The Battle of Gettysburg

In the summer of 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee launched his second invasion of the Northern states. Lee sought to capitalize on recent Confederate victories and defeat the Union army on Northern soil, which he hoped would force the Lincoln administration to negotiate for peace.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a significant Union victory considered by many to be the turning point of the Civil War.

Lee also sought to take the war out of the ravaged Virginia farmland and gather supplies for his Army of Northern Virginia. Using the Shenandoah Valley as cover as he moved north on June 3, Lee was pursued first by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, and then by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who replaced Hooker. Lee’s army crossed into Pennsylvania mid-June, and by June 28 had reached the Susquehanna River.

The opposing forces collided at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1. In severe fighting, the Confederates swept the Federals from the fields west and north of town but were unable to secure Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the south. The following day, as reinforcements arrived on both sides, Lee attacked the Federals all along their line but failed to dislodge the defenders.

On July 3, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge and was repulsed with heavy losses in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s second invasion of the North had failed and had resulted in an estimated 51,000 casualties on both sides, the bloodiest single battle of the entire war.

The Battle of Gettysburg (locally /ˈɡɛtɪsbɜːrɡ/) was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, by Union and Confederate forces during the American Civil War. 

Date

July 1–3, 1863

Location

Gettysburg, Adams County, Pennsylvania

Text

Result

Unioin Victory

Belligerents

US Flag

 United States

CSA Flag

CSA (Confederacy)

Commanders and leaders

George G. Meade
John F. Reynolds†

Robert E. Lee

Strength

93,921

71,699

Casualties and losses

23,055
(3,155 killed
14,531 wounded
5,369 captured/missing)

23,231
(4,708 killed
12,693 wounded
5,830 captured/missing)

The Battle of Gettysburg was a significant Union victory considered by many to be the turning point of the Civil War.

In the summer of 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee launched his second invasion of the Northern states. Lee sought to capitalize on recent Confederate victories and defeat the Union army on Northern soil, which he hoped would force the Lincoln administration to negotiate for peace. Lee also sought to take the war out of the ravaged Virginia farmland and gather supplies for his Army of Northern Virginia. Using the Shenandoah Valley as cover as he moved north on June 3, Lee was pursued first by Union Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, and then by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, who replaced Hooker. Lee’s army crossed into Pennsylvania mid-June, and by June 28 had reached the Susquehanna River. The opposing forces collided at the crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the morning of July 1. In severe fighting, the Confederates swept the Federals from the fields west and north of town but were unable to secure Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the south. The following day, as reinforcements arrived on both sides, Lee attacked the Federals all along their line but failed to dislodge the defenders. On July 3, Lee attacked the Union center on Cemetery Ridge and was repulsed with heavy losses in what is now known as Pickett’s Charge. Lee’s second invasion of the North had failed and had resulted in an estimated 51,000 casualties on both sides, the bloodiest single battle of the entire war.

Battle of Gettysburg: Lee’s Invasion of the North

In May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had scored a smashing victory over the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. Brimming with confidence, Lee decided to go on the offensive and invade the North for a second time (the first invasion had ended at Antietam the previous fall). In addition to bringing the conflict out of Virginia and diverting northern troops from Vicksburg, where the Confederates were under siege, Lee hoped to gain recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France and strengthen the cause of northern “Copperheads” who favored peace.

On the Union side, President Abraham Lincoln had lost confidence in the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Joseph Hooker, who seemed reluctant to confront Lee’s army after the defeat at Chancellorsville. On June 28, Lincoln named Major General George Gordon Meade to succeed Hooker. Meade immediately ordered the pursuit of Lee’s army of 75,000, which by then had crossed the Potomac River into Maryland and marched on into southern Pennsylvania.

Battle of Gettysburg Begins: July 1

Upon learning that the Army of the Potomac was on its way, Lee planned to assemble his army in the prosperous crossroads town of Gettysburg, 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. One of the Confederate divisions in A.P. Hill’s command approached the town in search of supplies early on July 1, only to find that two Union cavalry brigades had arrived the previous day. As the bulk of both armies headed toward Gettysburg, Confederate forces (led by Hill and Richard Ewell) were able to drive the outnumbered Federal defenders back through town to Cemetery Hill, located a half mile to the south.

