Battle of Gettysburg

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The Battle of Gettysburg, which took place July 1-3, 1863, on the outskirts of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the turning point in the American Civil War, and, combined with the simultaneous loss of the Mississippi River in the west, foreshadowed Confederate exhaustion and ultimate defeat. Confederate General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia on a raid into Pennsylvania designed to capture supplies and destroy the political will of the Union to continue the war. He unexpectedly encountered the main Union army under General George Meade. In an intensely fought three-day battle, Lee had advantages during the first two days but lost badly on the third. He was, at that point, trapped, but Meade's dilatory pursuit allowed Lee to escape. The battle became a metaphor for the entire war, and a central icon of courage on both sides. It was used by President Abraham Lincoln in his Gettysburg Address to mark the birth of a new nation dedicated to equality and democracy.

The battle was the culmination of what historians now call the Gettysburg Campaign. There have been many explanations of the outcome, which James MacPherson describes as principally emphasizing the "internal" explanation of the Confederacy lost, as opposed to why the Union won: Lee's mismanagement, J.E.B. Stuart losing contact, Richard Ewell and Jubal Early failing to take positions on the 1st and 2nd, and James Longstreet's lack of vigor on the 2nd and 3rd.

George Pickett, however, gave an external explanation: "I've always thought the Yankees had something to do with it."[1]

Day One

The rebels, who had entered Gettysburg looking for a warehouse of shoes, unexpectedly encountered Yankee cavalry. John Reynolds, a brilliant commander who had refused Lincoln's offer of command of the Army of the Potoma, directed infantry brigades forward to replace the lightly armed dismounted cavalry (acting as infantry) holding Seminary Ridge just west of the town. Suddenly he fell from his saddle, dead by a sharpshooters bullet. The Yankees fell back to Cemetery Hill south of town and dug in overnight; they been whipped the first day because they were badly outnumbered, 25,000 to 19,000. With 5,000 Federals captured, and 4,500 more killed or wounded, Gettysburg Day One seemed to be a reprise of Lee's triumphs at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.

Day Two

The battle, however, had just begun. This time Meade did not withdraw, blaming his subordinates; now he poured in reinforcements and took a strong defensive position. (see Map 3)

His fishhook-shaped defensive line stretched two miles from Little Round Top in the south to Culp's Hill in the north, then jutted eastward another mile. (See map 2) Lee's advisors warned against a frontal assault, but he knew the Confederacy was desperate. It had to win a decisive battle in the North, or else be rejected abroad and systematically ground to death. The Federals had the more compact position with better communication and better opportunity to move forces from one danger spot to another. Meade's forces were atop small ridges with gentle slopes that angled just enough to provide an advantage to the defenders shooting downward. The Yankees had more soldiers and more artillery--and more spirit, for now it was they who were defending their homes, and the rebels who were invaders. "Our men are three times as enthusiastic as they have been in Virginia.... The idea that Pennsylvania is invaded and that we are fighting on our own soil proper, influences them strongly." Despite the enemy's advantages, Lee had to attack and win, or risk losing his entire army and the Confederacy itself.

So large and complex was Gettysburg that Lee and Meade could not control all the action; their corps and division commanders were in charge. Often colonels had to make vital decisions on the spot, without consulting their superiors. With vicious hand-to-hand fighting late in the second afternoon, the Confederates captured the "Devil's Den" a rock-strewn jumble of large boulders. In the mêlée, "Every fellow was his own general," a Texan recalled. "Private soldiers gave commands as loud as the officers; nobody paying attention to either."[2] Carelessly the Federals had left nearby Little Round Top undefended; five rebel regiments rushed to seize this ideal location for their cannon. Colonel Strong Vincent, at 26 the youngest brigade commander, took the initiative without permission and rushed the 20th Maine and three other regiments (1,350 men total) to Little Round Top. They arrived fifteen minutes before the Confederates, and, with four more regiments soon joining them, they beat back five attacks. Vincent had saved the day--"Don't yield an inch!" he shouted seconds before a bullet ripped through his heart.

