An oil painting by Edwin Forbes shows the Battle of Gettysburg from the summit of Little Round Top on July 3, 1863. (Edwin Forbes/Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division)

By the summer of 1863, the U.S. Civil War — a clash between North and South that some thought would be over in weeks — had entered its third year.

Almost all of the fighting had been in the South. General Robert E. Lee, who led the Confederate (Southern) Army of Northern Virginia, wanted to change that. He pushed his troops north, into Pennsylvania. With a victory there, he hoped to threaten Washington, the Northern capital, and force the Union army to surrender.

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.

A Union artillery piece sits atop a ridge above the field of Pickett's Charge in Gettysburg National Military Park. Special events are planned for this week marking the 150th anniversary of the Civil War battle. (Matt Rourke/Associated Press)

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.

Pickett’s Charge

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.”

Lee’s army headed back to Virginia, never to launch another major invasion of the North. The Union claimed victory at Gettysburg, but at a terrible cost: 23,000 killed, wounded, captured or missing. Lee’s army lost about 28,000, including a third of its officers.

A brother, a father, a nurse

It seems as if everyone at Gettysburg had an interesting story to tell. Fortunately, many of these stories have been handed down to us.

Wesley Culp grew up in Gettysburg but moved to Virginia in 1858 for work. When the war started, he sided with his new friends in the South. (His brother, meanwhile, fought for the North.) Culp survived many scrapes before his regiment wound up at Gettysburg. But it was there, on the battle’s last day, that he was killed. He died on or near his family’s farm, where he had hunted as a boy.

Amos Humiston’s body would have met the same fate but for a photo he carried of his three small children back in New York. When the photo was printed in Northern newspapers, his wife saw it and identified him.

After the battle, the 2,400 residents of Gettysburg had thousands of dead and wounded to deal with. Nurses such as Cornelia Hancock flooded into town to tend to soldiers of both armies. Hancock, 23, had been told she was too young and pretty to be a nurse, but that didn’t stop her. The New Jersey woman cared for the wounded at Gettysburg and several later battles.

Culp, Hancock and Humiston are among the people and sites noted on special Gettysburg collectors cards being given out at the battlefield to mark the anniversary. (See “What you can do” on Page 2.)

Reuniting the nation

The Civil War was the first conflict to be widely photographed. The photos shocked the public and put pressure on Lincoln and others to end the war. The president went to Gettysburg a few months after the battle and gave a two-minute talk. It’s called the Gettysburg Address, and it’s one of the most famous speeches in history.

Lincoln didn’t talk about winning or enemies. Instead, he spoke of “a new birth of freedom” for a reunited nation.

But the war dragged on for 17 months after Lincoln’s Gettysburg visit. Finally, on April 9, 1865, Lee surrendered his army. Other Southern commanders soon did the same. The North had won. The nation would remain whole.

Marylou Tousignant

Gettysburg by the numbers

Record-keeping wasn’t always good back in the days of the Civil War, so these numbers are rounded. “Deaths” includes soldiers who died later from their wounds.

165,000 — Soldiers at Gettysburg
from both sides

7 million — Bullets fired

11,000 — Deaths (both sides)

40,000 — Wounded, captured, missing

1,200 — Horses and mules destroyed

308 — Cannons on the battlefield today