“The Brave Men, Living and Dead”: Common Soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg

by Robert Bonner

Rebel prisoners at Gettysburg, [1863]. Photograph by Mathew Brady. (Gilder LehrmMidway through his remarks at the Gettysburg National Soldiers’ Cemetery on November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln confided that “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” This remarkable (and remarkably off-target) prediction was offered as a way to contrast the “poor power” of even the most stirring words with the still more awe-inspiring actions of 90,000 “brave men, living and dead” who had given the North a badly needed victory. Even if future generations forgot his stirring presidential address, the President was certain that they would always cherish the struggles of ordinary citizen-soldiers who had secured the Union’s “new birth of freedom.”

As Lincoln’s words remind us, at the heart of the Gettysburg saga were the legions of Federal soldiers and the 75,000-odd Confederate troops that made up Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. Cumulatively, these forces made up a full one percent of the country’s adult male population of 1860 and roughly a fifth of all Civil War soldiers present for duty over the summer of 1863. Infantry units who took part in this mammoth engagement represented all but six of the states at the time. Minnesotans and Texans came the farthest, as they fought for ground more than a thousand miles from their homes. By the end of the three-day clash, the ranks of these two national armies were thinned by 50,000 casualties, who would be prevented from taking part in future campaigns by severe injury, capture, death, or disappearance. Among these, some 11,000 died or were mortally wounded during what was the most lethal barrage of artillery and rifle fire in American history.

Nearly all who faced off on the Gettysburg killing fields had seen tough combat already. Hardened Federal troops from units like the Iron Brigade, the Irish Brigade, and the First Vermont Brigade had organized early in the war and quickly earned a lasting place in American history. More recent Northern volunteers had tasted disappointment in dispiriting Union setbacks at Fredericksburg, Chancellorsville, and Brandy Station in the preceding months. Lee’s troops had on the whole more accumulated service than their Union counterparts. Confederate troops began the Gettysburg campaign with the confidence of weathering nearly three years of service as members of the storied Texas Brigade, the Stonewall Brigade, the Louisiana Tigers, and other crack units. These made up one of the world’s most fearsome armies.

It was not just fighting the enemy that made veterans of the citizen-soldiers who came to Gettysburg. After leaving family and friends, civilian volunteers quickly learned to cope with the many hardships of soldiering. The meager pay of eleven dollars per month given to privates in both armies was a startlingly low sum for the long marching, dirty quarters, tedious drill, low rations, and ever-present disease of the camps they experienced as enlisted men. Ordinary soldiers facing these challenges endured them in the same way that they prepared to face death in battle. Moments of camp revelry and song helped lighten the troops’ mood; attention to the war’s high stakes helped to sustain their determination. Among the most difficult adjustments for civilian recruits was the need for absolute obedience to an officer corps responsible for leading men into enemy fire. West Point–influenced tactics and strategies depended upon the willingness of strong-willed citizen-soldiers to allow themselves to become cogs in regimented war-making machines.

The Gettysburg campaign offered something new for even the most disciplined and experienced soldiers. In mid-June, Confederates had moved past the Potomac (as they had for the previous summer’s Antietam campaign), and then kept moving past the Mason-Dixon line to establish themselves on “free soil” for the first and only time of the war. This rich stretch of Pennsylvania farmland caused many Southern troops to rethink long-held assumptions about the superiority of slave society. These men were less surprised by the hostility of rural communities who greeted them as traitors and tyrants. Throughout their experience in Pennsylvania, Confederates faced the many challenges of shifting from defenders to invaders.

For their part, Union troops in the Gettysburg campaign expressed considerable anxiety about the shifting circumstances as they fretted over the prospect of a Confederate capture of Harrisburg, Washington, DC, or, most ominous of all, the crucial city of Philadelphia. Northern men realized that the future of slavery no less than the security of Union cities hung in the balance; Confederate victory seemed likely to gut the Emancipation Proclamation, then just six months old. It is worth noting that when fighting began at Gettysburg, African American infantrymen had not yet been added to the chief eastern army. While some regiments from the United States Colored Troops were readying for action in the Deep South, the Army of the Potomac remained an all-white force for almost another full year.

