EDITOR’S NOTE:  This is a three-part series commemorating the 150-year anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg.

First of three part series

In the first week of July, tens of thousands of visitors descended on a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg. It was there 150 years ago that the most momentous battle in United States history was fought. Drawing well over one million visitors a year, Gettysburg is obviously familiar to many, but on the sesquicentennial of the battle, it is appropriate for all Americans to examine this event more deeply.

Perhaps the essential ability of a historian is imagination, for the greatest obstacle of understanding the past is being trapped in the present. In other words, we know that the South lost the battle and the war, that Gettysburg was the largest battle, that it was the last time Lee would invade the North, and that Lincoln would give the most important speech in the country’s history at the dedication of its cemetery. For over a century, textbooks have labeled it the turning point of the Civil War. Not surprisingly then, it is the most visited Civil War battleground. But, none of this was known to the participants at the time. To understand the battle from their perspective, one must imagine oneself back into their shoes. So, over the course of three columns, I invite you to visit the battlefield in your mind where 1863 is almost as accessible as 2013.

The summer of 1863 was a desperate time for the Union. Though two generals in the west, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, were enjoying hard bought success by bottling up Vicksburg, Mississippi, they were still more famous for personal problems than military victories and sieges didn’t make for exciting headlines. Besides, “everyone” knew the war would be decided in the east and, in the east, things could hardly seem worse. A series of disastrous military defeats forced President Lincoln for the fourth time in seven months to appoint a new army commander. This time it went to George Meade whose own men derisively described as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

In contrast, the South basked in the glory that was Robert E. Lee. Described as the best soldier and most handsome man in the entire United States Army before the war, Lee’s string of audacious military victories convinced many that Southern victory was at hand. In May of 1863, though Union Commander “Fighting Joe” Hooker had boasted that God would have to have mercy on General Lee for he would have none, Lee crushed Hooker’s army at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and then turned north seeking to end the war.

Nevertheless, clouds did loom for the South as well. Chancellorsville may have been Lee’s greatest victory, but it was undoubtedly his costliest. In the midst of victory, friendly fire slew the inestimable Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s “right hand.” But, marching with a seemingly invincible army and knowing Northern support of the war was waning fast, Lee hoped, and perhaps could expect, that one successful foray into the North would secure Southern independence.

Having crossed into Pennsylvania, the decisive battle ultimately came where no one expected or planned. Beginning as incidental contact from a Confederate search for shoes, even the battle’s geographical facts seem odd as the Union troops marched north and the Confederates south.

On the first official day of the battle, July 1, 1863, the typical pattern of Southern success and Northern frustration struck again. In the morning, the Union held the ground north and west of Gettysburg but by the end of the day, two Union corps had been shattered and driven back into defensive positions south and east of town. A rising star of the North, Major General John F. Reynolds lay dead on the field and the Union’s famed Iron Brigade had lost two-thirds of its men.

In contrast, though his personal health was failing, Lee had many reasons to feel confident regarding his victorious army. However, frustration undoubtedly marred his thoughts for “the eyes of the Confederacy” J.E.B. Stuart had failed to apprise him of the Union army’s strength and position. Furthermore, Lee missed Stonewall. His orders to Jackson’s replacements, Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill, had not been followed the way Jackson had always done. Ordering Ewell to take the high ground south of town if practicable, Ewell along with Hill decided it wasn’t.

And, all through the night, Northern troops prepared the ground to make the Rebels pay for that decision.

Dr. Jason R. Edwards is a research fellow with The Center for Vision & Values and an associate professor of education and history at Grove City College. If you would like to reach Dr. Jason R. Edwards for comment, please contact him at jredwards@gcc.edu.