"That moment doesn't need even a fourteen-year-old boy to think This time. Maybe this time with all this much to lose and all this much to gain: Pennsylvania, Maryland, the world, the golden dome of Washington itself."
But before what is remembered as Pickett's Charge - mostly a brisk 19-minute walk - headed toward Cemetery Ridge, choices made by Lee and some of his generals had put victory beyond the reach of valor.
They were, however, choices.
Books about battles, historian Allen C. Guelzo says tartly, have "acquired among my academic peers a reputation close to pornography," war being, in their eyes, chiefly a manifestation of American savagery.
But, he says dryly, one cannot discuss the 19th century without discussing the Civil War era, whose "singular event was a war."
And one conducted, not least at Gettysburg, with an "amateurism" - a "bewildered, small-town incompetence" - that magnified its bloodiness.
The theory that it was the first "modern" or "total" war is, Guelzo acutely says, refuted by "the silent witness of places like Gettysburg, where almost all of the buildings that sat in the path of the battle are still [there]" because the technology of war was too limited to destroy them.
A stray bullet killed one civilian - Mary Virginia Wade, who picked a bad time to bake bread.
For those who Guelzo calls the war's "cultured despisers," the Union cause was mere dull democracy, whereas "emancipation makes a better story for our times."
But as Lincoln said at Gettysburg, the war's ultimate purpose was to preserve the Union in order to prove democracy's viability.
"Unless the Union was restored," Guelzo says, "there would be no practical possibility of emancipation, since the overwhelming majority of American slaves would, in that case, end up living in a foreign country, and beyond the possible grasp of Lincoln's best anti-slavery intentions."
Lee was, a colleague said, "audacity personified."
His temperament and intellect were mutually reinforcing, his aggressiveness serving his strategic understanding: The South would lose a protracted defensive war.
After Antietam, Lee said: "If I could do so, I would again cross the Potomac and invade Pennsylvania."
Hence a small crossroads town became the hinge of American, and hence world, history.
Will may be reached by email at georgew...@washpost.com.