“..that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth." — Abraham Lincoln, Dedication of the military cemetery at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, November 19, 1863.
The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, is considered the most important engagement of the American Civil War. After a great victory over Union forces at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee marched his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania in late June 1863. On July 1, the advancing Confederates clashed with the Union's Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George G. Meade, at the crossroads town of Gettysburg. The next day saw even heavier fighting, as the Confederates attacked the Federals on both left and right. On July 3, Lee ordered an attack by fewer than 15,000 troops on the enemy's center at Cemetery Ridge. The assault, known as "Pickett's Charge," managed to pierce the Union lines but eventually failed, at the cost of thousands of rebel casualties, and Lee was forced to withdraw his battered army toward Virginia on July 4.
In May 1863, Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had scored a smashing victory over the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. Brimming with confidence, Lee decided to go on the offensive and invade the North for a second time (the first invasion had ended at Antietam the previous fall). In addition to bringing the conflict out of Virginia and diverting northern troops from Vicksburg, where the Confederates were under siege, Lee hoped to gain recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France and strengthen the cause of northern "Copperheads" who favored peace.
On the Union side, President Abraham Lincoln had lost confidence in the Army of the Potomac's commander, Joseph Hooker, who seemed reluctant to confront Lee's army after the defeat at Chancellorsville. On June 28, Lincoln named Major General George Gordon Meade to succeed Hooker. Meade immediately ordered the pursuit of Lee's army of 75,000, which by then had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and marched on into southern Pennsylvania.
Battle of Gettysburg Begins: July 1
Upon learning that the Army of the Potomac was on its way, Lee planned to assemble his army in the prosperous crossroads town of Gettysburg, 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One of the Confederate divisions in A.P. Hill's command approached the town in search of supplies early on July 1, only to find that two Union cavalry brigades had arrived the previous day. As the bulk of both armies headed toward Gettysburg, Confederate forces (led by Hill and Richard Ewell) were able to drive the outnumbered Federal defenders back through town to Cemetery Hill, located a half mile to the south.
Seeking to press his advantage before more Union troops could arrive, Lee gave discretionary orders to attack Cemetery Hill to Ewell, who had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia's Second Corps after Lee's most trusted general, Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. Ewell declined to order the attack, considering the Federal position too strong; his reticence would earn him many unfavorable comparisons to the great Stonewall. By dusk, a Union corps under Winfield Scott Hancock had arrived and extended the defensive line along Cemetery Ridge to the hill known as Little Round Top; three more Union corps arrived overnight to strengthen its defenses.
Battle of Gettysburg, Day 2: July 2
As the next day dawned, the Union Army had established strong positions from Culp's Hill to Cemetery Ridge. Lee assessed his enemy's positions and determined — against the advice of his defensively minded second-in-command, James Longstreet — to attack the Federals where they stood. He ordered Longstreet to lead an attack on the Union left, while Ewell's corps would strike the right, near Culp's Hill. Though his orders were to attack as early in the day as possible, Longstreet didn't get his men into position until 4 pm, when they opened fire on the Union corps commanded by Daniel Sickles.
Over the next several hours, bloody fighting raged along Sickles' line, which stretched from the nest of boulders known as Devil's Den into a peach orchard, as well as in a nearby wheat field and on the slopes of Little Round Top. Thanks to fierce fighting by one Minnesota regiment, the Federals were able to hold Little Round Top, but lost the orchard, field and Devil's Den; Sickles himself was seriously wounded. Ewell's men had advanced on the Union forces at Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill in coordination with Longstreet's 4 pm attack, but Union forces had stalled their attack by dusk. Both armies suffered extremely heavy losses on July 2, with 9,000 or more casualties on each side. The combined casualty total from two days of fighting came to nearly 35,000, the largest two-day toll of the war.
Battle of Gettysburg, Day 3: July 3
Early on the morning of July 3, Union forces of the Twelfth Army Corps pushed back a Confederate threat against Culp's Hill after a seven-hour firefight and regained their strong position. Believing his men had been on the brink of victory the day before, Lee decided to send three divisions (preceded by an artillery barrage) against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Fewer than 15,000 troops, led by a division under George Pickett, would be tasked with marching some three-quarters of a mile across open fields to attack dug-in Union infantry positions.