On a day for heroes the 20th Maine withstood charge after charge until it ran out of ammunition. Undaunted, its intrepid commander, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain (a Bowdoin College professor on sabbatical) ordered a bayonet charge and captured the bewildered attackers. Little Round Top was secure. Lee was uncharacteristically slow issuing orders, and his key corps commander, James Longstreet even slower carrying them out. Against battle-hardened Union veterans, commanded by highly experienced generals and colonels, the small delays and little mistakes began to accumulate. Some of Lee's biographers argue that if his orders for an early attack on Day Two had been carried out that they would have been successful. There is no reason to suppose this. When Longstreet finally attacked (at 5:30 pm) the intense fighting in the "Peach Orchard" and "The Wheatfield" proved inconclusive. Lee sent Ewall's corps on a diversionary attack against Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge in the north. It almost succeeded, but was finally repulsed by hot canister fire.

Lee lacked the reserves, artillery and ammunition needed to transform his momentary advantages into victory. Seven afternoon and evening hours of poorly coordinated attacks by 22,000 rebels had been repulsed by 40,000 Federals. Seven thousand Confederate casualties had purchased a few acres of bloody turf.

Stuart's tired-out cavalry, armed with revolvers and sabers, finally arrived on Day Three a few miles from the main battlefield. But they were checked by Union cavalry (especially a brigade under General George Armstrong Custer, age 23) which used new fast- firing breech-loaders, the single-shot Sharps carbine.

Day Three

With fresh reinforcements to replace his losses, and with good artillery positions, Lee decided to attack once more on Day Three. Again he rejected conservative advice, and seemed unaware that artillery ammunition was running low. He assumed the enemy was badly hurt and dispirited, and that he could, as so many times before, outwit their generals. Union morale was strong; in the 150th Pennsylvania Regiment, "Each man felt that upon his own arm hung the fate of the nation." Lee aimed a frontal attack, this time at Meade's center. That was exactly what Meade expected, and he set a trap.[3]


The main battle on Day Three opened with one of the greatest artillery duels of the nineteenth century. At the beginning of the war, artillery was considered a minor adjunct to infantry or a device for coastal defense. Both armies used batteries of 4-6 guns (and 90 men) assigned to the several divisions. By 1863 Confederate experience had proven that artillery would have a more decisive impact when massed in separate brigades attached to the corps. The Army of the Potomac finally adopted the corps artillery system, and went one step further with an army-level reserve. Centralization made supply more efficient and allowed the heavy firepower to be concentrated at the main point of action. The Confederates had a brilliant artillerist in Edward Porter Alexander (age 28), Longstreet's chief of artillery, but Lee's chief of artillery William Pendleton was mediocre at best, and the other officers were undistinguished. Lee had 65 batteries, comprising 4,700 artillerymen and 282 guns. Meade brought 70 batteries comprising 8,000 men and 366 guns, controlled by the Army's top expert, Henry Jackson Hunt. He relied on three types of guns: most useful were his 146 12 pound "Napoleon" smooth-bores, of 4.62 inch caliber They could fire two rounds a minute of solid shot (weighing 12 pounds). They were relatively inaccurate, and were best used against large formations of infantry. Solid shot, explosive shells and, especially, canister, fired without aiming at a rate of 4 rounds a minute proved devastating against infantry advancing closer than 300 yards. Canister was a tin can filled with 27 iron balls about the size of golf balls; they came out like shotgun pellets at 1000 feet-per-second velocity, and sprayed down everything in their path. When the attackers closed in, they would be hit with double charges of canister.[4]

Hunt's 146 3" rifled guns and 64 10-pounder rifled "Parrotts" represented a superior technology; they were much more accurate than Napoleons and had longer range. The problem with rifled guns was their conical shells plowed into the ground and did not bounce like the round shot from a smooth-bore. Therefore they were less deadly against infantry formations, and were used primarily to knock out enemy artillery batteries at long range. On the other side, Pendleton had to make do with captured and smuggled guns, producing a frustrating variety of sizes and types of ammunition. He had 111 Napoleons, 44 rifled 10-pounders and 84 rifled 3" guns, 10 very large rifled "Parrott" 20 pounders, and 30 miscellaneous other guns. The Yankee ammunition supply was ample, with 270 rounds per gun (he shot off one third of it, 33,000 rounds in all.)

The Confederates however, had only 150 rounds per gun; with powder run through the blockade costing $3 a pound, shortages were the norm. (A Napoleon needed 2 1/2 pounds of powder per round.) Furthermore, Confederate fuzes were often defective and malfunctions common. Lee fired off 22,000 rounds, or half his supply; Alexander had to cut short the preparatory barrage on July 3, and warned that there was not enough for a fourth day of heavy action. Even if Lee had done well on Day Three, he would have had to retreat to his supply base in Virginia.

