The Battle of Gettysburg: A Time When American Civilians Saw War Firsthand

The inhabitants of Gettysburg, who hid in their homes as snipers exchanged fire within the town, were called out to clear bodies after the battle. Today, America's wars are more distant.


Reenacting Pickett's Charge at the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, June 30, 2013 (Mark Makela/Reuters)

For the first two years of the Civil War, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, had been the homefront, where residents feared for their husbands, brothers, and sons who were away fighting, and waited for word from them. Loved ones traded letters about the goings-on in town and the monotony of life in army camps -- and sometimes let slip about the terrors of battle and the crippling worry at home.

Save for some outdated language, I could have written or received many of those letters myself. During my two deployments to Iraq, we had the modern wonders of email, cell phones and video chats as well, which could instantaneously connect us with home. But we were separated by far more than miles. Despite their concern, our friends and families couldn't really understand our daily lives.

And just as soldiers can't fully share their war experiences with loved ones, military families often can't share their pain and worry with others. War, for most Americans, is an abstraction. Today the homefront has shrunk to isolated pockets. With each passing generation, as the military gets smaller and the country grows, the percentage of Americans fighting in the country's wars dwindles. Now it's less than one percent.

This was far different during the Civil War, when most families -- North and South -- had a relative in uniform. The scale of service and carnage seems incomprehensible today. One in ten Americans fought, and 750,000 died. With today's population, that would be more than seven million dead, in contrast with about 6,700 service member deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan and some 3,000 Americans killed by terrorist groups.

We are fortunate not to have known war or foreign aggression on our own soil since the Civil War, with very few exceptions (most notably Pearl Harbor and the September 11th attacks). In this we are the global minority. Ours is a country that sends soldiers away to war. When they return, they face the isolating task of trying to process where they have been, what they have been doing, and what place they will have in society.

So it was in Gettysburg until the summer of 1863, when the war came home. One hundred and sixty thousand Union and Confederate soldiers descended on the little town of 2,400, and for the first three days of July, homefront and battlefield held no distinction.

Residents cowered in cellars as artillery shells screamed overhead. The southern end of town became a no man's land as Confederate snipers hidden in houses traded fire with Union snipers around Cemetery Hill. Out in the fields and forests -- within view of Gettysburg streets and homes -- the two armies slaughtered each other in places that would soon be known across America: Little Round Top and the Wheatfield, Culp's Hill and the Devil's Den.

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