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Union Army and Confederate Army cavalry units clash in the re-enactment of 139th anniversary of the Battle of Gettsyburg, Sunday, July 7, 2002, in Gettysburg, Pa. (BRAD C. BOWER/AP)
Union Army and Confederate Army cavalry units clash in the re-enactment of 139th anniversary of the Battle of Gettsyburg, Sunday, July 7, 2002, in Gettysburg, Pa. (BRAD C. BOWER/AP)

Remembering Gettysburg, where the American idea proved it would ‘long endure’ Add to ...

Some nations have been created by paper, some by protest. But many of them have found their sense of national identity on battlefields. Passchendaele was a crucial event in the turbulent development of a Canadian nationality, just as Gallipoli was for Australia and New Zealand.

For Americans, the defining battle was the one at Gettysburg, whose 150th anniversary is this week. Over a million visitors have been predicted for Gettysburg over the course of 2013; for the July anniversary days, no hotel accommodations have been available within 95 kilometres of town since January.

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There have been other big-ticket anniversaries during the larger Civil War sesquicentennial – the First Battle of Bull Run in 2011 and Antietam in 2012 – but Gettysburg is undoubtedly the biggest of them all. Not only was the battle a critical moment in the agonizing struggle of the Civil War (1861-65) to abolish slavery and solidify the union, it became a platform on which the wartime president, Abraham Lincoln, uttered his own eloquent definition of American nationhood.

In sheer size, Gettysburg dwarfed any previous military event on the continent. The principal field army of the insurgent Confederate republic, commanded by the venerable Robert E. Lee, had won victory after embarrassing victory against the national U.S. forces. In the summer of 1863, Lee’s Confederates were looking to achieve a battlefield win that would force the U.S. administration of Abraham Lincoln to the negotiating table.

The Confederacy had too little resources and manpower to survive a protracted war, especially if it was all fought on Southern soil. Its armies, Lee knew, would have to move the fighting into the northern states, in hopes of raising war-weariness to the point that northerners would demand a halt – which he believed would allow the Confederacy to secure the concession of its independence.

Of course, that independence might not mean very much. The southern economy depended on the export of cotton to industrial Britain, and that might have made the Confederacy little more than an economic protectorate of the British Empire.

Nevertheless, Lee would fling 85,000 soldiers (plus the army’s 30,000 slaves) into Pennsylvania. Through the month of June, 1863, they swept northwards. The aim was to lure the U.S. army – 95,000 strong, under George Gordon Meade – into a trap. But Lee’s plans were confounded when advance Union forces reached Gettysburg first, and thus forced a stand-up fight instead of an ambush.

Over three days – July 1 to July 3 – the two armies would nearly batter each other senseless and turn Gettysburg into a city of carnage. Up to 9,000 soldiers would be killed outright or die on the battlefield. (Compare this to the 5,000 Canadian dead at Passchendaele.)

Battles-within-the-battle erupted over innocuous hills like Little Round Top, and across parcels of farmland known only as the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard or the Stony Ridge.

Civilians found their backyards and alleys converted into ambushes, their attics turned to sniper posts and their streets barricaded.

The most valuable piece of military real estate, however, was a broad plateau at the south end of town known as Cemetery Hill (the cemetery’s Gothic-style gatehouse became one of the most iconic images of the battle). There, the Union army parked gunners who could sweep the entire surrounding landscape.

By the third day, Lee decided to launch an all-or-nothing attack, looking to kick in the back door to Cemetery Hill.

This was not quite as suicidal a decision as has often been portrayed. The weapons technology of the mid-19th century was only a marginal improvement over that of the Napoleonic wars, and in the Crimean War, Lord Raglan had launched exactly such an attack against the Russians at the battle of the Alma and won a clear-cut victory.

At around 2 p.m. on July 3, as many as 14,000 Confederate soldiers stepped off in long lines of battle. An admiring U.S. officer wrote, “The guns and bayonets in the sunlight shone like silver.” But the great charge failed, leaving 500 dead and another 2,100 wounded or captured.

Meade’s army may have been bloodied, but it also had the determination of despair: Union soldiers understood all too well that if they failed, “the rebel chieftain” would be “at liberty to go where and do what he pleased,” another officer wrote. It would have been the cue for “mob rule over the whole chain of Atlantic cities … and thus paralyzed the whole machinery of our government.”

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