We know a great deal of what these thousands of ordinary Union and Confederate soldiers thought about their experiences at the time and how they made sense of this crucial event. Their reflections have come down to us primarily in the form of the countless letters they sent home in the aftermath of the battle. Diaries and later memoirs would also add to the mountain of testimony that is among the richest collections of social history available to students of the past.

Soldiers found it hard to describe this battle’s human devastation and their own mixed feelings of terror and disgust. A New Hampshire private entering his third year of service wrote that “language will not convey an idea” of how awful those three days of fighting had been.[1] He judged the battle’s deceptively calm aftermath, with its acres filled with bloated bodies, to have been nearly as bad. Details about the overpowering sights and sounds of clashing armies helped many of the battle’s survivors paint memorable scenes. A Massachusetts captain told his wife about the “wizz, bang, burr, chug” of “the solid shot and shell” that came down upon him “thicker than I ever knew before.”[2] Most of the foot soldiers who recorded their experiences tried in one way or another to document their own exploits and sufferings. They drew attention to what it was like to be blinded by the smoke of cannon, overpowered by the thunder of rushing troops, or caught up in the confusion of orders. Many confided their panic in seeking shelter from an enemy advance. Key moments were underscored and committed to posterity, whether these detailed the death of a commander or comrade or the capture of an enemy battle flag. Such details would become the stuff of legends large and small. Hardly any ordinary soldiers were able to give a complete overview of a battle that stretched over an immense amount of terrain.

Most soldiers came to appreciate Gettysburg as both the war’s largest single battle and one of its most consequential. In the wake of that year’s only eastern victory, Northern survivors adopted a new optimism about their cause and began to predict that ultimate victory that would be another two years in the making. Confederate soldiers generally did not record their reflections until the completion of their long retreat back to Virginia. Some then wrote letters trying to minimize the setback, though the most candid acknowledged that both Confederate independence and the Confederacy’s claims to its slave property had received a heavy blow. For the remainder of the war, Lee’s men realized that victory was far more likely to follow a stalemate than to result from another invasion of enemy territory.

Long after Union victory, ordinary soldiers who survived the battle continued to reflect on the scale, scope, and significance of the Gettysburg campaign. A contingent of Union veterans would be on hand in November of 1863 when Lincoln asked the country to “highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.” Others returned for the first time during a series of post-war gatherings. Only in 1887 would Confederates begin to take part in these rituals, long after most of their battlefield dead had been removed to Southern cemeteries. A Confederate presence in the massive 1913 festivities would be of crucial symbolic importance, even though by that time all white veterans of the war were invited, whether or not they had fought at Gettysburg.

The monumental landscape that developed in post-war Gettysburg sustains Lincoln’s tribute to ordinary soldiers. Visitors today can see tributes to this “people’s contest” across Gettysburg National Military Park, though the message is strongest in the same cemetery where Lincoln delivered his tribute. At the center of this sanctuary, towering over soldiers’ graves, is a pillar with four seated figures. That of War features a seated soldier, whose head is turned ever so slightly to the figure of History. Lincoln’s words in 1863 summed up how citizen-soldiers had consecrated a patch of national soil by fighting at Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, the Peach Orchard, and elsewhere. The monument, which was unveiled in 1869, shows how surviving soldiers took on a new role, as they shaped the memory rather than the outcome of this crucial battle, and created a space where millions thereafter could come to reflect on a war that remains America’s great upheaval.

[1] Private John H. Burrell to his fiancée, July 6, 1863, quoted in Andrew Carroll, War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars (New York: Scribner, 2005), 90–91.

[2] Josiah C. Fuller to his wife, July 4, 1863. (The Gilder Lehrman Institute, GLC00653.06.01).

Robert Bonner is a professor of history at Dartmouth College and author Colors and Blood: Flag Passions of the Confederate South (2004) and The Soldiers Pen: Firsthand Impressions of the American Civil War (2006).

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