The very texture of the word seems to bring forth a thousand emotions to those who fly the red, white, and blue banner year round. People who cover their hearts with a rather shaky right hand during the playing of the Star-Spangled Banner understand that Gettysburg was the quintessential gesture by the boys in blue that the Emancipation Proclamation meant something to them that was deep and unmovable. The homes they were defending in south-central Pennsylvania were just over their shoulders; the land being invaded was theirs, the blood spilt was for the continuation of their loved ones. The fight at Gettysburg has been dubbed by historians as the ‘high water mark’ of the Confederacy, although residents of St. Albans, Vermont, and West Point, Ohio would certainly beg to differ. The reality is that Gettysburg was the common soldier’s stand that the war would not be lost, because they were there to insure it wasn’t.
Our boys from Northeast Ohio, the farm boys of Portage County, found themselves walking through the most incredible journey of their young lives on the road to Gettysburg. It had taken them to the soft hills of Western Virginia and the village of Kessler’s Cross Lanes. Their brogans had led them to Kernstown, and Winchester, and Harper’s Ferry. They had fought, and some of them had died, in the rock infested soil of Maryland where the Antietam Creek flows. They had bivouacked on the soil of their land in places they had never known even existed. Our boys fought disease, boredom, intense terror. They fought the heat, the cold, the wet, the mud. As part of McClellan’s army, they fought for a general unwilling to fight. As part of General Burnside’s army, they fought for a general who was only too willing to launch them in the tempest of battle. When they came under the leadership of General Hooker, they found themselves acting on a stage that was far too big for the lead actor.
By Gettysburg, the soldiers of the 7th OVI no longer needed motivation to fight. Pennsylvania was only one state to the east of Ohio…a loss in this battle would leave the east open to Southern invasion.
The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1st, 1863.
The Army of Northern Virginia (Rebels) had pushed the Army of the Potomac (Union) back through the small village of Gettysburg during the day, and by the time the 7th showed up, the Northern Army had solidified on the high ground south and east of Gettysburg. The fighting had been hard during the heat of the day along the hills of Pennsylvania, and when the 7th was assigned a position on the far right of the Union line, at a place called Culp’s Hill, they fell in line with troops, battle weary. By the morning of the 2nd, the battle was soon to be revisited by both sides, and the boys of the 7th drew themselves in line to defend against what they knew was coming.
The fight was hard along Culp’s Hill, which had been earmarked as a spot to be taken by Confederate General Robert E. Lee, but as the day began to close, the boys on the Hill still wore blue. When the order came down for the boys from the 7th to move to the other end of the line (Little Round Top), they did so without hesitation, though surely they must have been quite exhausted. Interestingly, the regiment got lost in the dark and was eventually told to reform along Culp’s Hill. The soldiers, quite tired from the day’s activities, fell asleep along the soft grass within earshot of the Confederates.
The morning of the 3rd broke hot and humid. The boys from Portage rose to meet the newest assault from the Rebels coming up the Hill…a make or break assault from the Confederate forces. The soldiers on Culp’s Hill made it a break assault, inflicting tremendous casualties for the sake of a small bit of Pennsylvanian soil. Then, once their part in that day’s battle was over, they listened to the advance known as Pickett’s Charge from their positions on the Hill. Farm boys from Northeastern Ohio sat on the ground and heard the cannonade that preceded the assault. They heard the volleys of musketry coming from their own lines. They listened to the clash along an area of the battlefield known today as the ‘Angle’. They listened, and they wondered to each other if they were winning…or losing. Then, when they saw the Confederates heading back across the wide field, they knew they had won the battle along that stretch of Pennsylvania.
The battle of Gettysburg is American in the same way that Verdun is French. It is a place revered, in part, because the men who fought there did things we could never envision ourselves doing. They created with their valor what President Lincoln called ‘Hallowed Ground.’ Our boys did that…boys who walked the same soil we now walk…soil that is free because they once walked it.
Gettysburg may be called the ‘High Water Mark of the Confederacy’ in many of the books written about that event. But to the boys from Portage County, it was the drawing of the line that would not be crossed.