By Kim Holien, Special to the Pentagram July 15, 2013
GETTYSBURG, Pa. "Sometimes the destiny of a nation is focused at the point of a bayonet." - John F. Kennedy
About half way through the movie classic, "Gone with the Wind," Rhett Butler is asked by Scarlett O'Hara whether he knows how Ashley Wilkes is doing. Infuriated by the question, Rhett turns to Scarlett and says: "We should all know in a little while. The two armies have met at a little Pennsylvania crossroads known as Gettysburg."
The past two weeks have seen some 250,000 Americans visit the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, Pa., to join with some 25,000 re-enactors and the National Park Service to commemorate and remember the sacrifices by those whose military service endeared them to the nation. It was 150 years ago this June that Gen. Robert E. Lee led the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia northward across the Potomac River through Maryland onto the rich farmland of Pennsylvania. Lee felt he needed European recognition for securing the South's independence against the ever increasing industrial strength of the North. He remembered that American colonies had won their independence only with the recognition of France, Holland and Spain in 1781.
Opposing Lee would be Gen. George Meade and his Army of the Potomac.
July 1 saw an engagement in which the two armies struck each other on the northwest outskirts of the town of Gettysburg. A Union cavalry delaying action was initially successful in buying time for Union infantry reinforcements to arrive, but eventually the Confederates outflanked the Union, and with superior numbers, drove them back through Gettysburg to the high ground of Cemetery Ridge and Culp's Hill. Lee requested a Confederate assault, but it was not forthcoming because troops were too exhausted from earlier fighting.
On the morning of July 2, Lee wanted to attack and roll up the Union left flank near the famous Little Round Top and Big Round Top. But as his men advanced, they were spotted by a Union Signal Corps unit on Little Round Top, forcing the unit to turn around and attempt another route of attack.
Finally, around 4 p.m., Confederate troops launched an assault, crushing the Union left flank and causing the 47th and 15th Alabama Regiments to make their famous assault on the 20th Maine on the spur of Little Round Top. You can go to Little Round Top today and walk the defensive position of the 20th Maine and observe that it is about the size of a tennis court. Look around and you will observe the ground over which the 20th Maine made their famous bayonet charge, saving the left flank of the Union Army.
Around 7 p.m. that evening, Confederates assaulted Cemetery Ridge and Hill, along with Culp's Hill. Onward they advanced through heavy artillery fire. Striking the Union infantry at the base of Cemetery Hill, Confederates pushed them back to within 200 feet of the red brick cemetery gatehouse, but were beaten back by Union reinforcements. Today you can go and stand in the artillery lunettes where fierce hand-to-hand combat took place.
Not until late in the evening did the regular Confederate cavalry under Gen. J.E.B. Stuart arrive, but they arrived too little, too late and too exhausted to have any positive effect for the Confederate Army at Gettysburg.
Lee then found himself low on artillery ammunition and foodstuffs for his men and horses. He decided on a frontal assault against the Union center on July 3. At 1 p.m. some 150 Confederate cannon started an artillery bombardment against more than 100 Union cannon on Cemetery Ridge. This duel lasted some three hours and was so loud that it could be heard on the hill in northwest Washington where the National Cathedral now stands.
Sometime after 3 p.m., Lee sent forward approximately 13,000 infantry in the tradition of Napoleonic warfare. These battle hardened veterans crossed nearly one mile of open fields toward Cemetery Ridge only to be met by heavy Union artillery fire and infantry fire. Several hundred broke through the Union center, but because of a lack of reinforcements, Confederate higher command structure failed Pickett's Charge. The next day, July 4th, heavy rains came and Lee started his retreat back to Virginia.
In November, President Abraham Lincoln received a request to deliver remarks at a dedication of a national cemetery. In so doing, his 274-word Gettysburg Address became immortal. The house that Lincoln stayed in at Gettysburg is now open for tours by the National Park Service.
In 1895, legislation helped establish Gettysburg National Military Park, preserving the battlefield and making it available for the study of the art of war. This is why there are tall iron observation towers still standing on parts of the battlefield.
In April of 1963, President John F. Kennedy and the first lady visited the Gettysburg battlefield. The president had made plans to return for the centennial commemoration of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, but because of political considerations, he had to be in Dallas that week.
First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy was quite taken with the Eternal Peace Light Memorial at Gettysburg. This is where she got the concept of the Eternal Flame that sits above JFK's gravesite in Arlington National Cemetery.
For additional information, contact Gettysburg National Military Park at www.nps.gov/gett or the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau at: http://www.gettysburg.travel/.
(Holien is the former historian for Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall.)