It has been a struggle for me to write this post. We have now visited some of the most influential Civil War battlefields in the east. From the air and ground I followed the battle areas and the supporting information. I now have lots of information and images that would be BORING for most people. And there are so many sites that do a great job of covering the battles such as Gettysburg Battle Facts and Summary | American Battlefield Trust (battlefields.org). So rather than a forensic review let's try something different. Let's do a brief setup with some of my observations of the importance of the battles.
Let's start here.....
This is a gravestone for a Union Soldier from New York who was killed during the battle of Fredericksburg. He was no one of importance. He simply chose to fight to make men free and preserve the union. Hundreds of thousands just like him gave everything for the cause. Want reparations? They are buried here and paid in full.
Union Army Struggles
Early in the war it was considered a foregone conclusion that the Union would make short work of the Confederacy. It had the manpower, the money, the larger army and the industrial might. But the results could not have been more the opposite. For a multitude of reasons, the Union army lost almost every battle it participated in. One key component was the inept commanders of the Union army. By comparison the Confederacy seemed to be blessed with military geniuses such as Robert E. Lee and Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson. In almost every encounter they outsmarted, outfought and humiliated the Union. For more than half the war there was a very solid chance of the Confederacy attaining their goal of splitting the nation in two.
Following multiple losing battles and the lack of movement by the Union army, Lincoln sacked General George McClellan and replaced him with General Ambrose Burnside with orders to take the fight to the Confederates and capture their capitol city, Richmond, VA. This would hopefully cause the Confederates to give up their plans for secession.
Burnside came up with a pretty good plan. But it required speed and deception. He planned to head south from Washington to Fredericksburg, capture it and trap Lee's army to the west as Richmond was attacked to the East.
But it required something that had not really been used before in a military campaign. It relied on boats that would be built into bridges that would allow troops across the Rappahannock river. And while Burnside had his troops ready to attack, the boats took many days to arrive. This gave Lee and the Confederates plenty of time to arrive and prepare for the attack.
The results were disastrous. Burnside threw wave after wave of soldiers against the entrenched Confederates only to have them cut down by musket and cannon fire. This advance also introduced the first instance of urban warfare as the Union was required to fight from building to building to advance. Once past the buildings they faced the Confederates who were fixed along a sunken road lined by a stone wall. The position was impossible for the Union to overcome.
Ultimately 12,500 Union soldiers were casualties vs. 6000 on the Confederate side. It was a bloody lopsided loss for the Union. But in all the carnage, individual compassion would rise. As the day ended Union soldiers lay dead and wounded in front of the Confederate line. One Confederate soldier was so shocked at the suffering he would jump the stone wall and deliver water to his enemies. He was later known as the Angel of Marye's Heights.
Six weeks after the battle Burnside was also sacked and replaced by General "Fighting Joe" Hooker. Hooker would devise his own splendid plan that was sure to destroy the Confederates.
Lee was firmly entrenched in Fredericksburg guarding the route to Richmond. Hooker decided to head his main force to Chancellorsville just west of Fredericksburg. He sent a feinting force East of Fredericksburg, essentially with the same plan as the original Fredericksburg battle. His hope was to trap Lee in the middle. The Union would have 130,000 men vs. Lee's 60,000. Hooker was so confident in his plan that when he arrived in Chancellorsville, he essentially took the day off.
But Lee had other plans. The key was to hold Hooker's force in place and with an understaffed division, then send General Jackson on a wide march that would end up behind the Union lines. The Union was caught completely by surprise and routed. Hookers' army essentially fell apart and retreated north. But one of the Confederacy's finest moments was darkened when Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops as he surveyed the battle area and later died.
The point of all this........
So up to this point it was all advantage Confederacy. Lee and his troops had whipped anything the Union threw at them. With this history in mind Lee decided to head north to find the Union army, destroy it and negotiate an end to the war. His search would lead to a town called Gettysburg......
Lee considered his army invincible. All he had to do was find the Union army and attack. The Union army's generals were known to fall apart, and their army could be counted on to do the same. Lee marched north into Pennsylvania hunting the Union Army down. While passing through the area his troops began to skirmish with what he thought were local militia near a crossroads town called Gettysburg. What he did not realize was that he had just run in to dismounted cavalry of the Union Army of the Potomac.
