GETTYSBURG, PENNSYLVANIA – The Battle of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania, 150 years ago this week, marked a turning point in the U.S. Civil War and delivered a fatal blow to the Confederates.
After the battle — the deadliest ever on American soil, with nearly 8,000 killed and tens of thousands injured — the Southern army began its retreat.
The anniversary of the three-day battle, which began July 1, 1863, began to be commemorated from Saturday with massive re-enactments.
It was the first major battle to be fought on Northern soil: 75,000 Confederate soldiers under Gen. Robert E. Lee were pitted against 97,000 men from the Union Army under Gen. George Meade.
Coming strong off a victory in Chancellorsville, Virginia, on May 4, Lee aimed to drive home his advantage, with the goal of eventually taking Washington. But the two forces met in Gettysburg by chance when a Confederacy brigade went into the city to find food and noticed the presence of the Union cavalry.
On the first day, the Southerners were able to push back the Union soldiers’ lines, forcing them to retreat into the interior of the city. The following day, the fighting moved to hills south of Gettysburg.
The violence was unprecedented, particularly at Little Round Top. Despite its losses, the Union Army pushed back the Confederate forces.
On the final day of the battle, the South bombarded the North’s lines, to no effect. In desperation, one Confederate general, George Pickett, launched a famous last assault, “Pickett’s Charge,” and some 12,500 infantrymen advanced directly toward the Union troops — but failed to break through.
In less than an hour, 6,800 soldiers were wounded, of whom 1,100 died.
The Civil War lasted another two years after Gettysburg, but the Confederacy never again tried an operation of that magnitude.
Months later, on Nov. 19, President Abraham Lincoln paid homage to the victims of both sides at Gettysburg’s cemetery, where he delivered his short but historic Gettysburg Address. Drawing parallels with the shared heritage of the 1776 Declaration of Independence, Lincoln exalted the values of liberty — a reference to slaves, who he had emancipated the previous January — and equality.
“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” Lincoln said. He expressed his hope the sacrifice of thousands of lives would not be in vain and that the young “nation” — a word Lincoln used five times in the less than two-minute speech — “under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Some 200,000 history buffs are expected to trek to the battlefield over the next 10 days to relive the events from July 1 to 3, 1863.
“Let’s draw sabers again,” a Union cavalryman clad in blue, the color of the North’s army, called out Saturday, his flag flapping proudly in the wind.
Wearing a gray Confederate cap, John Baldwin exuded enthusiasm, calling the re-enactment “fantastic.” The 61-year-old said he traveled to Gettysburg in the name of his ancestors, Confederates from North Carolina.
“When you read the books, you don’t see the distance and how far away the soldiers are, how large the battlefield is,” he said.
About 25,000 re-enactors are on scene, fully decked out in period garb to personify those present at the historic event a century and a half ago, as well as civilians and soldiers galore.
A big draw is a stand displaying weapons of that time, allowing participants to buy muskets, sabers or pistols for use in the re-enactment. But they won’t be using real bullets — just black powder.