One hundred and forty-seven years ago this June 30th, a handful of troopers from Major General John Buford’s Union cavalry ran into a group of Confederate soldiers on the Emmetsburg road just outside the Pennsylvania crossroads town of Gettysburg. What followed from this unplanned and largely unexpected encounter would turn out to be an epic event whose echoes still resound through the halls of time today. No single three-day moment in American history has had so enduring an impact and has so captured the imagination of all the following generations as the clash of arms we call The Battle Of Gettysburg. Whether or not it was the so-called “turning point” many so denominate it in America’s Civil War, what took place there, and the words which were afterward spoken there by our sixteenth President have helped to make it one of our most honored tracts of “hallowed ground”.
Both Union General George Gordon Meade, newly-appointed commander of the Army of The Potomac, and General Robert E. Lee, leader of the Army of Northern Virginia were many miles away when the shooting started and the opposing sides began to establish their respective fighting positions. From the very beginning, this was to be a “soldiers’ fight” rather than a contest between Generals, although there would be enough of those to go around. In all, more than 170,000 men and boys (and an unknown number of women dressed as men) would take part. The North would suffer 28,000 casualties, and Lee’s forces 25,000.
If one were keeping score, July 1st and 2nd would have to be chalked up as wins for Lee, but on July 3rd, the legendary man-in-gray guessed wrong and sent George Pickett’s division on a one mile march against the strongest section of Meade’s line, and into the teeth of withering Union fire. One of the many ironies of Gettysburg is that Pickett, one of the least talented of Confederate generals on the field should be the most-remembered name of the event.
In one of numerous side-bar stories of that day, two former West Point classmates and life-long friends were on course to fulfill a destiny they had both vowed to avoid. Lewis B. Armistead, a North Carolinian and Winfield Scott Hancock, a son of Pennsylvania had been serving together in a U.S. Army post in California as the secession crisis expanded. After Armistead and other officers from the south announced a decision to join the Confederacy, a final party was held, at which the two old friends pledged never to knowingly give harm to the other. Now, it was Brigadier General Lewis Armistead who rode at the head of Pickett’s ill-fated advance toward the copse of trees which would mark the Confederacy’s “high water point” in a war which would go on for two more costly years - but would never be quite the same again – and Union Major General Winfield Scott Hancock who waited in command of the defenders. In the final minutes of that violent collision of arms, both men would fall, mortally wounded within feet of each other. Armistead would die of his wounds, while Hancock would survive, to hand-deliver her husband’s silk scarf to his friend’s widow, and to go on himself to a full military career, and a nomination for the presidency of the United States.
Another Pennsylvania boy came home that day. Wesley Culp of Gettysburg had courted and wed a southern girl some years earlier and had chosen to live in her native Virginia. Now, clad in the gray uniform of his Virginia regiment, he was among the many who fell on July 2nd in the fight which would ever after be known as the Battle of Culp’s Hill. He died within a hundred yards of the farm house in which he was born, and which was defended by a Pennsylvania regiment in which his brother Robert was a lieutenant.
George Gordon Meade gave President Lincoln the victory he needed in his battle with a Congress ever-more-reluctant to support the war effort, and to convince European powers that threatening the blockade of southern ports might be unwise after all. Yet Meade disappointed the President by failing to follow up the field victory, and allowing Lee to retreat with his exposed 90-mile long “caravan” back to the safety of Virginia. Lincoln could put up with commanders who were openly hostile to him (i.e. George B. McClellan) but who understood how to fight and win a battle. (He had even chosen as his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, a Democrat who often stubbornly opposed him.) He was very unforgiving though, of Generals who failed to understand that victory meant destroying the enemy, not taking over cities.
In his classic Civil War study “THE FINAL FURY”, Bruce Catton noted that in the final analysis, the man behind the Union victory at Gettysburg – and elsewhere in that epic struggle - did not wear a uniform, but was a civilian who sat in an oval office many miles away.
A foggy September sunrise outlines a Civil War cannon in front of the famous copse of trees where the culmination of Pickett’s Charge marked the South’s high water mark of the Civil War. Along with “Little Round Top” and “Devil’s Den”, it is one of Al Cooper’s most
revered sites of the sprawling Gettysburg National Battlefield.
Not far from this resting place of one of the hundreds of “Unknowns” at Gettysburg
is the site from which President Lincoln delivered the address he thought would be “soon forgotten”.