In September of 1862, the Army of Northern Virginia had invaded Union territory, in Maryland, and had fought an epic battle near Sharpsburg, Maryland on a field near Antietam Creek. Robert E. Lee's eventual goal was to capture Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. His hope was that the will of the Union to continue the war would be broken by Harrisburg's capture, and the Union would then have allowed the Confederate states to go their separate ways.
Harrisburg, at the time, was the capital of the second most populous state in the Union, Pennsylvania and a major railroad center. But the capture of Harrisburg was not to be. The Confederates lost at what we know as the battle Antietam, and retreated back to Confederate territory. It was a dear loss of lives on both sides, with approximately 22,717 casualties (dead, wounded, captured). Antietam was the bloodiest one day battle in the Civil War, but the worst was yet to come in 1863.
Now, in June of 1863, Lee's army is on the move again, invading Maryland. His aim, once again, was to capture Harrisburg and break the will of the Federals. On June 24, 1863, there would be another skirmish at Sharpsburg, Maryland. Through the rest of June, there would be various skirmishes and actions, as Lee brought the war again to Union territory. Various places in Maryland, and then north into Pennsylvania, became places of battles. McConnellsburg, Pennsylvania. Hanover, Pennsylvania. Carlisle, Pennsylvania.
Lee, at the last minute, had to divert from Harrisburg, because the Union Army of the Potomac, he discovered, was closer than he thought. So he ordered troops poised to invade Harrisburg, to march to another place instead... a small town called Gettysburg, where 51,000. people would be killed, injured or captured between July 1 and July 3, 1863. The mind can barely comprehend it.
Our local regiment, the 137th New York Volunteer Infantry, under the command of one David Ireland, would help hold Culp's Hill on the night of the second day of battle. A local photographer has produced this collage of his photos of monuments (mainly of New York but some Confederate) and vintage photos of Gettysburg. It is only a few minutes long, and well worth your time.
The Confederates lost the battle, and retreated, and with them retreated their hope of victory in Pennsylvania. But the war would go on for almost another two years.
Why do people pour into Gettysburg for the 25 year anniversaries? What makes it so special, so sacred? Part of it is its proximity to the most densely populated part of the United States. Gettysburg is 50 miles from Baltimore, 90 miles from Washington, DC and 250 miles (approximately) from where I live in upstate New York.
I won't be there this July, due to circumstances. But I have been to Gettysburg, and I hope to return later this year. But what a gathering it will be between next weekend and the weekend after. Not just because of the local connection but because Gettysburg created the modern United States we all live in.