Sunday, July 3, 2011

The turning of the tide

While we celebrate this Independence Day weekend, let us not forget what happened back in 1863.

On July 1, 1863 Confederate troops invaded Pennsylvania looking for shoes and a way to cut Washington, D.C. off from the rest of the Union. The Confederates got the better of the skirmishing that day as Union forces retreated from the town to the hills surrounding Gettysburg.

General Robert E. Lee ordered his men to attack the flanks of the Union army, knowing that if he could get behind Meade's main force on Cemetery Ridge he could cut the Army of the Potomac off from its supply and communication lines. The hero of the day was Joshua Chamberlain who led a regiment of soldiers from Maine. They were the end of the Union line on Little Round Top. They repelled assault after assault after assault the entire afternoon and never broke.

The following day, July 3, 1863, Lee made his plans to attack what he thought was the soft spot of the Union army - the middle. He assumed that Meade would have reinforced the flanks expecting another assault like the previous day. He was wrong.

In the early afternoon hours an artillery barrage shook the countryside as Union and Confederate cannons rained shells for over two hours. Finally, a little after three o'clock, Gen. George Pickett led the charge up Cemetery Ridge. Confederate soldiers had to march 1700 yards across a meadow to get to the ridge. Once they were in range of Union artillery, they were under fire until the battle ended.

The target of Pickett's assault was a group of trees in the middle of the ridge. Despite the horrific carnage, Confederate forces actually reached the Union line before being turned away in bloody hand-to-hand combat.  The Confederates knew the battle was over and retreated back to the woods at the bottom of the ridge.

On Independence Day the Union forces waited for an attack that never came. Lee had lost almost a third of his army and knew he had lost his best chance to win the war. That same day the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi fell after a siege that lasted almost two months. With the fall of Vicksburg, the Union controlled the Mississippi River.

Although the war would continue for almost two more years, the events of that first week of July 1863 marked the turning of the tide.

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