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Six Life Lessons From the Battle of Gettysburg

July 1-3 is the 155th anniversary of the bloodiest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere: Gettysburg. In the first three days of July in 1863, some 52,000 Americans were killed, wounded, or went missing. The Union Army of the Potomac (about 90,000 troops) led by General George Meade clashed in a titanic battle with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee.

Gettysburg is the battle that almost every Civil War nerd (like me) loves to study because of so many "what ifs" and twists and turns. It could have gone so many different ways. However, I also love studying this battle because of the life lessons we can learn from the fascinating circumstances and the very fine men who fought on both sides. Here are a few life lessons we can learn today:

1. The small things count.

Gettysburg began by "accident" because some Confederate infantrymen were looking for shoes in that little town. No one planned on a battle there that day. Both armies had been looking for each other. Contact was made in the early morning hours of July 1 when some of Henry Heth's troops looking for shoes (thousands of Lee's troops were barefoot) "bumped into" John Buford's Union cavalrymen. Word went out to both armies and within hours troops came pouring in from every direction.

That little search for something as insignificant as shoes turned into the bloodiest battle of the Civil War.

On the second day of the battle, Confederate infantry was to assault the far-left wing of the Union army. The hill known as Little Round Top was unoccupied. If the Confederates could take that hill then they could flank the entire army of the United States and possibly win the battle.

The men of the 15th Alabama Infantry and supporting units at first scrambled up Big Round Top. The temperature was in the low 80s but it probably felt hotter to all those troops clothed in wool uniforms and with a battle raging around them. They had been marching all day to get into position to fight, and they had given all their canteens to a few men to get water. Those men with the canteens were all captured by Union cavalrymen. Now, the Confederates climbing Big Round Top had no water to drink. When they reached the summit, they took a break for about 10 minutes.

While the Confederates were climbing the hill the Union general Warren realized they had left Little Round Top unoccupied! He quickly ordered the troops of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine to occupy that critical position. In the 10 minutes that the Confederate troops were resting, the Union was fortifying the hill the Confederates needed to take.