2011 is the 150th anniversary of the beginning of the Civil War, a bloody conflict that almost tore the US in two. Historically speaking, the importance of the Civil War was that the US remained one nation and therefore was strong enough to become a super power in the 20th century. For Americans, we celebrate the war as a vindication of freedom for thousands of Americans held in slavery.
The turning point of the war was the Battle of Gettysburg which was fought July 1-3, 1863 at a little market town called Gettysburg which is located in Pennsylvania. Before Gettysburg, the South had a good chance of winning the war. General Lee had taken his army into Pennsylvania with the purpose of capturing the capital. Afterwards, he planned to negotiate a peace agreement from a position of power. If he had won the battle, there’s a good chance that the South would be a different country today.
On Tuesday, June 30, a Confederate brigade looking for shoes marched toward Gettysburg, but they spotted a long column of Federal cavalry and so they withdrew, telling their superiors that they would go back tomorrow to get the shoes.
On Wednesday, July 1, they did go back. Two divisions of Confederates meet a Federal cavalry just west of town at Willoughby Run, and they skirmished. Anticipating a battle both Lee and his opponent General George G. Meade raced to bring in reinforcements.
After fierce fighting, the Federals were driven back into Gettysburg where they regrouped beside a cemetery that stood on high ground. This was a good chance for Lee to end the war because he outnumbered the Federals, and the retreat had disorganized them. Lee ordered Confederate General Ewell to attack if possible, but Ewell hesitated and gave the Federals a chance to dig in along Cemetery Ridge and bring in some cannon and reinforcements.
Confederate General James Longstreet told Lee that there was no way they could win now. He suggested moving east between the Union army and Washington, establish a strong defensive position, and force the Union troops to attack them.
Believing his army could win, Lee ordered the attack to proceed. He decided to attack the southern end of Cemetery Ridge which he believed was less well defended. He might have made a different decision if Jeb Stuart and his cavalry had been around to scout for him, but he had sent Stuart to harass the Union troops, so Lee was blind until Stuart returned.
Around ten the next morning, July 2, Lee ordered Longstreet to attack, but Longstreet delayed and gave even more time for the Union to bring in troops and guns. He attacked around four. Some of the bitterest and most deadly fighting of the war took place, and names such as Little Round Top, Peach Orchard, and the Wheat Field became synonymous with carnage and courage in equal measure.
About 6:30 p.m. Gen. Ewell attacked the Union line from the north and east at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. The attack lasted until around 10:30, but was finally unsuccessful at Cemetery Hill, although the South seized some trenches on Culp's Hill.
Both sides withdrew to regroup. There was a full moon, and all night long the wounded and dying lay on the battlefield filling the night with their cries.
Lee decided on a big gamble. He planned for General Pickett to attack the Union troops front and center on Cemetery Hill, the last thing the Union would expect. At the same time General Ewell would try to take Culp’s Hill again. Around 8:00 fighting broke out, but it stopped around 11:00.
General Longstreet again begged Lee not to attack, saying it was impossible to win, but Lee didn’t listen. The battle began around 1:00. Twelve thousand Confederates marched in an orderly row up Cemetery Hill, and then the slaughter began.
A fierce battle raged for an hour with much brutal hand to hand fighting, shooting at close range and stabbing with bayonets. Briefly, the Confederates almost took their objective, a small clump of Oak Trees on Cemetery Ridge, but Union reinforcements swarmed in and repulsed the Confederates. Pickett's Charge began to recede as the men drifted back down the slope. Lee's army had been beaten back, leaving 7,500 of his men lying on the field of battle. Confederate wounded and missing were 28,000 out of 75,000. Union casualties were 23,000 out of 88,000.
That night and into the next day Lee took his wounded and began a retreat into Virginia. If General Meade had followed and attacked, he could have ended the war, but he didn’t. President Lincoln was very angry about it and wrote a scathing letter to Meade about his conduct.
The tide of the war turned at Gettysburg. Lee never again moved North, and from that time on, a Union victory was virtually assured. Months later President Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on the battlefield. It was so short nobody thought it was any good, but over time our opinions have changed. We now realize how truly inspiring the address was. Click here to read it.
The picture shows a view of Little Round Top.