This week marks the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, an opportunity for people from each state to remember what their young men accomplished on the battlefield from July 1 to 3, 1863, and also to reflect on what it all meant.
Vermonters played a crucial role in the battle. Gen. Robert E. Lee had brought the Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, hoping to win a victory that would demoralize the Union and strengthen the hand of those in the North who wanted to negotiate an end to the war. If Lee could win, the will of the North might be broken.
Historian Howard Coffin has described in detail the role that the 2nd Vermont Brigade under Gen. George Stannard played in bringing a halt to Pickett’s Charge, the last desperate attempt by Lee to win a victory at Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg is generally seen as a turning point of the Civil War, and Pickett’s Charge was the culminating engagement of that battle. Thus, it is not overstating the case to say that the Vermont Brigade helped to turn the tide of history.
It was on July 3 that Pickett’s Charge brought about 17,000 Confederate soldiers in a front about 1,000 yards wide across a rolling meadow toward the lines of Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge. Among the Union soldiers were the 13th, 14th and 16th Vermont regiments positioned on the left of the line. As the Confederate army neared the Vermont regiments, it veered to its left and toward the center of the Union line. When he saw this, Stannard gave the order for the 13th and 16th regiments to wheel to their right and to make a flanking attack on the advancing Confederate forces. When this occurred, Vermont soldiers firing almost point blank into the mass of Confederates in front of them, the charge slowed and halted.
This battle did not end the war. When it was over, Lee and his army managed to escape back into Virginia, much to the dismay of President Lincoln, who wrote a scathing letter to the Union commander, Gen. George Meade, saying, “He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. ... Your golden opportunity is gone and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.”
Lincoln never sent that letter, instead choosing to give Meade credit for the victory that he had won. But the failure to crush Lee’s army meant that the war would continue through the long war of attrition that lasted through 1864 until April 1865.
The victory at Gettysburg reverberated through history. A successful conclusion of the Civil War meant that the Union was able finally to vanquish slavery. The success of the Union showed the world that democracy need not be unstable, shifting and temporary. It could endure. The rule of law could endure. Rebels need not be allowed to rise up and destroy a lawful union, enslaving fellow men and women because they chose to do so.
Lincoln gave meaning to the awful carnage of Gettysburg when he returned that fall to dedicate the cemetery there. The Gettysburg Address is one of the foundational documents of democracy in the world.
The address would never have been delivered had not farm boys from the little towns of Vermont, New Hampshire, Ohio, Minnesota and elsewhere lined up to repulse the tide of rebels storming the hills and ridges of Gettysburg. Southerners were defending a way of life in which they believed, but it was a way of life with corruption at its heart — the corrupting evil of slavery.
Descriptions of war — whether they describe Gettysburg or Omaha Beach — make clear that there is a vast gulf between the hideous cost paid by participants and the high purposes for which they fight. Those purposes have seldom been higher than they were at Gettysburg. Lincoln’s words helped bridge that gulf for the ages. The cause of democracy and equality has endured as a result.
As the throngs of people flocked to the battlefield this week, we see it still matters today.
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