The Battle of Gettysburg
During the long, hot summer of 1863, the Civil War raged through a divided United States, and the people of the nation wondered if the fighting would ever end, who would ultimately emerge victorious, and how the eventual outcome would impact their lives and those of future generations.
Amid the dry, hot weather of that summer, the armies of the United States of America and Confederate States of America fought the bloodiest battle of the Civil War in the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as the war crossed the Mason Dixon line and threatened the capitol city of the United States.
Undoubtedly, this pivotal event punctuated the wartime events of 1863, the Civil War as a whole, and changed the course of American history. This paper will not only discuss the details of The Battle of Gettysburg and the personalities involved, but will also explore the issues that brought about the battle, the aftermath of the battle, and how these 3 days of struggle in a Pennsylvania town affected the future of the entire United States of America. The Gettysburg Campaign in Historical Context
It goes without saying that even the most casual student of American history realizes that the Civil War took place with the purpose of restoring the union of all of the United States, at least on the most superficial level. However, to fully understand why The Battle of Gettysburg took place, the answer that “it was part of the Civil War” does not suffice.
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Rather, the historical context of the battle within the events of the war is important before approaching a discussion of the causes of the battle itself, how the battle unfolded, and the ultimate aftermath and significance of it.
By the summer of 1863, the American Civil War had been in full force for over 2 years, and although both North and South could claim victories in various battles and minor skirmishes, neither side could truly say that they were on their way to a decisive win in the war itself (Nofi). True, the United States had industrial, logistical, personnel and financial advantages over the Confederate States, but had not taken the upper hand that would afford ultimate victory.
However, one specific advantage that the United States had in the war is that the vast majority of battles, and their resulting destruction, had taken place in the territories of the Confederate States. This destruction of farmlands, livestock, factories, hospitals, schools and railroads in the American south was slowly, but surely, starving the common citizens and crippling the economy; therefore, a war that would drag on for many more years would basically destroy the Confederate States from within.
Beyond this internal deprivation, American warships had become quite effective in staging huge naval blockades which prevented Southern traders from exporting products overseas, and likewise prevented vitally needed supplies from reaching the Confederate States via waterways (Gallagher). All of these occurrences had the net effect of awakening the Confederate government into the realization that without some decisive actions, the likelihood of winning the war, and therefore independence for their new nation would be all but impossible.
Prior to this time, there were some plans in place to defeat the U. S. ; in an effort to save the lives of the general populations, turn the tide of the war, and deliver a Confederate triumph, the CSA had by this time been courting other nations for quite some time to convince them to lend their financial and military support in the effort to defeat the U. S. and gain independence for the CSA. This was solicited on the basis that the American South possessed and produced highly desirable consumer goods that would be valuable to other nations, as would be the vast natural resources of the land itself.
Once again, the need for a decisive action plan for the CSA war effort was sorely felt. With Confederate victory and international recognition in mind, Confederate President Jefferson Davis called a meeting of his cabinet and military commanders to discuss the options for defeating their enemy once and for all. While the meeting was certainly a “who’s who” of the CSA government, one man stood out among all of the attendees- General Robert E. Lee.
By 1863, Lee had achieved worldwide recognition for his military finesse and ability to wage effective war against a nation that outnumbered his in every way. Lee, by virtue of his abilities and achievements, held the ear of President Davis and the other officials in this meeting. After much discussion, debate and evaluation, the Confederates who met in the spring of 1863 came to a general consensus, based upon a plan unveiled by Lee himself- for many reasons, the army of the Confederate States of America needed to invade the United States of America and defeat her army on their home front.
This major decision was arrived at based upon some major considerations: first, by switching the action of the war from the Confederate territory into the North, the citizens of the CSA would have the chance to rebuild infrastructure, harvest crops, produce material goods needed not only for the war effort but for sustenance of life, and give the fledgling nation a chance to catch its collective breath and repair the damage that several years of war had caused.
Beyond these practical considerations, militarily a Northern invasion made sense, as it was felt by Lee that widespread defeat of the US army on its own soil would demoralize its leadership and government to the point where surrender would look appealing. Lastly, but far from least important, was the possibility that defeat of US forces at home would convince foreign powers to aid the Confederate cause and all but ensure victory and independence.
So confident were Lee and Davis that this plan would work that terms of surrender were formally written up, with the intention of submitting them to US President Abraham Lincoln for a signature immediately upon Confederate victory (Roland). With a Confederate plan having been ratified and put into motion, the stage was set for what would eventually become The Battle of Gettysburg, the causes of which go far beyond the defense of the US. Causes of the Battle of Gettysburg
Gettysburg was not chosen by either army as a battleground; rather, the armies collided somewhat by accident. Of course, the presence of CSA troops on US soil came as the result of Lee’s Grand Invasion, as it would come to be known (Nofi), which led to the troops confronting one another, but in a larger sense, both armies fought the battle of Gettysburg to protect the future of their nations, and at the time, both armies believed that this one major battle would decide the outcome of the war itself (Roland).
What Occurred as the Battle Took Place Over the course of the 3 days of fighting at Gettysburg, both sides claimed small victories as key strategic landscape points were gained, lost, and gained once again. While it would take many volumes to describe the battle in detail, and indeed new writings about the battle continue to emerge even today, there were several key occurrences which took place on July 1, 2, and 3 of 1863.
