Battle of Gettysburg began 150 years ago today

Horses’ hooves clattered on a dusty road. High clouds drifted across the July sky. A warm breeze ruffled the horses’ manes and stirred the men’s beards. Sent by Gen. Robert E. Lee, a Confederate foraging party rode the Pennsylvania countryside in search of food and supplies – in particular, they were in search of shoes. The gray-clad men approached the small town of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.

Lee had invaded the North to seek a decisive victory and to force a settlement from the federal government. He didn’t expect to encounter Union troops so early. (Lee had sent General Jeb E.B. Stuart on a side expedition, so Stuart missed the battle completely.) But the foraging party met a small force of Union troops near the town, and a small skirmish broke out between the two forces.

After the skirmish, both sides dug into the fields and hills surrounding Gettysburg. Stretching from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top and Round Top, the Union forces formed an inverted “fish hook.” The primary Confederate position was on Seminary Ridge. Union troops numbered 90,000 men, and Southern forces numbered 75,000 men. That was the first day.

The notes of reveille sounded early on the second day, July 2. The two armies awoke and braced for battle. Lee decided on an assault on the Union’s left flank. During the day, Lee’s attack was repulsed after his men crushed an Union corps defending Cemetery Ridge, but the Union held on to the ridge. As night fell, soldiers on both sides settled down to another anxious night.

The next day, July 3, dawned overcast with a storm brewing in the distance. Both sides marshaled their men for another day of fighting. Lee intended to send 15,000 men in a frontal assault against the Union center. Lee placed in command Gen. George E. Pickett. As Traveler snorted and moved restlessly beside him, Lee watched as his men gathered for the attack.

That day, Pickett’s men threw themselves against withering fire from Union rifles and cannons. The tang of sulfur and nitrite hung heavy in the air. Bullets whistled while men shouted and horses whinnied. Pickett’s men managed to surmount the hill and to hold it for 20 intense minutes before they were forced back down the hill. Pickett’s Charge is considered the high-water mark of the Confederacy. After the battle, one Confederate solider remarked, “Ain’t so hard to get to that ridge. The hell of it is to stay there.”

Knowing that the battle was lost, Lee ordered a retreat in the late afternoon hours. As Lee left the battlefield, the storm that threatened Gettysburg all afternoon finally broke. Rain poured down on the retreating Confederates. (Much to President’s Lincoln’s frustration, Gen. George G. Meade refused to pursue Lee at once. Thus Lee was able to return in safety to the South.)

As darkness fell, the rising tendrils of smoke dissipated from the battlefield. Amidst the rattle of thunder, the streaks of lightning and the slash of rain, orderlies moved across the battlefield searching for the wounded and the dying among the dead. The smell of blood and gunpowder filled the air. The number of causalities on both sides was 38,000 men killed and wounded. Because of the carnage, the battle for Gettysburg is considered the greatest battle fought in the Western Hemisphere. While for the Union, replacing the men lost was difficult, for the Confederacy it was well nigh impossible. When the sun set on the evening of July 3, 1863, the prospects of a Confederate victory faded with the light. And after a short pause, the long slow grind to Union victory resumed.

Alma Southmayd lives in Lake Placid.