Mention the town of Gettysburg and we think of possibly its pastoral beauty or the residence of the late U.S. president and five-star general, Dwight D. Eisenhower.
But for most people, Gettysburg calls to mind the pivotal battle of the Civil War. Historians debate over its being the actual turning point in the Civil War, but they agree it was one of the key battles. It marked the second time (the first being Antietam) a major battle of the Civil War was waged on Union soil.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. In the summer of 1863, one of the bloodiest battles of this war was waged over three days, July 1-3, with thousands of casualties (estimates vary widely, up to 51,000) for both sides.
The commanders, Gen. George G. Meade for the North and Gen. Robert E. Lee for the South, knew that much was at stake. Both armies put forth a tremendous effort in a battle that both sides knew would swing the eventual outcome of the war.
The momentum swung back and forth between the North and South, but ultimately the Union forces prevailed.
The heroes were many for the North: Meade, Col. Joshua Chamberlain and Gens. Abner Doubleday and George Custer (then only 23), among others.
On the minus side, historians cite Lee’s possible overconfidence, hampered by flawed intelligence of his military, along with a breakdown in communication of orders between Lee and Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, whose cavalry units were missing in action and played no part in the battle until the last day.
Bloody engagements took place at areas with picturesque names such as Little Round Top, Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard. The legendary Pickett’s Charge took place at the aptly named Cemetery Hill.
The Battle of Gettysburg cannot be covered in any great detail here, but is a compelling read in any history book of note. Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary brings the battle to life, as do the re-enactors who act out the battles during the Gettysburg anniversary activities and at other times. A couple of major movies in the recent past (“Gettysburg” And “Gods and Generals”) have brought the Pennsylvania battle to the big screen in vivid detail.
The other event we think of regarding Gettysburg is then-President Abraham Lincoln’s immortal Gettysburg Address, which was delivered only four months after the battle itself. Lincoln was invited to the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg to honor Union soldiers with a “… few appropriate remarks.” Ironically, Lincoln was not the featured speaker; noted orator Edward Everett filled that role.
At the time, many remembered Everett’s two-hour speech.
269-word speech lasted just two minutes and did not appear to stand out. But it for the past 150 years it has remained one of the greatest speeches in America’s history for its eloquence and power. It remains a defining moment for Lincoln’s presidency.
The speech is all the more remarkable because Lincoln was ill at the time. On the trip to Gettysburg, Lincoln complained of not feeling well. After the event, he was diagnosed with the onset of a mild case of smallpox.
I have not been to Gettysburg since I was a small child, but hope to get there in the near future. It has obviously changed much since my last visit.
Thousands have filled the small town this summer to commemorate the 150th anniversary this month, and no doubt thousands will continue to visit in the coming months.
This monumental battle continues to fascinate those who study America’s history and honor those brave soldiers who paid the ultimate price to preserve the Union. It is a sobering reminder of the high price paid for the freedoms we cherish in this country.
Bill Eggert is a Johnstown resident. He writes an occasional column.