We passed near Gettysburg previously on this roadtrip, but we didn’t have time to go to the battlefield. We thought about skipping it altogether, but then our Richmond Airbnb host told us that Gettysburg was the best historic battlefield in the country. Simply put, she said “if you do one battlefield in the United States, do Gettysburg.”
Now, we’ve already been to two battlefields on this trip, the Battle of the Little Bighorn and Yorktown, and we were very impressed with both. Gettysburg would have to be pretty special to outdo these two sites. We went in with open minds, but we were skeptical.
Let me tell you, our Richmond Airbnb host was right. Gettysburg was definitely the most impressive battlefield we visited on our roadtrip. There were several reasons for this:
- the battle was long, 3+ days to be exact
- the battle was epic (among other events, Pickett’s Charge was here)
- the battle was decisive, changing the course of the entire Civil War
- most importantly, as part of post war reconstruction, every state was invited to include their own memorials/tributes at the battleground. Some states only put up one or two but Pennsylvania alone put up more than 120. And these are in addition to all the National Battlefield signs and markers, of which this battlefield already had more than the others. The result is tons of signs, monuments, markers, and statues paying tribute to what seems like every single aspect of the battle at Gettysburg.
Alright, enough introduction, lets get to the photographs:
This was the site of the first day of fighting. Gettysburg was not a planned or strategic battle for either side. Prior to the battle, the south had scored their greatest victory at Chancellorsville (although they lost Stonewall Jackson in the process) and started moving east. A division of the Union army (lead by General Hooker) followed, scouting their moves. The two bumped into each other and engaged. Lee, sensing a chance to crush the Union army, took the offensive, while the Union army hunkered down on defense.
The Confederates dominated the first day of fighting, forcing the Union soldiers to retreat through the town of Gettysburg (pictured above), where they reached reinforcements (lead by General Meade) and formed a second line on a ridge on the far side of town. The Confederates formed their own line on a parallel ridge 0.75 miles away.
The second day of fighting saw action at each end of the Union’s line. At the south end was Little Round Top, the highest point on the battlefield, a strategic location that was supposed to be under Union control. But when a Union engineer visited the area (depicted above), he found no one there (the troops who were supposed to be here had stationed themselves elsewhere, somewhere they personally preferred). The engineer sent message to Meade, who when informed of the situation completely altered his lines to cover this hole. He did so just before the south attacked, and the Union army was just barely able to hold them off.
With fighting raging at Little Big Top, Lee launched a second distraction-motivated attack on the north end of the Union line. This attack almost broke through itself, as many of the Union soldiers had been moved to cover the south. However, by the end of the day, this Confederate attack was also repulsed, owed mostly to the strong and well fortified defenses the Union Army had built.
After the second day of battle, Meade guessed that Lee’s next attack would come down the middle, his goal being to cut through the thinned out center (thinned out because Meade had moved men to defend the north and south ends), break the line in half, and conquer each side. And so at night, under cover of darkness, Meade reinforced his center line.
The next morning, Meade’s prediction proved correct. Lee sent 12,500 soldiers on a full frontal attack on the Union’s center line. The attack, led by Generals Pickett, Thimble, and Pettigrew, is today known as Pickett’s Charge.
12,500 Confederate soldiers emerged from their lines and charged the 0.75 mile distance to the Union line. But the Union army held, with Confederate forces receiving 5,000+ casualties in the first hour alone. Facing large casualties and an inability to break the Union’s defenses, Lee was forced to retreat.
The results of the battle: 50,000+ American casualties, approximately equal on each side (although Confederate casualties included one-third of their officers). More significantly, the battle proved to be a turning point in the war, as the Confederacy would never engage in another offensive and would have few victories between this battle and their ultimate surrender. A major reason for this was morale change; after Gettysburg, Confederate soldiers were no longer viewed as invincible and the Union could finally rally behind a leader as competent as Lee.
After the battle, locals tended to the wounded, dying, and dead. Months later, with the area rebuilt and a cemetery created for the bodies not shipped away, Lincoln was invited to say a few words at the cemetery’s dedication ceremony. He arrived by train and spent the night in this house, where he put the final touches on his speech.
The next day, somewhere near the American flag pictured above, Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address. The speech was very well received (today it is considered a masterpiece of the English language) and upon hearing it, Edward Everett, the featured orator who spoke for two hours before Lincoln, is reported to have said: “If I was able to communicate in two hours what Lincoln communicated in two minutes, I would consider my speech a success.”
That ends our tour of Gettysburg. But we’re not finished! From Gettysburg we drove to Baltimore, where we met up with another of my old college friends.
Alright, we’ve made it through Gettysburg, and through Baltimore where we saw our friend. Up next, we’re headed to the #1 highlight of our entire roadtrip!