Civil War 150: The Battle of Gettysburg

By July 1863, the Confederate army’s continuing success in battle emboldened General Lee to move the war into the north. While Lee and his troops passed through Maryland into Pennsylvania, Lincoln replaced General Joseph Hooker with General George Meade, who hastily pursued Lee. On the morning of July 1, the two armies finally met outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

Battle of Gettysburg." The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1882.

The battle began with a clash between Confederate General Henry Heth and Union General John Buford. The two fought the whole day for control of the city, with the Confederates gaining the upper hand and forcing the north to retreat southward to Cemetery Ridge; meanwhile Lee and his troops held Gettysburg and a western hillside, Seminary Ridge. That night, war councils planned the following day’s attacks, while thousands of troops from both sides arrived to defend their ground.

The morning of July 2 brought Lee’s three-prong attack on the Union. The day was hot and the battles were long and grueling, but at day’s end, the Union maintained their hold on Cemetery Ridge as well as decisive control of Little Round Top with the help of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Running low on ammunition, Chamberlain’s men brazenly charged with bayonets toward the advancing Confederates who were so startled that many dropped their weapons and retreated down the hill. That night, small skirmishes and fire fights continued across the area. Lee held council and decided to strike the center of the Union forces, but Union General Meade anticipated this move.

Northern forces faced hours of artillery bombardment on July 3, in preparation for an attack that would infamously be remembered as Pickett’s Charge. When more than 12,000 southern soldiers charged across the open field toward Cemetery Ridge, they were quickly brought down by Union artillery and rifle fire. The charge failed, for the most part, and the Confederates not only lost that day’s skirmishes but the battle as well. Those who returned to the Confederate camps prepared for a Union counterattack that never came. On the morning of July 4, 87 years after America officially declared its independence in Philadelphia, Lee withdrew his army out of Pennsylvania back toward Virginia.

Gettysburg was declared a victory for the Union, but no one was cheering as they looked out over the vast numbers of wounded and dead. More than 150,000 men fought at the Battle of Gettysburg, and 51,000 of them never left, dying in combat or from their wounds. Of those 51,000, approximately 28,000 were Confederate soldiers who were left to be buried in a country they no longer felt was their own.

"Lee's Retreat after the Battle of Gettysburg." The New York Public Library Digital Collections.

Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. It marked a turning point in the war, in which the Union would begin to rally while the South began to falter. Gettysburg quickly became a shrine and has remained such for 150 years: Americans regularly make pilgrimages to Gettysburg to pay homage to the hallowed ground on which so many gave their “last full measure of devotion.”

Connie Golding earned a bachelor’s degree in History with a minor in Fine Arts from The George Washington University.

Currier & Ives lithograph courtesy of Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-2088