The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most pivotal moments in American history, a three-day clash of arms that would determine the fate of a nation. On July 1st, 1863, the Confederate Army, led by the legendary General Robert E. Lee, marched into the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, with the goal of invading the North and crushing the Union Army.
But standing in their way was the brave and determined Union Army, led by General George G. Meade, ready to defend their country and their freedom at any cost. What followed was a brutal and bloody battle, with countless casualties, and an outcome that would change the course of the Civil War and the United States forever.
Events before the Battle
In the run-up to the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate army was on a roll. In May 1863 they had scored a major victory over the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in Virginia. This battle had given Lee the confidence he needed to go on the offensive and attempt to invade the North for a second time.
He hoped doing so would lead to the Confederacy gaining recognition from Britain and France and strengthen the resolve of the northern “Copperheads” who were opposed to all the fighting and wanted peace.
On the other hand, the loss at Chancellorsville was a major blow for the Union. It led to Abraham Lincoln losing confidence in that battle’s commander, Joseph Hooker, and Lincoln replaced him with Major General George Gordon Meade.
Meade wasted no time in ordering the pursuit of the confederate army which by that point had crossed the Potomac River, marched through Maryland, and already made its way into southern Pennsylvania.
The stakes for both sides were high. For the Confederacy a major win at Gettysburg meant another morale boost. If they gained recognition from Britain and France it could also mean foreign aid. Strategically a victory at Gettysburg would have handed the Confederates a key strategic location that would allow them to continue their march north.
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For the Union, a victory at Gettysburg meant grinding the confederate invasion to a halt before it had even gotten properly started. The Union knew that forcing the Confederates to retreat now could win them the war in the long term. The Union also needed a morale boost. Lee was coming off a string of victories which meant the Union was coming off a string of defeats.
Day One: A Missed Opportunity?
The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1, 1683. Lee had heard that the Potomac army was on his tail and decided to assemble his army in Gettysburg. One of the Confederate divisions was sent to approach the town and search it for supplies. Instead of supplies, they found two Union cavalry brigades that had arrived the day before.
As both sides’ armies converged on Gettysburg Confederate forces drove the currently outnumbered Union defenders out of the town to Cemetery Hill which was located half a mile to the south. Knowing that they had the advantage, Lee then gave discretionary orders for some of his troops to attack Cemetery Hill. He hoped to finish the battle before it had even started.
Unfortunately for Lee, he gave this order to General S. Ewell, who had replaced Lee’s right-hand man, Thomas J. Jackson, who had been mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. Ewell was no Jackson and refused the order, stating the Union’s defensive position was too strong.
This reticence gave the Union the time they needed. Another corps, led by Winfield Scott, arrived that evening, reinforcing the Union’s position. That night three more corps arrived, strengthening the defenses even further.
Day Two: A Bloody Beginning
It is safe to say Lee probably awoke the next day in a bad mood. The day prior he had hoped to nip this battle in the bud and now he was facing a heavily defended enemy force. He decided his best chance was to attack the Federals where they were. His second in command, James Longstreet disagreed, but he was ignored.
Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union’s left side while Ewell’s men attacked the right. Lee was hoping to catch the union off-guard and attack them early in the day. This didn’t go to plan however as Longstreet’s men weren’t in position until 4 p.m. Shortly after 4 pm, the fighting began.
It was a bloodbath and both sides saw losses and gains. On the one hand, the Federals managed to hold Little Round Top but lost the orchard fields and Devil’s Den. On the other hand, the Confederate pincer attack was initially successful but by dusk had been stalled by the Union forces meaning little had been gained.
By nightfall, both armies had suffered massive losses. At least 9,000 soldiers died on each side with little else to show for their efforts. In the first two days of fighting alone, combined losses have been estimated at 35000, the largest two-day toll of the war.
Day Three: Pride Before a Fall
On the morning of July 3rd, the meat grinder started up again. Early in the morning Union forces pushed back the Confederates at Culp’s Hill and after 7 hours of fighting managed to retake their defensively strong position. Lee feared things were beginning to turn.
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Lee was confident that his men had nearly won the battle the day before. This overconfidence led him to believe that all that was needed was one more push. He sent three divisions against the Union center at Cemetery Ridge. 15,000 men under the command of George Pickett marched three-quarters of a mile across empty fields to attack a heavily dug-in Union position.
The attack went ahead at 3 pm. 150 Confederate artillery guns opened fire followed by the march itself. As the Confederate men marched towards them Union infantry opened fire on them from behind stone walls. At the same time regiments from Vermont, New York, and Ohio attacked the Confederate army’s flanks.
It was another bloodbath. Pinned in from all three sides only around half of the Confederates survived. Lee was forced to retreat with what was left of his men.
Lee waited throughout July 4th for a crushing counterattack but the Union forces never appeared. That night he withdrew what was left of his army and headed for Virginia. It was clear that he had lost and the Union had won.
The Union had lost 23,000 men but Lee had lost 28,000 men, more than a third of his army. For the Union, it was a major morale boost and marked a turning point in the war. Their defeat at Gettysburg had brought the Confederate plan to invade the north to a screeching halt. Lee simply didn’t have the men left. Lee’s hopes of being recognized by the Brits and French were also dashed.
The Battle also brought an end to Lee’s string of successful battles. He offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis but it was refused. Lee went on to have other victories but the tide of the war had turned in the Union’s favor.
A Turning Point
Today most historians agree that Gettysburg was the turning point of the American civil war. It reinforced the idea that the Union army could win the war. The resulting morale boost led to Lincoln’s famous Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. This address made it clear the war was not only about preserving the union but was a struggle for liberty and equality.
Following their victory at Gettysburg and Lincoln’s Gettysburg address the Union was on a high. The tables had turned and from this point onward the war was firmly in their favor.
Yet this does not mean the war came to a quick end. The fighting dragged on for two more bloody years, not ending until April 9, 1865. In total it is estimated that up to 1 million people lost their lives with many more wounded.
Top Image: The Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most famous, and pivotal, moments in the American Civil War. Source: Library of Congress / Public Domain.