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Before Gettysburg

The Civil War, like every war, was fought by citizen soldiers and by men who were really no different than most. Its armies were not mercenaries, but brothers and sons, immigrants and farmers. Their leaders were real people, with faults, feelings, and dreams.

The Confederate army was a largely victorious group, having won many battles against the Northern foe. Its people were unified in tradition, custom, language, faith, and unfailing confidence in their leader. The Union army, on the other hand, was an amalgamation of many faiths, many languages, foreign customs and culture. Its confidence lay in themselves, rather than their leader.

Such a leader as George Gordon Meade, Major General. This man was naïve and vain. He tried to hold a Grand Review, but there was no time before the great battle of Gettysburg. He was the Union army’s commander for just two days before Gettysburg.

Perhaps John Reynolds would have done better. A fine soldier, horseman, and gentleman, he was the first choice to lead the Union armies. But he saw that Washington’s hand in commanding the armies could never work, and passed the offer of command. He was courteous and skilled, much like the Confederate commander, Robert E. Lee.

Lee led the rebel army with a dignity and honesty that inspired undying devotion. His life was well under his command: He neither complained nor lost his temper. He did not indulge in alcohol, tobacco, or women. He owned no slaves, yet believed that the races were still unequal. He loved his homeland and his men.

"Never Against Virginia" by John Paul Strain

"Never Against Virginia" by John Paul Strain

One of whom was James Longstreet, Lieutenant General. Close to Lee, he tried to fill the void of Stonewall Jackson’s death as Lee’s second in command. He was a cold visionary, having seen the future of war in machines. He did not withhold his mind and opinions; rather, spoke openly to others. He had lost his famous love for poker after the week his three children were killed by fever.

Each of these men and countless others will find their destinies on the battlefield of Gettysburg in those fateful days in July 1863. Whether in death, victory, or defeat, each man will consummate his life as a citizen soldier and see for himself the full terror and sadness that is war.


The previous entry is a part of a series of Gettysburg posts recounting Michael Shaara’s The Killer Angels and the actual battle of Gettysburg, July 1-3, 1863. The complete list of entries can be found at the page The Killer Angels.

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