In late June 1863, more than two years into the American Civil War, Union and Confederate military forces converged on the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. After a series of military successes, Confederate Commander Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia into Union territory in his second invasion of the North. He hoped that a Confederate victory in Pennsylvania would convince Northern politicians to abandon the war. The Union Army of the Potomac, led initially by General Joseph Hooker and then General George Meade, crossed the Potomac River to pursue Lee’s forces.
On July 1, Confederate forces attacked the Union lines at Gettysburg from the northwest and north, initially pushing the Union army back. By July 2, both Confederate and Union armies had fully assembled, with seventy thousand and ninety-four thousand men, respectively. Confederates launched assaults on the Union left at sites like Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, Confederates charged Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Across these sites and despite significant losses, the Union held its lines. On July 3, fighting resumed, most notably on Cemetery Ridge, where 12,500 Confederates charged the center of the Union line during Pickett's Charge. Union rifle and artillery fire repulsed the charge at great loss to the Confederate army. On July 4, Lee led his army on a difficult retreat back to Virginia.
Some fifty thousand soldiers from both armies died in the three-day battle at Gettysburg, making it the most deadly military battle in US history. The town of Gettysburg had to deal with the aftermath of this brutal conflict: Bodies covered fields, wounded soldiers flooded hospitals, and property was destroyed. The Battle at Gettysburg is considered a turning point in the Civil War because it ended Lee’s long run of victories and marked the Confederate Army’s last attempt to invade the North. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.
Additional resources for research
- Gettysburg, Civil War Trust.
- Gettysburg National Military Park, National Park Service.
- “A Cutting-Edge Second Look at the Battle of Gettysburg,” Smithsonian Magazine, June 27, 2013.
- “The Battle of Gettysburg: 150 Years Ago,” The Atlantic, July 3, 2013.