What Is the Legacy of the Battle of Gettysburg?

The Battle of Gettysburg may have ended over 160 years ago, but the legacy of the bloodiest battle on American soil is as alive as ever.

Mar 4, 2024By Kassandre Dwyer, M.Ed History

attle gettysburg legacy


The Battle of Gettysburg shook the United States as both the Confederacy and the Union saw incredible casualties and shocking results. Still holding the record as the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, it’s not surprising that the memory of Gettysburg could not easily be left behind. In the following years, the consequences echoed near and far, reminding a rebuilding country of what was lost. Even today, across the decades, memories of lost lives and monumental outcomes leave the world fascinated by the mysteries of Gettysburg.


Three Bloody Days

This news article called Gettysburg “The greatest battle since Waterloo,” Patriot Publishing Co. Source: Historical Society of Pennsylvania


The Battle of Gettysburg took place in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, near the center of the state. While it was not the northernmost land action in the Civil War (that distinction lay with a raid that took place in St. Albans, Vermont), it is considered the northernmost major battle. It also holds the dismal record of being the bloodiest single battle of the entire war and to have been fought on American soil to date.


The battle took place July 1-3, 1863, and was part of Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s second attempt to invade the northern states. The majority of the Civil War engagements took place in the South, and this would be Lee’s second and final quest to bring the war to the heart of the Union and force a start to negotiations to bring about its end. His opponent was Union General George Meade, with almost 94,000 Union soldiers to Lee’s 71,700. An estimated 51,112 of these men would suffer casualties at Gettysburg, about 55% of them on the Confederate side.


Robert E. Lee. Source: Library of Congress


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Lee’s forces would eventually succumb and retreat at the conclusion of the battle. Meade did not pursue the retreating soldiers, and some contemporaries, including President Abraham Lincoln, and historians believe this was a critical missed opportunity to perhaps force a Confederate surrender. Instead, the war would continue for another two years.


A Shift in Direction

A cannon overlooking the Gettysburg battlefield site. Source: Action Tour Guide


The biggest bequest of Gettysburg was immediate. The shutdown of Lee’s attempted inquest into the north resulted in a shift. While the carnage the battle left seemed insurmountable, the Union victory boosted the hopes of Lincoln and other northern leaders that the tide of the war was turning in their favor. This came at a time when morale was low, and the Union was desperately in need of a victory.


The loss was felt heavily in the south, as the bulk of the fighting continued to take place there, ravaging the homes, farms, and lives of the civilians. In addition, the loss killed any likely chance of large-scale European intervention in the war. Before this, the Confederacy had high hopes that Europe’s dependence on the cotton they grew would ensure the support of countries such as Britain, which were unwilling to suffer economically as a result of America’s war.


Lincoln giving his Gettysburg Address. Photo of a 1905 lithograph by Heritage Images. Source: National Geographic


Several months after the battle’s conclusion, a ceremony was held at the site of the battle. A cemetery was created at Gettysburg to inter those whose lives were lost during the firefight, bodies too numerous to transport home, particularly during wartime. On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln made a speech to close those ceremonies, an elegy known as his Gettysburg Address. One of the most famous oratories in history, it was short but impactful. Still studied by scholars today, it was not only a remarkable piece of writing and speaking but also important to the direction of the war.


An artist’s rendition of the Battle of Gettysburg. Source: American Battlefield Trust


The speech was brief but pointed. In it, Lincoln not only memorialized the men who had died but urged those present not to let them die in vain. He reminded the audience that the goal of the war was to restore the union to a country of liberty and a strong representative government but tied this to the idea that all men are created equal, giving the fight a new cause: the abolition of slavery.


Though slavery was partially a root cause of the Civil War, with the Confederate states’ secession incited by the threat of the government’s oversight of slavery, until now, the goal of the Northern forces was to preserve the Union. Now, the war had two merged targets.


A Small Town Celebrity 

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. Source: Corbis via Fox News


Though plenty of turmoil and death arose from Gettysburg, heroes also emerged. One of those paladins was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who would end the Civil War as a Brigadier General. Born in 1828, Chamberlain was a Mainer who never showed much interest in things of the military persuasion before the war.


He went to Bowdoin College and began a career as a professor of language and rhetoric. However, the war was for a cause he found immensely important, and he desired to serve the Union. He went to the governor of Maine to ask how he could help and was appointed Lieutenant Colonel of the newly formed 20th Maine regiment of the Union Army. His regiment fought at Antietam and Fredericksburg, where losses and promotions of senior officers would lead to Chamberlain’s appointment as commander of the 20th Maine before Gettysburg.


Monument to the 20th Maine on Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Source: Michael Epstein photo via American Battlefield Trust


Chamberlain and the 20th Maine achieved fame for their actions at Gettysburg, defending a key strategic location known as Little Round Top. Outmanned and outgunned, they found themselves out of ammunition. A bayonet charge was called, attributed to Chamberlain, and was executed flawlessly as the men ran down the hill straight into their enemies. This secured their location and completed their orders to hold Little Round Top. Some historians claim that without the success of the 20th Maine, Gettysburg would have been a Union loss.