Among these was the death of Union General John Reynolds, the highest ranking Union officer on the battlefield at the time of his death (Gallagher), the battle for Little Round Top which is considered by many to be the pivotal event that kept the Union from losing the battle (Borritt), and of course Longstreet’s Offensive or Pickett’s Charge, the massive Confederate offensive maneuver that attempted to crush the Union army in a huge barrage of bullets, cannon fire, and manpower, but in fact became one of the largest wholesale massacres of Confederates of the entire war (Nofi).
Regarding the end result of The Battle of Gettysburg, the Union emerged victorious, not only driving the Confederates from US soil, but in retrospect, starting the downfall of the Confederate Army that culminated in its April 9, 1865 surrender. The People Behind the Fighting In describing the high points of the battle, several key people were mentioned, but of course, there are many more involved with Gettysburg worthy of mention.
Among the prominent, or soon to be prominent people involved in the battle were Union General Abner Doubleday, who would later be associated with the game of baseball, Union General George Custer of Little Big Horn renown, and of course Confederate Generals Robert E. Lee, James Longstreet, and George Pickett. Also, Gettysburg was the first major battle to involve the newly appointed Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, George G. Meade, who would ultimately prove his mettle and skill.
The civilians of Gettysburg also counted among them noteworthy individuals, including Mary Virginia Wade, the only civilian and possibly the only woman killed at Gettysburg, and John Burns, a veteran of the War of 1812, who grabbed a rusty old musket and joined in defending his town and nation before being wounded several times and nearly captured by Confederates, not to mention the hundreds of common people who cared for the wounded of both sides, buried the dead, and cleaned up their town after the battle (Roland).
Overall, regarding the soldiers and civilians of The Battle of Gettysburg, what should be understood is that so many sacrificed so much for a common cause, that the magnitude of such a sacrifice is still being remembered today. Aftermath of Gettysburg When the gunfire and roar of cannons finally stopped at Gettysburg, and the smoke cleared, the scene was much like a human slaughterhouse; thousands of dead soldiers littered the previously beautiful and fertile farmlands, in many cases joined by their horses.
A like number of wounded from both sides lay where they were injured, crying out for help or a mercifully quick death as a release from their suffering. Adding to the chaos were literally tons of broken wagons, weapons, and a myriad of other implements of war. The US troops, having been better equipped from the outset, had the ability to set up field hospitals for the treatment of their wounded, with some of the less seriously wounded being loaded onto wagons for transport to actual hospitals located elsewhere.
For the less equipped CSA, however, the only course of action that they realistically had was to leave behind many dead and injured, pick up what they could, and move onto safety below the Mason Dixon line (Washington Times). For the citizens of Gettysburg, the transformation of their town into a hospital in most cases, a graveyard in others changed their lives forever.
It also changed the town of Gettysburg forever as well; the turning back of a Confederate invasion of the US soon became a rallying point for the soldiers and civilians of the North, and by order of the US government, a national cemetery was established at Gettysburg to provide a final resting place for those who fought, and died, to save the Union at Gettysburg. The dedication of that cemetery is what brought President Lincoln to Gettysburg on November 19, 1863 to deliver what would in time become known as the immortal Gettysburg Address (Borritt).
This simple speech gave hope to an entire nation and shouted the message of freedom to all that could hear. How the Battle of Gettysburg Affected the Future of America As an immediate effect, The Battle of Gettysburg of course drove foreign invaders from the US, protected thousands of innocent civilians, and eventually led to the winning of the Civil War for the US. Looking at the victory on a grander scale, however, it can be proven that the battle did in fact affect the future of America, which is to say the United States of America.
Additionally, the loss that the Confederates sustained at Gettysburg likewise caused possible foreign supporters of the CSA to withdraw offers of aid, and allowed US troops to continue to decimate the interior of the CSA, hastening its decline. When the winning of the Civil War took place, brought about in large part by the valiant efforts at Gettysburg, something very important took place- the restoration of the Union through the replacement of the Southern states back into the United States of America.
For the nation itself, this served to restore confidence in the federal government and inspired people to make amends with former enemies. Beyond this as well, a form of patriotism took root that allowed the US economy and infrastructure to regenerate, a strong national defense to be rebuilt, and a loud message to be sent to the other nations of the world that the United States was back- intact, stronger than ever, and ready to meet any challenge.
This would become an important way of ensuring that other foreign powers would avoid aggression against the US. Looking at Gettysburg from the largest, and most important point of view, the battle became the decisive event that restored the Union, which contributed to the many freedoms and way of life that Americans enjoy today. Summary Symbolically, strategically, and historically, The Battle of Gettysburg is a critical part of not only the American Civil War, but also American history.
While one can only speculate what life would be like today if the Confederacy won at Gettysburg and continued to conquer the North, it is likely that the outcome would have been divisive, violent and painful to say the least. Whatever the case, in closing, let it be understood that Gettysburg has become hallowed ground for Americans, and rightly so, for whenever American freedom and ideals are at stake, all Americans can look to the story of Gettysburg to gain strength, inspiration, and a total appreciation of freedom and democracy for all people.
Works Cited Boritt, Gabor S. , ed. The Gettysburg Nobody Knows. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997. Gallagher, Gary W. , ed. Lee & His Army in Confederate History. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 2001. “Impact of Gettysburg Doesn’t End after Battle. ” The Washington Times 9 Apr. 2005: D05. Nofi, Albert A. The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863. Conshohocken, PA: Combined Publishing, 1997. Roland, Charles P. “Gettysburg: A Testing of Courage. ” Journal of Southern History 69. 4 (2003): 930+.