After a string of devastating losses through the first two years of the Civil War, the outcome for the Northern forces was very much in the balance. However, during the early days of July in 1863, two very unlikely Union leaders commanded forces in pivotal battles. Those battles took place half a continent apart in southeastern Pennsylvania and deep in the South on the great Mississippi River. George Meade, Commander of the Army of the Potomac for just a couple of days, was forced to march north to Gettysburg, PA to meet Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee, never bested on the field of battle, was confident of being able to have one final, decisive battle that would force President Lincoln and the Northern States to sue for peace. In the South, Sam Grant commanded the army that was laying siege to the critical river port of Vicksburg. Winning the battle there would certainly guarantee taking away the Mississippi as a supply channel for the southern states and would assure the North of the ability to literally push southern forces eastward. How could the fate of the nation be decided in such unlikely scenarios?
On the 1st of July, 1863, John Buford, a Brigadier General in the union cavalry rode to the top of a crest in a ridge line near the village of Gettysburg, PA. Behind him was high ground running away from him for several miles. In front of him were open fields. He held the defensible ground and knew that his small force could hold on until reinforcements arrived. His forces did hold and forced the battle toward the opposing ridge lines known as Seminary Ridge where the southern forces gathered and Cemetary Ridge, where the union forces deployed. With the first day a draw, Lee was confident he could wrest control of the defensible ground from the union if he could flank them at the far end of their lines near the hills known as Big and Little Roundtop. On the 2nd of July, Longstreet, one of Lee's most trusted subordinates, ordered brigade after brigade into places known as the Devil's Den, the Orchard and up the slopes of Little Round Top. The Alabama 15th was given the task of pushing the union off the slope of that small, heavily wooded hill. Time and again, the Alabamians charged up the hill and time and again, the end of line anchored by the 20th Maine repelled the charges. Finally, when out of ammo and energy, the men from Maine charged down the hill, routing the southern forces. This charge, which earned the commander of those forces from Miane the Medal of Honor, ended the fighting for the second day. That commander, perhaps the greatest citizen-soldier in American history, was Joshua Chamberlain--college professor, future Governor of Maine and the man who took Lee's sword of surrender at Appomattox.
On the 3rd of July, George Pickett was asked to lead his division into the very center of the union line. The forces were to cross a series of rolling fields and were to concentrate on a spot of trees known as "the angle." After a long and ineffective artillery barrage, Pickett stepped off with his men. The walk, without battle, takes about 15 minutes. On that fateful day, the southern soldiers fought for two hours only to come within a few feet of their goal. Nonetheless, they were repulsed. After this battle, Lee never seriously threatened the North again. The union had prevailed and the Union was saved.
In the south, the Battle of Vicksburg ended with the surrender of the garrison manning the bastions of the city. After a two month siege, southern forces could no longer hold out. Grant took the city and with this victory, elevated his stature as a commander who could get things done. Not long after this battle, Grant was elevated to command the Army of the Potomac and subsequently chased down Lee and won a final, decisive victory at Petersburg, VA. The unit leading the charge that broke the southern lines was none other than the men from Maine led by Joshua Chamberlain.
We celebrate the birth of this nation on the 4th of July, but I often include in my celebration a thoughtful prayer of thanks that Meade and Lee were victorious on the 3rd and 4th of July in 1863. Without those victories, there would be no union and no United States. Be thankful for what we have. Let's work hard to preserve our nation's greatness, built on the backs of so many who paid the ultimate price. Happy 4th of July.
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