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The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought in North America. During the first three days of July 1863, the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia turned a small town in Southern Pennsylvania into the site of a struggle for the future of the United States. More than 50,000 men fell as casualties (men listed as killed, wounded, or missing/captured), a scale of suffering never seen before or since on American soil. According to many historians, Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War. It was the Confederacy's best chance to achieve victory, and it breathed new life into the Union war effort.
In the spring of 1863, Confederate forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee achieved a tremendous victory over Major General Joseph Hooker and the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia. The victory was so tremendous that Lee believed it could propel his army to undertake a bold strategic move.
Hundreds of miles away, Union soldiers under the command of Ulysses S. Grant were closing in on Vicksburg, Mississippi, a crucial point on the Mississippi River. If Vicksburg should fall, Union forces would have complete control of the Mississippi, effectively cutting the Confederacy in two. Lee knew that no matter what he did in the East, he likely could not help Vicksburg directly. Thus, he had to act quickly to offset Vicksburg's possible surrender. The Confederate general decided to repeat his strategy from the previous September, when he had invaded Maryland in an attempt to strike a war-winning blow. Lee decided it was time for his second excursion north of the Potomac River.
Lee began moving his army north in early June 1863. On June 9, while near Culpepper, Virginia, Confederate cavalry forces under Major General Jeb Stuart became engaged with Federal cavalry in the Battle of Brandy Station, the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War. By mid-June, Lee's army was north of the Potomac and headed toward Pennsylvania.
While Lee's army moved northward, the Army of the Potomac was struggling with the aftermath of defeat. Joseph Hooker was still in charge of the army, but the Lincoln Administration in Washington had little confidence in him. While Hooker moved north, he and General-in-Chief Henry Halleck argued over the status of Union troops stationed at Harpers Ferry. The dispute ultimately led Hooker to submit his resignation, which Halleck and Lincoln accepted.
On June 28, Major General George Gordon Meade took command of the Army of the Potomac. At this point, Lee's army was already in Pennsylvania, and Union forces were in Maryland moving north as quickly as possible.
When Lee learned of the quick Union advance, he began to consolidate his disparate columns together. Since Confederate cavalry Commander Jeb Stuart was not present with the army and was instead riding through the Northern countryside on reconnaissance and foraging missions, Lee did not have an accurate understanding of Union positions or strength. This ultimately led to the initial fight at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
While Confederate forces had already been in Gettysburg, it was on the morning of July 1 that the battle began in earnest. That morning, Union dismounted cavalry under the command of Brigadier General John Buford took position west of the town. Buford intended to hold any advancing Confederates long enough for Union infantry to arrive and take position at Gettysburg. That morning, a division of Confederate infantry advanced toward Buford, attempting to discern what sort of Union presence was in the town. Without Lee's full knowledge and approval, the Battle of Gettysburg was about to begin.
By mid-morning, while Buford's cavalry fought the Confederate infantry, the First Corps, Army of the Potomac, had arrived on the field, providing reinforcements for Buford's tired dismounted cavalry. Soon, the Federal Eleventh Corps had arrived on the field as well, taking position north of the town. With the battle quickly intensifying, Lee decided to fully commit his army to the action at Gettysburg.
By early afternoon, the rest of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill's Third Corps, along with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Second Corps, began attacking the Federal positions. This overwhelming force caused the Union positions north of town to begin to crumble. By nightfall, Federal forces had fallen back through the town of Gettysburg and taken position on Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, just south of Gettysburg. While July 1 had been a Confederate tactical victory, it ultimately forced Federal troops to strong defensive ground.
Having achieved great success the day before, Lee decided to continue his attack on July 2, 1863; however, that morning, as more and more Federal forces arrived, the Union position had assumed the shape of a fishhook, occupying high ground south of Gettysburg. This formidable defensive ground caused Lee to consider attacking the Federal flanks. Lee decided to use Lieutenant General James Longstreet and the majority of his First Corps to move south and then attack north directly into what he believed to be the unprotected Union left flank.
On the opposite end of the Union line, Richard Ewell was to send attackers against Union positions on Culp's Hill. Lee's hope was that, with these two attacks, Longstreet would be able to roll up the Union flank, pushing Federal forces toward the bend in the line, pinching the Federal army between the two Confederate attacks; however, the day did not play out as Lee had planned.
The Confederate attack on July 2 did not begin until nearly four in the afternoon. By that time, something very important had occurred on the battlefield. Major General Dan Sickles, the commander of the Third Corps, Army of the Potomac, had advanced his men forward from their original position, occupying ground near the Emmitsburg Pike. Sickles made this move without orders from George Meade. Yet, before Meade could correct Sickles, the Confederate attack occurred, slamming directly into the altered Federal lines. Since the Confederate attack overlapped the Union flank, elements of Longstreet's corps soon found their way moving toward Big Round Top and Little Round Top, two hills that held the key to the southern edge of the battlefield.
Thanks to quick thinking by Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, Union troops were rushed to the top of Little Round Top just in time to repel the Confederate advance. Other Union forces were thrust into the middle of the Confederate attack, fighting in places made famous by the level of killing that occurred there, such as the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil's Den.
