Marching to Gettysburg (1863)
Toward the end of June 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was poised to invade the North in the hope of bringing the Civil War to a speedy conclusion. When the Federal commanders learned Confederates had crossed the Blue Ridge and were heading north, panic ensued. Although the South had lost Stonewall Jackson at the Battle of Chancellorsville just a few months earlier, Lee’s army was nonetheless more confident than ever that they could strike a telling blow to the Union cause by invading Pennsylvania. If the Confederates could take the capitol at Harrisburg, they would be north of Washington, D.C., and in a prime position to then strike the Federal capitol city.
On June 25 and 26, Lee’s army crossed the Potomac and branched out, foraging for food along the way. Several young ladies in Maryland had come down to meet the general and wish him well in his efforts. The Southern army reached from McConnellsburg and Chambersburg in the west to Carlisle in the north and York in the east.
Most Americans know what transpired in the coming week: the two armies collided at the junction of 12 roads, in the town known as Gettysburg. For three days, the two massive armies would maneuver against each other in wild fashion, fighting in what was known as linear warfare, where two lines of opposing men would fire as rapidly and accurately as possible, in the hope of smashing a gap in the enemy’s line, and rushing in to exploit the gap. This was the same style of fighting that was used in the French and Indian War, American Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars and more. But by the time of the Civil War, the muskets were not accurate for just 50 or 60 yards like the weapons used in those earlier wars: they were now rifled muskets, capable of killing a man at 500 yards or more. The devastation was horrific, and the losses on both sides were more than anyone could imagine.
Among the troops that accompanied Lee into Pennsylvania were the men of the 23rd, 26th, 30th, 35th and 43rd Infantry Regiments, among others. Of these, the 26th is remembered as the unit that sustained the highest Confederate losses suffered in a single day. With General George Pickett’s charge against the Union center on the third day of fighting, the Confederate invasion of the north came to a bloody halt. Many writers in the north said, and say to this day, that the Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war. Others say it was when Stonewall died at Chancellorsville. No matter which theory you subscribe to, one thing is certain: the men of the Confederate armies continued to fight like men unbroken. The war would drag on for almost two more years after Gettysburg, before coming to an end in the Spring of 1865. And it all began with the Confederate invasion of the north, which took place 148 years ago this week.
Scott T. Farb