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Battle of Gettysburg

Fred Hendricks, Bucyrus, OhioTombstones line the Gettysburg National Cemetery

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Many battles have been fought in the course of American History. The Battle at Gettysburg is no doubt held in great reverence. Certainly, the battlegrounds are the most hallowed as almost 50,000 men among the 165,000 troops who fought lost their lives. On July 4, 1863 after three days of intense fighting the battle itself marked the turning point in the two-year old Civil War.

The question is often asked, why Gettysburg? General Robert Lee struggled to keep sufficient supplies on hand for his Confederate troops. As he moved north toward Harrisburg, Lee set up camp northwest of the small hamlet of Gettysburg. One of the brigades was assigned the task to enter Gettysburg because reports indicated that supplies were available in town, particularly shoes. The brigade encountered the enemy on the edge of town. They retreated to their encampment not knowing the size of the force. It turned out that these northern brigades were part of the Army of the Potomac led by General George Meade.

On July 1, 1863 (Day 1) the lingering thought that supplies were plentiful and the opposition minimal, Lee advanced toward Gettysburg. Reinforcements arrived to bolster the Union troops, but Lee was able to advance an even larger army and forced the enemy to retreat. It appeared as though Lee had all the odds in his favor, however the fighting had been intense and his casualties were high. And, he did not know the size of the Union forces. By the next morning both armies were committed to a major battle that neither side had wanted or anticipated.



July 2, 1863 (Day 2), while the Union Army appeared to have the strategic position, Lee decided to attach on the flanks. General Meade expected General Lee to attack from the northeast so he fortified Culp’s Hill. This strategy proved successful for Meade. Attacks by the Confederates on the southern flank were more successful as the Union troops were pushed back in bloody fighting. A strategic and key fortification went unmanned for much of the day, Little Round Top. The location was a knobby hill on the southernmost part of the battleground. It offered a clear view of the entire area along with troop movements. Both armies realized the importance of the location at the same time and rushed to seize the hill. The Union forces got their first only after a vicious encounter with the Confederates. With additional troops arriving the Union Army numbered 90,000 and the Confederate forces numbered 75,000.

July 3, 1863 (Day 3), Lee assumed the Union flanks to be heavily fortified so the weak spot would be up the middle or belly. A charge of 12,000 troops led by General George Pickett (Pickett’s Charge) marched across an open field that became a complete massacre of Confederate soldiers. In addition, General George Armstrong Custer had repulsed Lee’s rear flank.



July 4, 1863, both sides waited for the other to initiate an attack. On July 5, Lee retreated. General Meade did not pursue. The Confederate Army had taken great losses along with dwindling supplies and ammunition. Lee lost 30 percent of his army while the Union losses were almost the same, but his pool of replacements was smaller. The Battle of Gettysburg did not end the Civil War, but it was a significant turning point toward the Union’s eventual victory.

The community of Gettysburg was left to clean up the carnage. The residents opened their homes, barns and public buildings to serve as hospitals for the wounded of both armies. There was a genuine compassion for each other after the fighting was over.

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln participated in the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. His address lasted about two minutes and seemed unimportant at the time. Instead, it has lived through the years and has become a priceless speech for all Americans … for generations to follow.


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