Editor's note: July 1 - 3, 2013 marks 150 years since the battle of Gettysburg. Here is a look at how the campaign began in June, 1863.
On June 10, 1863, the lead troops of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia left the army’s staging area near Culpeper Court House, Virginia and began a march northward.
Their destination: Pennsylvania – where Lee hoped to win a major battle on Northern soil and end the Civil War with a Southern victory.
Soon his army would be trailed by his main Northern adversary, the Federal Army of the Potomac. Ahead of both armies, across the Potomac River and in the heartland of southern Pennsylvania, lay the quiet crossroads town of Gettysburg, which would become the site of the largest battle ever fought in North America.
It would also prove to be decisive battle of the American Civil War.
The war would continue for almost two more years until it claimed 620,000 American lives, but by many measures the battle of Gettysburg was its turning point.
Already, Northern forces had the South in a chokehold through successful invasions in the war’s Western Theater, victorious amphibious operations on the Southern coastlines and an increasingly effective naval blockade.
Despite Northern successes, however, Lee and his army had kept the war and Southern hopes alive in Virginia by defeating one Northern army commander after another.
If he could score a major battlefield victory on Northern soil, Lee believed, he might break the Northern people’s will to fight and win Southern nationhood, which was President Abraham Lincoln’s great fear.
At the three-day battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1-3, 1863, more than 160,000 Americans in blue and gray engaged in an epic battle that could have gone either way. The first day went to the South – to Lee’s army, which broke the Federal line and sent General George Meade’s Northern soldiers recoiling in retreat.
When the fighting ended on July 1, Lee appeared to have won his great victory, and both the Northern army and the Union appeared in grave peril. Northern forces regrouped, however, and established a formidable defensive line on a local stretch of high ground called, ironically, Cemetery Ridge.
There, and at flanking positions on Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, they successfully repulsed Lee’s seemingly invincible army with a hickory-hard defense that pushed back a mighty series of powerful, bloody assaults.
On the third day of battle, July 3, 1863, came the dramatic climax that would become known as Pickett’s Charge, when 13,000 of Lee’s best fighters dashed themselves against the center of the Federal line.
It was a magnificent assault – which encountered an equally magnificent and successful defense by General Meade’s Army of the Potomac.
Lee’s legions were turned back with heavy losses, and the battle of Gettysburg ended in a triumph for the Union.
Casualties on both sides were horrible: more than 51,000 Americans killed, wounded or missing. Of that staggering toll, more than 28,000 belonged to Lee’s army.
Northern casualties, while shocking, could be replaced, but the losses to Lee’s army were a severe blow in the manpower-short South.
Never again would Lee be able to mount another such an offensive operation against the North. While more than two years of bloody warfare lay ahead, a compelling case can be made that the road to Lee’s 1865 surrender at Appomattox began at Gettysburg.
Like the Civil War at large, the battle of Gettysburg proved to be a pivotal point in the nation’s history.It contributed mightily to the end of America’s bloodiest war.
It helped end a near-century of debate about the right of secession in America. And it thus helped destroy the institution of American slavery forever.
In all these ways, it also helped ensure the unification of the United States of America.
All of those historical superlatives give Americans everywhere just cause to pause and reflect on the upcoming 150th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.
There is another reason to remember this epic battle. A very personal reason. The 160,000 soldiers in blue and gray who struggled in the flame and fury of Gettysburg – Americans all – there bequeathed to us all a legacy of American valor that has stood the test of time.
Civil War historian Rod Gragg is the director of the Center for Military and Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University, and is the author of "The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War's Greatest Battle," which is newly published by Regnery Publishing.