The Battle of Gettysburg and The American Civil War
[The Gettysburg Foundation &
National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior]
The epic Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863) changed the course of U.S. history.
The first steps toward the Battle of Gettysburg started in June 1863. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s soldiers crossed the Potomac River in Virginia and began to march toward the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, with thoughts that a victory in the North would erode the Union’s will to continue the fight.
The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, 1863, when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met Gen. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. During the three-day battle, about 165,000 soldiers clashed in and around the small town of Gettysburg (battle-era population: 2,400).
When the Battle of Gettysburg was over on July 3, 1863, 51,000 soldiers were casualties (killed, wounded, captured or missing) in what remains the largest battle ever fought in North America.
The two armies met by chance on June 30, 1863. The first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg was fired early in the morning of July 1, 1863, when fighting broke out north and west of town, with Confederates attacking Union troops on McPherson Ridge. Though outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until afternoon, when they were finally driven back to Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill south of town. That night, the Union troops labored over their defenses while the rest of the Army of the Potomac arrived and took up positions for the next day’s meeting of the armies.
Author Gregory Coco tells the story of the hospitals at Gettysburg – public buildings, private homes, orchards and groves, outbuildings and meadows – that were transformed into a “vast sea of misery” that sheltered and housed tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers wounded in the three days of battle. In truth, the battle would continue for four more months, but this time in the hospitals filled with the suffering and dying.
“In every direction lay men of all classes, the rich man and the poor man, the commander and the private. At one place, near a fence, lay privates, corporals, lieutenants, majors and colonels, from New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Alabama, Maine and Delaware side by side, on the bare ground, or on a little wet straw; no distinction.” (p. vii, “A Vast Sea of Misery”)
The Trinity German Reformed Church was one of many buildings that served as one of Gettysburg’s hospitals. By 11 am on the morning of July 1st, Dr. Abraham Stout, assistant surgeon of the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry, had taken possession of the church after being ordered to by a Colonel in the Louisiana Infantry and opened it as a hospital.
Witnesses described the scene inside:
“The wounded were carried into the lecture room of the church and there was so much amputating done there that the seats were covered with blood and they had to bore holes in the floor to let the blood run away…” (Eva Danner, 16 years old)
“Men were lying on boards on tops of the pews, the walls splattered with blood…”
“I found the church full… I should call it a slaughter-house. There must have been 10 or 12 amputation tables in one room…they were all busy… The doctors had their sleeves rolled up to their shoulders and were covered with blood.” (Reuben Ruch, 153rd PA Infantry, Company F)
The Gettysburg hospitals don’t tell a Union story or a Confederate story, but a human story. Acts of kindness by volunteer nurses and civilians, performed out of charity and with love, often with steadfast courage, have been passed down, in marked contrast to the utter brutality of the battle itself. Ordinary, common people showing extraordinary, uncommon valor as caregivers to soldiers regardless of the color of their uniform or the manner of their speech.
Sarah Broadhead, a volunteer nurse, described her first reaction to the hospitals of Gettysburg: “I turned away and cried.”
One hundred fifty years later, when looking at the photographs of the aftermath of the battle and reading first-hand accounts, we may still feel the need to “turn away and cry.”
Instead, I send up a prayer for the souls of all those lost in all wars since the beginning of time. In remembering them, we honor their sacrifices.
Instead, I turn toward their memory and cry.
“It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” ~ Gen. Robt. E. Lee