750,000 and rising. 2.5 percent of the population. Greater than all other American wars combined. No matter how one describes them, the casualties incurred as a result of the American Civil War are nothing short of astounding. To those who study this devastating conflict, the numbers of the fallen can seem old friends, as the cost of great battles such as Antietam or Gettysburg are burned into memory. Yet is it possible that disproportionate emphasis has been placed on the bloody toll of the Civil War?
Though my own musings have led me to doubt the traditional interpretation of the Battle of Gettysburg’s military importance, I still hold Gettysburg to be the greatest battle of the American Civil War, without question worthy and deserving of continued study. In order to reconcile these two points of view I pondered further, attempting to unearth other, less-thought-of reasons for the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg to the course of the American Civil War.
Again my thoughts turned to the summer I spent at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park. As one of my duty stations that summer had been Spotsylvania Court House, the second battle in Ulysses S. Grant’s Overland Campaign, I had gained much experience explaining the concepts of this crucial campaign. The most famous aspect of Grant’s series of south-east movements in the spring and summer of 1864 is, of course, his unswerving determination to keep moving towards Richmond, no matter the cost. Grant’s fearless use of the North’s superior manpower and industrial capacity to defeat the waning strength of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia has become legendary in American history. Yet mention of this war of attrition in the American Civil War only truly begins to rear its head in the context of ending the war with the opening of the Overland Campaign. Though Grant and his generals may have been the first to integrate attrition into their strategies, the attrition of Southern armies began almost as soon as the war started. Though victorious at nearly every battle, Robert E. Lee continually lost a higher percentage of his men than did his opponents, and it is this idea of Confederate losses that brings me back to Gettysburg. It is estimated that, out of a total of approximately 70,000 effective soldiers at the start of the campaign, Lee’s army suffered a total of around 23,000 casualties, fully 33% of its force. Among those casualties lurks a second, even more devastating fact. This same percentage of losses was reflected in the Army of Northern Virginia’s officer corps, with at least a third of them becoming casualties over the course of those three days in July, 1863. In an army which has, rightly or wrongly, time and again been lauded for its superior leadership, the loss of so much of that leadership can only have been devastating to the continued performance of the army. In light of these figures, could it not be better to think of Gettysburg as one of the greatest disasters for Southern arms not because of the defeat itself, but due to the cost of any battle so bloody, be it a victory or a defeat?
Gettysburg, the first three days of July, 1863. An epic clash of titans sways back and forth across the fields and hills of this small Pennsylvania town. The two armies who fought here left in their wake over fifty thousand men broken in three days of combat, and the significance of their actions to the course of the American Civil War has rarely been doubted. The Union’s victory at Gettysburg put a halt to Robert E. Lee’s second invasion of the North, an invasion that could have broken the Northern civilians’ will to continue prosecuting the war. The crushing repulse of the Confederate charge on July 3 shattered the myth of Confederate invincibility, delivering the first major Union victory in the Eastern Theater. This battle has widely been heralded as THE turning point of the American Civil War, the battle that permanently ended Confederate hopes of victory and set the Union on the road to victory. My experiences of the battle’s sesquicentennial commemoration and of a summer spent working at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park inspired me to look deeper, however, and upon closer inspection, cracks began to show in this traditional view of Gettysburg’s paramount importance. Continue reading “Examination: Reflections on the 150th”
There is nothing quite like residing in the town of Gettysburg during the years leading up to the sesquicentennial of the great battle fought here in 1863. As a devoted student of that great internecine conflict known as the American Civil War, I had applied to Gettysburg College in 2011 with the full knowledge of what was to come only two short years in the future, and could not have been more excited for it.
For as long as I can remember, one of the most recognizable and famous speeches I ever learned about was the Gettysburg Address. The image of Lincoln I have had since grade school is one of a great emancipator who cared deeply about freeing the slaves. As I have grown older and read many different works from many different authors, this image of Lincoln has transformed. However, when reading the words of the Gettysburg Address, you can see that by November 1863, Lincoln truly believed that the American Civil War was a war then waged for freedom and not just reunion. Being at the Soldier’s National Cemetery on the cold, blustery morning of November 19, 2013, I almost couldn’t fathom that 150 years earlier, Abraham Lincoln was on Cemetery Hill too, speaking his immortal words. He was not only asking for the nation to keep fighting, but invoking the idea that there was still work to be done for the future generations to create the nation that the forefathers had envisioned. Continue reading “A Timeless Charge: The Gettysburg Address from 1863 to 2013”