Pickett's Charge

Lee assigned Longstreet the critical mission of a frontal attack to seize Cemetery Ridge, the heavily defended Union center. First Longstreet needed to knock out the Yankee artillery, which otherwise would massacre the infantry in the open. Alexander opened fire at 1 pm with 135 guns. The heaviest bombardment of the war, it seemed to succeed, as some of the Union guns were limbered up and pulled out of action. That was a Yankee trick; they were deliberately holding fire. Hunt had 85 guns against Longstreet, but they were better positioned on the heights of Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top; Lee's failure to capture that hill on Day Two was proving ruinous. Yankee infantry huddled behind stone walls and breastworks, thankful that the rebel aim was too high because of poor spotting capability (there were no observers in balloons or on high hills). However, some rebel 20 pound solid shot did hit home:

One of these shots struck in the center of a line of infantry, who were lying down behind the wall. Taking the line lengthwise, it literally ploughed up two or three yards of men, killing and wounding a dozen or more.[5]

At 3 pm Longstreet's artillery stopped and 47 regiments marched out, a mile wide, in parade ground formation. On the right swashbuckling George Pickett commanded a division of 15 regiments; he had been the first American to scale the ramparts at Chapultepec, and now he determined to scale Cemetery Ridge, a veritable Gibraltar a mile ahead of him. The Union cannon reawakened with explosive shot and solid balls. Pickett's division took the brunt of fire, staggered, pushed forward. At 200 yards Union artillery switched to canister. At 100 yards the Yankee infantry opened fire with deadly riflery, and the regiments on either side swung in to catch the rebels with flanking fire. "Don't hurry men!" commanded general John Gibbon. "Don't fire too fast. Let them come up close before you fire, and then aim low and steadily." Still the rebels advanced, their units all jumbled, the senior commanders nearly all down. A few hundred actually made it to the crest, and were shot down. Of the 15,000 Confederates who had gone forward, scarcely half made it back--and only a third of Pickett's men.

Casualties and medicine

Union medical services were ready; Dr. Jonathan Letterman had 650 doctors, 3,000 medics, 1,000 ambulances and an efficient system of one field hospital for each division. They treated 20,000 patients, blue and gray alike. The exact number of casualties varies widely; after the battle Lee's army was 38% smaller, and he was very hard pressed to replace the losses of experienced fighting men. Expecting another battle, Letterman pulled 540 doctors out of the hospitals to follow Meade, a tragic miscalculation for the wounded left behind. Civilian doctors and nurses rushed to the field from across the state to tend the wounded. When Lincoln gave his talk four months later, most of the dead were in caskets that had not yet been buried.

Total casualties in Gettysburg campaign:

dead wounded missing total  % of men
USA 3200 14500 5400 23100 27%
CSA 3900 18700 5500 28100 38%


The bloody combat in very hot July weather had climaxed in the spectacular but fruitless charge of Pickett's brigades into a trap set by Union forces atop Cemetery Ridge. Pickett failed, and Lee was out of reserves (and out of artillery ammunition). He expected a Union counterattack and had to retreat.

It was the worst defeat Lee had ever known. Maybe with twice as many soldiers and twice the artillery "Pickett's Charge" could have succeeded, but the Confederacy had no more to spare, while the Yankees had plenty of fresh reserves.* Lee's past battles had been models of efficiency, coordination, and timely movement. At Gettysburg the rebel soldiers fought ferociously, but their generals mistimed their moves, wasting their strength and allowing the Yankees to concentrate on the decisive points. Stunned, humiliated, with only 42,000 effectives left, Lee feverishly prepared for Meade's counterattack on Day Four, the Fourth of July. Meade had 56,000 left, but he did not move. "We have done well enough," he said, surprised that he had not been whipped by Lee, who was still assumed to have more soldiers. Meade did not fathom that he had won one of history's greatest battles, nor, despite insistent telegrams from Lincoln, did he realize he could have cut off Lee's retreat back to Virginia. Lee, his wagon trains slowed by the plunder of Pennsylvania, presented a target that a Grant or a Sherman would have lunged at--perhaps capturing him and ending the war. Meade, too new to overall command, too bedazzled by Lee's reputation, suddenly acted like all his predecessors, and hesitated too long at the critical moment. Lee made his escape. Although there would be only light fighting in the East for the next 10 months, the end was now in sight. No one realized it would take another 21 months.

