol of reconciliation, as soldiers from the Union and the Confederacy returned to the battlefield to shake hands across the fence lines."
“The world …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 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."
--Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address