Gettysburg, Three Days That Changed America

Tom Donelson
July 6, 2013 Posted by Tom Donelson tomdonelson@aol.com

In watching a Military channel special on Gettysburg, I came to realize how close the Union came to losing the battle and America may have ended up as two nations.  One historian noted this was Lee’s to lose and he managed to lose it.  This battle began as an accident as a small group of confederate soldiers came on Union soldiers while looking for shoes.  From here a skirmish turned into the key battle that determined the fate of nation.

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Robert E. Lee decided to invade the North but his goal was not about conquering the North  but to show that the Union could not subjugate the South.  Lee understood he did not have to win the war – he just could not lose it.  Many in the North were sick of the war and its mounting casualties and Lee’s strategy was to add to the unease in the North.   

Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia consistently got the better of Army of the Potomac and President Lincoln found himself often changing commanders.  When General George Meade was summoned to lead the Army of the Potomac, he really thought that he was being demoted or worse.  He never thought that he would be asked to lead a great army.   If Gettysburg was the accidental battle, Meade was the accidental General who would best America’s greatest general.

Lee used the battle as an opportunity to destroy the Army of Potomac and deliver a devastating blow to the North.   Interestingly, not of all his subordinates agreed this was the right place and after day one, the Union managed to grab the high ground.  Lee saw an enemy with his back to the wall and decided to press the action.  This was a battle unplanned which proved to be unpredictable.  For Lee, his confidence in his soldiers led him to put everything on the table at Gettysburg.

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While many will remember the failure of Pickett’s charge, the charge was part of a three prong strategy of a complicated plan.  Lee began the final day of the battle with the largest barrage on North American soil.  It was said, the explosions could be heard hundreds of miles away but Meade positioned his soldiers in such a way that many of the cannon balls flew over their heads.  As a move designed to soften the Union line while hopefully blowing a hole in the Union lines, it did little to dent the Union lines. 

The second part of the strategy was a cavalry charge by JEB Stuart.  Stuart proved to be a key player in the battle.  Before the battle, his force was surprised by Union cavalry and he separated from Lee for extended periods, thus failing to give Lee key information.  On the crucial day at Gettysburg, he was supposed to attack the Union’s left flank and support Pickett’s charge thereby adding pressure to the Union line.  However, General George Custer led a charge on Stuart’s cavalry unit and he managed to block Stuart’s advances thus ending any threat to the Union from its rear.

Pickett charged right into the teeth of the Union line and nearly broke the line in spite of all that transpired before.  But, the Union line held.  Pickett retreated and Gettysburg ended.  In one of history’s great ironies, the farm land that Pickett led his famous charge was owned by a freed slave. 

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This battle was one of the bloodiest in American history in Americas’ bloodiest war.  The number of Americans who died in the Civil War exceeded those who died in all of Americas wars in the 20th century.  The result of the Civil War was a truly United States that would go on to become the World Superpower.   Gettysburg began as an accident with a skirmish in a small town before ending in a full scale battle that determined the fate of a nation.  150 years on the first three days of July, our nation became one.  While the war lasted two more years and Lee still had battles to win; his fate was sealed.  Lee came into the battle not having necessarily to win the war but send a message to the Union on the futility of further bloodshed.  He retreated back to Virginia, having sealed the fate of the Southern cause.

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