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Tim Blagg

Blagg: The Battle of Gettysburg

There have been many articles and features around the country this month about the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, back during the Civil War.

That’s appropriate — the battle really was a turning point, both militarily and psychologically in that terrible conflict.

Back in 1863, the war had been going on for two years, with no clear end in sight. In the beginning, both the Union and the Confederacy had confidently assumed that after a few months, the other side would cave in and the war would be over.

That didn’t happen, and there had been a series of battles more bloody than anyone could have imagined.

Unnoticed by generals on either side, a new element — the rifled musket — had been introduced, and that had changed everything. The generals had been trained in Napoleonic-era fighting ... long lines of soldiers maneuvering around the battlefield, arranging themselves into firing lines, blasting away at each other with inaccurate smoothbore flintlock muskets and then charging with fixed bayonets.

But workers at Springfield Armory and other sites had come up with a new type of weapon. The Model 1855 .58 caliber rifle with which most Union soldiers were equipped fired a streamlined “Minie ball” bullet with much greater range and accuracy. And the percussion cap that replaced the flintlock was more reliable and allowed faster reloading.

The result was that soldiers — no matter how determined they were — simply could no longer charge an entrenched enemy without suffering enormous losses.

Sadly, it had taken commanders two years to realize this, and there were still cases in which they tried — and their men were slaughtered.

At Gettysburg, Confederate forces under Gen. Robert E. Lee were intent on raiding fat and prosperous Pennsylvania farms and bringing the war home to the Union. Intercepted by Union army commander Gen. George Meade, they fought for three days and then retreated south. Losses were about the same for both sides: some 23,000 killed, wounded and captured ... nearly one-third of all those involved.

But the massive battle — combined losses were nearly the same as the entire Vietnam War — was in fact the highwater mark of the Confederacy. From that time on they were on the defensive, and the appointment of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant as supreme commander (President Lincoln was outraged that Meade failed to pursue Lee after the battle) was the final nail in the South’s coffin.

The war would continue for nearly two more years, but the defeat of the Confederacy began on the bloody fields of Gettysburg.

A few months after the battle, President Lincoln came to the battlefield to help commemorate the enormous cemetery established there. His speech — a mere three paragraphs long — became famous as the “Gettysburg Address” and used to be taught to American schoolchildren, many of whom memorized it. I don’t think that happens anymore, so here are a few lines to ponder:

“We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that (our) nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

“But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.”

“... 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.”

Indeed.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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