No battle in American history was as dramatic, as bloody, or of greater import than the three-day engagement fought 150 years ago this week in and around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. When it was over, the course of the Civil War had been altered in favor of the Union, and preservation of the Republic largely was assured.
The Battle of Gettysburg occurred roughly midway through the war that reunited and redefined a nation. It ended on the eve of the Fourth of July, 1863, with the Northern States, which had been consistently outfought by the secessionist South, on the path to victory in April 1865.
The South's crushing defeat at Gettysburg came at frightful cost to victor and vanquished alike. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia suffered 28,000 killed, wounded and missing, more than a third of its strength. The Army of the Potomac under Union Gen. George Meade, sustained 23,000 casualties, more than a quarter of his troops.
The numbers don't begin to convey the magnitude of the slaughter. But with war photography in its infancy and confined, as at Gettysburg, to after-battle images, historians largely have had only numbers and the memories of eyewitnesses to guide them in their pursuit of the truth of what happened, how it happened, and what it was like to be there.
This absence of any visual record of the fighting has served to mask the unspeakable savagery of such killing grounds as Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. That, in turn, has lent a sense of mystery to the battle that no amount of scholarship or number of visits to Gettysburg National Park can possibly penetrate.
Nevertheless, Gettysburg, at its sesquicentennial, remains more firmly fixed, more vivid in our collective memory than do any of the nation's battles on network television. That is because Gettysburg was fought on American soil, by Americans killing other Americans, with the country's future on the line.
The battle's outcome remained in doubt to the very end, and until Confederate Gen. George Pickett's fabled attack up Cemetery Ridge was shattered on the afternoon of the third day, it could easily have gone either way.
It was, as Wellington said after Waterloo, "a near run thing."
Gettysburg followed by just two months Lee's greatest victory at Chancellorsville, which convinced him that the time was ripe to invade the North, to persuade President Abraham Lincoln through force of arms to negotiate an end to the war that had raged since the spring of 1861. Now in its third year, the conflict had become increasingly unpopular in the North, and each new Confederate victory over larger and better-equipped Union forces drove Lincoln deeper into despair.
The problem was one of leadership. In contrast to the audacious Lee, whose tactical brilliance had brought him world acclaim, Lincoln's generals were renowned mostly for their timidity, bad judgment and lack of fighting spirit.
But Gettysburg, and the fall of Vicksburg, the Confederate fortress on the Mississippi River, a day later, changed all that. Just as an overconfident Lee suffered his most shattering defeat, Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant's masterful Vicksburg campaign showed Lincoln a fighter who would, by war's end, prove Lee's equal.
As Lee and his battered army set off early on the Fourth of July in retreat toward Virginia, they left behind them an array of what-ifs and might-have-beens that continue to tantalize students of the war to this day.
Many of the imponderables naturally center on Lee, who, in asking more of his adoring troops than they could possibly have given him, took a major role in engineering his own defeat and, significantly, that of the Confederacy.
The unimaginable horror and carnage that was Gettysburg speak for themselves. It was left to Lincoln, in dedicating the battlefield, to give Gettysburg the nobility and higher meaning that have echoed down the years, striking awe in generations of Americans for those countrymen, in the North and the South, who once bore the gift of a nation reborn:
"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate — we cannot consecrate — we cannot hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it 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."