Gettysburg: The Battle & the Address: 150 Years Later, How the Bloody Fight and President Lincoln's Speech Changed the Civil War-And the Nation

By Goodheart, Adam | New York Times Upfront, September 16, 2013 | Go to article overview

Gettysburg: The Battle & the Address: 150 Years Later, How the Bloody Fight and President Lincoln's Speech Changed the Civil War-And the Nation


Goodheart, Adam, New York Times Upfront


Even the greatest of battles starts with just a single shot. On a July morning in 1863, a young carpenter-turned-cavalryman From Illinois named Marcellus Jones propped his gun against a split-rail fence, took aim at a column of gray-clad soldiers he'd spotted a few hundred yards away, and squeezed the trigger.

He missed. But within 72 hours, the fields, woods, and farm lanes for miles around would be strewn with the bodies of the dead and wounded: nearly 50,000 men in all. Without realizing it, Lt. Jones had fired the first bullet of the bloodiest single battle in all of American history.

No one had planned to fight a battle at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, a quiet rural town of little strategic value. But by that point in the Civil War (1861-65), events had taken on an awful logic of their own, a fatal momentum that millions of Americans wanted to halt but that none seemed able to control.

Two years earlier, after decades of ever-worsening clashes over slavery, the United States had finally disintegrated into all-out war. Most white Southerners wished to form an independent nation, the Confederate States of America, that would enshrine slavery at its very core. Most white Northerners wanted to preserve the Union--and many didn't care if that meant preserving slavery too. Meanwhile, 4 million black Americans, most of them slaves, saw the war as a moment of thrilling and terrifying possibilities: an event that could either destroy slavery or ensure its survival for centuries to come.

By the summer of 1863, both the Confederacy and the Union, bloodied and staggering, seemed in danger of defeat--each awaiting one final knockout punch. The Confederacy's economy had been strangled by a naval blockade, its farms and railroads ravaged, and many thousands of its young men left dead on the battlefields. Victorious Union armies in the West now controlled all but a few miles of the nation's central waterway, the Mississippi River. Perhaps most threatening, the institution of slavery had begun to crumble as slaves abandoned their plantations and flocked to Union lines, especially after January, when President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation declared that all slaves in Confederate territory were free (see Timeline, p. 18).

But Lincoln was now highly vulnerable as well. Many Northern families bad also lost fathers, sons, and brothers in the war and questioned whether the struggle was worth greater bloodshed. For some, Lincoln's Proclamation, imposition of a military draft, and heavy-handed suppression of antiwar opponents made matters worse. Peace rallies occurred throughout the North. And despite the Union's military successes in the West, its mediocre commanders in Virginia had suffered one humiliating defeat after another at the hands of the Confederacy's seemingly invincible strategist, General Robert E. Lee.

'Invasion of the North!'

The Gettysburg campaign began when Lee spotted an opportunity to fatally cripple the Union's failing morale. By leading his army out of Virginia and up into Pennsylvania--one of the North's wealthiest and most influential states--he could strike a mortal blow in the Union's very heartland. Perhaps he could capture an important city like Harrisburg (the state capital) or even Philadelphia. At the same time, Confederate leaders would open negotiations to end the war in exchange for independence. Northern public opinion would force Lincoln to the bargaining table.

So in late June, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac, moving through Maryland and over the Pennsylvania state line. "Invasion of the North!" screamed newspaper headlines. Panicked civilians jammed the roads, fleeing the enemy advance. Rebel cavalry galloped into small towns, demanded food and supplies, and paid with worthless Confederate banknotes. They committed far worse atrocities against free black residents, nearly a thousand of whom--mostly women and children--Lee's forces hunted down and captured to sell into slavery. …

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