In June 1863, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virgina (72,000) marched into Pennsylvania in an effort to bring the war to the North. Politicians in the Confederate States of America (CSA) also felt that a Confederate victory in the North might take advantage of the growing peace movement in the US, and possibly convince some European powers, notably England, to come in on the side of the South.
In defense, George G. Meade and the Army of the Potomac (94,000) marched west to meet the invaders. On 1 July 1863, the two forces met in the countryside around Gettysburg, PA.
Fighting continued for three days until the Confederates were forced to retreat on 4 July. Having successfully thwarted the Confederate advance, Meade elected not to further risk his army attacking the retreating forces. The CSA would not mount another invasion of the North.
I’ve had the opportunity to visit Gettysburg. There’s a nice museum, a cyclorama depicting the battle, and what seems like a thousand monuments. Of all the Civil War sites I’ve visited, this was the most moving. To walk the ground where so many fought and died, to stand in the spot where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address, and especially to gaze across the 3/4 mile open ground across which three Confederate divisions charged the Union center under withering fire, evokes powerful emotions.
Gettysburg didn’t see the highest single-day record for casualties, that distinction belongs to the Battle of Antietam, but it was the Civil War battle with the highest number of casualties, seeing over 45,000 dead, wounded, or missing. More than the military defeat, Gettysburg represented the farthest north the CSA would penetrate Northern territory, the loss of whatever credibility the Confederates had in Europe, and a deep psychological wound from which the South never recovered. It was, in many ways, the beginning of the end of the Civil War.
The Killer Angels – The Pulitzer Prize – winning 1975 historical novel by Michael Shaara describes the battle through the eyes of commanders on both sides. This well-written, well-paced work has been praised from Norman Schwarzkopf to Josh Whedon. Buy it.
Gettysburg – The 1993 movie based on The Killer Angels runs over 4 hours, but doesn’t drag. The length allows for in-depth character development, so the viewer can appreciate the major players as real people, rather than names in history books. Attention to detail, some very nice cinematography, and thousands of re-enactors bring the events of the battle to life. Another must-buy.