Gettysburg: The Definition of Courage and Sacrifice

At the beginning of the second day of fighting at the battle of Gettysburg, Sergeant Matthew Marvin, a 24 year-old Northern soldier in the First Minnesota Infantry, penned a note on the rear cover of his diary:

Should any Person find this on the body of a soldier on the field of battle or by the roadside they will confer a lasting favor on the parents of its owner by sending the book & pocket purse and silver finger ring on the left hand. Taking their pay for the trouble out of the Greenbacks herein enclosed.

Sergeant Marvin was seriously wounded later that day when his regiment made a courageous stand against overwhelming numbers, but he survived the battle. Many others did not. 

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One of them, a young Southern officer, also had his family in mind when he too scribbled a brief note of final instructions. Mounted on horseback, 34 year-old Colonel Isaac Avery was shot out of the saddle as he led a brigade of North Carolina troops into battle later the same day. As he lay dying, paralyzed on his right side, he managed to pull a scrap of paper and a pencil from his uniform pocket and scrawled his final words: "Tell father I died with my face to the enemy --"

Nineteen year-old Lieutenant Bayard Wilkeson of New York was actually near his father during the first day’s fighting at Gettysburg. Young Wilkeson commanded a battery of the 4th U.S. Artillery engaged on the north side of town, and his father, journalist Samuel Wilkeson, was embedded with the Federal army, covering the battle for the New York Times. While trying desperately to hold back a Confederate assault with his battery, Lieutenant Wilkeson was struck down by enemy artillery fire, which left one of his legs mangled beyond repair. In an attempt to stay in the fight, Wilkeson applied a makeshift tourniquet and then stoically amputated his own leg with a pocketknife. A battlefield observer described the young officer’s determined attempt to keep his guns in action:

His soldiers lay him upon the ground…and, sitting there, he tells his cannoneers to go on with their fire – a bravery unsurpassed even by the Chevalier of France….Faint and thirsty, he sends a soldier with his canteen to fill it at the Almshouse well. When the man returns, a wounded infantryman who life is ebbing away, beholding the canteen, exclaims, “Oh, that I could have but a swallow!” Wilkeson, with like unselfishness, courtesy, and benevolence, replies, “Drink, comrade; I can wait.”

When it was seen that the line must retire, Wilkeson allowed himself to be carried to the Almshouse hospital… where, during the night, for want of attention, he died. Dead – but his heroism, sense of duty, responsibility to obligation, devotion and loyalty remain….

That “sense of duty” – and extraordinary examples of courage and sacrifice – are what is most remembered about the Americans, Northern and Southern alike, who were engaged at the Battle of Gettysburg on July 1-3 -- 150 years ago this year. It was the greatest battle of the Civil War, and, with more than 51,000 casualties, it was also the bloodiest. Like the Civil War itself, the Battle of Gettysburg was a pivotal historical event, marked by remarkable drama, tragedy, irony and significance.

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It was by many measures the decisive battle of the Civil War, and would prove to be the war’s turning point. Almost two more years of bloody warfare would follow, but in many ways the Southern military defeat was mightily hastened by General Robert E. Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg. Never again would Southern forces be able to mount such a powerful offensive on Northern soil. The outcome of the Civil War, enabled in no small way by the Northern victory at Gettysburg, set the nation on a new course. Serious discussion about the right of secession, which had been raised in behalf of various causes, was ended. The institution of slavery in America was destroyed forever. “These united states” effectively became the United States of America, and the American nation, under a much stronger Federal government, was eventually reunited in an extraordinary spirit of reconciliation.

All these reasons make Gettysburg the must-see historic site among the long parade of Civil War battlefields, justify the undying American fascination with the battle and the war, and make the great battle genuinely worthy of commemoration 150 years after the fields of fire and fury fell silent. Equally memorable, however, is the “human story” of Gettysburg – which The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader attempts to document through the words of those Americans who lived through the battle, as well as some who did not. Along with its unsurpassed historical importance, the Battle of Gettysburg also offers all Americans – and the world -- another cause for commemoration. Today, 150 years later, Gettysburg remains an unsurpassed expression of American courage and sacrifice that should stand the test of time.

Civil War historian Rod Gragg is the director of the Center for Military & Veterans Studies at Coastal Carolina University, and is author of The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War’s Greatest Battle, which is newly published by Regnery History.


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