In a little town in Pennsylvania, three days of bloody fighting became the turning point of the Civil War.
NORTH AGAINST SOUTH: THE AMERICAN CIVIL WAR.
From 1861 to 1865, America was torn in two, with one half fighting the other. The bitter war between the Northern states and the Southern states left the nation with more than a million men dead or wounded and cost billions of dollars. Its effects are still with us, 130 years later. In this series, BOYS' LIFE focuses on three of the 2,400 named battles that made up the Civil War.*
Out of Virginia they came in long, menacing columns, 75,000 gray-clad Confederate soldiers who had yet to lose a battle. It was June 1863. The Civil War had been raging for two years. The men of the South were trying to end the war by invading Pennsylvania. They were hoping a Confederate victory in the North would force President Abraham Lincoln to accept peace on the South's terms.
BOTH SIDES GROW WEARY
Could the Southern forces win the Civil War by invading the North? They had tried before, at Antietam (an-TEE-tam), a creek in Maryland. But Union forces forced them to retreat to Virginia. Now the South was advancing on Gettysburg to try again.
By now, many Northerners had tired of the war. Only weeks before, 30,000 had rallied in New York, calling for peace.
The South was weary too. The North had blocked shipments to the southern coast. Food was scarce. In Richmond, capital of the Confederate States of America, people had rioted and looted stores.
Yet, the war was far from over. As the world watched, the United States continued to tear itself apart.
Which side had the better army? The blue-coated Northerners had fought bravely in many battles. But their commanding generals often blundered, unable to match the brilliance of the Southern commander, Robert E. Lee.
The North had yet to win a major battle in the East. But in the western section of the Confederacy, the story was different. A Northern general, Ulysses S. Grant, had won important victories in Tennessee and Mississippi. He had a Confederate army trapped inside the Southern city of Vicksburg, Miss., even as Lee's men marched into Pennsylvania.
Northern forces followed Lee's men into Pennsylvania. They were 89,000 strong, led by General George Gordon Meade. Meade wanted to stop the men in gray from capturing Harrisburg, the state capital.
Southern cavalry led by General "Jeb" Stuart rode all around the Northern army, capturing wagon trains, cutting telegraph lines, causing confusion. But in doing so, they lost touch with General Lee, who depended on Stuart's horsemen for information about the enemy.
A spy told Lee that the Northern army was coming after him, so Lee cancelled the attack on Harrisburg. On July 1, advance units from the two armies clashed near the small town of Gettysburg instead.
Neither general had planned to fight there. On the first day, the Northerners were outnumbered and badly beaten. Shattered regiments streamed through Gettysburg in retreat.
South of town, a tough West Pointer, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, re-formed the Northern troops on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. The rest of the Union army marched all night to reinforce them.
On July 2, the Southerners launched assaults on both flanks of the Union army. Incredibly fierce fighting exploded around a key hill on the left flank, Little Round Top.
A Union soldier from Maine remembered the lines were so close, the gun barrels almost touched. On the right flank, one Mississippi regiment's charge was so furious it knocked down a picket fence and a row of Northern soldiers behind it.
Several times, when it seemed the Northern line would collapse, fresh regiments rushed to the rescue. The day ended with the Southerners driven back.
THE HILL OF DEATH
Early on July 3, the Southerners tried to capture Culp's Hill. But massed Federal artillery killed so many of them, the men in gray called it "the hill of death." Among those who died was Private Wesley Culp. He had been born not far from the foot of the hill but had moved to the South after falling in love. His brother fought on the Union side, defending the hill.
General Lee decided his only hope was an all-out smash at the center of the Union army on Cemetery Ridge. For almost two hours, 172 Southern cannons pounded the position. Then 15,000 Southerners surged forward, commanded by Major General George Pickett. One Union soldier said they looked like "an ocean of men."
But the Confederate artillery had run out of ammunition. They could not support Pickett's men. Union cannons tore terrible gaps in their ranks. When the Southern soldiers were halfway up the slope, General Hancock ordered the entire Union line on Cemetery Ridge to fire. The front rank of the Southern assault went down. More volleys riddled the ranks behind them. With incredible courage some of Pickett's men kept coming and reached the stone wall near the top of the ridge.
Would the Union men panic and run? General Hancock was down with a wound. No other general was in sight. Out of the smoke roared a charge of blue-coated Northern veterans. It swept the remaining Southerners back down the hill. The battle of Gettysburg was over. The North had won.
Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles in American history. Of the Northern army, 23,000 were killed, wounded or missing. The Southern army lost 28,000. At the end of the next day, July 4, General Lee withdrew to Virginia.
Many people thought General Meade should have attacked and destroyed Lee's retreating army. But Meade decided his own army had lost too many men to try it.
On the same July 4, the Confederate army inside Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant. Another big Southern army trapped in Port Hudson on the Mississippi River surrendered a few days later. These triumphs revived the hope of victory in the North.
The South fought on, hoping they could somehow discourage the North into quitting the war. But many people began to realize that the charge of Pickett's men at Gettysburg had been the high tide of the Southern cause.