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Gettysburg: Different Aspects of a Great Battle
It is possible to ruminate for a long time on the subject of Gettysburg.
Gettysburg's Place in History
First of all, there is the aspect of its overall place in history. When I was young, Gettysburg was one of the ten greatest battles in World History, along with others like Marathon, Tours, Hastings, Saratoga, Waterloo, and Normandy. In recent times, many have increased the number of battles; however, even in new schemes Gettysburg continues to hold its place as one of the world’s great battles. It greatly determined the destiny of a nation that would influence the destiny of the world.
A Treasure of Historical Ironies
Secondly, there is the aspect of its character as a holder of great ironies. The South came in from the North on that first day in July, 1863, and the North came in from the South. The South, so renowned for great generals, saw its generals so often at odds and failing in their assignments. Jeb Stuart, the famous cavalry leader, was entirely missing at the start. The southern city, Talladega, Alabama, and the northern city, Presque Isle, Maine, are connected by a straight line whose midpoint is only yards away from Little Round Top, where Oats’ regiment (marched forth from Talladega) met Chamberlain’s 20th Maine regiment (marched forth from Presque Isle) on the second day of the battle. The battle took place in Adam’s County, Pennsylvania, formed as a county during the presidency of John Adams and named for the renowned antislavery president. It took place in the small market town of Gettysburg, only a mile or two from the border with Maryland—that famed “Mason-Dixon” line that separates North and South—and when the great battle that would decide the union of North and South was over, it was the Fourth of July.
Gettysburg's Conflict and Grief
Perhaps of greatest interest to most people is the sheer crash and violence of this great contest between General Lee’s Confederates and General Meade’s Federals. On the first day, Buford’s cavalry division barely restrained the rebel advance from the Northwest, only to see General Reynolds slain and the federal force retreating madly through the town (thousands of prisoners fell into rebel hands), only for that to be stopped by a commanding and resourceful General Winfield Scott Hancock, who would later say on Day 3, when he rode back and forth through the rebel barrage before Pickett’s Charge, “There are times when a Corps commander’s life does not count.”
On the second day, the Confederates would charge at just about every point along the federal fishhook formation, and the fighting would become intense at places like the Peach Orchard, where the rather inept Tamany-Hall-politician-turned-general Sickles would lose his leg, then see it later donated to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, then still later visit that institution to show it off to his friends. On that same day, on Little Round Top, Colonel Chamberlain’s 20th Maine regiment would be pushed back five times, then fight their way back to their position, then stage a bayonet charge that would decide the engagement. Meanwhile, at the other end, a young man named Wesley Culp, who had left his native Gettysburg earlier for Virginia, then joined the Confederate army and marched North in Ewell’s Corps, would engage the Federals on “Culp’s Hill” and die within yards of his birthplace.
On the third day, the Confederates under Lee’s orders would “move from the woods and rapidly take their places in the lines forming the assault. Over half a mile their front would extend, more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses would deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. Their red flags would wave, their horsemen would gallop up and down. The arms of 15,000 men, barrel and bayonet, would gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel” (Diary of Frank Haskell). This magnificent formation would march right up to the muzzles of federal muskets and cannon and leave thousands of young Southern lives on the ground.
This crash and violence has prompted literary response from many, most notably Mr. Horton, whose two-hour commemorative speech in November, 1863, is largely forgotten, and Abraham Lincoln, whose brief remarks known as the Gettysburg address are legend. Subsequent historians like Bruce Catton and Shelby Foote have contributed their observations. The southern author William Faulkner has observed that whereas July third was the high tide of the Confederacy and a defeat whose effects they could not reverse, nevertheless it is possible for a young southern boy to return to that moment on July third before the charge commences and have that moment for himself.
There is surely a continuous "invasion" of visitors onto this hallowed ground from across the United States and around the world to see the monuments, watch the reenactments, climb the observation platforms, hike the trails, and take a multitude of pictures. Whatever their ruminations are, they have the benefit of creating them from one of the greatest events in our history.