This edited article about America first appeared in Look and Learn issue number 496 published on 17 July 1971.
There was a strange, hot stillness over the battlefield. General Robert E. Lee of the Southern Confederate army in the American Civil War and 15,000 of his men could see their enemies from the North – the Union troops – barely 1,200 yards away. But the North had assembled a massive army to hold back Lee in his invasion of the North.
“The enemy is there,” retorted Lee, when one of his generals complained that they were hopelessly outnumbered, “and I am going to strike him.”
Still the men faced each other, waiting to strike. Suddenly, Lee gave the order to attack. One hundred and forty Confederate guns broke the silence with an ear-splitting cannonade. The Union gunners waited a few minutes until the positions of the Confederate batteries were located. Then 80 guns opened fire.
For nearly two hours, this massive artillery duelled in the fierce sunshine. Then, in a milewide column, the 15,000 Confederate troops began the infantry advance across the open fields.
For a moment, billows of gunsmoke hid this massive advance from the Union troops. What a sight it must have been to them as the smoke cleared.
Quickly reloading their artillery, the Union gunners poured scalding metal into the Confederate troops, raking their enemy with rifle and cannon fire. The Confederate line crumpled, re-formed and pressed forward under a fantastic new hammering of Union fire.
In that few hundred yards’ advance, thousands of men died. Only 150 of Lee’s 15,000 got near enough to the Union troops for hand-to-hand fighting, there to be quickly overcome. A savage Union countercharge swept the rest away.
This was the third day of the battle of Gettysburg of 1863 in the American Civil War, a battle so fierce that it has made a small town a legend; a battle in which Southerner fought Northerner, when 51,000 men were killed or wounded.
What was the reason for this battle? It did not end the war, nor did it climax any great military manoeuvre by either side. Nevertheless, if only for the huge casualties suffered, it is regarded as the great battle of the war.
It happened because Union troops were besieging Vicksburg, a vital Confederate stronghold. General Lee reasoned that if he were to launch an attack into northern territory, he might force the Union army to withdraw troops from Vicksburg and relieve pressure on that hard-pressed city.
But the battle of Gettysburg ended his hopes. Two complete divisions of his men were reduced to a mere handful of survivors. In the space of a hundred yards lay 20 of his battle flags. And in the West Vicksburg had fallen.
Lee began an orderly retreat with the remnants of his army back into the southern state of Virginia. For the Confederate South, it was the beginning of the end.
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