Corporal Alphonse Hodges, Company F, 9th New York Cavalry of Buford’s division, peered out into the darkness along with the three other men in his picket, trying to pierce the shadows with his gaze. It was 5:20 A.M. on Wednesday, July 1, 1863 about a mile and a half west of a small town called Gettysburg.
As he continued his watchful lookout, the darkness began to lift, revealing to him the shadowy forms of enemy troops moving down the Chambersburg turnpike about a half mile away. Sending his men to alert the other pickets as well as the support in his rear, Corporal Hodges advanced nearer to investigate. Suddenly, the enemy opened fire causing him to jump for cover, taking off a few shots as he did. He then doubled back to join the rest of his regiment.
With these shots began one of the largest and bloodiest battles of the Civil War. Though somewhat weak in significance when compared to certain other battles in the Civil War such as Antietam, Chattanooga, and Vicksburg, the battle of Gettysburg is yet one of the most interesting and without a doubt the most famous battle of the Civil War. Why does this battle possess so much interest? What makes this battle one of those “unforgettable battles” which captivate so many?
For some, the study of military tactics captivates them as they study this battle. For others, this battle holds so much appeal because of its effect on the Confederate high command, crushing Richmond’s last hopes of any intervention from Europe. Others view this battle as the turning point of the Civil War and are fascinated by the innumerable “what ifs”.
Still others are attracted by the scale of this battle, undoubtedly the largest of the Civil War if not the most significant. Over three days, one hundred and sixty thousand Americans – one out of every eighteen free male Americans able to bear arms – battled within a small area (twenty-five square miles) resulting in fifty thousand casualties – killed, wounded, or missing: thirty percent of those that fought. In fact, nearly five percent of all casualties suffered throughout the entire Civil War were sustained at Gettysburg.
However, though all of these might seem valid reasons for the immense interest demonstrated in this battle, The true source of this fascination is quite simply the story of Gettysburg. For the Battle of Gettysburg, like any other event in history, is at heart a story, full of love and hate, laughter and tragedy, cowardice and heroism. And like any story, this story has many characters, some admirable, some not so much.
Thus, any examination of the battle must begin with a brief examination of the men that fought it. Who were they? What were they like? What were their passions, their loves, their hatreds? The story of Gettysburg, like any other story, begins with the cast.
Robert E. Lee was born in Stratford Hall, Virginia, to Revolutionary War hero “Light-Horse Harry” Lee on 19 January 1807. Much of Lee’s childhood, however, was spent without his father, who abandoned young Lee and his mother and fled to the West Indies because of financial troubles.
Raised by his mother, Lee grew up with a profound faith in the almighty providence of God, which he clearly demonstrated in all of his letters and reports. With this faith in God, along with the warm encouragement of his mother, studious Lee performed well academically and was eventually accepted to West Point Military Academy in 1825 along with eighty-seven other cadets. By the time he graduated four years later in 1829, that number had shrunk to forty-six, among whom he ranked second.
Two years after graduation, Lee married Mary Anna Randolph Custis, the somewhat spoiled descendent of George Washington. Yet, serving in the United States military, there was little time for family life. Though not engaged in any war, Lee’s life as an officer in the Corps of Engineers was far from relaxed as he spent the next seventeen years inspecting and supervising the construction of coastal defenses on the East Coast. During these years, Lee fathered five children: two sons and three daughters. He tried to spend as much time as he could with his family, perhaps remembering his own neglectful father, but could only make it home once a year at Christmas.
Though Lee carried out his work on the coastal defenses with great competence, the monotonous job did not allow for much advancement within the army, and Lee remained a captain the entire time. However, all that changed in 1846. The United States went to war with Mexico in what would later be called the Mexican War. During this war, Lee, a member of General Winfield Scott’s staff, distinguished himself on numerous occasions, earning three brevets and emerging with the final rank of colonel. Already, Lee demonstrated a brilliance in the field that won General Scott’s respect and admiration.
Perhaps of more importance to us, Lee’s experiences in this war revealed much of his character. Perhaps first and foremost, Lee was a man of deep and true humility. Distinctly a gentleman of the old school, he spent far more time listening to others than he did expressing his own opinions, even when he strongly disagreed with the opinions voiced. Indeed, such was his quiet reserve that, on at least one occasion, his reticence was mistaken for assent to the views articulated by the other party to the conversation.
