It is often said that the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War began almost by accident when a limping Confederate division set out in search of shoes. It encountered two brigades of Union cavalry and over three days, from the 1st July to 3rd July, 1863, the two sides fought. Its outcome, a critical defeat to the Confederates, which turned the war’s tide in the Union’s favour.
An invasion of the north, was planned by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, in the hopes of gaining an important victory and discouraging the Union from continuing the war. Lee possibly hoped his push north might perhaps also induce European nations to recognize the Confederacy. With this in mind, the Confederacy made a positive start on the first day. They had outnumbered the Union causing then to retreat through the town of Gettysburg. Instead of taking advantage of the situation, the Confederacy eased up on their attack, allowing the Union time to dig in and set up their defenses in the southeast of the town.
On the second day, fighting had intensified with huge numbers of men involved on both sides. Despite the Confederacy applying immense pressure, Union defensive lines withstood the onslaught of attacks. Most notable was the brave downhill bayonet charge of Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his men at Little Round Top, which forced the Confederates to scatter and retreat.
By the third day, General Lee was convinced that his men had worn down the Union troops (despite the stalemate of the 2nd day) enough to launch an all out massive assault. After an initial barrage of cannon fire upon Union positions on Cemetery Ridge, the single most acclaimed attack of the war took place known as “Pickett’s Charge”.
In the chaos that played out on Cemetery Ridge, around 12,500 Confederates charged Union positions. General Lewis A. Armistead who helped lead the charge, actually succeeded in raising the Confederate colours, with a small number of men, above Cemetery Ridge, before being overwhelmed, shot and captured. Armistead would die a few days later in a Union field hospital and in all over half of the 12,500 Confederates were injured or killed during Pickett’s Charge.
Forced to retreat from the battlefield around Cemetery Ridge from sheer exhaustion and loss of life, the Confederacy agreed to observe a truce, once they realized the Union wasn’t going to counter attack.
In the aftermath of the third day at Gettysburg, the combined total of casualties (roughly equal on each side) stood at over fifty thousand. Lee’s invasion of the North had also been derailed and the Confederacy would never again regain the initiative. However, it would be another two years before the Confederacy would be reeled back into the Union by signing the articles of surrender.
Gettysburg is a solemn and beautiful place today (or at least was when I visited it in 1993), and it’s difficult to fully grasp the immensity and horror of the carnage that occurred over those three days.
The best place to stand at Gettysburg is up on Cemetery Ridge. Take in the sheer expanse of open fields the Confederate Pickett’s Charge had to cross from the tree line down in the distance. It’s amazing any survived to make it to the top.