The Gettysburg Story

The American Civil War

The American Civil War is the defining event in the history of the United States. After fighting from April 1861 until April 1865, the Southern Confederate States lay down their arms to the Northern United States.  More than 600,000 people are killed.  Based on the current population, that number today is equivalent to six million deaths.

The Battle of Gettysburg occurs in the middle of the war, on July 1st, 2nd and 3rd, 1863.  When the Civil War ends a year and a half later, slavery is abolished—and in the decades that follow, the United States becomes the most powerful nation on earth.  Before the war, it was said, “the United States are….” After the war, it becomes “the United States is.”

At the center of this conflict is President Abraham Lincoln.  His election to the presidency in 1860, on an anti-slavery platform, leads to the secession of 11 Southern states and the founding of a new nation—the Confederate States of America.

The war begins in April 1861 when the Confederates fire on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina. Both sides expect the war to end quickly.  Lincoln believes the 75,000 men he calls to serve for three months will be sufficient to put down the rebellion.  He is wrong.  Two years later, in the summer of 1863, there will be 51,000 casualties here at Gettysburg alone.

While the war is fought throughout the country, what happens in the East gets the most press and effects the popular sentiment.  In the East Confederates are winning the war – battle after battle after battle. The largest of the Union armies – the Army of the Potomac – is consistently beaten by the most important Confederate army – the Army of Northern Virginia.  These two armies will meet at Gettysburg.

As a young man Abraham Lincoln first gains national attention by opposing war.  Now he is a war president.  Lincoln struggles for two years to find a capable General to lead his army.  His Commanders prove too old, overcautious, overconfident, or incompetent.  By June 1863 the Union army has fought five battles and has not won a major victory.  Each time the commanding general is fired. Generals fear Abraham Lincoln. He is a representative of a budding capitalistic culture based on hard competition. Those who win advance.   Lose and you're out.  In Lincoln’s system good people are lost along the way, but by the end, he ends up with the finest Union generals.  And they win the war – in 1865.

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