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Remembering Gettysburg: the storm before the calm. Anniversary of a blistering midsummer battle that presaged the end of the Civil War

A century and a quarter ago the best-known battle of America's national fratricide was fought here to mutual exhaustion and a decisive conclusion. In the next few days attention once again will focus on that crucial struggle - the battle of Gettysburg - through battlefield ceremonies and a nearby reenactment of the conflict. July 1-3, 1863. For the South they were three days of almosts and what-ifs, as the would-be breakway nation struggled to defeat the larger Northern army on its own turf and gain the elusive international backing that might have brought it ultimate victory. Twice here in the rolling Pennsylvania countryside, the South almost overran the North's right flank, and twice it nearly overwhelmed the left.

For the North they were three days of just-barelys, as commanders in Union blue repeatedly robbed Peter to pay Paul, shuttling forces along their fishhook-shaped defensive line to bolster weak areas.

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For both sides they were three days of happenstance and planning, brilliance and ineptitude, boldness and timidity. The casualties were appalling: Nearly one-third of the 160,000 to 170,000 soldiers in the two armies' Gettysburg forces were killed, injured, or captured.

When the three days were over, says historian Henry Steele Commager, the battle had ``turned the tide of English and French opinion, because it meant the North was going to win, and slavery was at an end.'' When the Gettysburg defeat forced Robert E. Lee's battered forces to retreat once more into Virginia, Britain and France concluded that the South could not win, and decided not to give the Confederacy the supplies and money it so desperately needed.

``It was impossible for the South to win [the war] on her own,'' Dr. Commager said in a phone interview. ``And when it became clear that she would not get any aid, it was clear that the North would win.''

Had the South won at Gettysburg, Commager says, ``they could have pushed down'' and captured Washington. Would the North have withstood that loss and continued to fight?

Every year well over a million Americans visit this battlefield, its monuments, museums, and walkways. Gettysburg has an extraordinary hold on Americans, says Commager, because ``in the eyes of most Americans it was the decisive battle'' of what Northerners still know as the Civil War and Southerners as the War Between the States.

Visitors began coming to the battlefield before the war was concluded: ``There have been guides ever since the bullets stopped flying,'' Ed Guy, a guide from South Carolina, observes wryly. By the early 1880s veterans of both sides were holding large reunions on the battlefield.

From now through July 3, 1,200 authentically uniformed men will be encamped on the 3,800-acre battlefield, to show 20th-century Americans what it was like to soldier in steamy 19th-century woolen uniforms during cruder times. And this weekend, on fields near the original site, tens of thousands of Americans will watch a reenactment of the battle.

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It was an engagement of attrition. After a year of checking and out-generaling the larger Northern army, Robert E. Lee decided in June of 1863 to try to take the war north. As Lee, shadowed by the Northern Army, marched into Pennsylvania, everyone knew a major battle was brewing - but where?

On June 25, Lee thought he knew. ``Lee ... laid his spread fingers upon the map between Gettysburg and Emmitsburg,'' Confederate Gen. J.R. Trimble wrote 20 years later, ``and said `somewhere hereabout, we shall fight a great battle, and if successful will secure our independence and end the war.'''

The battle was indeed great, but the success went to the North's Gen. George Meade, a veteran soldier who had been commander of the Army of the Potomac all of five days.

The firing was so intense in the early hours of the first day, Col. George F. McFarland of the 151st Regiment of Pennsylvania Volunteers later wrote, that ``the tree in my front had been cut off or rather splintered and shivered from the roots up at least 10 feet just as the lightning splinters tough young trees.... Limbs lay scattering all about.''

Shortly thereafter the outnumbered Northern forces were scattering, too, driven back through the town of 2,300.

``When I came through the town the houses were all shut up ... except one...,'' wrote Col. William R. Ramsey of F Company. ``[An] old man and woman and a young girl were busy bringing water from the pump or well, which was in the back yard, and serving it out to all who asked for it, some half dozen of us got a drink there and before we could regain the main street four of the party were shot down by the rebel skirmishers who ... were posted behind the steps firing at every blue coat they saw.''

The first day's fighting ended with the South occupying the town and holding a brief numerical advantage. Lee determined to press ahead the next day; Meade, gathering his forces on a ridge, gambled that the rest of his troops would arrive in time to stave off Confederate attacks.

The second day, Union forces under Gen. Daniel Sickles advanced on the left against orders, shortly to absorb terrible punishment from Confederate forces under Gen. James Longstreet. Southern forces, wrote Capt. John Bigelow of the 9th Massachusetts battery, ``opened a fearful musketry fire, men and horses were falling like hail....''

