In the summer of 1863, 165,000 soldiers convened on the Gettysburg Battlefield, defending their beliefs and principles, fighting for their freedoms and morals. In a matter of just three days, 51,000 of those soldiers perished in a conflict that was of substantial proportion.
While the Union commanded ultimate victory over Gettysburg, it helped turn the tide of the Civil War, leading to the overall Federal success. Months after Gettysburg, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address, which helped motivate a nation to heal and unite.
The Battle of Gettysburg
On June 3, 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, fresh from his triumph at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, prepped his Army of Northern Virginia for future battles in the north.(3) Seeing as how nothing could be gained towards another battle in the Fredericksburg region, bearing in mind their deep losses despite their victory, Lee made the decision to lay the fighting north of the Potomac River. The goal of this, Lee believed, would be to eradicate the Federals from the Shenandoah Valley and allow the Confederacy to gain another strategic victory.(2) He also wanted to turn attention towards Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington.(3) With his 72,000-strong army, Lee had the upper hand.
To prepare for the jaunt north, Lee reorganized his infantry. Lobbed into three corps of three divisions each, they were positioned under the command of Lieutenant Generals Richard S. Ewell, A. Powell Hill and James Longstreet.(2) Lee’s cavalry remained under the command of Major General James E. B. Stuart.
Meanwhile, General Joseph Hooker’s Union Army of the Potomac returned to Federicksburg after the defeat at Chancellorsville, and prepared for an advance towards Richmond.(2) Consisting of seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps and an Artillery Reserve, Hooker had 94,000 men under his command. He was replaced, however, by Major General George Gordon Meade by President Lincoln due to his defeat at Chancellorsville.
Lee began marching his troops west and north towards Culpeper and the Blue Ridge Mountains. On June 9, 9,500 Confederate cavalry were surprised by Major General Alfred Pleaonton’s combined arms force of 11,000. While the battle ended with no victory, it was noted as the first major action of Lee’s campaign.
Lee’s army then turned north, eying Maryland and Pennsylvania.(1) By June 15, Ewell’s Second Corps crossed the Potomac after defeating Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, with Hill’s and Longstreet’s corps following on June 24 and 25. Hooker learned of their movements across the Potomac on June 25, and ordered the Army of the Potomac north towards Maryland.(2)
On June 29, when Lee learned that the Union had crossed the Potomac, ordered his forces around Cashtown, located approximately eight miles west of Gettysburg. During the following day, one of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps, under Brigadier General J. Johnson Pettigrew, ventured towards Gettysburg for supplies. Upon approach, they noticed the Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford arriving from the south, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engagement.
Despite Lee’s order to avoid an engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a push the next morning to determine the size and strength of the Union in the locale.
In the early morning hours of July 1, the Confederates attacked the Union troops on McPherson Ridge west of the community.(1) Though they were outnumbered, they held their position until that afternoon, and even managed to drive some of the Confederate army back after John Reynold’s Infantry division was added.(3) They prevailed until that afternoon, when they were overpowered and driven southward towards Gettysburg and Cemetery Hill.(1)(3) During the night, Union Major General George G. Meade brought up a large reinforcement and took position.
On the following morning, the Confederates formed an arc around the Federal forces, by positioning themselves along Seminary Ridge.(1) The Union remained along Cemetery Ridge and fashioned a “fish hook,” facing Confederate forces to the west.(3) Lee prepared attacks against both Union flanks. From the southwest, Confederate Lieutenant General James Longstreet successfully attacked D.E. Sickles’ lines at Peach Orchard, leaving Plum Run and the Wheatfield speckled with hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers. He turn pressed onto the Devil’s Den at the base of Little Round Top and left it in disaster. Union General G.K. Warren was able to defend Little Round Top, when he noted that the strategic hill, offering broad views to the west and north, was unmanned.(3)
That evening, Confederate Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell attacked the Union at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill from the north.(1)(3) His challenge was futile, although they were able to take tenure of the southern slope of Culp’s Hill during a brief moment.
On July 3, Lee decided to stage an attack on the Union center’s position on Cemetery Ridge.(3) Just past noon, Lee bombarded the Federals with artillery for nearly two hours.(1) Both sides engaged in a thundering duel but the bombardment did little to advance the Confederate position.
In an attempt to push the Union troops further east and south on the heels of some of the successes from the day prior, Confederate General George E. Pickett charged in a mass of 15,000 troops in an open field towards Cemetery Ridge.(3) While they reached the Union position, they failed to break it and “Pickett’s Charge,” as it came to be known, was viewed widely as a disaster. Within one hour, 5,000 Confederates had perished.(1)
The Battle of Gettysburg was over. The Union lost 23,055 during the battle, with 14,531 wounded and 5,369 captured or missing. The Confederate casualties were estimated at 23,200, with 12,700 wounded and 5,800 captured or missing. Nearly a third of Lee’s general officers were killed, wounded or captured.
- Gettysburg. N.p.: National Park Service, 2008. N. pag. Print.
- Pfanz, Harry W. The Battle of Gettysburg. Illus. George Skoch. Ed. Scott Hartwig. 1994. N.p.: Eastern National, 2006. Print.
- “Gettysburg National Military Park Visitor Centers.” National Park Service. U.S. Department of the Interior, 29 Oct. 2009. Web. 5 Jan. 2010. Article.