A century and a half ago, in the picturesque green hills around the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, there took place the largest and most decisive battle of the great cataclysm that was the American Civil War. Between July 1st and 3rd, 1863, nearly 160,000 men fought fiercely for three bloody days in the humid Pennsylvania heat. Casualties were staggering for both sides, accounting for nearly one in three of the entirety of forces engaged. Among them were two General Officers killed, and twenty-five wounded, five of them mortally.
Federal dead (3,155) and wounded (14,529) were exceeded by Confederate losses (3,903 killed and 18, 735 wounded) from Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This was disastrous for the South, whose manpower situation was already becoming acute. The surrender of Vicksburg, to Grants Army of the Cumberland the day after Gettysburg ended, tipped the scales irretrievably against the Confederacy.
Seldom has a battle in a major war been as clearly decisive a turning point as was Gettysburg. That the defeat of the Confederates in Pennsylvania represented the last great effort of the South to force peace upon the North was palpable to both sides in the immediate aftermath of the great battle. Meade’s failure to pursue Lee prolonged the war, and was a mistake that Ulysses Grant would not repeat in his incessant hammering of the ANV throughout the Wilderness Campaign in the spring and summer of 1864.
Gettysburg also represented a turning point that established once and for all that Federal infantry, well-led, were every bit a match for their Rebel opponents. Crucial, also, was the contribution of Federal Cavalry, whose Brigadier General John Buford had nearly routed JEB Stuart’s cavalry at Brandy Station some weeks earlier. Buford at Gettysburg famously fought a half-day delaying action against the lead corps of Rebel infantry which gave the Army of the Potomac time to arrive at Gettysburg in force and occupy the high ground south and east of the town.
The battlefield at Gettysburg remains the hallowed ground of Lincoln’s iconic address. The names of the places for which men struggled and sacrificed are a part of a warrior lexicon that anyone who has ever worn a uniform should know by heart. The Wheat Field. The Peach Orchard. The Devil’s Den. Little Round Top. Cemetery Ridge. The Slaughter Pen. Culp’s Hill. The courage and endurance of the soldiers on both sides in the maelstrom of the battle has long held the imagination of the American public.
As a matter of perspective, the Battle of Gettysburg involved nearly 160,00o men, more than US troop strength in Iraq. The 7,058 dead over three days exceeds US combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan over thirteen years combined, by almost 2,000. The percentage of total population of North and South that fought at Gettysburg is greater than the percentage of current US population in the entire of our Armed Forces today.
If you have never seen the battlefield at Gettysburg, you should. If you are a Veteran, you should make it somewhat of a pilgrimage. And please, as nice and knowledgeable as the Park Staff people are, don’t take the “tour”. Go by yourself. Map in hand. Pfantz’s books in your backpack. And walk the ground. Feel it. Wonder to yourself how they did it. How they faced mortal fear and danger and fought so bravely and fiercely. And whether, in their shoes (or bare feet), you could have done the same.
And stay for a while. Around dusk, sit quietly and respectfully. You will find that you are hardly alone.