One hundred and fifty years ago, the United States fought a war against itself. That war would claim over 600,000 lives and destroy the infrastructure of half the country. We look back on the Civil War today as one of necessity: as the Union was restored, millions of formerly enslaved men and women experienced a new birth of freedom. But victory was not inevitable. From 1861 through 1863, the Civil War was not going well for the Union. Despite advantages in manpower, industrial output, and naval supremacy, the armies of the Republic had been beaten back on all fronts. General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had proven nearly invincible, winning early battles at Bull Run and the Virginia Peninsula. In 1862, Lee took to the offensive, invading Maryland and meeting the Union Army at the Battle of Antietam, the bloodiest single day battle in American history, with over 22,000 Americans losing their lives. (82 years later, less than 2,500 Americans lost their lives in Normandy on D-Day) When the Battle of Antietam concluded, Lee was forced to return to Virginia, but he and his army would live to fight another day. And Lee would not be discouraged from fighting on Northern soil for long.
In June of 1863, the war had reached a critical point. In the West, General Ulysses S. Grant’s Army of the Tennessee had completely surrounded the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi, but was unable to capture the strategically important city. In the East, the Union was once again reeling from defeat, having suffered heavy losses at the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The Commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Joseph “Fighting Joe” Hooker (in spite of his nickname) remained passive; keeping his army camped in Fredericksburg between Lee and Washington D.C. Robert E. Lee, however, was not content to sit tight and wait for Hooker to attack. Lee was planning to end the war in one fell swoop with another invasion of the North, this time through Pennsylvania. Lee planned to draw the Union Army into battle on ground of his choosing and defeat it. Once the bulk of the Army of the Potomac was defeated, Lee would be free to strike at Harrisburg, Philadelphia, or even Washington D.C. itself. Popular support for the war was already low. If the Union lost the capital, it would have been virtually impossible to continue fighting the war.
To celebrate the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, Random House Audio presents a selection of clips from Gettysburg: Last Invasion by acclaimed Civil War historian Allen C. Guelzo. Gettysburg is a brilliant new history—the most intimate and richly readable account we have had—of the climactic three-day battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), which draws the reader into the heat, smoke, and grime of Gettysburg alongside the ordinary soldier, and depicts the combination of personalities and circumstances that produced the greatest battle of the Civil War, and one of the greatest in human history.
Track One – Choosing the Battlefield
In this track, Guelzo discusses the decision-making process that led both armies to Gettysburg. General Meade preferred a cautious strategy, reserving most of his army corps at Pipe Creek, in Maryland while General Lee, just hearing about the Union Army’s crossing of the Potomac, sent out his army in search of supplies and any information about the Army of the Potomac’s whereabouts. Meanwhile, Union General John Reynolds recognized the advantage Gettysburg’s terrain offered the Union Army, and moved his First Corps into position to defend the town.
Track Two – First Shots
The only problem with General Reynolds’ plan was that his corps was still too far outside Gettysburg to engage Lee’s army. It fell to General John Buford’s cavalry company to hold the battlefield long enough for the Union Army to arrive in force. General Lee strictly ordered his generals to avoid a general engagement, but this order quickly fell to the wayside when A.P. Hill’s Corps met Buford’s cavalry. Buford and his men would hold their ground until General Reynolds’ arrival. Unfortunately for the Union Army, Reynolds was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter minutes after reaching the battlefield. The Union and Confederates fought back and forth through the town of Gettysburg. At the end of the first day of fighting, the Union Army had held onto the commanding position of Cemetery Hill, but only just barely, and at great cost.
Track Three – Little Round Top
The engagement at Little Round Top is possibly the most famous portion of the Battle of Gettysburg. Here, Guelzo describes the 20th Maine’s rushed entry into the battle, and the furious back and forth fighting at the far left of the Union flank. This was one of many decisive engagements between the Union and Confederate sides, and commander Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s daring last-minute bayonet charge remains one of the most famous military maneuvers in American history.
Track Four – Culp’s Hill
At the same time the 20th Maine was fighting on Little Round Top, the Union’s right flank was also under attack. In this clip, Guelzo describes the fighting on Culp’s Hill. While not nearly as famous as the fighting around Little Round Top, Union defenders under General George S. Greene held off waves of Confederate attacks and held the vital Cemetery Hill, which would be critical for the Union on the next day. After two days of stalemate, Robert E. Lee decided to mount one final attack with his last fresh division. This last charge across ¾ mile of open ground would decide the fate of both armies, and quite possibly the entire war.
Track Five – Pickett’s Charge
After Pickett’s Division failed to break through the Union lines, the Battle of Gettysburg was effectively over. The Battle of Gettysburg changed the entire complexion of the Civil War in a matter of days. General Meade hadn’t destroyed General Lee’s army, but he had ended Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania. Just as the Union’s Army of the Potomac triumphed at Gettysburg, the Confederate defenders of Vicksburg surrendered to General Grant’s Army of the Tennessee. In one day, the Union had defeated Robert E. Lee’s invasion of the North and secured control of the entire Mississippi River. Though the Civil War would rage on for two more bloody years, the Confederate Army would not invade the North again.