Impact and Memory

Lee's strategy was in ruins, his ammunition low, and his army was far from his base in Virginia, but Meade failed badly in not pursuing. Lee's escape was one of his greatest achievements. By the end of July Lee's depleted army was back in its camps around Orange Court House, Virginia. There was little important action the rest of the year. The only bright spot for them was that Lee's army systematically looted Pennsylvania and in retreat brought back enough captured food, wagons, hardware, horses and cattle to keep Lee supplied for months to come. The looting indeed was part of Lee's plan, but the 28,000 casualties permanently weakened his army, leaving it no chance to take the initiative in the future.

For months the Confederate media and people denied there was a defeat in Pennsylvania. Well-informed Confederates, like chief of ordnance Josiah Gorgas, were crestfallen:

"Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success; today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction."[6]

Lee's invasion and his seizure of free blacks, who were shipped south and sold into slavery, had the unintended effect of mobilizing northern Republicans and tarring the peace Democrats as traitorous "Copperheads" who refused even to resist the invasion of their homes. Antiwar protests occasionally turned into riots, which further antagonized the patriots, for as one Wisconsin private wrote his sweetheart, "I hope if they do have to take soldiers home to enforce the draft that I will be the one who will have to go, for I could shoot one of those copperheads with a good heart as I could shoot a wolf."[7]

Historians have explored the construction of Gettysburg in the American memory. Hollywood, TV and radio played minor roles, for they largely neglected the topic. Ken Burns, maker of many historical films, noted, "I had never visited Gettysburg, knew almost nothing about that battle." He like many others was influenced by the one novel that was a commercial and critical success, The Killer Angels (1974) by Michael Shaara.[8]

Decisive in shaping America's collective memory has been the battlefield itself, and the role of Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, memorized by generations of students who were taught how momentous the occasion was. The campaign and battle is enshrined in American memory as a near-sacred event, as Abraham Lincoln said when he dedicated the cemetery in November, giving the most influential speech in American history. Every state erected memorials at the battlefield. When Longstreet became a Republican Scalawag after the war, General Jubal Early and others rewrote history to shift the blame for the defeat to him rather than Lee, who was a sacred hero of the Lost Cause.

The U.S. was the first nation to establish national war cemeteries; American national cemeteries at Gettysburg and Antietam preceded by almost a decade those established in Germany after the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-71. As General Oliver O. Howard remarked when laying the cornerstone for the Soldiers' Monument in 1865, it was "the private volunteer" who was the "representative American soldier," and it was around this ideal figure who sacrificed his life in the name of civic duty and republicanism that much of the commemorative impulse cohered. Over 900 similar monuments were built nationwide in the two decades after the war, and monumental Gettysburg, where many states built statues for their heroes, was the standard against which they were evaluated.[9]

For the earliest genteel late 19th-century visitors the battlefield was a site of contemplation. The train-loads of vacationers in the early 20th-century came to Gettysburg both to marvel and to be entertained—it was Niagara Falls with added moral significance. By the 1950s, Gettysburg had mutated again, as visitors arrived not in groups but in families as part of planned vacation trips. They found in the theme parks that surrounded Gettysburg the entertainment the children needed but found in the visitor center and the battlefield tours a way of reinforcing their patriotic faith. Today Gettysburg is a Mecca for Civil War enthusiasts, especially reenactors who costume themselves in exact replicas of 1863 clothing and gear and march and maneuver in exactly the same patterns as the soldiers of 1863. To add to the site's authenticity, they have torn down a high tower built so tourists could see the whole battlefield.[10]


  1. James MacPherson (1992), American Victory, American Defeat, in Gabor S. Boritt, Why the Confederacy Lost, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-508539-3, p. 19
  2. Foote 2:501
  3. Foote 2:513 Freeman, Lee 3:105.
  4. "Grape" was canister using larger balls; it was seldom used in the war, despite the colloquial use of "grape and canister"
  5. Nevins 7:102; Coddington 498
  6. James M. McPherson, [Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (1988) online p. 665
  7. Glatthaar Sea 45; Nevins, Ordeal 325; Coddington 161
  8. Michael Shaara.The Killer Angels (1974, 2004) excerpt, commentary and text search
  9. Susan-Mary Grant, "Landscapes of Memory: Susan-Mary Grant Argues That the Cult of the Fallen Soldier Has Its Origins at Gettysburg and Other Battlefield Monuments of the American Civil War." History Today 56#3 *March 2006) pp. 18+.
  10. Jim Weeks Gettysburg: Memory, Market, and an American Shrine (2003)