Worth fighting for?

Apart from the memorials, the quiet fields of Western Pennsylvania bear little evidence of the monumental struggle that swept over this landscape from 1st to 3rd July, 1863. The battle of Gettysburg was a key turning point in the American Civil War, and came to be recognised as the high point of the Confederate army’s fortunes. The Confederacy’s Army of North Virginia, under the most capable general of the war, Robert E Lee, had crossed the Potomac River into Union territory and was looking for a fight after successes at Fredericksburgh and Chancellorsville. The Union Army of the Potomac under the hapless Gen Hooker, had faced a series of setbacks. When Hooker offered his resignation on 28th June, 1863, it was promptly accepted and he was replaced by George Meade. Meade, appointed only three days before Gettysburg, was thus a just-in-time appointment whose handling of the threat from Lee’s army could be described as just enough, just in time to halt Lee in his tracks.

The prosecution of the battle by both generals is described in detail in an excellent Wikipedia page. For those with an interest in the landscape of battle, the Gettysburg National Military Park offers a virtual tour. But for those with the time and opportunity to visit the site in person, the new visitor centre provides an excellent collection of themed displays, the famed cyclorama depicting Pickett’s charge on the third day of the battle, a short film explaining the significance of the event and a starting point for tours of the battlefield.

Here are two panoramic views from opposing lines, giving some idea of the scale of the battlefield.

Cemetery Ridge from the Confederate lines

Towards Confederate lines from Little Round Top

Progression of battle:

The battle of Gettysburg played its part in determining the outcome of the Civil War. For three days the future of a great nation hung in the balance, probably explaining why the details of this action have fascinated military historians ever since. An animated account of the three day battle is available from the US Army. 

For the Confederacy, the issue is tinged by a poignant sense of lost opportunity: how could the most competent commander of the war have lost after a series of victories?

For the Union, it may have been just enough, just in time. But an impartial observer has to ask if Meade could have done more to bring the war to an early close?

These questions have been pored over by others better qualified to answer them in fine detail. For the interested lay visitor, here are a few observations that may help answer these questions:

  • Both armies were mainly militia, some of whom had only weeks of training before going into battle.
  • The main infantry weapon was a muzzle-loading rifle. The range and accuracy of rifle-muskets combined with limited training meant that infantry had to form up in tight line formation to concentrate fire, turning them into an easy target for the enemy.
  • The principal artillery weapon was a muzzle-loading, light cannon firing ball, explosive shell and canister shot.
  • Cavalry had breech-loading carbines, revolvers and sabres and functioned mainly as mounted infantry
  • Lee faced a Union army that by the 2nd day had dug in to a naturally defensive position (such positions favour the defender, giving odds of sometimes 3:1)
  • Lee had recently lost his gifted subordinate, Thomas ‘Stonewall’ Jackson (dead from pneumonia, following an amputation after the battle of Chancellorsville), the one Confederate general with the command, moral authority and presence of mind to bring about the complex manouvres required of Lee’s army in an action of this scale.
  • Lee also lost most of his cavalry; his main reconnaisance, manoevre, rapid deployment and counter-artillery arm, for the first two days of the battle when they got tied up in a costly action East of Gettysburg that involved (for the Union) one George Armstrong Custer.
  • Lee was unable to press home his advantage on the first day when Jubal Early’s division did not continue forward as Union troops hastily dug into defensive positions south of town on Cemetery Ridge
  • The position on Cemetery Ridge combined cover for defending troops, a good field of fire and height to the advantage of defending artillery. The smaller defensive line would have been easier to sustain and reinforce, in the event of a breakthrough.
  • The final attack by Longstreet’s Corps on July 3rd appears to have gone ahead without any preliminary preparation by combat engineers or exploiting gains in the Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den from the previous day. Cavalry were not used to best effect. Armistead’s short-lived breakthrough was not consolidated.
  • Meade made good use of his forward elements under Buford and Reynolds to delay Lee’s advance to the decisive territory south of the town, while he brought up the rest of his army.
  • However, the Army of the Potomac took such a battering on three successive days that it lacked the reserve to deliver a decisive counter-attack late on July 3rd or early on the 4th.
  • Meade possibly lacked the confidence to turn immediately from the defensive to the offensive, and probably did not have the reserves to do so without risking a further onslaught from Lee.
  • Meade’s right and left flanks (Culp’s Hill and Little Round Top) were both good defensive positions, but were not suitable for a rapid counter-attack in conventional line formation.

Military medicine

Field hospitals proliferated all over the area, and a general hospital was established at Camp Letterman shortly after the fighting ceased. Its work continued for months. The suffering of troops who were not killed outright, immediately is difficult to imagine. The rifle-muskets in use at the time fired a high calibre/low velocity Minié ball that caused much damage to limbs and internal organs. Fragments of cloth coated in the mud of mid-summer fields or farm yards would have been driven deep into skin and underlying soft tissues. The heat of the summer sun must have caused infection to set in quickly, leading to gangrene, tetanus and other septic complications in survivors of the initial trauma. Germ theory was still not widely accepted. Army surgeons believed in laudable pus, thinking that the development of a frankly purulent wound would benefit the patient. When gangrene set it, amputation was the main option. But many amputations were performed long before loss of a limb from gangrene was inevitable. Pictures of limbs piled beside field hospital outdoor operating tables are one of the tragic images of this war. The risk of death from infection (gangrene, wound infection, pneumonia, measles, dysentery, cholera or malaria) was around five times the risk of death in battle. Infection was considered by some to be the ‘third army’ of the American Civil War and became one of the drivers behind the foundation of hospital hygiene in the USA.

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