The Battle at Gettysburg

A National Battlefield Park

Gettysburg, Pa.

July 27, 1999


As we crossed Map nameinto Pennsylvania, I thought of the history I had learned in high school. There was a small inconspicuous town just over the border that until 1863 probably would have gone unnoticed in the annals of history. However, three days in July of that year, changed the history of the United States and possible the World. In just three days, 57,000 men would become  casualties in the fields, on the rocks and the ridges of this otherwise tranquil Pennsylvania farm community. I wanted to stand in those very same fields and see what they saw as they faced each other. To somehow capture the essence of the event in hopes of understanding what drove men to such desperate deeds.
The main battlefield is now a National Park complete with a large two story museum, auto tours and lectures. Next to it is the cyclorama center which contains a painted impression of Pickett's charge. After reviewing all that was presented, we picked up an auto-tour tape and drove off. There are, of course, many interesting and important points in the 3 day encounter of these 160 thousand men. I was particularly interested in three specific places. In retrospect, let me set the stage for the events of July 1st, 1863. The Army of Northern Virginia, had just completed a successful campaign against Union forces in Virginia. Gen. Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Southern Forces, convinced the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, that only an invasion into Northern territory would bring
image-01about an end to the conflict. On June 30th, Lee marched north into Pennsylvania. Lincoln appointed an new General to head up the Northern forces. With only 2 days of command, General Mead forced marched his 90,000 troop out of Virginia to Pennsylvania in hopes of finding the Confederates troops before they reached Washington. One of Mead's forward units was a 3,000 man Calvary unit, which had stopped to rest in Gettysburg when they were spotted by a small Confederate patrol gathering food. The word quickly spread and a junior commander sent 13,000 Confederate infantry to roust the Calvary. A union officer named Buford surprised them by dismounting his Calvary and setting up a skirmish line along a ridge just to the left of the McPherson barn. The battle was on. The Union, fought from ridge to ridge while riders desperately road for re-enforcements. Union troops poured into the area but so did the Southern forces. The battle swelled and swayed with thousands and thousands of fresh troops from both sides being thrown into the mix. By four in the evening the North had retreated to the town but were rousted, with many being captured. The evening found the North fortified along a long ridge called Cemetery ridge anchored by hills at each end, south of the town. The South had seized the opposing ridge called Seminary Ridge, some mile or so to the east.
July 2, the second day. The South attacked both anchors with the battle for Little round top, the southern-most hill witnessing some of the more costly fighting of the day. The hill would have been lost to the South except for the heroic action of Gen. Warren, an engineering officer who, when seeing the temporarily abandoned hill, scrounged sufficient Union troops from other areas to defend the hill against Longstreet's onslaught, finally repulsing the southerners during the evening hours. Likewise attempts to overrun the North end of the Union defense had failed, leaving the South no better off then when they had started that morning.
July 3, the final day. Lee, believing that the Union troops were massed at either end of Cemetery Ridge approved a daring plan to punch a hole through the middle of the line. He believed that a sustained artillery barrage would soften up the opposing force and allow the center to be broken even though his troops would have to cross a mile of open, flat farmland, being exposed the entire time to enemy fire. At 1:00 PM Confederate cannons opened up on the Union line. The Union responded will all its artillery. For the next 2 hours the biggest artillery duel ever fought on North American soil raged. With no high ground to see from and cannon smoke blocking level sight, Lee had no way of knowing that his field guns were set with time fuses that were too long, resulting in most of the shell falling harmlessly to the rear of the Union Line. Gen. Mead, anticipating Lee's center attack had re-enforced the center. General Pickett, who had pushed strongly for the Center charge was given the lead and gallantly lead 12,000 Confederate troops across the open field. Every Union gun, from Little round top to Gulp's hill, poured lead down on the relentless walkers. Finally, several hundred Confederates reached the Union wall, as they raised their battle standard, they were cut down by the 6,000 Union troops who had been waiting for them. This represents the "high water mark", of deepest penetration into the North by Confederate troops. The retreat back to Seminary ridge was as deadly as the advance. When done, 5,000 men lay dead or wounded on the ground. A reporter would later comment that "One could walk from one side to the other and never have to step on the ground." Lee believed he had lost too many men to win the battle and the next day retreated back into Virginia. Most believe this was the turning point of the war. The three day battle had seen 23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate troops fall victim to the fighting.

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