As Lee’s men crossed southern Pennsylvania, Union troops headed their way. The two sides faced off in and around the town of Gettysburg 150 years ago this week. Lasting three days, Gettysburg became the bloodiest battle of the war. Nearly a third of the 165,000 soldiers who took part died or were wounded, captured or declared missing.
Origins of the war
Before the Civil War, the South relied on slaves to keep its large plantations running. Many Northerners wanted to end slavery, or at least keep it from spreading to other states.
Southerners didn’t like the national government telling them what to do. They thought states should decide for themselves what was best. In this case, they wanted to keep their cheap labor.
After the election of Abraham Lincoln as president in 1860, pro-slavery states decided to form their own country. Lincoln and others were determined not to let this happen, and the fight was on.
Seeking a decisive victory
Both armies had won battles in the two years leading up to Gettysburg. But neither had scored a knockout blow. Would Gettysburg be that decisive event?
On the battle’s first day, Southern soldiers sent Union forces scurrying through the streets to the safety of the hills south of town.
Overnight, more troops arrived on both sides. On Day 2, there were several bloody assaults whose names are now etched in history: the Wheatfield, Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard.
Some of these sites experienced fierce, hand-to-hand combat. Soldiers used knives, bayonets and sabers as well as guns. The Union army was clustered in a fishhook formation south of town. To the west, Lee’s forces were stretched along a five-mile front, making it hard for him to move troops as the need arose. The fighting raged into the night. Both sides suffered huge losses, but the Union lines held.
On the third day, Confederate cannons began blasting the enemy. Shells rained down for two hours. Union artillery stopped returning fire after a while to fool the enemy into thinking their guns had been disabled. It worked.
Suddenly, from the woods, about 12,500 Southern soldiers began advancing across an open field. The line was more than half a mile wide, according to one witness. Northern guns took aim. Men fell in heaps.
“We could not help hitting them at every shot,” one Union officer later said of what became known as Pickett’s Charge.
Half of those who marched into that open field died or were captured. The attack had failed. When told by Lee to rally his division for another try, General George Pickett said, “General Lee, I have no division now.”