Despite Longstreet's protests, Lee was determined, and the attack — later known as "Pickett's Charge" — went forward around 3 pm, after an artillery bombardment by some 150 Confederate guns. Union infantry opened fire on the advancing rebels from behind stone walls, while regiments from Vermont, New York and Ohio hit both of the enemy's flanks. Caught from all sides, barely half of the Confederates survived, and Pickett's division lost two-thirds of its men. As the survivors stumbled back to their opening position, Lee and Longstreet scrambled to shore up their defensive line after the failed assault.
Battle of Gettysburg: Aftermath and Impact
His hopes of a victorious invasion of the North dashed, Lee waited for a Union counterattack on July 4, but it never came. That night, in heavy rain, the Confederate general withdrew his decimated army toward Virginia. Though the cautious Meade would be criticized for not pursuing the enemy after Gettysburg, the battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy. Union casualties in the battle numbered 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men — more than a third of Lee's army. The North rejoiced while the South mourned its hopes for foreign recognition of the Confederacy erased.
In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver remarks, which later became known as the Gettysburg Address, at the official dedication ceremony for the National Cemetery of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, on the site of one of the bloodiest and most decisive battles of the Civil War. Though he was not the featured orator that day, Lincoln's 273-word address would be remembered as one of the most important speeches in American history. In it, he invoked the principles of human equality contained in the Declaration of Independence and connected the sacrifices of the Civil War with the desire for "a new birth of freedom," as well as the all-important preservation of the Union created in 1776 and its ideal of self-government.
Demoralized by the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis, but was refused. Though the great Confederate general would go on to win other victories, the Battle of Gettysburg (combined with Ulysses S. Grant's victory at Vicksburg, also on July 4) irrevocably turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor.
As after previous battles, thousands of Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg were quickly buried, many in poorly marked graves. In the months that followed, however, local attorney David Wills spearheaded efforts to create a national cemetery at Gettysburg. Wills and the Gettysburg Cemetery Commission originally set October 23 as the date for the cemetery's dedication, but delayed it to mid-November after their choice for speaker, Edward Everett, said he needed more time to prepare. Everett, the former president of Harvard College, former U.S. senator and former secretary of state, was at the time one of the country's leading orators. On November 2, just weeks before the event, Wills extended an invitation to President Lincoln, asking him "formally [to] set apart these grounds to their sacred use by a few appropriate remarks."
Though Lincoln was extremely frustrated with Meade and the Army of the Potomac for failing to pursue Lee's forces in their retreat, he was cautiously optimistic as the year 1863 drew to a close. He also considered it significant that the Union victories at Gettysburg and at Vicksburg, under General Ulysses S. Grant, had both occurred on the same day: July 4, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.
When he received the invitation to make the remarks at Gettysburg, Lincoln saw an opportunity to make a broad statement to the American people on the enormous significance of the war, and he prepared carefully. Though long-running popular legend holds that he wrote the speech on the train while traveling to Pennsylvania, he probably wrote about half of it before leaving the White House on November 18, and completed writing and revising it that night, after talking with Secretary of State William H. Seward, who had accompanied him to Gettysburg.
On the morning of November 19, Everett delivered his two-hour oration (from memory) on the Battle of Gettysburg and its significance, and the orchestra played a hymn composed for the occasion by B.B. French. Lincoln then rose to the podium and addressed the crowd of some 15,000 people. He spoke for less than two minutes, and the entire speech was only 270 words long. Beginning by invoking the image of the founding fathers and the new nation, Lincoln eloquently expressed his conviction that the Civil War was the ultimate test of whether the Union created in 1776 would survive, or whether it would "perish from the earth." The dead at Gettysburg had laid down their lives for this noble cause, he said, and it was up to the living to confront the "great task" before them: ensuring that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."
