Ironic Fourth

150 years ago this country almost ceased to exist at Gettysburg

The timing of July Fourth is such an irony. Every first week in July we not only observe the date of the birth of the United States of America, we also observe a date when it came as close to dying as it ever has.

The Battle of Gettysburg took place July 1-3, 1863. This year is its 150th anniversary. Everybody knows it happened but exactly what happened, or more precisely what almost happened, isn’t as well understood. That’s a shame.

Until Gen. Robert E. Lee’s campaign in summer, 1863, the Civil War had been waged exclusively in the south. Lee wanted to gamble everything and bring it to the north. He was headed for Harrisburg and some historians believe his ultimate goal was Philadelphia.

The Union army had to act. It engaged him just outside a peaceful farm town in southern Pennsylvania. It was a slaughter. In the three days there were about 50,000 men killed or wounded—it was 1863, a lot of the wounded died—and thousands were missing. And, of course, all of them, both sides, were Americans.

For two days the battle was inconclusive, but it brought a litany of place names that still reverberate through history— Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill.

On the final day, July 3, Confederate General George Pickett prepared his troops for the second most iconic military action in American history, after D-Day. Pickett’s Charge would decide the battle. Looking back, it also decided the war and the fate of the country.

A mile-long line of rebels, 12,500 of them, set off across open fields toward the union lines, three-quarters of a mile away. The northern guns cut them to shreds but they kept coming. The mile-long line became a half mile.

Gaps opened. There were no rebels left to fill them. Finally, some southerners overran Lt. Alonzo Cushing’s Pennsylvanians, killed him, captured two artillery pieces and wheeled them around to fire. But there was no ammo.

Two years of war remained, but the south was done. There was not an orderly retreat because there were hardly any officers left to order one. The nation had held. At heart-breaking cost.

July 3 is also an anniversary.—M.B.

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2013-07-04 digital edition

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