Lee’s silence never sprung from timidity, but rather, from a deep and sincere humility. He was simply a gentleman in the truest sense of the word. When the others of General Scott’s staff presented their reports, boisterously voicing their opinions on how best to maneuver the army to attain victory, Lee would remain silent, waiting until he was called for to deliver his own report. And even then, he kept silent as to his own opinion unless it were called for by the General.
Such humility might almost be looked upon as weakness in a military situation, yet it was this very humility, combined with Lee’s competency that attracted General Scott to this young captain, eventually bringing him his colonel’s badge.
After the war, in 1852, Lee received and accepted an invitation to serve as superintendant of West Point. Here he would meet and instruct many who would later hold high military positions in the Civil War – both Union and Confederate. The time he spent as superintendent at West Point would stand him in good stead during the Civil War, for here he acquired a background knowledge of many of the men whom he would later face in battle.
However, at this time, secession was unimaginable to men such as Lee. To such men, it was merely a word brought up by hotheads and warmongers, and would never gain any real support. Thus, at the first opportunity, Lee left the boredom of West Point (though this position had brought him much closer to his family) and took an appointment as the commander of a cavalry regiment in Texas in 1855.
Soon, however, he found himself regretting this decision, for life on the Texas frontier was far from the life of action that Lee thirsted for and on which he thrived. Yet, even here, on this small outpost he served with dutiful dedication and integrity.
This life in Texas was abruptly ended in 1859 by the death of his father-in-law, George Washington Parke Custis. He immediately requested and received leave to depart back to Arlington, Virginia until things had settled. Here he found his father-in-law’s will and financial dealings in disorganized shambles. Resigning himself to the dry and distasteful task of sorting his deceased father-in-law’s affairs, Lee settled down for a rather extended leave of absence in Arlington. During his otherwise uneventful stay here, Lee was called upon to put down abolitionist John Brown’s raid on the Federal armory at Harpers Ferry.
Then, on 6 November 1860, Abraham Lincoln was elected 16th president of the United States, immediately sparking a storm of outrage in the South. The Republican Party to which Lincoln belonged was openly against slavery, and this concerned many in the South who were convinced that Lincoln would seek to abolish slavery, a power they saw as not specifically granted to the Federal Government in the United States Constitution.
This fear eventually culminated in the secession of South Carolina from the Union on 20 December 1860. She was swiftly followed by Mississippi, Florida, Alabama, Georgia, Louisiana, and Texas.
President Lincoln, determined to preserve the Union, sought Lee and offered him command of the Federal army which was to invade the South and bring back the seceded states by force. However, Lee, knowing that his home state of Virginia would secede if the U.S. continued its plans of invasion, found that he could not fight against his own people and instead accepted a general’s commission in the newly formed Confederate army upon Virginia’s secession on 17 April 1861.
After his first military engagement at Cheat Mountain, West Virginia in September of 1861 (a dismal failure), Lee served as Confederate President Jefferson Davis’s military adviser until June of 1862 when he was given command of wounded General Joseph E. Johnston’s hard-pressed army on the Virginia peninsula.
Under Lee’s command, this army, renamed the Army of Northern Virginia, would become the most famous and successful army of the Confederacy. Lee brilliantly defeated General George B. McClellan’s vastly superior army and drove him back from the Confederate capital in the Seven Day’s Battle. This success he followed with a tremendous victory at the Second Battle of Manassas where Lee defeated the combined might of the Union Army of Virginia and the Army of the Potomac.
Despite these victories, Lee could not feel elation, recognizing that simply driving the enemy back would not win the war; a victory on Northern soil was necessary. With this knowledge, Lee led his army on an invasion of Maryland in September 1862. However, when McClellan discovered a misplaced dispatch outlining the entire invasion plan, surprise and initiative were lost and Lee’s army was nearly destroyed. Lee barely managed to fight McClellan into a stalemate at the Battle of Antietam, enabling him to withdraw his bloodied army by night back to the relative safety of Virginia.
In these battles, we again learn much of General Lee’s character. As a general, Lee was always the embodiment of patience, with perhaps an overly-generous readiness to forgive and excuse any sins of omission and commission on the part of subordinates. He demonstrated this clearly in the Antietam campaign, for rather than seeking to blame his own troops for the failure of the campaign, Lee himself took full responsibility for the mistakes of his subordinates. These qualities, though sometimes carried to extremes, nevertheless earned him the fierce, undying loyalty and almost reverential affection of these men – in defeat no less than in victory.
Another factor that endeared Lee to the army was his deep and earnest care and affection for his men. He always exhibited an unmistakably sincere interest when talking to his men, treating them as his own children. Indeed, while separated from his own family, the army became Lee’s family; he acting the gentle and caring father, his thoughts all for his men.
