Looking back 20 years after it was fought, Alexander Stewart Webb declared that the Battle of Gettysburg “was, and is now throughout the world, known to be the Waterloo of the Rebellion.” Certainly Webb had earned the right to judge. He was in command of the Union brigade that absorbed the spearpoint of the battle’s climax on July 3, 1863, the great charge of the Confederate divisions commanded by George E. Pickett. “This three days’ contest,” Webb said, “was a constant recurrence of scenes of self-sacrifice,” especially “on the part of all engaged on the third and last day.”
One hundred fifty years later, one might imagine that Alexander Webb was suffering from a touch of middle-age myopia. The word “Gettysburg” is still powerful enough to be recognized by even the most indifferent grade-schooler as a big-box event in American history. But does it deserve to stand beside Waterloo?
It does. Gettysburg may have been the last solid chance the breakaway southern states had of winning the Civil War and their independence. In battle after battle, Robert E. Lee had led his ragtag Confederate forces, the Army of Northern Virginia, to victory over the Union Army of the Potomac. But the victories were all won on Virginia’s soil, and they enfeebled the Virginia economy even as they defended it. Lee knew that only by carrying the war into the Union states and leveraging the war-weariness of the Union into peace negotiations could the Confederacy hope to win. There would be state elections that fall in Pennsylvania and Ohio; if those states turned against the war, they could force President Abraham Lincoln either to begin peace talks or to resign.
Lee’s army, some 85,000 strong, struck northward in the first week of June 1863, crossing the Potomac River and sweeping in a long arc up the Cumberland Valley until his advance guard was perched on the Susquehanna River. Lee’s goal was to lure the Army of the Potomac northward after him, and, as soon as they had strung themselves out on the roads and were unable to help each other, to turn and smash them piece by piece.
It nearly worked. The 95,000 men of the Army of the Potomac, panting and uncertain, set off after Lee, and as soon as Lee was satisfied that they had frantically marched themselves into disarray, he ordered his own army to concentrate, ready to pounce on the first parts of the Army of the Potomac that obligingly wandered into his trap. But the lead elements of the Army of the Potomac got to the town of Gettysburg first, and when Lee’s own advance units arrived there on July 1, they found Union troops ready to fight for dear life to hold it. There were not many of them, and on July 1, Lee’s army was able to clear them out. At nightfall, though, the Union soldiers were still grasping a strategic height south of town: Cemetery Hill. Lee assumed that he could wait for the next day to finish the job. But by the morning of July 2, five of the seven infantry corps of the Army of the Potomac had raced to Gettysburg, and Lee was forced to mount an ambitious and bloody assault on a series of Union positions — the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Little Round Top — whose idyllic names belied the viciousness of the fighting that raged around them.
Lee’s attack on July 2 came within an ace of succeeding, so on the next day he launched what he assumed would be the knockout blow against a Union army already hanging on the ropes. Lee sent three divisions of rebel infantry straight at the vital nape of the Union army’s neck, just behind Cemetery Hill. The rebels punched holes in the Union defenses — but couldn’t hold them. Amazed at the failure of his gambit and appalled at the cost in lives, Lee ordered a retreat back across the Potomac.
“The campaign is a failure and the worst failure that the South has ever made,” wrote one Confederate survivor: “No blow . . . has been so telling against us.” A soldier in the 11th Georgia Regiment wrote his mother that “the Armey is Broken harted” and now “don’t Care which Way the War Closes, for we have Suffered very much.” In fact, Lee would never again regain the military initiative. Although fighting would go on for another 21 months, the Confederates were confined to the sort of defensive warfare they could least afford. And no wonder: The costs that Gettysburg imposed on the Confederacy included 2,592 killed, 12,709 wounded, and 4,150 “captured or missing,” according to the Army of Northern Virginia’s chief medical officer, Lafayette Guild.
#page#The cost of the Union’s victory was even higher. George Gordon Meade, who commanded the Army of the Potomac, cited 3,155 of his own men killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 “captured or missing.” In 1900, Thomas Livermore, who fought in a New Hampshire regiment in the battle, painstakingly recalculated unit reports for the Army of the Potomac and put the reckoning at 3,903 dead, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 “missing,” so that the entire butcher’s bill edged up to 28,063.
But much of the Union believed the price was worth paying. “What do the people of the North think now of the Old Army of the Potomac,” exulted a soldier in the 28th Pennsylvania Regiment. Richard Henry Dana, the prominent Boston lawyer and literary lion, believed that Gettysburg “was the turning-point in our history,” not so much because the Union had won a victory as because it had avoided a defeat that would have proven the Army of the Potomac’s — and its own — last defeat. “Had Lee gained that battle, the Democrats would have risen and stopped the war. With the city of New York and Governor [Horatio] Seymour, and Governor [Joel] Parker in New Jersey, and a majority in Pennsylvania, as they then would have had, they would so have crippled us as to end the contest. That they would have attempted it we at home know.” As it was, New York City blew up in draft riots ten days after the battle: If Robert E. Lee had been crossing the Susquehanna River rather than the Potomac River on that day, it might have been the Army of Northern Virginia that was called in to restore order rather than Union veterans fresh from their victory at Gettysburg. Gettysburg did not end the war in one stroke, but it was decisive enough to restore the sinking morale of the Union, decisive enough to keep at bay the forces that hoped Lincoln could be persuaded to revoke emancipation, and decisive enough to make people understand that the Confederacy would never be able to mount a serious invasion again.
It remained for Lincoln to illumine the ultimate significance of Gettysburg, in the words he spoke at the dedication of the national cemetery laid out on Cemetery Hill in the months after the battle. The words of the Gettysburg Address have been worn so familiar with quotation that it may be hard now to grasp the depth of meaning in Lincoln’s “few, brief remarks” — all of 272 words — at that dedication in November 1863. In Lincoln’s mind, the fundamental significance of Gettysburg — and the Civil War — was the survival of democracy itself: whether “any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure.” In 1863, liberal democracy looked like anything but “the end of history.” Every other democratic experiment launched in the heyday of popular revolutions had gone up in smoke, with the thickest smoke rising from the French Revolution. And how, the monarchs and dictators were eager to ask, could it help but be so? Democracies are run by the “consent of the governed” — they assume that the most ordinary of their citizens are competent to participate in governing. But are they? Ordinary people can be ordinary in mean, selfish, and very dull ways, and can allow government to disappear in a dysfunctional maelstrom of money, self-interest, and incompetence.
Lincoln saw in Gettysburg a rainbow in the maelstrom. Gettysburg and its dead were proof that a great many of those otherwise dull and ordinary bourgeoisie were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to preserve the solidarity of their nation, the nobility of self-government, and the propositions on which it was built. Lincoln could not look out across the semicircular avenues of the dead in that cemetery — where fully a quarter of the 3,900 buried men were unknowns — and not feel confirmed in the staying power of democracy. He called on living Americans to dedicate themselves “to that cause for which” the dead of Gettysburg “gave the last full measure of devotion” and to ensure that government “of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.” Gettysburg clearly had great military significance. But even more, Gettysburg still sings for us because of how Abraham Lincoln translated the raw experience of battle into an anthem for democracy.
– Mr. Guelzo is the author of the New York Times bestseller Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. He teaches at Gettysburg College.