The Battle of Gettysburg: the Turning Point

 (This essay was originally published in the Newport Daily News on July 1, 2013)

        In probably the greatest land battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, July 1-3, 1863. During these three days some 70,000 Confederate soldiers, led by General Robert E. Lee, engaged 90,000 Union forces, led by Major General George Gordon Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for only three days. Lee had invaded the North with the hope, militarily, of scoring a decisive victory which, politically, might strengthen the Northern peace movement and force President Abraham Lincoln to negotiate for peace.

Rhode Island had six troop units at this battle, an infantry regiment and five artillery batteries. Of these, four units saw action. Battery A of the 1st RI Light Artillery Regiment was commanded by Captain William A. Arnold, a bookkeeper from Providence. It included 139 men with six 3-inch rifle guns. It took part in the heavy fighting on July 2-3 and sustained four killed and 24 wounded.

  William A. Arnold, Battery A

William A. Arnold (findagrave.com)

        Battery B was commanded by Thomas F. Brown of Providence. After he was wounded, command passed to Lieutenant William S. Perrin. It brought 103 men to the field using six 12-pound smooth-bore Napoleon guns. It also fought on July 2-3. In action on July 3, the battery was under fire preceding Pickett’s Charge. The muzzle of one gun was hit and killed two gunners instantly. Two others rushed to load a ball into the gun, now distorted. A second Confederate shell struck, causing the cannon to collapse. The barrel cooled and the ball was entrapped permanently in place. This is the famous “Gettysburg Gun” on display at the state’s Capitol. The battery lost seven killed, 19 wounded and two missing.

 Thomas F. Brown, Battery B

Thomas F. Brown (findagrave.com)

        Battery E was commanded by Lieutenant John K. Bucklyn, born in Foster, who was wounded in action on July 2. Second Lieutenant Benjamin Freeborn, himself wounded, took command. It had 116 men serving six 12-pound Napoleons. In action on July 2, it sustained casualties of three killed and 26 wounded.

 130701ndncivilwarbucklyn2

John K. Bucklyn (findagrave.com)

        Finally, the 2nd RI Volunteer Infantry Regiment also saw action at Gettysburg. It was commanded by Colonel Horatio Rogers, Jr., an attorney from Providence. It was used as a reserve unit in the 2nd Brigade, 3rd Division, 6th Corps. The Regiment arrived on the battlefield but was not directly engaged in the fierce fighting on July 3. Of the Battle, Rogers wrote: “Death seemed to be holding a carnival.” Elisha Hunt Rhodes of Cranston was a member of this unit, and his diary reveals his thoughts as Pickett’s Charge was repulsed. “Our lines of Infantry in front of us rose up and poured in a terrible fire. As we were only a few yards in rear of our lines we saw all the fight.” … “what a scene it was. Oh the dead and dying on this bloody field.” On July 5, he wrote: “Glorious news! We have won the victory, thank God, and the Rebel Army is fleeing to Virginia.”

The battle witnessed uncommon valor and good and poor tactical decisions on both sides, culminating in the ill-fated Confederate assault led by Major General George Pickett. Of the 14,000 Southern troops who attacked that July 3, only about one-half returned. While the Union won a resounding victory, the human toll on both sides was very costly: 23,000 Union casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) and 28,000 Confederate casualties, more than a third of the Confederate force.

Riding among his men, Lee maintained, “It’s all my fault.” “It is I who have lost the fight….” Noted Civil War historian Shelby Foote called Gettysburg Lee’s “greatest and worst-fought battle.” Like Hannibal in the Punic Wars of ancient Rome or Napoleon of revolutionary France, Lee was thought to be invincible, a myth that was now shattered. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia would fight and win many other battles after Gettysburg; however, their former dominance in tactics and initiative was now matched by experienced Union forces, soon to be led by the formidable and intrepid Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. It was Grant who had just forced on July 4 the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, placing the entire river under Union control. The war had reached a turning point.

