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Gettysburg's Consequence and Cost Remembered 150 Years Later

Library of Congress

One-hundred fifty years ago today, one of the fiercest and most important battles of the American Civil War began.

The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1863, and lasted for three days. It was the deadliest battle of the Civil War - and also a turning point for the Union forces.

Historian Thomas Martin Sobottke says prior to the battle, the scene had been set for a historic encounter between the Union and Confederate forces. Both armies were on the move, and neither specifically planned to fight at Gettysburg, a small town of only 2,400 residents. But that's where they happened to make first contact.

The tiny locale would be occupied for three days by 150,000 soldiers, resulting in the largest battle on the North American continent and 53,000 casualties.

Sobottke says the Confederates, on the heels of several big victories, were trying to push the war out of Virginia and hopefully bring a swift end to the war. On the other hand, the Union Army of the Potomac rather was trying to stop General Robert E. Lee's advancement north.

Like Greek tragedies of lore, Sobottke says Gettysburg was a lesson in the dangers of hubris. The Confederates had beaten the Union troops at many big battles, including Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville and First Bull Run, and were confident in their ability to take them again.

"Frankly the average Confederate soldier in Robert E. Lee's army had no respect whatsoever for their opponents in the Army of the Potomac - none," he says. "Lee himself felt that these men could do anything."

Having been routed so many times, the Union troops knew the stakes were high - and the men fought accordingly. Six infantry regiments from Wisconsin participated in the battle, including those in the Iron Brigade and a company of sharpshooters.

"If they had lost that battle at Gettysburg, that army could have easily disintegrated and not been an effective brake on what Robert E. Lee wanted to do," Sobottke says.

Had the Confederates won, Sobottke says they conceivably could have continued on to Philadelphia, Baltimore and even Washington, D.C. - forcing the end of the war and gaining Southern independence.

We'll hear the stories of Wisconsin soldiers at Gettysburg on Wednesday and Thursday.

Thomas Martin Sobottke is the voice of our Civil War series, "Iron Brigade and Beyond." He's historian, teacher, and the author of the novel Richmond’s Bloody Road, under the name Thomas Martin Saturday. He’s also the author of Across That Dark River: The Civil War Memory.

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