Few wars have been so extensively studied or reflected upon as the American Civil War. For roughly four long years, America was torn in two. One side wished to break away and form a southern republic, which would have been dependent on slave labor. The other wished to preserve the union and prevent the slave states from seceding. After four excruciating, bloody years, the war’s end was signaled with General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
Each war has its notable turning points. In World War II, there were many, but the most significant are usually considered to be Midway for the Pacific, Stalingrad for the Eastern Front, and D-Day for Europe. With the Civil War, it would be none other than the Battle of Gettysburg. Up until this point, Confederate forces had won almost every major battle in the east. Just two months earlier, Lee’s troops had won their greatest victory yet at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Though Lee lost his greatest general – Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson – his soldiers won an overwhelming victory. This gave Lee a great leap in confidence and encouraged him to take the fight to the North.
Gettysburg is a small town located in southern Pennsylvania. The battle that occurred there lasted three days, from July 1-3. All three days of battle played an important role in the outcome of the Civil War. The first day’s battle saw Union General John Buford arrive with cavalry reinforcements. The day, however, witnessed a minor Confederate victory, though Union troops captured the hills south of the town.
On the second day, heavy fighting occurred on the left flank of the Union army in an area known as Devil’s Den. Filled with large boulders, this location proved to be a hotspot for sharpshooters. Most of the recognition for the battle’s second day, however, has gone to Little Round Top. This forested hill, which can be seen from Devil’s Den, was being held by Northern troops. In an attempt to capture the hill, Confederate forces made the charge up several times, only to be repelled by Union soldiers under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. With his troops running low on ammunition, Chamberlain made a bold and risky decision. On his order, they would fix bayonets. No one is certain as to how it began, but his troops charged bayonet-first down Little Round Top. The charge was successful and the Confederate advance was halted. Chamberlain was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.
The third day of battle saw one of the riskiest attempts of the entire war. By order of General Lee, General George Pickett was tasked with sending a Confederate division to capture a heavily-secured Union position behind a rock wall. This task would not be easy. The stone wall laid across an open field, and just reaching it was a very complicated task, in and of itself. Though some of Lee’s generals doubted the plan, it was carried out, nonetheless. Pickett’s Charge, as it is commonly called, resulted in a major defeat for the Confederates. Many of Pickett’s men, as well as those of General James Pettigrew (who also helped lead the charge), were killed. With the third day’s battle going to the Union, Lee decided to retreat from Gettysburg. Overall, the Battle of Gettysburg proved to be the victory that the Union needed, and in just under two years, Lee would surrender to General Grant at Appomattox Courthouse, Virginia.
In November 1863, President Lincoln delivered his famous “Gettysburg Address.” In this, he acknowledged the heroism of those brave soldiers who fought on that hallowed ground. Today, Gettysburg remains a popular historic attraction. May we always remember those who fought.