Many Americans who know of this battle may not know of its magnitude and significance. Many perhaps make facile assumptions about the inevitability of the North’s victory in the Civil War, similar to the common view of World War II—we all know the conclusion and casually assume the Allied victory was inevitable.

Not so. The Battle of Gettysburg could have gone either way, and with it the Civil War. If Lee had prevailed over Meade, there was no guarantee that the North’s superiority in manpower, finances, and industry along with Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation would win the war. If the Confederacy succeeded in stifling the North sufficiently so that public opinion shifted dramatically, we would have become two separate nations. Lincoln’s greatest nightmare would have come true: that self-government was a chimera.

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8 Responses to The Battle of Gettysburg: the Turning Point

  1. zachary says:

    this is very interesting. thanks for that. we need more sites like this. i commend you on your great content and excellent topic choices.

  2. reuben says:

    Hi, Ive been a lurker around your blog for a few months. I love this article and your entire site! Looking forward to reading more!

    • Sachin says:

      What’s the deal with negros in SC?When I was in the Army, we had a negro who was a proud Southern. Had the flag up in his barkcars room, defended the South against anyone who insulted us and was fond of saying stuff like the South would rise again.There use to be an older negro from SC who attended some of the same defend the flag rallies I had. I’ve seen him on the youtube standing for the flag on his own, with no support, against other negros. Now the young negro in the story.Two days back, I was at a memorial service where a young negro sung the american national anthem and he did the song in the traditional, non-ghetto way. And he did it well. I could tell men had to fight back tears. Wonder if he’s from SC?

  3. george says:

    Nice job, its a great post. The info is good to learn!

    • Fred Zilian says:

      Dear George,

      Thanks for your kind words. I am glad you liked it.

      Fred Zilian

      • Tenzin says:

        It is certainly an ittnreseing symbol. Is it now the policy of OD that slavery was a good system and should, perhaps be re-instituted? I ask because even many of the strong Southern supporters who I am friends with (I know a bunch of civil war re-enactors, all on the side of the South, here in Oregon) would say something like: slavery was a mistake, slavery was coming to an end, and could have been ended in the US without Lincoln’s war, as it was in most of the rest of the world , or words to that effect. I’ve yet to see anyone else put forward a formula that slavery was good and we should be proud of the Confederate cause because it was defending slavery , which seems to be what you are saying here. If it was good then, would it be good again, in your estimation? Would it be limited to Blacks, or would you re-implement the even older style of, say, Roman slavery where anyone could be a slave depending on circumstance?

  4. rory says:

    Its difficult to get knowledgeable people on this topic, but you appear to be you know what youre talking about! Thanks

  5. Ademir says:

    I don’t see slavery as eihter moral or amoral. The Bible doesn’t condemn slavery so neihter will I. Also, I think it’s foolish to apply what passes for morality of our time on some other period in history. And I wonder how much worse the life of a slave was vs the life of some hard scrabble farmer? There were not a lot of slave up raisings, even when most White men were away fighting the damnyankees so I figure life could not have been overly hard for them.Was slavery good? I think that’s a lame question. It was a practical matter. It existed long before slavery showed up in the South. It was an established fact of life the world over. (and still is) The national economy at that time depend on it. The north would not have gotten the cheap raw materials it needed without slavery; the national treasury depended on tariffs which came mostly from the South exporting cotton and other raw materials which would not have been produced so cheaply without some form of slave labor and I’d rather it have been negros then my people.I would not like to reinstituted slavery (expect as a form of legal punishment where the proceeds of the slave labor went to the injured party). The mechanization of farming and manufacturing means there is no need for it. Jim Crow South seemed like the best possible particle solution for everyone. Statistically, I think it was better for negros as well. However, slavery is alive and well in the USA. The tax burden makes us slaves to the government; alimony and divorce laws make men slaves to ex wives; the govt tells you what you can and cannot do to your property & I’m sure we could all come up with another couple dozen examples.

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