Emerson: The SC backstory to Gettysburg

Guest ColumnistJuly 3, 2013 

Editor’s note: Due to an editing error, an earlier version incorrectly characterized the number of casualties in a battle near Sharpsburg, Md., as deaths.

One hundred fifty years ago, on July 1-3, 1863, Confederate and Union forces struggled for control of ground in and around the small town of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania. The battle resulted in 51,000 casualties, more than any other during the war, and it since has assumed an epic place in the American lexicon. It also was the origin of Abraham Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address.

As we commemorate the battle’s anniversary, we should stop to reflect upon the role of South Carolinians in precipitating the battle and the part that they played in its outcome.

By the summer of 1863, America had been at war for nearly two and a half years. The conflict was greater than any fought in the history of the western hemisphere, and South Carolina played a pivotal role in its inception.

In reaction to Abraham Lincoln’s election as president, South Carolina formed a Secession Convention that met in Columbia on Dec. 17, 1860, and voted to secede from the Union. Three days later, convention delegates signed the Ordinance of Secession. Following South Carolina’s lead, six deep South states seceded and, with South Carolina, formed a fledgling Confederacy in Montgomery on Feb. 8, 1861. Two months later, on April 12, 1861, Confederate forces fired on federal troops in Fort Sumter, opening the war. Lincoln called for volunteers to put down the rebellion, and four upper South states seceded and joined the Confederacy.

The war that ensued was far bloodier than anyone could have imagined. Nearly 23,000 Americans were casualties of a single day’s fight near Sharpsburg, Md. Most South Carolina men either joined or were conscripted into Confederate military service. Their absence forced women and children to assume roles previously held by men. For a year, South Carolinians chose security over democracy as an executive council ruled the state during 1862. Thousands of enslaved South Carolinians found freedom by fleeing to Union troops, who captured many of the state’s Sea Islands.

The Confederacy’s military sought to win independence for the new nation. To take the war into the North, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee moved his Army of Northern Virginia into southern Pennsylvania. There, they stumbled upon elements of the Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac on July 1, 1863. More than 150,000 men converged on the small town of Gettysburg.

Only 5,000 — or 3 percent of them — were from South Carolina. On the battle’s first day, South Carolinians of Col. Abner M. Perrin’s brigade helped seize Seminary Ridge. Late in the afternoon of the following day, July 2, South Carolinians of Gen. Joseph B. Kershaw’s brigade assaulted Union troops in the peach orchard south of town. The desperate struggle for the peach orchard and the wheat field to its east was noteworthy for its intensity. Col. William D. DeSaussure of the 15th South Carolina and 650 South Carolinians died on the second day’s fight.

On July 3, the Confederacy reached its symbolic high water mark, as Lee launched Pickett’s Charge, a failed assault on the center of the Union line. To the south, Kershaw’s men waited in the peach orchard, unable to view the spectacle. In an ironic twist, no S.C. regiments participated in the attack; instead, North Carolinians, Virginians and other Southerners found pain, death and glory in the legendary charge that defined the most famous battle of the war precipitated by the actions of South Carolinians.

One and a half centuries later, we should pause to reflect upon the battle’s devastation. We also should be aware that the past is always present and beckoning us to be mindful of its lessons.

Learn more at the Confederate Relic Room and Military Museum’s exhibit “Gettysburg: South Carolina in the Fight,” or go to www.crr.sc.gov/Pages/default.aspx.

Dr. Emerson is director of the S.C. Department of Archives and History, state historic preservation officer and chair of the S.C. Civil War Sesquicentennial Advisory Board; contact him at eemerson@scdah.state.sc.us.

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