Longstreet forced Bigelow and the rest of Sickles's men to retreat, briefly; ultimately the Union line on the left stabilized and thwarted Longstreet.

On the Union right, the fighting was similar: Lee's forces attacking, Meade's defending. When his artillery positions were overrun by Southern infantry, wrote Col. R.Bruce Ricketts, ``the boys fought them hand to hand with pistols, handspikes, and rammers.''

The day's final fight was on the North's right, at Cemetery Hill.

``The moon had not yet risen,'' wrote Lt. Col. E.H.C. Cavins, of the 14th Regiment of Indiana Volunteers, ``and the darkness was made more impenetrable by the dense smoke of powder.... The deep booming of artillery, the heavy rattle of musketry ... and the lines of flashing guns ... a headlong dash in the dark - a yell - and a few rounds aimed at the flash of the enemy's guns, and all was over for the night.'' It was a crucial fight, and this second day Meade's forces - just barely - had held off Lee's.

On the third and final day, Lee sent 15,000 infantrymen in a desperate massed charge - popularly known as Pickett's charge - at the center of Meade's line. This climactic attack of the battle was preceded by an extraordinary two-hour bombardment by 200 to 250 guns on both sides.

``The air seemed filled with the iron missiles,'' wrote Sgt. Henry C. Morhous of the 123rd Regiment from New York, ``and the forest trees were riven.... The birds seemed confused, and would fly down and light on the heads and knapsacks of the soldiers; rabbits would come out from under the bushes and hide under the soldier's coats.''

The South's Gen. J.R. Trimble commanded two brigades that charged alongside the left flank of Gen. George E. Pickett's forces in that final assault. Coming under horrific musket and artillery fire as they neared the Union lines, they stopped, contrary to orders. ``Amid the roar of the battle it was impossible to make them hear orders to advance,'' General Trimble later wrote. Some of his men began to fall back, as Pickett's forces, also decimated by Union fire, were doing.

``At this time I was wounded; and my aide said: `General, the men are falling back; shall I rally them?' [I] looked off to my right over the field and saw large broken masses of men leaving the front and knew we had failed, and then said, `it's all over: let the men go back.'''

``Those days were full of horrible sights,'' wrote J.C. Armstrong, captain of the 125th New York Volunteers. ``Yet in all these sickening scenes there was I think no hatred....

``There is a certain mutual respect among those who accept the wager of battle. The suffering on both sides were equally cared for.''

On July 4 it rained, and the two shredded armies lay without major conflict. Toward evening, Lee, aware the battle had been irrevocably lost, began to withdraw to Virginia's sheltering Shenandoah Mountains.

Six weeks later a Gettysburg lawyer began buying part of the battlefield for a cemetery for Union dead. That November, President Lincoln wouldugh the war was not yet over.

Lee finally surrendered the last vestiges of his army at Appomattox Court House in Virginia, on April 9, 1865, and within weeks the war was over.

A month before Lee's capitulation, on March 5, Lincoln was already looking to the postwar era in his second inaugural address, closing with these words:

``With malice toward none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation's wounds; to care for him who shall have borne the battle, and for his widow, and his orphan....''

Angel on the battlefield

History records numerous instances of individuals' compassion toward the enemy at Gettysburg.

Several hours before Pickett's climactic charge, infantrymen of both sides were shooting at each other near the center of the battlefield.

``All at once,'' 1st Lt. T.F. Galway later wrote, ``there came a lull in the firing in this part of the line.'' Galway, of the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry, reported that ``a Confederate was seen to rise from the base of the tree [from which Confederate sharpshooters had been firing] and advance toward the Federals with his hands raised. Shots were fired at him but there was curiosity at his approach.... Suddenly the Confederate dropped upon the grass and for an instant was lost to the sight ... a thrill of enthusiasm passed through the Federals, murmurs of admiration were heard, and then a cheer, as hearty as if given in a charge....

``The Confederate sharpshooter ... had seen in front of him a wounded Federal lying helpless on the ground between the lines and begging ... for a drink [the day was humid and in the mid-80s]. And, at the almost certain risk of his own life, had gone forward to give some comfort to his distressed enemy. This it was that caused the Federal cheer and for a few moments checked the work of death in that neighborhood. When the sharpshooter had performed his act of mercy he hastened back to the tree, and with a warning cry of `Down, Yanks: We're going to fire,' the little unpremeditated truce was ended.''

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