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Save for some outdated language, I could have written or received many of those letters myself.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.

Neither side had meant for Gettysburg to be the meeting place, but the battle would be the bloodiest in American history, with more than 50,000 killed, wounded or missing over three days of fighting -- a few thousand less than the American casualties from more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Rebel and Yankee wounded filled the courthouse and train station, churches and homes. A carpenter's shop served as one of many operating room, with patients lain across the workbench, and sawed-off arms and legs tossed through an open window onto a growing pile.

News of the great battle would soon sweep across the country, and with it the long lists of dead. "Every name," the Gettysburg Compiler wrote after the battle, "is a lightning stroke to some heart, and breaks like thunder over some home, and falls a long black shadow across some hearthstone." Family members journeyed to the town hoping to find a loved one still alive -- initial reports of death were sometimes wrong -- or at least find the body to take home for burial.

General Robert E. Lee's army fled south, with the Union in pursuit. But the people of Gettysburg were immersed, for months, in the war and its after effects. The two armies left behind more than 15,000 wounded. And the town and surrounding areas were strewn with thousands of dead men and 5,000 dead horses and mules. People wiped peppermint oil under their noses to mask the horrid stench. The Compiler called for help in clearing the town and surrounding areas:

To all Citizens

Men, Horses and Wagons wanted immediately, to bury the dead and cleanse our streets in such a thorough way as to guard against pestilence. Every good citizen can be of use.

Carrying long-dead bodies is fairly far along the spectrum of citizen involvement in war. Today we live at the other extreme, in which nothing is asked of us. For the most part, lives here have gone on just the same over these many years of war. Our homes are not destroyed or filled with wounded. Our streets and parks and fields are not strewn with dead.

The people of Gettysburg were forced into involvement; we have the luxury of ignoring war. But while distance may insulate us from war's effects, it does not lessen our moral obligation as citizens to be aware of what is done abroad on our behalf.