(Gettysburg, Pennsylvania; July 3, 2021) – The stage was set, the audience seated, the orchestra at the ready; the final curtain was about to rise for the great clash of the Titans on the fields of Gettysburg.
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, desperate for a final knock-out blow that would humble the Union, win Southern independence, and assure his own reputation as an American military genius worthy mention in such company as Washington and Napoleon, gambled on the invincible spirit and unshakable determination of his me. After all, his Army of Northern Virginia had successfully defeated the Union’s mighty Army of the Potomac for over a year since he took command. The last great victory, at Chancellorsville, had even been an offensive victory. He’d divided his smaller army and attacked the Union juggernaut, humiliating it and winning the day.
He was desperate for that final, sure stroke that would end the war, end the bloodshed, and prove his genius. Lee was dashing, charismatic, handsome, winsome in attitude and beloved by his men. He was the odds-on favorite to win the contest.
Opposite this gallant and romantic figure on the human chess board was the bug-eyed, irascible, gaunt-faced Gen. George Gordon Meade. Meade was a man at no risk of ever being accused of being handsome, charming, charismatic, or even generally likable. Known to his men as “that damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle,” Meade was methodical, brisk, businesslike, and an eminently unrecognized military genius.
Over the prior two days of fighting, Lee had hit (and hit and hit and hit) Meade’s left and right flanks. Meade’s forces had prevailed in holding their positions, but the cost was dear to both armies. As night fell over the killing fields and July 2, 1863, began to ebb into history, Lee hit up a brilliant strategy.
Since the Union line had been repeatedly struck on the ends, it was logical to assume the center was the weakest point. He would send a massed cannonade, followed by a massed infantry charge, into the Union center the next day. This blunt force trauma would be inflicted on the Union army as part of a complex operation that included renewed attacks on the Union’s right at Culp’s Hill while the Confederate cavalry struck the Union rear. Gen. Meade’s beleaguered, battered, and broken army would be buffeted into submission, cracking into pieces as the Confederates decimated them…again.
As July 2, 1863, began to fade into history, George Meade was sending reinforcements to the on-going fight on Culp’s Hill. Conferring with his generals, he hit upon a shrewdly logically conclusion based on Lee’s actions of the prior two days. Realizing Lee had been pummeling his flanks for 48 hours, Meade reasoned it was likely Lee would go for his center the next day. Unlike Lee, who gave his orders and then sat back to let them be fulfilled, Meade gave his orders…and then continued his habit of moving all over his lines of battle to ensure his officers were on the same page and his men were ready.
If you have developed a foreshadowing of doom for the Southern cause, then you see the situation as James Longstreet saw it. Longstreet, Lee’s top lieutenant, had no faith the battle plan would succeed, even if all parts of it went off without a hitch. Longstreet argued until he was blue in the face that Meade’s forces were just too damned strong. Lee refused the counsel; he was certain his forces were stronger.
July 3 dawned bright and bloody, but the Fates were already telegraphing loudly to Lee that his plan was not going to work. The renewed attack on Culp’s Hill began, but began late and was far too small to be a real threat to anyone but the Union soldiers on that hill.
Part 1 of Lee’s great plan was in the toilet.
The Confederate cavalry set up their horse artillery and began to batter the Union rear…except that Meade had his cavalry guarding his backside, and they engaged the rebel horsemen with great alacrity. A little known, but incredibly critical, cavalry battle was engaged five miles east of Gettysburg. It was short, violent, and utterly decisive. The Union cavalry sounding trounced their foes, ending the threat to the Union rear.
Part 2 of Lee’s great plan was derailed.
At about 1:00 p.m. on July 3rd, Lee’s artillery opened up from its position on Seminary Ridge, throwing more cannonballs at the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge than had ever been fired at once before that day. It was the biggest cannonade ever to fire off on North America, and it seemingly silenced the Union batteries but good. Seemingly…because the smoke became so thick so fast the Confederate batteries couldn’t aim accurately anymore and overshot their marks.
At about 3:00 p.m. over 13,000 men—a line of infantry a mile long—stepped off and began to march across the mile of land separating them from their Union foes. They thought they had it all…until they reached the Emmitsburg Road. As soon as they crossed that road, the Union artillery opened fire, blasting great swaths of rebels literally into vapors. As the Confederates closed in, the Union infantry rose up and fired, the sheet of lead further pruning the Confederate bush. By the time the rebels reached the Union line and breached it, they were beaten and already in retreat.
Nearly 13,000 men stepped off on what is known as Pickett’s Charge. About 7,000 returned. Lee’s gamble had failed, his army was defeated; indeed, his army was decimated, and the sun began to set on Confederate hopes even as the sun began to set on the battlefield. Lee would retreat to Virginia under a pouring rain on July 4th. Meade, in command of his army only 6 days by now, did not follow. His army was as disorganized by victor as Lee’s was devastated by defeat. Meade was vilified for this, even President Lincoln came to believe Meade made the right call. Sending a disorganized, exhausted army after a foe risked suffering the kind of unrecoverable disaster that had just befallen the rebels.
July 4th did not just bring the news of Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg; the telegraph lines also burned with news that Major General Grant had taken the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg. The loss of Vicksburg opened the Mississippi back up to Union commerce and physically split the Confederacy in half. In one 24-hour period, Lee’s seemingly invincible army had been decisively defeated, and the South’s seemingly impregnable fortress had fallen. The tide turned that July 4th. Over two years of bloody fighting remained, but momentum had forever shifted its gaze and fell behind the Union cause.
The Confederate dead were left in their shallow graves until the Southern States could bring them south. The United States government created a new national cemetery in Gettysburg to care for the Union dead and help the blighted town begin to recover. The cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863 with a procession and speeches. President Lincoln attended and gave some brief remarks during the dedication. Those remarks resound today, not only for Gettysburg, but for every patriot grave and battlefield from the Revolutionary War to Afghanistan and Iraq, the mystic chords of memory forever reminding us that…
“…we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
–Abraham Lincoln November 19, 1863
Check out Part 3 of my video about Gettysburg’s 158th at: https://youtu.be/hmZzG7l9B4U
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