Regiment launched a suicidal sprint into thousands of advancing Confederates,
buying time for reinforcements to strengthen the Union line. The following day,
Confederate Gen. George Pickett led a doomed charge by 15,000 men across a mile
of open field into those Union lines.
North America's Largest
Gettysburg remains the largest battle fought in North America, according to the Gettysburg Foundation, which uses private funds to support programs at the National Park. Of more than 158,000 troops who fought, 51,000 became casualties. About 7,000 died on the battlefield, Siry said -- more than three times as many American troops in three days as the war in Afghanistan claimed in almost 12 years.
By July 15, 1863, the number of dead reached 13,000, said Ted Gajewski, a licensed battlefield guide and retired steelworker from Clairton. Gajewski compared that to the Vietnam War, in which about 58,000 Americans died.
"Gettysburg, in three days, takes 22 percent of the entire number (killed in) that 20-year Vietnam War," Gajewski said. "Three days."
The battlefield's adornment reflects the enormity of the fighting. More than 1,300 monuments dot the 4,000-acre Gettysburg National Military Park.
"Gettysburg is the world's largest collection of outdoor sculpture," National Park Service Ranger Katie Lawhon said.
Outcome Was Key
It remains a clear inflection point in American history.
"If Lee wins this battle, there's a very good possibility that Lincoln does not win a second term of office," Gajewski said. Lincoln's Democratic opponents campaigned on a platform of peace, even at the expense of unity, and many people in the North had grown weary of the war even before Lee's invasion, he said.
Had Lincoln lost, "There is no doubt in my mind that all 11 states (in the Confederacy) would have broken away and formed their own separate country. And if you carry that premise just one step further, existing territories like Montana, the Dakotas, New Mexico, Arizona -- why do they have to join?" Gajewski said. North America "would've looked more like the map of Europe."
From there, the dominoes continue to tumble, he said.
"It was the industrial might of the United States that won World War II," Gajewski said. That might would not have existed without the Union, and the Union might not have survived a defeat at Gettysburg, he said. "That is what makes Gettysburg so important."
President Lincoln captured that importance the following November when he delivered a brief address to dedicate the cemetery where many of the Union dead remain buried. The Gettysburg Address "remakes the whole war" from an anti-insurrection campaign into a defense of the country's founding principles, Siry said.
"This battle becomes the battle that changes the nature of the war," Siry said.
Often, it takes years to realize the historical importance of events, said Barbara Franco, executive director of the Seminary Ridge Museum, which opens in Gettysburg on Monday.
"But Gettysburg was one of those events that, almost immediately, everyone understood that it meant something," said Franco, the former executive director of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. "People were coming to see the battlefields before they had removed the dead."
The battle's anniversary could draw as many as 200,000 people to this secluded corner of Pennsylvania where, 150 years later, the fields retain their gravity.
Most Popular Stories
- Boehner Lashes Out Against Ted Cruz, Far Right
- TFA Recruiting DACA Recipients
- Hawaii Official Who Release Obama Certificate Only Victim of Plane Crash
- Holiday Shopping Off to a Slow Start This Season
- Ford Plans New Cars, Jobs in 2014
- Gold, Silver Slide on Prospects of Fed Exit
- 'Rape Insurance' Bill Passes in Michigan
- Ted Cruz Coloring Book Selling Briskly
- Kim Jong Un's Uncle Executed
- Grizzly Bears Could Be Taken Off Endangered List