Seeking to press his advantage before more Union troops could arrive, Lee gave discretionary orders to attack Cemetery Hill to Ewell, who had taken command of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps after Lee’s most trusted general, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. Ewell declined to order the attack, considering the Federal position too strong; his reticence would earn him many unfavorable comparisons to the great Stonewall. By dusk, a Union corps under Winfield Scott Hancock had arrived and extended the defensive line along Cemetery Ridge to the hill known as Little Round Top. Three more Union corps arrived overnight to strengthen its defenses.

Battle of Gettysburg, Day 2: July 2

As the next day dawned, the Union Army had established strong positions from Culp’s Hill to Cemetery Ridge. Lee assessed his enemy’s positions and determined—against the advice of his defensively minded second-in-command, James Longstreet—to attack the Federals where they stood. He ordered Longstreet to lead an attack on the Union left, while Ewell’s corps would strike the right, near Culp’s Hill. Though his orders were to attack as early in the day as possible, Longstreet didn’t get his men into position until 4 p.m., when they opened fire on the Union corps commanded by Daniel Sickles.

Over the next several hours, bloody fighting raged along Sickles’ line, which stretched from the nest of boulders known as Devil’s Den into a peach orchard, as well as in a nearby wheat field and on the slopes of Little Round Top. Thanks to fierce fighting by one Maine regiment, the Federals were able to hold Little Round Top, but lost the orchard, field and Devil’s Den; Sickles himself was seriously wounded. Ewell’s men had advanced on the Union forces at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill in coordination with Longstreet’s 4 pm attack, but Union forces had stalled their attack by dusk. Both armies suffered extremely heavy losses on July 2, with 9,000 or more casualties on each side. The combined casualty total from two days of fighting came to nearly 35,000, the largest two-day toll of the war.

Battle of Gettysburg, Day 3: July 3

Early on the morning of July 3, Union forces of the Twelfth Army Corps pushed back a Confederate threat against Culp’s Hill after a seven-hour firefight and regained their strong position. Believing his men had been on the brink of victory the day before, Lee decided to send three divisions (preceded by an artillery barrage) against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Fewer than 15,000 troops, led by a division under George Pickett, would be tasked with marching some three-quarters of a mile across open fields to attack dug-in Union infantry positions.

Despite Longstreet’s protests, Lee was determined, and the attack—later known as “Pickett’s Charge”—went forward around 3 p.m., after an artillery bombardment by some 150 Confederate guns. Union infantry opened fire on the advancing rebels from behind stone walls while regiments from Vermont, New York and Ohio hit both of the enemy’s flanks. Caught from all sides, barely half of the Confederates survived, and Pickett’s division lost two-thirds of its men. As the survivors stumbled back to their opening position, Lee and Longstreet scrambled to shore up their defensive line after the failed assault.

Battle of Gettysburg: Aftermath and Impact

His hopes of a victorious invasion of the North dashed, Lee waited for a Union counterattack on July 4, but it never came. That night, in heavy rain, the Confederate general withdrew his decimated army toward Virginia. The Union had won the Battle of Gettysburg.

Though the cautious Meade would be criticized for not pursuing the enemy after Gettysburg, the battle was a crushing defeat for the Confederacy. Union casualties in the battle numbered 23,000, while the Confederates had lost some 28,000 men–more than a third of Lee’s army. The North rejoiced while the South mourned, its hopes for foreign recognition of the Confederacy erased.

Demoralized by the defeat at Gettysburg, Lee offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis, but was refused. Though the great Confederate general would go on to win other victories, the Battle of Gettysburg (combined with Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg, also on July 4) irrevocably turned the tide of the Civil War in the Union’s favor.

Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered his most famous speech at the dedication of the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. His now-iconic Gettysburg Address eloquently transformed the Union cause into a struggle for liberty and equality—in only 272 words. He ended with the following:

“From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”