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Pennsylvania

Monumental Gettysburg clash was pivotal point of war

| Saturday, July 5, 2008

It could be called the "what-if" battle.

"Gettysburg is the favorite battlefield for 'what-ifs' by nostalgic Southerners who think that 'if only' (generals Robert E.) Lee or (Richard S.) Ewell or (James) Longstreet had done something different, or if only Stonewall Jackson had been there, the battle and perhaps the war might have come out differently," said James McPherson, a Princeton University historian who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1988 book, "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era."

The great American writer and Mississippian, William Faulkner, even wrote about the phenomenon in "Intruder in the Dust":

"For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it's still not yet 2 o'clock on the July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosened to break out and (Gen. George E.) Pickett himself with his long oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand probably and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it's all in the balance, it hasn't happened yet."

But contrary to popular belief, the Battle of Gettysburg did not win the Civil War for the North or lose it for the South, McPherson said.

"It certainly was a turning point that arrested Confederate momentum in the Eastern theater, but hardly irreversibly," he said.

In fact, some Confederate soldiers during the summer of 1863 agreed with many of today's historians that Lee's army was at its strongest going into Gettysburg.

"There's hardly any sickness or straggling in the army," said Pvt. Eli Landers, 16th Georgia Infantry, according to an account provided by the National Park Service. "We have a large army now in Pennsylvania and it is good and in fine spirits. We intend to let the Yankey Nation feel the sting of the War as our borders has ever since the war began."

In another National Park Service account, Col. A.H. Belo, 55th North Carolina Infantry, explained:

"It was an army of veterans," Belo said. "An army that had in two years' time made a record second to none for successful fighting and hard marching."

And the momentum gained by the North when Union soldiers on Cemetery Hill held their line against "Pickett's Charge" had fizzled by the summer of 1864, McPherson said.

The armies of the North and South appeared bogged down until later that year with Gen. Philip H. Sheridan's triumphs in the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia and Gen. William T. Sherman's capture of Atlanta, McPherson said.

"That turned (the Civil War) around and assured (Abraham) Lincoln's re-election, which was indeed the irreversible victory toward final Union triumph -- not Gettysburg."


Battle of Gettysburg

Dates: July 1-3, 1863

Combatants: The Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by Gen. Robert E. Lee, with 75,000 men, versus the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Gen. George G. Meade, with between 82,000 and 97,000 men (depending on the source).

Casualties: The three-day clash claimed the most American casualties -- about 51,000 -- of any battle on North American soil. Casualties include those who died, were wounded or went missing. According to the Army, the Confederacy lost about 28,000 men, or more than one-third of its forces. The Union lost roughly 23,000.

Sources: The Gettysburg Welcome Center; National Park Service; U.S. Army


Its significance

• Largest battle of the Civil War

• Confederacy's farthest penetration into the North

• Lee's greatest defeat and the Army of the Potomac's greatest victory

• Became the principal field for study by military officers in later generations -- including today's -- to study tactics and command decisions

Source: James McPherson, Princeton University historian and Pulitzer Prize winner for his 1988 book, "Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era." Additional Information:

If you go

For details on today's and Sunday's events marking the 145th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, visit the Web site .

For details on the Battle of Gettysburg and graphics showing troop movements, visit www.nps.gov/archive/gett/getttour/main-ms.htm and www.gettysbg.com/battle.shtml .

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