The following video shows an aerial view of the battlefield coming in from the Northwest along Chambersburg Pike then turning South to cover the area of Pickett's Charge and Seminary Ridge
Day 1 - July 1
The battle began almost by accident. With his own cavalry out of position Lee was blind to what he was facing. His troops pushed forward thinking they could quickly overtake the militia in front of them. But within a short time, Union reinforcements arrived, and Lee realized he was now facing the main Union forces. He positioned his troops to take advantage, but they were unable to flank the Union troops. The Union was not yet ready for a full battle and retreated through the town to the high points west of town as fighting settled down for the night.
Day 2 - July 2
With the Union troops now occupying the high ground south of Gettysburg, Lee had a decision to make. Keep his troops positioned along Seminary Ridge or attack in some way. His decision was to try and get around the Union lines to the south and attack them from the rear. This decision caused intense fighting in areas such as Devil's Den, the Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field. Intense fighting also took place on the right side of the Union lines at Culps Hill. The lines moved back and forth throughout the day with both sides taking heavy casualties. The Confederates tried to push even further south around high areas called Big Round Top and Little Round Top.
Union forces realized their vulnerability and rushed troops in to place to plug the gap with orders to hold "at all hazards". The end of day 2 found the front lines essentially where they had been at the beginning of the day. The Union forces were holding.
The tree covered heights of Little Round Top where the 20th Maine held off furious attacks by the Confederate troops in one of the most heroic and savage battles in Gettysburg. Imagine the Confederate troops having to climb the hill multiple times in full battle gear, in July heat and being shot at the entire time. At the end with almost no ammunition left the Union soldiers made a desperate gamble and began a bayonet charge. This resulted in the exhausted Confederate troops surrendering or retreating. The end of the line held for the Union.
The bloody battle at Devil's Den
Looking from Devil's Den to Little Round Top
Looking from Little Round Top to Devil's Den
And the Wheatfield where control of the area changed hands 6 times in 2 1/2 hours
Day 3 - July 3
As Lee surveyed the battlefield late on Day 2, he was convinced that the Union forces were reinforcing both ends of their line leaving the middle thinly protected. His plan was to focus the main body of his forces to this area breaking the Union line and cutting it in two pieces. The likely result would be their full retreat to Washington never to be fully formed again. At that point it would be possible to negotiate a peace agreement.
He was convinced his army was invincible and planned to throw everything he had in what he knew would be the final battle.
This battle is now known as "Pickett's Charge" after General George Pickett, the commander of the largest force in the attack. But it was nothing like what most would consider a charge. 12,500 men advanced to the objective in brutal July heat. The attackers would have to cover almost a mile of open ground marching in formation as they were shredded with some of the most lethal military weapons ever devised.
Consider the concept of a canister charge fired from cannons that send steel balls into the formations. Entire rows of men would simply cease to exist in a red mist. Yet other men would fill the holes in the ranks and continue on with the march. It is incomprehensible to us today how they could get anyone to do it. The military tactics at the time of lining men together and marching forward was the key to some of the appallingly high casualty rates.
The target of the attack was a small group of trees in the center of the Union Line - as seen from the area where the Confederate troops began the charge.
And the view from the Union lines looking at the area of the charge. Along the route stood a fence that the attackers had to climb over. At this point the Union artillery and musket fire were at their highest. The carnage was everywhere. Yet the Confederates continued on.
By the time the attackers reached The Angle, the target of their efforts, their formations were in ruins. Small skirmishing groups were able to penetrate the lines but were quickly pushed back. The confederates lost over 60% of the men that started the attack. When Lee admonished Pickett to see to his division after the attack Pickett replied "General, I have no division".
The all-in gamble that Lee had made decided the war, but not in the way he had imagined.
The Confederate army was spent. It had thrown everything at the Union troops expecting them to turn and run. But this time they held strong. After the battle the Union General George Meade had the opportunity to chase Lee and destroy his army as he retreated for Virginia. But his timidity allowed the Confederates to escape and fight again for another 2 years.
At this point the end was never really in doubt. The Confederacy would never field the likes of the army that fought at Gettysburg. Imagine how our history would be different had the Confederates accomplished their goals. Had they waited and allowed the Union forces to attack the roles could have been reversed. The difference in the end was measured in yards and could have gone either way.
There were over 50,000 casualties on both sides during this battle. Both sides fought for what they thought was right. Both sides were convinced God was on their side. They were Fathers, sons, brothers and cousins.
Months later part of the battlefield became the final resting place for Union dead. At its dedication Abraham Lincoln gave his Gettysburg Address from this pavilion. The speech was incredibly short. But it provides some of the most important words ever spoken by an American President. A great place to leave our Civil War trail.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate—we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.