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Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Gettysburg. Why the 150th anniversary of the great battle means so much

Today, July 3, is the 150th anniversary of the climactic third and last day of the Battle of Gettysburg, the horrific hinge on which our Civil War turned — as did, very arguably, the evolution of human rights on our planet.

If on this day the Confederate troops of Pickett and Pettigrew had broken past the Second Vermont Brigade at the Bloody Angle on Cemetery Ridge, there was very little to stop Lee’s army from pushing the 87 miles to Washington, D.C., to win the war and save the cause of slavery.

But that didn’t happen. The Union line held long enough for reinforcements to arrive — and today we are a (more or less) united country. In the 150 years since that awful day, we have advanced in our laws the human causes of ending slavery, of women’s right to vote, of civil rights and, just lately, of gay rights. This is a momentous anniversary, and our lives are all linked to it.


I, personally, live in Vermont, and I have a great-great-grandfather from Missouri, a border state then, who was called “Colonel” and fought in the war. We’re not actually sure which side he fought on. I also wrote what is possibly the silliest, but also a kind of serious, book about the great battle, called Gunfire at Gettysburg.

My book, published in 1994, was number 151 in the Choose Your Own Adventure series of interactive novels for young adults. I wrote nine Choose books, and Gettysburg is my favorite. In Choose novels, the main character is always you — and in this one, you are a local kid who knows the landscape well and gets captured on the first day of the battle by the rebels, who don't know the landscape at all. A number of choices develop. You can brush up against some of the ghastliest episodes of the battle, and you can glimpse some of the deepest issues and emotions beneath it.

What I thought I would share today, in honor of this anniversary, is the brief Author’s Note that I wrote to open the book. I think and hope, rereading this, that it gives some sense of what this day was, how it happened, and what it meant:

During three hot days in July of 1863, the greatest and bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil blasted its way across the hills and fields around a little town in Pennsylvania.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War. In three previous years of fighting, the Confederate forces of the South had defeated their Union opponents in almost every battle. All these Confederate victories occured on Southern ground, most in Virginia. But in late June of 1863 the main Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee, secretly invaded the North, crossing into the lush farm country of southern Pennsylvania.

Just a few miles into Pennsylvania lay the little town of Gettysburg. Roads from different directions came together here, and — almost by accident — so did the two armies. As General Lee’s army marched north, his cavalry rode out to learn where the Union army was. But the Union army, also called the Federals, learned that Lee was moving, and they too began marching from the blasted fields of Virginia up into Pennsylvania. The Federals didn’t realize it, but their movement cut Lee off from his cavalry. So before the armies collided, the Confederates couldn’t learn much about the landscape around them — and they didn’t know where their enemy was.

As usual, the Confederates were heavily outnumbered. There were seventy-three thousand men in Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, while the blue-coated Army of the Potomac had some ninety-five thousand soldiers. No one expected all those men to fight in this town, but when they did, the whole war was at stake. If the Southerners had won, the North would have lain wide open for them to conquer.

Before you begin your adventure, you should know a few things about how the Civil War was fought. Most soldiers on both sides carried muskets, heavy firearms that had to be loaded one shot at a time. The Civil War musket was actually an early type of rifle: the inside of its barrel was grooved, or “rifled,” to spin the bullet and fire it farther and more accurately. Officers often carried pistols and swords.

Artillery batteries, which played a big part at Gettysburg, fired heavy cannons. These were loaded with solid iron balls or shells, hollow balls filled with gunpowder, and sometimes also with small metal balls. When they hit, all the weapons of Gettysburg — especially the cannon shells — did terrible damage.

I hope this story gives you a strong experience of just how important this battle was — and how terrible, too. If you’d like to learn more, there are many great books about Gettysburg and the Civil War. (You may also be able to visit Gettysburg National Military Park, where the real battlefield is carefully preserved and explained.) We must never forget what really happened at the little town of Gettysburg on those hot days in 1863. Once you’ve had your own adventure there, I hope you’ll understand why.

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