Allen C. Guelzo is the author of the New York Times bestseller Gettysburg: The Last Invasion. He teaches at Gettysburg College.
Looking back 20 years after it was fought, Alexander Stewart Webb declared that the Battle of Gettysburg “was, and is now throughout the world, known to be the Waterloo of the Rebellion.” Certainly Webb had earned the right to judge. He was in command of the Union brigade that absorbed the spearpoint of the battle’s climax on July 3, 1863, the great charge of the Confederate divisions commanded by George E. Pickett. “This three days’ contest,” Webb said, “was a constant recurrence of scenes of self-sacrifice,” especially “on the part of all engaged on the third and last day.”
One hundred fifty years later, one might imagine that Alexander Webb was suffering from a touch of middle-age myopia. The word “Gettysburg” is still powerful enough to be recognized by even the most indifferent grade-schooler as a big-box event in American history. But does it deserve to stand beside Waterloo?
It does. Gettysburg may have been the last solid chance the breakaway southern states had of winning the Civil War and their independence. In battle after battle, Robert E. Lee had led his ragtag Confederate forces, the Army of Northern Virginia, to victory over the Union Army of the Potomac. But the victories were all won on Virginia’s soil, and they enfeebled the Virginia economy even as they defended it. Lee knew that only by carrying the war into the Union states and leveraging the war-weariness of the Union into peace negotiations could the Confederacy hope to win. There would be state elections that fall in Pennsylvania and Ohio; if those states turned against the war, they could force President Abraham Lincoln either to begin peace talks or to resign....