Thus, despite their defeat on Northern soil, the men of the Army of Northern Virginia retained an unshakable confidence in their leader, who, in their eyes, could do no wrong. This confidence in Lee’s abilities was justified over the next few months as Lee led them in battle, decisively defeating enormously superior Union armies at the Battles of Fredericksburg (December 1862) and Chancellorsville (April 1863).
Lee demonstrated in these battles an intellectual prowess that overcame all obstacles with an uncanny ability to predict an opponent’s next move before his opponent himself had considered it. In both strategy and tactics, he was a strong advocate of the offensive, making daring and even audacious moves, but always calculated and intelligent, never reckless. This keenness for the offensive, coupled with the tremendous success of the previous two battles in Virginia would lead Lee yet again to turn his eyes northward.
George Gordon Meade was born in Cadiz, Spain, to Richard Worsam Meade on 31 December 1815, one of the few Union generals who began his life outside of the country. His father, a Philadelphia merchant serving in Spain as a naval agent from the U.S., was left in financial ruins because of his support for Spain during the Napoleonic Wars. These financial straits led to his return to the United States in 1817. When Richard Meade died in 1828, prior to young Meade’s thirteenth birthday, the family was left emotionally, as well as financially devastated.
It was primarily because of these financial difficulties that the young Meade applied and was accepted into West Point Military Academy in 1831 at the young age of sixteen. Despite his youth, Meade did well, graduating nineteenth out of 56 in 1835. Following his graduation, Meade served one year in Florida during the Seminole War before resigning from the army, never having had any intention of pursuing a military career.
But it soon became apparent that God’s plans for Meade's life differed from Meade’s. Four years after resigning, Meade met and married Margaretta Sergeant in 1840, and would eventually rear seven children. However, Meade found it difficult to support his family with his civilian job and, in 1842 asked to be reinstated in the army.
Appointed a second lieutenant in the Corps of Topographical Engineers, Meade served during the Mexican War on the staffs of several Generals, leaving the war with a promotion to first lieutenant. After the war’s end, Meade spent the next several years constructing breakwaters and lighthouses in New Jersey and Florida until his promotion to captain in 1856. In 1857, Meade was transferred to the Great Lakes where he continued his topographical work until the start of the Civil War.
When secession arrived, Meade, having no ties to the South, chose to remain with the United States Army and, on 31 August 1861, received a promotion to brigadier general as well as command of a brigade of Pennsylvania volunteers. His brigade worked the defenses of Washington until transferred to the Army of the Potomac under George B. McClellan during the Peninsular Campaign. Here Meade saw his first major action of the Civil War in the Seven Day’s Battle, which left him severely wounded. Following his recovery, Meade was placed in command of yet another brigade during the Second Battle of Manassas, where he yet again faced defeat at the hands of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Meade was then transferred to temporary command of John Reynold’s division in the corps of Joseph Hooker, leading this division commendably at South Mountain and Antietam, where he received temporary command of the corps upon the wounding of Hooker in the midst of the battle.
At Fredericksburg, Meade once again served admirably, this time in command of his own division, nearly breaking through the lines of Confederate General A.P. Hill’s Division. Following the purges that followed this battle, Meade found himself promoted to full-fledged corps command, leading V Corps at the battle of Chancellorsville.
Throughout these battles, Meade demonstrated himself to be a skillful, competent, and reliable commander, fully possessing the respect of his fellow generals. However, though respected, Meade could not be described as a lovable man. Somewhat antisocial and taciturn, Meade spent most of his time buried in books and often seemed irascible, quite unlike the ever-gentlemanly Lee.
Militarily, Meade differed from Lee almost as much as he did in personality, remaining a firm believer in playing it safe, taking no chances whatsoever in order to make the fewest possible mistakes. While this philosophy did keep Meade from making almost any mistakes, it also prevented him from achieving the kind of brilliant victories that marked Lee’s career. In the end, Meade had sufficient ability to handle troops well, but did not have any originality or imagination, lacking the aggressive spirit to perform brilliantly.
Yet, despite these numerous differences between the two men, Lee and Meade shared one thing in common: a vibrant faith in God, evidenced throughout their orders and letters which almost invariably reflect a calm reliance on the almighty providence of God for military success.
Indeed, it was this trust in God that caused Meade to gain a reputation as one who wouldn't scare easily, a quality that would serve him in good stead in the upcoming campaign.
In memory of the Battle of Gettysburg, as we approach its 150th anniversary.