David Stone
Pickett's Charge, Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
Pickett's Charge, Battle of Gettysburg, July 3, 1863
Photo by Thure de Thulstrup / Public Domain

On the bloody first day at Gettysburg, a battle begins that will change America forever. For three furious days, one-hundred and fifty-four years ago this month, Americans will kill other Americans at a furious rate of over 100 per hour.

Not one of the deaths will be worth the sacrifice.


A National Catastrophe At Gettysburg

When you drive through the rolling hills of southern Pennsylvania, passing the little towns along the route where Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his troops, it's not possible to really imagine 71,000 men and boys, hundreds of miles away from home, marching through on their way to slaughter.

You can collect all the numbers. They've been heavily researched and confirmed.

But to absorb the human details, the universe of horror and destruction, is more than any one person is likely to hold realistically in his or her mind. The full weight of suffering can't be imagined.

Reducing the carnage to raw numbers makes the unimaginable possible.

In the next three days, 5,000 of the soldiers marching up the dirt pike behind Lee will die and be left behind in Pennsylvania.

5,000 men and boys had no more than three days left to live. Some will survive long enough to be cut down in Pickett’s Charge, charging into a fusillade of musket fire across an open field to the high point of the Confederacy, a place to which it would never return.

The numbers make discussion manageable, but we make a terrible mistake when we let the catastrophe of the Civil War, and especially this tragic battle, be reduced to statistics.

Recruited from all over the Confederate states, 5,000 men and boys as young as fifteen will never leave the battlefield, their lives destroyed, their families fatherless, brotherless, their bodies so numerous that only some will be buried before the Southern army retreats into Virginia, the rest left to swell on the blood-soaked farmland.

That's not all. More than 3,000 

Union soldiers will die too.

Death by the Numbers, the Score of Brutality

So, do the math. 8,000 men and boys killed in a three day period in a small Pennsylvania town, Gettysburg, with only 2,400 permanent residents, making the disaster even more monumental for its contrast.

Sadly, there's even more.

27,000 soldiers from both sides will be wounded, many of their wounds so severe the soldiers will never be fit again for the work they did before the war. 

Farmers won't farm. Tailors won't stitch. Even teachers will not teach.

Gettysburg is a microcosm for a war within a nation of independent-minded states, three days of ferocious carnage in which giant killing machines consisting of tens of thousands of soldiers repeatedly did what they were designed to do — obliterate each other.

Was either side right enough to justify the horror?

In all the years of the War Between the States, according the most up to date estimates, 750,000 — three-quarters of a million — men and boys died, more than all other American wars combined, 15 times as many as died in all the years of the Vietnam conflict.

Aggravating the pains of the conflict is that we now knows, for all the dead and destroyed, much went unresolved at the end.

In Depth, The Battle of Gettysburg and The Strategies

The overall strategies for both sides at the Battle of Gettysburg were simple.

General Lee wanted to draw the battle lines out of Virginia and take war to the North. By invading Pennsylvania, he hoped to crush the Union spirit and prove they could not win, thereby ending the war.

The Union forces, now lead by General George Meade for only a few days, were determined to halt Lee’s invasion of the North and, doing so, reverse the course of a war they seemed to be losing.

The Battle of Gettysburg is generally considered the turning point in the Civil War. 

Lee, defeated, never mounted another offensive campaign, and once Ulysses S. Grant took over the Union Army, the two men pushed their killing machines against each other until one wore out.

The inhumanity after Gettysburg can be remembered in General William Tecumseh Sherman’s scorched earth march across the South, burning Atlanta to the ground, destroying civilian lives and livelihoods without anything resembling remorse, its results later portrayed in Gone With The Wind.

By the time it was over, only a fool believed the  states reunited under law were one nation in anything but a legal association. 

One hundred and fifty years later, the battle scars can be found from Pennsylvania fanning out across the South, the simmering distrust and resentment barely below the surface.

The bitter legacy of the war lives on. 

Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address 1863

Invited to speak at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in Gettysburg, four months after the battle, Lincoln was asked only to make a “few appropriate remarks.”

Following a two hour oration by Edward Everett Horton, he changed the meaning of the war and its implications in just two minutes. Read the text here.

Back to the Battle of Gettysburg, apart from the retrospective historical view that suggests it was the crucial battle that changed the war, it’s significance has expanded because of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Lessons From Gettysburg and the Civil War - Mementoes

What did we learn from the Civil War?

We learned that the right leadership can stir passions that inspire men and boys to sacrifice everything up to and including their lives on behalf of a principle. We learned that savagery can be cultivated in people who, outside the war, are gentle and kind.

In a war in which many brothers died, sometimes fighting on different sides, we learned that leaders can goad civilians into horrific battles to achieve goals they may never benefit from, even if they survive.

Current history suggests we also learned that a nation as big and inclusive as the United States is not guaranteed internal peace by its principles or best intentions. Roping individual states into unnatural unity has consequences.

All politics are local, and no war will ever change that, here or anywhere else.