The essential themes and even some of the language of the Gettysburg Address were not new; Lincoln himself, in his July 1861 message to Congress, had referred to the United States as "a democracy–a government of the people, by the same people." The radical aspect of the speech, however, began with Lincoln's assertion that the Declaration of Independence–and not the Constitution–was the true expression of the founding fathers' intentions for their new nation. At that time, many white slave owners had declared themselves to be "true" Americans, pointing to the fact that the Constitution did not prohibit slavery; according to Lincoln, the nation formed in 1776 was "dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." In an interpretation that was radical at the time–but is now taken for granted — Lincoln's historic address redefined the Civil War as a struggle not just for the Union, but also for the principle of human equality.
On the day following the dedication ceremony, newspapers all over the country reprinted Lincoln's speech along with Everett's. Opinion was generally divided along political lines, with Republican journalists praising the speech as a heartfelt, classic piece of oratory and Democratic ones deriding it as inadequate and inappropriate for the momentous occasion.
In the years to come, the Gettysburg Address would endure as arguably the most-quoted, most-memorized piece of oratory in American history. After Lincoln's assassination in April 1865, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts wrote of the address, "That speech, uttered at the field of Gettysburg and now sanctified by the martyrdom of its author, is a monumental act. In the modesty of his nature he said 'the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; but it can never forget what they did here.' He was mistaken. The world at once noted what he said, and will never cease to remember it."
In just 270 words Lincoln gave one of the most famous speeches in American History:
"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that "Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."
No doubt the finest theatrical film made about the Civil War is the 1993 film “Gettysburg.” The 4-1/2 hour film, directed by Ronald F. Maxwell and staring Martin Sheen and Tom Berenger, is a depiction of the historical and personal events surrounding and including the decisive American civil war battle. It features thousands of civil war re-enactors marching over the exact ground that the federal army and the army of North Virginia fought on. The defense of the Little Round Top and Pickett's Charge are highlighted in the actual three day battle which is surrounded by the speeches of the commanding officers and the personal reflections of the fighting men. It is based upon Michael Shaara’s novel “The Killer Angels.”
I have included a few scenes from the film below.
The first scene is of Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain where deliver’s a speech to 120 mutineers of the 20th Maine Division.
This scene depicts Chamberlain’s bayonet charge on Little Round Top where his decision was instrumental in holding the left flank of the Union line against a full assault by Confederate troops.
This scene depicts the infamous and disastrous Pickett’s charge against the massed Union infantry and artillery on Cemetery Ridge
In this scene you see the aftermath of Pickett’s charge and Lee and Longstreet’s realization that the battle had been lost and they needed to regroup the Army of Virginia and retreat.
This final scene is of a Gettysburg tour guide giving a detailed account of Pickett’s charge
I have visited the Gettysburg National Battlefield site three times once with my wife, once with my brother and his wife, and recently during my Lincoln Highway road trip. The Lincoln Highway (U.S. Route 30) runs along the north side of the battlefield and is dotted with plaques and monuments memorializing the battles and the generals who were involved. The route also runs through the center of Gettysburg and the hamlet of Cash Town where Confederate General Hill’s Corps assembled for the battle making his headquarters in the inn that still stands and is serving customers to this day.
The Gettysburg Battle was a turning point in the Civil War. After suffering loss after loss and seeing horrendous causality figures the Union states were growing weary of the war. The Copperheads were pushing for negotiated peace and a return to the Union prior to the beginning of hostilities. Every family in the North was affected by the war so far. There was a sense of dread in the North that the Lincoln could not win this war and he was taking the Union into an abyss.
Gettysburg changed all of this. It gave new hope and energy to the North. It silenced the Copperheads and brought new vigor to recruitment. It dashed any hopes of foreign recognition of the Confederate States as a sovereign nation. It gave Lincoln a second term and the ability to get the 13th Amendment passed and ratified abolishing slavery and involuntary servitude. No one will ever know what would have happened had Lee defeated the Union forces at Gettysburg and marched unopposed into Washington D.C. Historians can only conjecture, based on newspaper reports and comments from politicians of the time, what the outcome would have been. However, one thing we know for sure is that like the Battle of Trenton during the Revolutionary War in 1777 where Washington crossed a frozen river on Christmas night and surprised a bunch of Hessen Mercenaries supporting the British and turned the tide of our revolution The Battle of Gettysburg accomplished a similar feat and gave the Republic a new birth in freedom.