While the fighting raged on the Federal left flank, Confederate forces under Richard Ewell tested the Union right on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. After several determined attacks, the onset of darkness brought the fighting to a close. Across the battlefield that day, Confederates had come very close to victory, almost breaking the Union lines in several places. In the roughly seven hours of fighting that took place that afternoon, there were as many as 19,000 casualties, a staggering toll; however, George Meade's Army of the Potomac had held on.
The final day of the Battle of Gettysburg was destined to endure in history. It was the day of the most famous assault of the entire American Civil War. Robert E. Lee began that fateful Friday, July 3, 1863, knowing that his men had come close to breaking the Union lines the day before. Lee's original plan that morning was to continue with the attacks on the Federal flanks; however, because of mixed communications, Confederate commanders did not proceed as Lee initially hoped. Thus, the Confederate General formulated a new plan.
Having tested both Union flanks, Lee would now send a major assault directly against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. This assault would be preceded by a massive artillery barrage that would consist of almost 13,000 Confederates. It is popularly known today as Pickett's Charge, named after Confederate Major General George Pickett, whose division comprised a large portion of the attackers. Two other Confederate divisions were included as well, and overall command of the assault was given to Longstreet. Lee also planned for Confederate cavalry under Jeb Stuart to move behind the Union army and attack into the rear of the Federal position, causing damage to Union supply wagons, hospitals, and even the Union lines.
At around 1 p.m., the Confederate artillery barrage of 150 guns began. After approximately one hour of artillery fire, the assault began. As the Confederate soldiers came closer to the Union lines, marching across the vast distance of open ground between the two armies, they experienced increasingly greater firepower pouring into their ranks. Federal artillery and musket fire began ripping apart Confederate formations. While portions of the Confederate assault did reach Federal lines, the number of soldiers who actually made it into those lines was quite small. Simply put, by the time the Confederates had reached the Federal position, they had suffered too many casualties to do any severe damage.
As the Confederates fell back, they did so in defeat. Had Pickett's Charge succeeded, many historians believe that the Confederacy could have won the Civil War. Thus, many refer to the assault as the 'High Water Mark' of the Confederacy, the moment at which the South was closest to gaining its independence. And yet, instead of winning victory for their cause, the Confederates in Pickett's Charge had suffered over 50% losses. The Confederate cavalry assault on July 3 had fared little better, since Union cavalry had stopped Stuart before he could complete his mission. As the news came back to him, Lee knew that he had been defeated. On July 4, 1863, he began his retreat from Gettysburg.
Lee was barely able to escape back into Virginia with his battered army. George Meade mounted a pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia and had the force cornered in Maryland near the Potomac River, which was swollen due to recent heavy rains. Lee was ultimately able to get his army across before Meade finished him off. For this, many historians have criticized George Meade. Yet, Meade did a remarkable job at Gettysburg. He took command of the Army of the Potomac five days before the battle and overcame significant obstacles to achieve what is considered by many to be the greatest Union victory of the American Civil War and one of the greatest victories in the history of the U.S. Army.
As great as Gettysburg was for Federal forces, its effect was multiplied by news from the West. The following day, July 4, 1863, Confederate soldiers at Vicksburg surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant. On back-to-back days, Federal forces had won the two greatest victories of the war.
In the wake of Gettysburg, each army struggled to overcome the severe losses. Out of the more than 150,000 soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, about 53,000 had fallen as casualties. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had lost roughly 28,000 men as casualties; the Union Army of the Potomac had lost more than 23,000.
Gettysburg's effect on the Civil War was widespread. Confederate forces had suffered incredible casualties that they could not easily replace, and the defeat of Lee's invasion was a severe strategic setback. The Union victory boosted Northern morale, saved the Northern cities from the Confederate invasion, and turned the momentum of the war.
It was Abraham Lincoln who best described Gettysburg when he traveled there to deliver a speech at the dedication of the National Cemetery on November 19, 1863. The speech has become known as the Gettysburg Address. In just 272 words, Lincoln succinctly described the meaning and purpose of the war. In the wake of his Emancipation Proclamation earlier that year, which made the abolition of slavery an explicit war goal of the Union government, Lincoln noted that 'the Union success at Gettysburg was not just a tactical or strategic win, but a victory that signaled 'a new birth of freedom' in the United States.'
The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest and bloodiest battle ever fought in North America. More than 50,000 men fell as casualties (men listed as killed, wounded, or missing/captured). Gettysburg was the turning point of the American Civil War.
In an attempt to prevent the Union from capturing Vicksburg and gaining control of the Mississippi, General Lee ended up in the initial fighting at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. There was some miscommunication on the Confederate side that ultimately led to the Union being victorious in this 3-day battle.
Out of the more than 150,000 soldiers who fought at Gettysburg, about 53,000 had fallen as casualties. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had lost roughly 28,000 men as casualties; the Union Army of the Potomac had lost more than 23,000. The Confederate defeat was a severe strategic setback. While for the North, it boosted Northern morale, saved Northern cities from the Confederate invasion, and turned the momentum of the war.
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Back To CourseAP US History: Help and Review
30 chapters | 478 lessons | 1 flashcard set