Both parties’ deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came
At 4:30 AM on April 12, 1861, the first shot of the American Civil War was fired when a single 10 inch mortar exploded over Fort Sumter in South Carolina. Within three days the Confederate army had won the first battle of the war and the United and Confederate States entered the bloodiest 4 years of United States History. In 1865, after the last gun had sounded, almost a quarter of a million American soldiers had died, casualties of the war.
The cause of the Civil War is often debated. However, for this discussion it will be simplified; the war was fought over states’ rights in relation to slavery. The Presidential election of 1860 resulted in the election of a Republican president, named Abraham Lincoln. In response to his policies and political agenda, the southern states of the union combined to form the Confederate States of America. Soon thereafter, they passed succession ordinances officially declaring themselves separate from the Union. President Lincoln refused to accept their succession; declaring the act illegal. In 1861, following the Confederate victory at Fort Sumter, President Lincoln ordered the recapture of the fort. The war had officially begun.
By the summer of 1863, the war was at its peak. The Confederate army of Northern Virginia had pushed far into the North, and the Union army (in a desperate attempt to stop them), routed themselves towards the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. By pure chance, General Robert E. Lee had chosen the area around Gettysburg as a place to entrench his army, and did not even know the Union Army had crossed the Potomac until June 29th. On June 30th, a number of Confederate troops were sent into the town looking for supplies; especially shoes. Upon arrival, they found a number of Union Cavalry entering the other side of town. Fearing attack, the Confederates left town and reported the cavalry to their commanding officers. Thinking the force his men had encountered were only the local militia, Commanding General Henry Heth marched 2 brigades into Gettysburg, thinking his force was sufficient to repel this small group. To his astonishment, he encountered more than a small militia. Instead, he found the advanced cavalry of Army of the Potomac, a mere 90,000 men strong.
Since I was a young boy, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania has been on the list of places I had longed to visit. At first it was my innate fascination with war, but later a solemn respect that urged me to visit the sacred battle field where so many men had lost their lives defending our country. Sunday November 2, I awoke early and prepared for the day. My fiancée, her mother and I left by mid-morning on our trek to Gettysburg. By early afternoon we had arrived and I reveled in the beauty of the place. We first visited the gift shop and spent some time looking at memorabilia. I settled on one of my favorite books The Killer Angels and left the rest of the shopping to my fiancée. It was a beautiful but windy day when we set off on our journey to see the battlefield. My heart began to beat rapidly as I got excited to get on our way. We had bought the audio car tour and set out quickly, stopping occasionally to see a few selected sights.
On July 1, against General Lee’s orders, General Heth ordered a general advance on the Union position. At 7:30 AM, the first shot of the battle at Gettysburg was fired. Brigadier General John Buford, recognizing the importance of the high ground to the Southeast of Gettysburg, ordered his cavalry to dismount and fight. This would buy time for the rest of the Union Army to take that higher position. Soon, Major General John Reynolds joined Buford with his core of infantry. Moments later, General Reynolds was shot and killed while urging his men forward. They held the ground in the morning hours until the rest of General Meade’s army arrived. The fighting broke off near afternoon and picked back up a few hours later. By the end of the day, the Union had lost the fight around town and had retreated to Cemetery ridge. This is where they would fight the rest of the battle.
Standing on the crest of Seminary Ridge looking across the town to Cemetery Ridge, the scope and size of the battlefield began to sink in. I could see the woods where the first shots were fired and almost hear the shouts of the men as they chased the Yankees across this open chasm of land. The beauty of the land slowly became apparent to me as I stood among the relics and scenery of the battle. We drove south along the road a couple of miles to where the left flank of the Union army would have been stationed.
On July 2, the Confederates attacked full force on all positions from Little Round Top to the Union position on Rock Creek. Three significant battles were fought that day, but only one is remembered as one of the most important of the war. The battle of Little Round Top is perhaps the most pivotal two hours of the Civil War. While some critics may argue otherwise, I still believe this to be the case. The extreme flank of the Union army was protected by the 20th Maine; 386 men led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and his Lieutenant Holman Melcher. Their men held against three charges by the Confederate army for over 90 minutes. They held until they had almost run out of ammunition. It was then that Lieutenant Melcher suggested a bayonet charge. Uncommon for the era, the charge was an offensive strategy meant to maintain the hold of a defensive position. Colonel Chamberlain agreed and the order was given. “FIX BAYONETS!” Moments later, running down the slope toward the confederate position, the 20th Maine overtook and captured the 15th Alabama. Their actions on Little Round Top had saved the Union Flank and likely won this important battle.
As I stepped out of the car on that windy hill, the reverence of that place hit me. In the back of my mind, I could hear Colonel Chamberlain ordering the bayonet charge and I could hear the cannon in the distance. I slowly approached the top of the hill with my fiancée and was blown away (almost literally) by the sheer beauty of the landscape. Stretching from North to South, the entirety of the battlefield stood before me. We arrived shortly before sunset. I took the moments I had left to revel in the landscape. We took a few pictures before turning to leave. We drove off to our final stop, Cemetery Ridge.
After a long and horribly bloody day of battle, the Union and Confederate forces settled in for the night. Lee had planned on commencing his next attack as he had the day before, concentrating his force on the enemy’s flanks. However, due to an unforeseen artillery bombardment early in the morning, Lee was forced to change his plans. Instead, he commanded Lieutenant General James Longstreet to lead a charge into the Union front. While named after Major General George Pickett as Pickett’s Charge, it was General Longstreet who led this infamous march. Around midday the most intense artillery bombardment of the entire Civil War was launched against the Union front. The 150+ guns were heard from as far away as Philadelphia. Shortly after the bombardment stopped, 12,000 men set off toward the enemy line. One of those men, Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, approached the Union line with only one thought in his mind. His best friend, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, led the entirety of the force he was marching straight towards. His men dove head first into the enemy lines and made it further than any other brigade in the battle. His men made what came to be known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy,” (or rather the closest the South ever got to winning the war). As his men crossed that spot, General Armistead was shot three times, mortally wounding him. Quickly, the Union force overcame his men and they were driven back leaving him behind bloodied on the field of battle. He died two days later, never having seen his best friend; who had led the group of men that had ultimately killed him. After the charge had failed, General Lee called for a full retreat.
As I sat in the car listening to the story of the battle, I fought back the tears. I released one choked sob and in that moment felt the horrendous loss of the battle. As the sun began to set, I could feel so many different emotions. Sorrow, gratitude, pity, empathy, love, etc… I put the car in gear and drove on. We stopped only briefly at the cemetery. As we drove, I listened as the audio tour played Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I listened intently before “Taps” took over the sound of his voice. I started crying again as I silently repeated these words to myself the rest of the way:
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot 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.”
November 19, 1863
Written in commemoration of this address 151 years to the day
November 19, 2014