What was it like as the Battle of Gettysburg approached 150 years ago? Four leading experts spent one evening recently at the National Constitution Center discussing the popular mood in late June 1863 as General Robert E. Lee entered Pennsylvania.
Ted Widmer, Sean Wilentz, Judith Giesberg, and Adam Goodheart of the popular New York Times "Disunion" blog talked about the epic battle in front of a sold-out audience at the Center.
The authors appeared in conjunction with the release of their new book, and these insightful historians provided social and political context for understanding the pivotal Gettysburg battle and the turmoil in America circa 1863.
Sean Wilentz said that Lee had come to regard his Army of Northern Virginia as invincible as victory after victory ensued. People in Philadelphia feared an imminent attack from Lee’s forces—or at least the presence of a menacing presence in Pennsylvania.
The Union was also unsettled by economic problems and a forced draft.
“Violence seemed to explode out of the heart of our country,” said Adam Goodheart. He said the Civil War era also saw an explosion of early mass media with the telegraph and newspapers bringing news into living rooms faster than ever.
He also said Pennsylvania was in a state of near panic, as Lee’s forces crossed into the state as people in Pittsburgh started digging defensive trenches, and wagons and horses were on the state’s roads.
“The Union army wasn’t much better off,” said Goodheart. The Union was getting some of its intelligence by reading local newspapers, for example.
General Robert E. Lee also saw the headlines in northern newspapers, which showed discontent in the popular media in the North.
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Lee understood that a successful Pennsylvania campaign could force the Union to the negotiating table, and he asked Jefferson Davis to make such preparations.
Judith Giesberg pointed to a diary of Emile Davis, a young African- American woman, as a unique indicator of the mood in Philadelphia as the Battle of Gettysburg approached. (The diary is at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania and also available online.)
Speaking about the news that Lee was near Harrisburg, Davis wrote on June 30 that “the greatest excitement prevails. I am all most sick worrying about father. The city is considered in danger.”
Davis also said her friends marched off to Harrisburg to volunteer to fight, only to be turned away since blacks weren’t accepted into Pennsylvania’s regiments. That policy changed after Gettysburg.
You can watch the full video of the scholars’ discussion by going to https://vimeo.com/constitutioncenter. Parts 1 and 2 below discuss the popular mood in Pennsylvania.
You can watch the full video of the 70-minute discussion, with an introduction by the Center’s Jeffrey Rosen, below:
Part 1: The Eve Of Gettysburg - Introduction and Background
Part 2: The Eve Of Gettysburg- The Popular Mood
Part 3: The Eve Of Gettysburg: A Constitutional Conversation