Jeff Daniels played Chamberlain in the 1993 film Gettysburg. Source: New Line Cinema


Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor for his role at Gettysburg and went on to serve for the remainder of the war. He was wounded six times throughout the conflict, most seriously at Petersburg, where it was believed he might die. However, he recovered, and in April of 1865, he led the receipt of the Confederate surrender of arms at Appomattox.


Ever the gentleman, Chamberlain ordered the Union troops to salute their fallen enemies as they turned in their weapons. After the war, Chamberlain wrote extensively about his experiences, including a memoir about Appomattox. He served four terms as governor of Maine and later was chosen to act as president of his alma mater, Bowdoin College. From teacher to Medal of Honor recipient, Joshua Chamberlain is an example of how the Civil War turned average men into virtual superheroes of their time.


Ghosts of Gettysburg

Cannons on the field in the fog. Source: Gettysburg Hotel


Gettysburg may have propelled people to fame in life, but it has elevated life after death as well. Considered by many ghost hunters to be one of America’s most haunted places, Gettysburg’s battlefield and nearby local attractions have been the location of some hair-raising encounters in the years since the war.


Pennsylvania Hall, 2008. Source: Gettysburg Daily


One of these places is Pennsylvania Hall, located on the campus of Gettysburg College, known as Pennsylvania College at the time of the war. Pennsylvania Hall, often referred to as the “Old Dorm,” was built in 1837 and used as a Confederate lookout post and field hospital during the Battle of Gettysburg.


Several haunting encounters have taken place in this building, but one of the most famous came from two college administrators who were working late in the 1980s. According to author Mark Nesbitt, who has written extensively about Gettysburg hauntings, the two left the fourth floor and got in the elevator to go home.


Instead of stopping at their ground floor destination, the elevator kept going to the basement. When the doors opened, they were looking not at the basement storage room but at a Civil War field hospital, circa 1863, blood-soaked and in chaos. Doctors and orderlies ran around tending to patients, and wounded men lay on the floor.


The administrators didn’t hear a sound, but the vision was as plain as day before them. They desperately closed the elevator doors and left, and when re-examined, the basement storage room looked as normal as ever. In the years since, others have reported similar basement visions.


An undated image of the Gettysburg Orphanage. Source: Gettysburg Battlefield Tours


The Gettysburg Orphanage is another paranormal location that is popular with tourists. Not only was it used as a makeshift hospital during the battle (it was a private home during the war), but it had a twisted history after the war as well. After the battle, it was converted into an orphanage intended to house children who had lost parents in wartime. However, a terrible headmistress named Rosa Carmichael took over and was rumored to torture children and chain them in the cellar. Not only do their spirits haunt the building, but believers state that Ms. Carmichael’s evil energy possesses the orphanage as well.


Sachs Covered Bridge. Source: ABC 27


The Sachs Covered Bridge is an idyllic reminder of times gone by; it’s a pretty red-covered bridge flanked by stone pilings. Fit for a painting, it seems like the last place a haunting would occur. However, it makes the list of Gettysburg’s most haunted locations time and time again. Used by both sides as they entered and retreated from the battle, it was also a place of tragedy.


Three Confederate soldiers were hung from this bridge, according to the legends of the hauntings, and can still be spotted periodically. The reason for the hanging has two separate stories. Some say that they were deserters who were caught and hung for their crime (desertion was often punishable by death; in fact, Chamberlain was ordered to shoot deserters, though he refused). Another explanation is that the soldiers were spies who were detected and hung by the Union army. Despite their origin, many have claimed to see hanging apparitions, experienced chills and hair pulling, and heard horses hooves crossing the bridge. Video clips of the encounters have even been shared online.


Battle of Gettysburg: Lessons for Today

Civil War reenactors acting as the 20th Maine. Source: Wilson Museum via Castine Patriot


Today, the Gettysburg battlefield is the most visited Civil War site in the United States. From an iconic Civil War battlefield full of history to the birthplace of heroes to a site of hauntings, Gettysburg continues to be a place that infects the American consciousness. A place full of spirit (and spirits) and memories, it will forever engage and entertain visitors, regardless of whether they are historians, ghost hunters, or simply looking to get in touch with their American heritage.

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By Kassandre DwyerM.Ed HistoryKassie is a farmer with a passion for history who has a day job teaching middle school social studies in her hometown. In addition to earning NBCT certification and M.Ed. in History, she holds an M.Ed in Curriculum & Instruction and a B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture/Animal Science. She is particularly interested in telling the stories of often overlooked historical perspectives or hidden truths, and is especially intrigued by the history of America’s Indigenous peoples, war, and the “wild west.”