Gettysburg: 150 Years Later

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on June 11, 2013
Gettysburg re-enactment.
Stuart Englert

Descendants of soldiers who fought in the Civil War’s bloodiest engagement honor their ancestors by re-enacting the Battle of Gettysburg.

Amid the roar of cannon and musket fire, Confederate re-enactor Henry Clay Pickett, 52, of Surry, Va., watches a regiment of Rebel troops march across a farm field north of Gettysburg, Pa., advancing against an amassing Union army.

Meanwhile, Darren Gallaher, 33, of Greensburg, Pa., portraying a Union field surgeon, tends to wool-wearing casualties of the intense heat during the 149th annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment last July.

Both men have special reason to attend the mock battle. They’re honoring ancestors who fought in the most dreadful war ever waged on American soil.

“Being a Civil War re-enactor is special, but portraying an ancestor is extra special,” says Pickett, a great-great-grandson of Confederate Maj. Charles Pickett, who served at Gettysburg alongside his brother Maj. Gen. George Pickett, known for the famed—and failed—charge on the last day of the epic battle July 1-3, 1863.

Rebel invasion

Nearly 150 years ago, Gen. Robert E. Lee and his 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia boldly marched into Pennsylvania, allowing the Confederates to forage and feast on the fruits of the North. Lee hoped for a decisive victory so the South could break the Union’s resolve and negotiate an end to the bloody Civil War.

After three days of intense battle, Gen. George Meade and his 90,000-man Army of the Potomac prevailed, redeeming the Union army’s battlefield reputation and repelling the invading Rebels.

Of the 165,000 Union and Confederate soldiers who participated, more than 7,000 were killed and 44,000 others were wounded, captured or reported missing during the ferocious fray, which culminated on the final day of the battle.

After failing to defeat the Federals on its flanks, the Confederates attacked the Union’s center following one of the largest artillery exchanges of the war. Positioned on the high ground, the Yankee cannon, rifles and muskets pummeled the approaching Rebels in the battle’s grand finale known as Pickett’s Charge.

On America’s Independence Day, July 4, 1863, Lee and his battered army retreated, beginning their long march back to Virginia, pursued by Union forces.

“The Confederate soldiers came away feeling demoralized,” says D. Scott Hartwig, 56, a historian at the 6,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park. “Gettysburg destroyed the myth that Gen. Lee was invincible in battle.”

Crucial victory

The Union victory at Gettysburg—and simultaneous Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, Miss.—proved crucial because it halted a series of Northern defeats and commenced the beginning of the end for the South.

“If the South had won at Gettysburg, we likely would have been a divided nation,” says Allen Guelzo, 60, director of Civil War-era studies at Gettysburg College.

Though the battle of Gettysburg was devastating to both armies, Confederate losses were so great that the South never again posed a serious threat in the North. “It was the only—and last—major invasion north of the Mason-Dixon Line,” Hartwig says.

Still, because Union forces failed to destroy Lee’s fleeing army, the war dragged on for nearly two more years.

Almost immediately after the firing ceased, Gettysburg became synonymous with the Civil War as Northern newspapers heralded the Union victory, helping change public opinion about the North’s prospects of winning the war.

Gettysburg Address

The significance of the battle was elevated on Nov. 19, 1863, when President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address during the dedication of Soldiers’ National Cemetery, a battlefield burial ground. In his two-minute speech, Lincoln honored the fallen and defined the war as a struggle that would give the nation “a new birth of freedom.”

“The Gettysburg Address, as much as the battle itself, made Gettysburg an iconic symbol of the war,” Guelzo says.

Gettysburg’s renown swelled again during the 1880s when thousands of Civil War veterans gathered to commemorate the battle’s 20th and 25th anniversaries, and to promote preservation of the battlefield, which was designated a national military park in 1895.

Paying respect

The epic battle will be remembered June 27-30 and July 4-7 as thousands of historical re-enactors converge on Gettysburg (pop. 7,620) to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the ghastly and legendary engagement.

“Gettysburg is the mecca of Civil War re-enacting,” says George Lomas, 70, re-enactor coordinator for the Gettysburg Anniversary Committee. “We’ll probably have 15,000 re-enactors for the sesquicentennial.”

The milestone events will feature mock cavalry and infantry battles, live mortar fire demonstrations, Sutler’s Row, Civil War-era music, military encampments and historical presentations.

Among the re-enactors likely will be Henry Clay Pickett and Darren Gallaher, paying respect to ancestors who fought on a battlefield now considered hallowed ground.

“I’ve got the registration form; I should be back,” says Gallaher, the great-great-great-grandson of Union Pvt. James Saunders, who was wounded at Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, while serving with the 25th Ohio Infantry Regiment on Cemetery Hill.