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July 03, 2010

The Battle of Gettysburg

On this date in 1863, the biggest battle in the American Civil War ended, having raged over the two previous days. It would be the most sanguinary battle of the most sanguinary war in America's history: there were approximately 51,000 casualties on both sides. Nearly 8 thousand of those soldiers in blue and gray were killed. It would prove the turning of the tide; though the war would grind on its bloody way for two more years, the fate of the Confederacy was sealed by their defeat over those three hot July days in southern Pennsylvania.

Robert E. Lee, the great Confederate general, lost 1/3 of his army on that terrible day. When the South began their retreat through Maryland, the train of hospital wagons stretched for 17 miles along the miserable, rutted roads. During the famous "Pickett's charge" up Cemetery Ridge, 6,555 southern soldiers were killed or wounded. Pickett lost three of his brigade commanders, and all thirteen of his regimental commanders in that single engagement.

On the Union side, entire formations were wiped out nearly to a man: the legendary 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry regiment took an astounding 83% casualty rate -- still the highest casualty rate during a single engagement of any military unit in American history.

The time and place were driven by the fact that footsore Southern soldiers needed shoes. The Southern army approached the Gettysburg crossroads from the north; the Northern army approached from the south.

The lone Gettysburg civilian casualty was a Miss Jennie Wade, who was killed by a stray bullet while she was baking bread.

In Michael Shaara's superb novel The Killer Angels, he writes of the Union General Buford, who on July 1 is the only Union general available to fix the Confederate army in place before they take position in the hills surrounding Gettysburg:

The moods were getting out of hand. He was no man for war councils, or teaching either, and no sense in brooding to junior officers -- but he saw it all with such metal brilliance: Meade will come in slowly, cautiously, new to command, wary of reputation. But they'll be on his back from Washington, wires hot with messages: attack, attack. So he will set up a ring around the hills and when Lee's all nicely dug in behind fat rocks Meade will finally attack, if he can coordinate the army, straight up the hillside, out in the open in that gorgeous field of fire, and we will attack valiantly and be butchered valiantly, and afterward men will thump their chests and say what a brave charge it was.

Later that fall, after the dead had been buried and the fields around Gettysburg lay rubbled and bare, waiting for snow to cover the scars of war, our greatest President would deliver his most famous speech. It was a speech few liked at the time; indeed, President Abraham Lincoln himself felt it was a failure.

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 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.


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posted by Monty at 07:39 AM

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