The battle of Gettysburg was the most decisive battle of the Civil War. It was also the bloodiest, and it marked the turning point of the war. It also broke the almost perfect string of victories the South had enjoyed in the eastern theater under the leadership of Robert E. Lee.
Had the Union lost the struggle at Gettysburg, it very possibly would have lost the war. And had it lost the war, “America” today would be a fragmented series of weak mini-states, all competing and feuding, leading to many of the wars that have plagued Europe for centuries. In addition, God only knows where we’d be today on the slavery issue, let alone civil rights.
General Lee’s Confederate army was cocky – with good reason. Always outnumbered, Lee’s 72,000 soldiers were never outfought. Just two months earlier, they had utterly routed the Union army at Chancellorsville, VA. In fact, under Lee, the Confederate Army had won six straight victories and one bloody draw (Antietam). Lee had decided to bring them north where they could live off the fat Pennsylvania countryside, and give the Yankees a taste of the military occupation that many parts of the South had experienced for the previous two years. And above all, he was looking for one final, devastating victory that would break the North’s faltering spirit and finish the war.
As Lee’s men raced northwards, somewhere – they moved so fast that no one knew quite where they were – Union Maj. Gen. George Meade, asleep in his tent in the early morning hours, was abruptly shaken awake to receive news from Washington, brought by a messenger waiting outside in the gloom. Meade assumed he was being arrested. But the news was even worse – Washington ordered him to command of the 94,000 man Union Army. And, with the fate of the Union now on his shoulders, he had about 72 hours to whip it into shape to meet the unbeatable Lee.
The Battle of Gettysburg was actually not “a” battle. It was a whole series of mini-battles – 24 by my count – fought on different days in different areas surrounding the town. (Not much fighting occurred within the town itself). Almost none of the Union soldiers fought in more than one of those 24 mini-battles. However, many of the Southern units did indeed fight on two different days, but it was probably still more the exception than the rule.
Therefore a serious study of Gettysburg is a study of the overall strategy, and a study of the tactics of each of the 24 mini-battles.
The culmination of the three days of fighting might well have been created by a Hollywood studio – this was Lee’s spectacular pre-assault bombardment and 12,500 man attack on Cemetery Hill on July 3rd, known today as “Pickett’s Charge.” The attack failed – one of the few times that Lee’s soldiers had ever failed him – but this time they just couldn’t do the impossible, though they tried hard enough, leaving about half their number dead, mutilated or captured on the field.
This failed attack on the 3rd day marked the end of the battle, and the beginning of the end for the Confederate States of America.