Gettysburg

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April 24 …

Third day of the battle. We are on the Union lines dug in along Cemetery Ridge. Over on the other side of the field, Lee is preparing to attack. Here’s what things look like from his end, at Seminary Ridge …

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The decisive moment in the decisive battle of the Civil War has come. Lee’s cannons open fire. More than 12,000 men from Virginia and North Carolina are about to charge into the center of the Union lines.

Here is the scene from two days before …

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Advance Union and Confederate units literally stumble into each other near the site of a seminary on which Gettysburg College is located. As more troops enter the fray, the skirmishing turns into serious fighting. Casualties mount. A major battle is in the making. By the end of the day, Union forces occupy the higher ground along Cemetery Ridge and the surrounding hills. The Confederates dig in on the lower ground along Seminary Ridge.

In most cases, the lower ground is a distinct disadvantage, but the Union forces need to spread out over a much wider area. A coordinated and concentrated attack can punch a hole in the thin Union line. Or the South can attack along one of the Union’s flanks, which would put them in a position to roll up the Union Army like a carpet.

On Day Two, they go for the second option …

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Here is the scene from Little Round Top on the Union left flank. We are looking down at Devil’s Den, the Wheat Field, and the Peach Orchard, where ordinary men on both sides become heroes and martyrs. Of all things, Little Round Top is undefended. Too much area to protect, too few troops. It’s now late in the afternoon, and General Gouverneur Warren, pictured here, is having a holy shit! moment. He spots Alabamans and Texans about to proceed unmolested to where he is standing. If they make it to the top and are able to hold their position and get reinforcements and artillery up there, the South will have the decisive advantage. All seems lost …

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But wait! Out of nowhere, at the end of a long day’s march, a column of blue looms into into sight – the 20th Maine, headed by a professor of rhetoric from Bowdoin College, Col. Joshua Chamberlain. He and his forces answer the call. They fend off two attacks and suffer serious casualties in the process. Badly depleted and low on ammunition, Chamberlain orders a counter-intuitive bayonet attack. His line swings like a door on the Alabamans in his path and stops them in their tracks.

Elsewhere, Warren is scrambling other troops to the scene, Pennsylvanians, New Yorkers, Michigan. The fighting is fierce and the outcome is far from settled, but by the end of the day, Little Round Top is in Union hands, and their thin blue line is secure.

Day Three looms ahead. Time for Lee to punch a hole in the center …

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The Confederates open with a fierce cannonade. They have more artillery, but their rounds miss the mark. To deceive the Confederates, Union artillery gradually stop firing back, as if their batteries have been taken out one by one. In the smoke and dust and fog of war, the Confederates fall for the ruse. At three in the afternoon, Lee gives the order. Pickett’s Virginians and Pettigrew’s North Carolinians lead their celebrated charge …

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They are advancing uphill into a meat-grinder. Union muskets and cannon mow them down. But the thinly spread Union line has a major weak spot or two. The picture at the very top captures “the angle,” defended by just two Union artillery and a smattering of Pennsylvanians. Confederate forces overrun the position and turn the cannon on Union forces. Victory is within reach, awaiting more Confederates to swarm into the breach.

Alas, there are no men left standing. The South has spilled the blood of its finest. Union forces rush in to plug the gap. The only soldiers on the Union side of the field are now wearing blue uniforms. The Confederacy has reached its high water mark. From this day forward, theirs would be a lost cause.

The aftermath, hallowed ground …

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A great leader rededicates his divided nation to its founding principles …

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Abraham Lincoln
November 19, 1863

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