It started with a search for shoes.

That’s how former Plain Dealer and Cleveland Press columnist Don Robertson sized up the Battle of Gettysburg in his 1959 novel, The Three Days. Good luck finding a copy.

While far more people know of Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner The Killer Angels when it comes to novels about Gettysburg, it was Robertson’s work that I read in the early 1970s that brought the Civil War alive to me.

You probably heard of the battle of Gettysburg. You may know it lasted from July 1-3, 1863 – although General Robert E. Lee didn’t fully withdraw his Confederate troops until July 4. In the three days, “as many as 51,000 soldiers from both armies were killed, wounded, captured or missing,” according to the American Battlefield Trust.

It’s a battle where more than 165,000 soldiers from the North and South poured into little Gettysburg, Pa., a town of 2,400. It’s where the townspeople hid in their barns and basements. It’s where free African-Americans went into the woods – terrified they’d be captured by the Confederates and taken to the South as slaves.

It’s when Abraham Lincoln sat in the White House, awaiting telegrams and other information from the battle – knowing the Republic could be lost if the Union failed to stop Lee as the Fourth of July loomed.

SHOES OR NO SHOES, MISSES THE POINT

Civil War scholars love to debate the “search for shoes” theme as the reason for the battle because Gettysburg had no shoe factory. Ten significant roads went through or close to the town, and that’s the reason for the battle, some claim.

But Confederate General Henry Heth was searching for shoes for his troops, and wrote as much after the war. Let’s have some compassion for the confused Heth. He graduated last in his 1847 class at West Point.

“He fought in the Battle of Chancellorsville, though without major distinction,” according to the American Battlefield Trust. He also wasn’t supposed to engage with the Union Army if he ran into them during his scouting mission near Gettysburg, but he did so anyway.

Lee thought the battle would happen near the much larger town of Harrisburg. Union General George Meade believed the battle would happen elsewhere, not Gettysburg.

SO MANY WHAT IFs

Had the Union not promoted Meade, they probably would have lost this battle with their inept previous generals. Had Lee listened to fellow General James Longstreet and not ordered Pickett’s Charge, where 6,000 his troops were killed or wounded in less than an hour...

Had a Bowdoin College professor turned Union officer named Joshua Chamberlain not seized the high ground at Little Round Top to stop the the Confederates on July 2...

We could be looking at a much different country today.

REMEMBERING OUR HISTORY

Now, we watch fireworks. We have cookouts. We visit friends, perhaps watch ballgames. The Fourth of July is a holiday that has little meaning for too many of us.

But this accidental battle helped save the union. In fact, the Civil War should have soon come to an end not long after July 4, 1863. Because as Lee was taking what was left of his ravaged army back to Virginia, the Union had found its general. His name was U.S. Grant.

On that same July 4, 1863, Grant captured Vicksburg, Mississippi. That gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and convinced Lincoln to put Grant in charge of the entire Union Army.

Now too many people judge these men from the 1860s by the standards of the 2000s. There is no historical context, little realization of the price paid to end slavery and save the Union – 620,000 died, which would be like 6 million today if you consider the percentage of the country’s population.

Yes, Jim Crow and other discriminatory laws came later. Lincoln would not live long enough to celebrate July 4, 1865. He was assassinated and died on April 15, 1865. The country could have collapsed then.

But it didn’t, something to remember.

Ours remains an imperfect Union. But’s it’s still a Union, and there’s much to be said for that.

Terry Pluto is an American sportswriter, newspaper columnist, and author who primarily writes columns for The (Cleveland) Plain Dealer.

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