We now come to the battle of Gettysburg. It is the battle of which you will hear, I think, more than all the rest put together. There is a writer who has written a book about the fifteen greatest battles in the history of the whole world; and he has called this battle of Gettysburg one of those fifteen.
Now, it is not that this battle was of itself so very different from any other battle; it was not that the armies were so very much larger; not that the soldiers were so very much braver, or the generals so very much wiser. Still it is spoken of as the battle of the Civil War.
Battle of Gettysburg
Let me try to help you to see just why, then, this was such a great battle.
Lee had now defeated the Union soldiers so many times that he began to think his own army was equal to anything. And well he might; for had he not defeated McClellan and Pope and Burnside and Hooker—four of the greatest generals of the Union army.
"Now," said Lee, "it is time for us to start again up through Pennsylvania, to New York, and on to Boston if we see fit." Again the Southerners began to make their threats of how the New York streets should soon be rivers of blood, and how proud old Boston should bow before the Confederate army.
The people of Pennsylvania were filled with fright. There was the great Potomac army, made up of the bravest of the North; but never yet had a General been found in whom the people trusted. Nothing but defeat after defeat had been their share. Now, indeed, had come a time when if ever a wise leader was needed, it was needed now. Lee was setting out upon his march into the very heart of the North! What if no one could stop him! What if he went on and on, burning the towns as he passed and taking the people prisoners! When would he stop! What would be the result!
Suppose, children, a great fire should start in the fields and forest outside your town, and come leaping on, burning the grass, the bushes, the trees, the fences—everything in its track, until it reached the rows of houses just on the edges of your town. Now suppose the flames were no redder, the fire no hotter, the smoke no blacker than when it all came rolling over the hills and across the fields. Still, can't you see why just here you would be more frightened, why the firemen would work harder than ever, why the peril, the danger, would be greater than at any time before? Not that the fire is any wilder, but because it had reached that point, where, if it isn't conquered at once and there, the whole town will be lost.
This is just the condition the North was in at the time of this battle of Gettysburg. Gettysburg was like the rows of houses along the edges of the town. Lee's fire had come on and on, sweeping everything before it up to just this point. He was now upon the border-land of the North. A battle was at hand! He, must not be allowed to come one step farther! "If we only had a leader!" cried the people. "If we only had a leader!" cried the soldiers. And a leader came. Hooker and another General had a quarrel just about this time over some war question; Hooker threw up the command, and Gen. Meade was put in his place. Meade, with new forces from the North, started on in pursuit of Lee.
When Lee found that so large an army was at his heels, he thought the best thing he could do would be to stand still, and let Meade overtake him. A battle was sure to come sooner or later, and Lee was wise enough to know that the sooner it came, the better; for in case of his own defeat, he would not be far from his own part of the country, and therefore not far from help.
So it happened that Meade came upon Lee at Gettysburg. Gettysburg was a pretty little village, nestling down among the hills; its people so quiet and peaceful—its farms so broad and green—doesn't it seem a shame to fill this beautiful valley with the roar of cannon and the fire and smoke of battle?
The battle began on the morning of the 1st of July. For two days it seemed as if again Lee was to win; but on the third day the tide turned. More than forty thousand men lay dead and wounded on the field. At the close of this third day, Lee began to draw away his forces. Lee was at last defeated. And on the Fourth of July, the same day that Grant's men were cheering within the walls of Vicksburg, Lee's army, what there was left of it, was marching away towards the South, broken, discouraged, defeated; and the North once more was saved.