“Dead men and plenty here – and I saw plenty  of them in all shapes on the field – Help to wound & Kill men then Patch them up I could show more suffering here in one second than you will see in a Life…” Elbert Corbin, Union Soldier at Gettysburg 1st Regiment, Light Artillery, N. Y. S. Volunteers (Pettit’s Battery)
“In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.” Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain
The Army of Northern Virginia and Army of the Potomac remained on the bloodstained Gettysburg battlefield on July 4th 1863. Both armies had suffered severely in the fighting around 50,000 soldiers from both sides lay dead, dying or wounded on the battlefield. Surgeons and their assistants manned open air hospitals while parties of stretcher bearers evacuated wounded men for treatment and other soldiers began to identify and bury the dead. Halfway across the continent Confederate Lieutenant General John C Pemberton surrendered his emaciated forces at Vicksburg to Major General Ullysses S Grant which cut the Confederacy in half. It was a fitting day of remembrance as it was the 87th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and the significance was not lost on any of the commanders.
It was a somber day, the sweltering heat sunshine which had bathed the battlefield as Longstreets’ Corps Corps attacked Cemetery Ridge was broken by heavy rain and wind. The commanders of both armies, General Robert E Lee and Major General George Mead attempted to discern the others intent while making their own plans. It was Lee’s hope that Meade would attack and possibly give him the opportunity to inflict a defeat on the Union forces. Meade, still new to command and cautious did not renew the engagement and Lee began to withdraw the battered Army of Northern Virginia from the field.
As Lee withdrew Meade slowly pursued and lost a chance at trapping the Confederate Army before it could escape across the rain swollen Potomac River. Lee completed his withdraw under pressure on the 14th and his rear-guard under the command of Major General Harry Heth fought an action against Union forces at the in which the accomplished academic and author Brigadier General James Pettigrew was mortally wounded.
Meade’s lackluster pursuit was criticized by many including President Lincoln who believed that had Meade been more aggressive that the war could have ended there. Had Lee’s army been destroyed in little over a week after the surrender of Vicksburg it could have well brought about the downfall of the Confederacy in the summer of 1863. Even so the skill of Meade in defeating Lee at Gettysburg was one of the greatest achievements by a Union commander during the war in the East. In earlier times Lee had held sway over his Federal opponents. McClellan, Porter, Pope, Burnside and Hooker had all failed against Lee and his army.
Many of the dead at Gettysburg were the flower of the nation. Intelligent, thoughtful and passionate they were cut down in their prime. The human cost some of over 50,000 men killed or wounded is astonishing. In those three days more Americans were killed or wounded than in the entire Iraq campaign.
The war would go on for almost two more years adding many thousands more dead and wounded. However the Union victory at Gettysburg was decisive. Never again did Lee go on the offensive and when Grant came East at the end of 1863 to command Union armies in the East against Lee the Federal armies fought with renewed ferocity and once engaged Grant never let Lee’s forces out of their grip.
In November 1863 Lincoln travelled to Gettysburg to dedicate a cemetery and commemorate the dead. He penned a short speech which still echoes in the hearts of Americans as one of the greatest tributes ever spoken. His Gettysburg Address is a speech that still calls Americans to the cause of freedom and the to remember the great cost of liberty with renewed passion.
“Fourscore 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 battlefield 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 cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot 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.”