Share This Page

Gettysburg: Where America got its chance to start over

| Saturday, June 29, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

GETTYSBURG, Pa.

When Gen. Robert E. Lee formed his battle lines on Seminary Ridge, he assembled the largest Confederate army to appear on any battlefield of the Civil War.

Never before had Lee commanded so many men. And never again would he come within reach of such numbers to follow his orders as those men lined up for nearly a mile on that fateful field.

It was July 3, 1863. The United States was 13 years shy of its 100th birthday and was, perhaps, within hours of witnessing its demise as a result of its own bitter divisions.

Lee's strategy, as he marched his army out of Chancellorsville, Va., in June, was to head north and seize Pennsylvania's capital, Harrisburg, in order to win the war — not one battle or campaign, but the entire war — on Northern soil.

Backed by troops in high spirits, he set off for Pennsylvania to convince the North, through a decisive strike, that the Confederates could and would prevail.

He would go to his grave carrying the burden that he failed to fully explain his plan to his subordinates. That, in giving early orders on day one of the three-day battle, he told his generals to take the high ground of Cemetery Hill “if practicable” — and, by using such an indefinite phrase, he failed to convey his intent to end the war on his terms, on that battlefield.

That was why his subordinates never behaved as if they were engaged in a high-risk strategy to win the war.

The attack started from Seminary Ridge with the men of Maj. Gen. George Pickett, Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble and Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew slowly marching eastward. Almost immediately, Union artillery from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top opened fire on the near-mile-long advancing line.

Despite the bloodied gaps ripped through their ranks by Union artillery shells, canister and infantry rifles, the Confederates kept advancing. They attacked relentlessly — and Union soldiers fought back with equal ferocity.

So horrific was the Union artillery fire that it stripped the foliage from trees on Seminary Ridge, as if a tornado had passed through.

Lee's men advanced toward the center of the Union line until bunching in a confused mass, nearly 30 men deep. Pickett ordered his division to link with Pettigrew's to the northeast, but that immediately exposed his right flank to Union artillery on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

At the same time, Pettigrew's brigades fell under intense fire on their exposed left flank.

Outnumbered, cut off from reinforcement, those Confederates who were not captured or killed left a carpet of dead on the field and retreated back to Seminary Ridge.

Of the more than 13,000 men who had charged with Pickett across the field, more than half lay dead between the two ridges. Thousands more limped or crawled, wounded and dejected, back to the Confederate lines.

Pickett lost nearly 3,000 of his division's men, including all of his commanding generals, two brigadier generals and six colonels. Perhaps he also lost his appetite for the glory of war. As Pickett returned to the Confederate lines, Lee ordered him to prepare his division against a possible Union counterattack.

“Gen. Lee, I have no division now,” was all that the shattered Pickett could reply.

Lee already knew that, of course. He had watched Pickett's Charge from Seminary Ridge, saw his troops' determined advance across the open field under murderous fire, their ranks steadily falling, the smoke and confusion as they began to shrink from the battle.

In the three days of fighting in and around Gettysburg, losses for both armies exceeded more than 50,000 souls — the bloodiest fighting ever on American soil.

The war would go on for two more years. The country would heal eventually, but not until many generations had passed.

At the time, news accounts were conflicted over who won the Battle of Gettysburg.

But the small farming town in Adams County, Pa., became the turning point of what remains, 150 years later, America's worst nightmare — and it became America's chance to start over, to get right what our nation stands for.

Salena Zito covers politics for Trib Total Media (412-320-7879 or szito@tribweb.com).

TribLIVE commenting policy

You are solely responsible for your comments and by using TribLive.com you agree to our Terms of Service.

We moderate comments. Our goal is to provide substantive commentary for a general readership. By screening submissions, we provide a space where readers can share intelligent and informed commentary that enhances the quality of our news and information.

While most comments will be posted if they are on-topic and not abusive, moderating decisions are subjective. We will make them as carefully and consistently as we can. Because of the volume of reader comments, we cannot review individual moderation decisions with readers.

We value thoughtful comments representing a range of views that make their point quickly and politely. We make an effort to protect discussions from repeated comments either by the same reader or different readers

We follow the same standards for taste as the daily newspaper. A few things we won't tolerate: personal attacks, obscenity, vulgarity, profanity (including expletives and letters followed by dashes), commercial promotion, impersonations, incoherence, proselytizing and SHOUTING. Don't include URLs to Web sites.

We do not edit comments. They are either approved or deleted. We reserve the right to edit a comment that is quoted or excerpted in an article. In this case, we may fix spelling and punctuation.

We welcome strong opinions and criticism of our work, but we don't want comments to become bogged down with discussions of our policies and we will moderate accordingly.

We appreciate it when readers and people quoted in articles or blog posts point out errors of fact or emphasis and will investigate all assertions. But these suggestions should be sent via e-mail. To avoid distracting other readers, we won't publish comments that suggest a correction. Instead, corrections will be made in a blog post or in an article.