Seven score, 10 years and a few days ago there was fought in Pennsylvania the most famous battle in American history at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.
Gen. Robert E. Lee was on offense, while a variety of tentative Yankee generals piddled away their advantages with over caution. Had Lee won, it wouldn't have likely made much difference in the war's final outcome. Perhaps it would have ended faster, because President Lincoln would have put Gen. U.S. Grant in charge earlier.
Southerners talk in “if only” terms. Facts are, however, stubborn things. In 1862 the Northern Armies drove the Confederates out of Kentucky, sealing that state for the Union. Later in 1862, after the Battle of Stones River near Nashville, the Southern Armies were pinned in the mountains on the northern Georgia border. After some additional brutal fighting at Chickamauga and around Chattanooga, the middle collapsed letting Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman march to the sea, burning Atlanta along the way. The center was “gone with the wind” so to speak.
Out on the western front, Grant was developing his reputation for patience and pounding his opponents with Northern power. The siege of strategic Vicksburg, the last hope of keeping the Mississippi River basin open for the South, had begun before the Battle of Gettysburg started. The South surrendered on July 4, 1863 starved and wiped out. So much for everything in the West.
At Gettysburg, Gen. George Pickett's charge reached the edge of the Union's lines, becoming in legend “the northern point of the southern campaign.” This wasn't exactly true, because famed cavalry Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was wandering lost to the north and east, missing the biggest battle on American soil, thus leaving his commander Lee “blind” (they didn't have radios or satellite locators, they had cavalry, at least usually).
One time Speaker Newt Gingrich told our Freshman Class of 1994 that we were his Pickett's Charge. I held up my hand and asked: “Does that mean we all die?” At least he had the decency to laugh.
The most famous result of the Battle of Gettysburg was a short speech, 272 words to be exact, by Lincoln at the memorial dedication later that fall. The so-called Gettysburg Address was not the main address, which was delivered by Edward Everett who was a prominent orator of the period. He spoke for hours.
The Gettysburg Address, amazingly, does not mention Gettysburg, nor slavery, nor the union. There are many, many good books on the speech and the battle but none better than “Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America” by Garry Wills. The Constitution is the foundational law of our land.
But the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address add the flourish and symbolism that most of us honor. Today, for many reasons, the Gettysburg National Military Park is second only to Independence National Historical Park as America's premier historic site.