The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 %u2013 July 3, 1863), fought in, and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, was the battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War and is frequently cited as the war's turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meades Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee's invasion of the North.
Following his success at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley for his second invasion of the North, hoping to reach as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia, and to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit but was relieved almost on the eve of battle and replaced by Meade.
The two armies began to collide at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division, which was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp's Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett's Charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire at great losses to the Confederate army. Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were casualties in the three-day battle. That November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the dead, both Union and Confederate, and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.
Impact on the Confederacy
The Confederates had lost politically as well as militarily. During the final hours of the battle, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was approaching the Union lines at Norfolk, Virginia, under a flag of truce. Although his formal instructions from Confederate President Jefferson Davis had limited his powers to negotiations on prisoner exchanges and other procedural matters, historian James M. McPherson speculates that he had informal goals of presenting peace overtures. Davis had hoped that Stephens would reach Washington from the south while Lee's victorious army was marching toward it from the north. President Lincoln, upon hearing of the Gettysburg results, refused Stephens's request to pass through the lines. Furthermore, when the news reached London, any lingering hopes of European recognition of the Confederacy were finally abandoned. Henry Adams wrote, "The disasters of the rebels are unredeemed by even any hope of success. It is now conceded that all idea of intervention is at an end."
The armies would move on, but Gettysburg had much cleaning up to do. The two armies had suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing).Confederate casualties are difficult to estimate. Many authors cite 28,000 overall casualties, but Busey and Martin's definitive 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing). The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225. There was one documented civilian death during the battle: Ginnie Wade, 20 years old, was shot by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen in town while she was making bread.
Nearly 8,000 soldiers had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench. Pennsylvania and New York state militia patrolled the Gettysburg battlefield and secured as much of the remaining military property as possible, often arresting souvenir hunters and forcing them to assist in the disposal of the dead horses. The ravages of war would still be evident in Gettysburg more than four months later when, on November 19, the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated. During this ceremony, President Abraham Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address re-dedicated the Union to the war effort.
Today, the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Gettysburg National Military Park are maintained by the U.S. National Park Service as two of the nation's most revered historical landmarks.