An Interview with Professor Donald Elder: The Battle of Gettysburg – 200 Years Later

Jul 13, 2010 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Professor Elder, the 4th of July is behind us, but many historians still reflect on the Battle of Gettysburg. When exactly did it occur, and who were the main leaders?

The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863. The commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was Robert E. John Lee. His corps commanders were Richard Ewell, A.P.Hill and James Longstreet. George Meade had been appointed the commander of the Army of the Potomac only days before the battle. His corps commanders were John Reynolds, Oliver O. Howard, Winfield Scott Hancock, Daniel Sickles, Henry Slocum, George Sykes, and John Sedgwick. Reynolds was killed on the first day of battle, and was replaced by Abner Doubleday.

2) If the outcome were different, what could have been the implications?

A Confederate victory at Gettysburg could have prompted the British and French to recognize the independence of the Confederate States of America. It could have forced the War Department to withdraw troops besieging Vicksburg and transfer them east, which might have prevented Grant from capturing that fortress on the Mississippi. It could have so weakened northern morale and led to political reverses in the fall 1863 elections.

3) What were the short term and long term ramifications of that battle?

After holding his ground on July 4th, Lee recognized that the losses he had suffered compelled him to retreat back to Virginia. This, coupled with the surrender of Vicksburg on July 4 and the Union victory at the Battle of Helena that same day, provided a huge boost in northern morale. In the long run, it proved the last time that Lee would be able to undertake an offensive operation.

4) I know of several excellent books about the Civil War…..what would you suggest for those interested in learning more about this battle?

I would suggest “Hallowed Ground” by James McPherson, “The American Heritage History of the Battle of Gettysburg,” by Craig Symonds, and “Beneath a Northern Sky” by Stephen Woodsworth.

5) Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address remains one of the most enduring speeches of his Presidency. How do you think the battle  impacted him personally and how did it effect both sides in the conflict?

For Lincoln, it represents a step in a path that had started at Fort Sumter. In the beginning of the war, he spoke almost exclusively about “the Union.” By the Gettysburg Address he is referring to us more and more as a nation. This process would culminate after the war with the Pledge of Allegiance, which refers to one nation, indivisible.

6) I have heard reports that this was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War- do you have any facts or data on this?

It was indeed, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. In fact, it was the bloodiest battle ever on this continent.

Meade had around 83,000 troops at Gettysburg, and had 23,000 of them killed, wounded, and captured. Lee’s army was smaller (around 75,000), but suffered even more casualties (28,000).

7)  Was this a veritable turning point in the war or were there other more important battles?

Some historians suggest that the Union victories at Antietam and Perryville in the fall of 1862 were of even greater importance, but I think that the three Union triumphs in early July of 1863 meant that the Confederates could no longer win their independence on the battlefield.

The only thing that could save them from then on would be a failure of will on the part of the Union.

8)   While most attribute the causes of the Civil War to slavery, I know that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, cotton, the Bombing of Fort Sumner, and of course states rights were all important factors. In terms of this one battle however, what were most of the soldiers fighting for? Their states, their homes, their lives? Or all of the above?

Confederates were, by and large, motivated by the concept of states’ rights and by the belief that they were fighting to defend their homes. Few would have explicitly said that they were fighting for slavery, but many historians (myself included) believe that most Confederates equated the protection of slavery with the concept of states’ rights.

Union soldiers were mostly fighting to preserve the Union, but by July of 1863 some were fighting to abolish slavery.

At Gettysburg, interestingly, it was the Union Army that was fighting for its home territory, since Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania.

9) What have I neglected to ask about this crucial battle of the war?

The battle has many what ifs? What if the Confederates had attempted to take Culp’s Hill on the first day of battle? What if the Confederates had slipped around the Union Army and positioned itself between Meade and Washington? What if Lee’s cavalry had been present the first two days?


On questions such as these hung the outcome of the critical moment in our nation’s civil war.


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