The Skeptics

Gettysburg Might Just Be the Most Bloody Battle of the Civil War (But the Aftermath Might Have Been Worse)

November 8 witnessed one of the most stunning upsets in U.S. political history when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. But it might not have been the most stunning upset. 150 years earlier, also on November 8, a U.S. presidential election produced a shocking winner in what may be the most consequential election ever held in America.

In the summer of 1864, the Civil War had been raging for three years. Already, well over eight hundred thousand Americans had been killed or wounded. Citizens in both the North and South were virulently sick of war and wanted the conflict ended. Events on the battlefield, just before the election that fall, would seal the South’s defeat, catapult Abraham Lincoln to victory and ultimately provide momentum for the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment, permanently freeing all slaves in America.

Though not recognized at that time, it was a key battle the summer before that actually dealt what would prove to be the fatal blow to the South. The fight took place in a farming village in southern Pennsylvania that few in America had ever heard of: Gettysburg.

Most people in America today, regardless of party affiliation, revere Abraham Lincoln and believe that he was equally and broadly popular in his time. Many would be shocked to learn that heading into the election of 1864, Lincoln was expected to lose. Less than three months before the election, the cofounder of the Republican Party and editor of the powerful New York Tribune, Horace Greeley, wrote to senior Republican leaders, “Mr. Lincoln is already beaten. He cannot be elected. And we must have another ticket to save us from utter overthrow.”

By all accounts, as late as August 1864, most experts expected former Union general George B. McClellan to handily defeat Lincoln. Yet barely two months before the election, Gen. William T. Sherman finally overpowered Confederate defenses and captured the city of Atlanta, sending a wave of euphoria throughout the Union. After the leaders of his own party had considered replacing him on the Republican ticket, Lincoln won the most lopsided victory in history when he defeated McClellan in the Electoral College, 212 to 21. Sherman’s victory at Atlanta—and hence Lincoln’s victory in 1864—was made possible by the Union victory at Gettysburg in July 1863.

Confederate commander Gen. Robert E. Lee launched an offensive into Union territory in the summer of 1863, in an attempt to relieve pressure on the South and possibly turn the support of Northerners against the war, leading potentially to a negotiated settlement. The Union troops, led at the time by Gen. George Meade, met the rebels near the outskirts of Gettysburg on July 1. On the first day of battle, Lee’s troops scored decisive victories. On the second day, again Union forces suffered setbacks, leading some to fear Meade’s troops might have to surrender the field and withdraw. The fate of the entire battle came down to the defense of one small hill on the Union’s far left flank, at an otherwise unremarkable hill known as the Little Round Top.

The defensive position was secured by the Twentieth Maine regiment, led by Col. Joshua Chamberlain, who had been a professor of modern languages at Bowdoin College before the war. If Lee’s troops could dislodge the Twentieth Maine from the hill, the rest of the Yankee line would be vulnerable, potentially leading to complete Confederate victory. Chamberlain was told to hold the hill at all costs; even if he lost every man, retreat was not permitted.

The Confederates likewise recognized the value of the hill and ordered five regiments from Alabama and Texas to take the hill. Vastly outnumbered, the Twentieth Maine stretched themselves to barely one deep. Southern troops recognized how thin the line was on the far end of the defenses, and ordered a flanking assault. Chamberlain moved some of his men as far left as he could and met the charge. The first rebel attempt was repelled. A second and third charge was likewise repulsed, but the last attack by the Texans and Alabamians had depleted most of the remaining ammunition among the federal troops.

Seeing that the Confederates were assembling for another charge up the hill, Chamberlain realized he didn’t have enough ammunition to survive one more assault. Remembering his orders to hold at all costs, the Colonel ordered his men to fix bayonets. When the enemy began its final attack, Chamberlain ordered his men to leave their protective positions at the top of the hill and to run headlong into the attacking Southerners.

The Twentieth Maine didn’t stand a chance. They were exhausted, most—including Colonel Chamberlain—were wounded, and many of the troops were out of ammunition. Yet despite these odds, miraculously, the Yankee troops dashed downhill, right into the teeth of the Southern attack, screaming and wildly flashing the steel of their bayonets, and took the Southerners by surprise. The audacity of the downhill assault shocked the attackers. Once the Union troops broke through the Southern line, a panic set in and the rebel troops abandoned the field. The Union flank held, and eventually the entire Confederate attack failed.