Men and horses marched to Gettysburg and to history GETTYSBURG


To understand how a quiet, obscure Pennsylvania town with no industry, no military significance at all in July of 1863, became the fiercely contested ground in the bloodiest three days of fighting in the Civil War -- now the subject of the new Turner Pictures epic "Gettysburg" -- one has only to consult a map of the countryside.

Ten different roads led into Gettysburg in those days from the surrounding Pennsylvania and Maryland countryside, making it the natural rallying point for a scattered army trying to quickly piece itself together. Which was exactly what the Army of Northern Virginia, under the leadership of Robert E. Lee, was attempting to do.

Lee had invaded Pennsylvania in the desperate hope that taking the war directly to the people of the North and winning a battle in their back yard would make them so sick of this unending conflict they would demand of their leaders an immediate political resolution to the war.

Crossing into Maryland, he split his 70,000-man army into several elements, confident that his colorful cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, would keep him apprised of the whereabouts of the main Union army -- supposedly still in Virginia.

But when spies told Lee that the federal forces were already concentrated in Maryland near the Pennsylvania border, he knew he would have to call his army quickly together before it was attacked and destroyed piecemeal. The map told him that all roads led south to Gettysburg, and that is where he ordered his men to converge.

Meanwhile, the main Union army of about 93,000 -- under the new command of George G. Meade -- was pushing north and had sent cavalry into Pennsylvania to try to pinpoint the exact location of the Confederate invaders. It was on the night of June 30, 1863, that elements of A.P. Hill's corps of Lee's army, foraging into Gettysburg for shoes, discovered the Union cavalry.

The next day, July 1, Hill sent a large force forward to explore the Union position. The 3,000 dismounted federal cavalry, led by Gen. John Buford, held off the rebels until lead elements of the main Union army arrived. Buford's gritty stand against superior numbers gave the Union a chance to occupy the ring of hills surrounding Gettysburg -- including Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill.

But it wasn't only Buford's courage that saved the day, it was also, say some historians, the ineptitude of Confederate Gen. Richard Ewell, who passed up a golden opportunity late on July 1st to seize the high ground, leaving General Meade with the superior defensive position.

Still unoccupied though, as the second day of the battle began, was rocky, tree-lined Little Round Top at the extreme left flank of the Union line. It was over this small hill that Lee and his trusted assistant, James Longstreet, argued on July 2.

Lee wanted to attack but Longstreet counseled forcing the Union to be the aggressors. In the end, Lee won the argument, ordering an attack at Little Round Top, although historians have long debated the many hours that Longstreet delayed putting his troops into action. As it happened, the horrific battle over Little Round Top late on the second day, hinged on one regiment of Maine volunteers holding off a unit of volunteers from Alabama, saving the Union line and perhaps the entire Grand Republic.

By July 3, Lee felt his and the South's best chance for victory was an all-out attack on the Union line. After a two-hour artillery barrage, he sent 15,000 of his men in a frontal assault on the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. Pickett's Charge, named for the lead rebel division commanded by Gen. George Pickett, gave the Confederates a momentary breakthrough in the Union center, but they were quickly thrown back in total disorder.

England lost interest in a possible recognition of the Confederacy after Gettysburg, and it was said thereafter that the Confederacy reached its high water mark during Pickett's Charge -- that it would never again be as strong or as much of a threat. Though the war would drag on for another 21 months, for all practical purposes it ended with these three days of fighting with more than 50,000 Americans wounded, killed or captured.

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad