The din of muskets and cannon had faded but the stench and pall of battle still hung in the air; two American armies stared at one another in a heavy rain across bloody fields on the Fourth of July in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, 1863.
Both armies began to collect their remaining wounded and bury some of the dead. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were casualties of the three-day battle. Union casualties list 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), while Confederate casualties are estimated 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing).
Bear in mind this was an era when anything more than a simple flesh wound meant certain slow death by infection, and prisoner-of-war captivity was almost a death sentence.
Gettysburg Day 1: Union dead along McPherson Ridge.
Nearly 8,000 Americans were killed outright; the bodies lying in the hot summer sun needed to be buried quickly. A proposal by Lee for a prisoner exchange was rejected by Meade. Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded, or captured in the Gettysburg campaign. Total casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225.
Gettysburg Day 2: Union and Confederate dead near the Emmittsburg Road.
Gettysburg Day 3: "Harvest of Death" - aftermath of Pickett's Charge.
Lee started moving the Army of Northern Virginia late in the evening of July 4 towards Fairfield and Chambersburg. Meade’s army followed, although his pursuit was half-spirited. The recently rain-swollen Potomac trapped Lee’s army on the north bank of the river for a time, but when the Federals finally caught up, the Confederates had forded the river.
Also on July 4, 1863 the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant; another significant turning point of the war when the Federals regained control of the Mississippi, an important supply route.
GETTYSBURG IS SPECIAL
On July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, more Americans fought and died here than any other battle in American history. Although the Battle of Gettysburg did not end the war, it was the turning point when the ultimate victory of the North over the South – and the preservation of the Union – was determined.
As brilliant as the Founding Fathers were in establishing the Republic, they knew their work was not complete as long as the question of States Rights could not be resolved, in the areas of commerce but most visibly with slavery. This struggle was addressed and postponed for almost seventy years until things finally came to flash point at Ft. Sumter.
The Civil War was not only the most important war America ever fought, it was also the most stupid; because it was Americans killing Americans. What occurred at Gettysburg was not simply a key battlefield victory of a single war but THE pivotal battle that preserved our Republic from a tragic war that had to be fought, and just as importantly had to be won. Without a Union victory at Gettysburg, the Confederacy may possibly have prevailed; had such a circumstance come about, America as we know it would not exist.
This point was driven home by Lincoln’s brilliant Gettysburg Address, given five months later on the same battlefield:
Despite my sympathies for the Southern Cause - particularly regarding States Rights – I am aware that the Union had to ultimately prevail. This is the sad irony of this terrible war. This Fourth of July I will travel with my family to pay my respects at Gettysburg. - Sean Linnane