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150 Years later, the battle of Gettysburg resonates today

By Marshall Connolly, Catholic Online (NEWS CONSORTIUM)
July 3rd, 2013
Catholic Online (www.catholic.org)

A hundred and fifty years after the actual battle, the town of Gettysburg is being invaded once again by two armies, one clad in blue and the other gray. Caught between them are an estimated 200,000 to 300,000 civilians, who have arrived to witness the spectacle.

GETTYSBURG, PA (Catholic Online) - A century-and-a-half ago, the last great hope of the Confederacy dashed itself against the rocks of "The Angle" at Gettysburg, turning the tide of war back towards the Union.

Until Gettysburg, and the surrender of the strategic city of Vicksburg in Mississippi on, July 4, 1863, the people of the Confederacy believed they had a reasonable chance to win their freedom from the Union. However, Lee made a series of mistakes.

The campaign that culminated at Gettysburg was intended to force a decisive battle between the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. It was thought that a decisive, army-crushing battle would give bystanding nations such as England and France the confidence to recognize the Confederacy and provide significant material and possibly military support.

Lee carefully maneuvered his army in multiple columns as far north as Pennsylvania, then turned south to threaten Philadelphia and Washington. This forced the Army of the Potomac to pursue and would give Lee the opportunity to fight on ground of his choosing.

However, advance columns of the two armies blundered into one another at Gettysburg and the situation quickly spiraled out of control with the Union clinging desperately to the superior ground.

Lee took a pass on maneuvering his army away to seek better ground, fearing such a maneuver could demoralize the army and give the appearance of defeat. Instead, he ordered a second day of stacks which ended in stalemate on July 2.

Finally, on July 3, Lee announce his grand plan to finish off the Army of the Potomac. He would strike what he believed to be their weakest point, the center, which had gone untested. The attack would be preceded by the largest artillery bombardment in history until that time. What the artillery didn't accomplish, a massive charge of 15,000 troops would finish.

Until then, the Army of the Potomac was infamous for retreating before such powerful assaults. Lee went all-in.

What he did not know is that his opponent, Union General George Meade was using the center to rest and recuperate troops from the previous two days of fighting, so there were many thousands more men present than Lee thought. And the grand artillery bombardment enjoyed limited effect as shells overshot Union lines, troops sheltered safely behind a low stone wall, and other features of the terrain, and powder supplies ran low.

With the bombardment cut short, the final assault went in, led by General George Pickett's division of troops. The charge, later dubbed "Pickett's Charge" was doomed. Confederate troops led by General Armistead, managed to pierce the Union lines at the low stone wall, called "the angle" for about ten minutes before Union reinforcements pushed them back, killing and capturing most of the Confederate survivors.

The Army of Northern Virginia would never be the same, and lee would never again invade the North.

Conversely, the Union's Army of the Potomac became a hardened, capable force that would win most of its battles over the final two years of the war, grinding down the Army of Northern Virginia by attrition.

The aftermath of the battle saw 51,000 casualties and Lincoln's famed Gettysburg Address.

Today, the battlefield is a national park.

On its fringes, on private lands once tread by the actual soldiers, reenactors, numbering in the tens of thousands, repeat those battles for the public.

This weekend will see about 10,000 to 12,000 reenactors gathered for a recreation of Pickett's Charge. The public will also be led on a reenactment of the charge at the national park by rangers.

A hundred and fifty years later, the battle of Gettysburg remains perhaps the most well-known and most important battle in American history.

Today, the nation lives with the legacy of the Civil War. Although most students learned the Civil War was fought to end slavery, this is not entirely correct. At the core of the issue was the question of power --and who should wield supreme authority. Were state sovereign entities that could freely associate or disassociate with the Union, or was the Federal government supreme.

Today, we live in a nation filled no longer with New Yorkers, Pennsylvanians, Virginians, Georgians, and the like. We are Americans governed by the federal government, for better or worse.

This weekend is a time of remembrance. What happened on the fields around the town of Gettysburg so long ago, resonates today.

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