After a groundbreaking victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate General Robert E. Lee hoped to continue that momentum and end the war with a decisive victory in an invasion of the North. Unlike the militarily indecisive Battle of Antietam in September 1862, when Lee had invaded the north for the first time, the Confederate commander led his troops into Pennsylvania to destroy a Union army under General Joe Hooker.
Victory Goes to the Union
The largest battle in the American Civil War – sparked by the Confederacy’s bombardment of Fort Sumter two years earlier – was won decisively by the Union and ended any further attempts by the Confederacy to incite panic by invading the North. On July 4, 1863, the Confederate army led by General Robert E. Lee retreated back to Virginia, with the date perhaps heralding the eventual victor in the war. In the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate troops, despite being outnumbered after the first day of three, engaged in full-frontal assaults that were very costly in terms of casualties. Ultimately, a final full-frontal attack by the Confederacy failed to break through Union lines on July 3, resulting in Lee’s decision to retreat.
However, similar to the Battle of Antietam the previous September, the battle ended with a successful Confederate retreat, upsetting US President Abraham Lincoln. The victorious Union army, the Army of the Potomac, did not pursue Lee’s retreating Army of Northern Virginia. As a result, the Confederates were able to re-establish their firm defense of their capital city of Richmond, Virginia, and the war continued for almost two more years. The steep losses at Gettysburg were considered irreplaceable for the South and caused Confederate morale to sink. Conversely, Union troops enjoyed a morale boost due to the victory and were eager to press on and win the war.
Timeline of the Battle of Gettysburg
In late June 1863, Confederate troops under Robert E. Lee invaded the North, heading into Pennsylvania. Similar to Antietam the previous autumn, the goal was to surprise and intimidate the North into accepting a peace settlement. For days at the end of June, neither army (the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia or the Union Army of the Potomac) knew exactly where the other was.
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On June 30, however, a Confederate brigade near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania spotted Union cavalry heading toward the town. The next day, July 1, the Confederates engaged the Union cavalry. Swiftly, other units on both sides arrived, increasing the size of the battle.
Robert E. Lee’s forces arrived in the middle of the afternoon on July 1, and Union forces retreated. By the end of July 1, despite the temporary retreat, Union general George Meade ordered all Union troops available into the battle, giving the North a significant numerical advantage.
The next morning, July 2, Lee ordered another attack on the Union forces, but the attack on the two separate flanks was not simultaneous and did not strike a crushing blow. The Union lines held.
The third day, July 3, saw Lee’s biggest gamble: an attack on the center of the Union lines, where it was likely to be least expected. The Union attacked with an artillery barrage before dawn, and the Confederates responded with their own artillery in the early afternoon before engaging in a full-frontal charge.
The massive charge was unsuccessful, with Union artillery knocking huge holes in the Confederate lines, and Lee eventually ordered a retreat from Gettysburg beginning on the evening of July 4.
What Caused the Battle of Gettysburg?
The South’s greatest military victory during the war came in the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Robert E. Lee and “Stonewall” Jackson successfully surprised and attacked the much larger Union force under Joseph Hooker, inflicting tremendous losses for the North. However, although the Confederacy won the battle, it lost vaunted general “Stonewall” Jackson to friendly fire. Jackson was struck by a bullet and died days later from pneumonia, depriving the South of one of its best military commanders. Hooker’s defeat by May 3 and hasty retreat to Washington DC was a humiliation for the Union.
Hoping to capitalize on his victory and positive momentum, Lee chose to remain on the offensive. He assembled some 75,000 experienced troops around Fredericksburg, Virginia and began to move out a month after Chancellorsville. On June 9, skirmishes between Union and Confederate cavalry began. By the middle of June, the large Confederate army had moved west through the Blue Ridge Mountains, somewhat screened from Union defenders. However, Union cavalry had followed and were able to send word to Washington DC of the Confederate offensive. On June 30, Confederate troops set off for the nearby town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania to search for supplies. It found Union troops instead, and both armies converged near the small town.
Why Was the Battle of Gettysburg Significant?
The Battle of Gettysburg, which occurred between July 1 and July 3 of 1863, was the largest single battle of the American Civil War. Lee chose to make an aggressive stand at Gettysburg, despite not having his entire army ready at the moment. At 5:30 AM on July 1, he launched his first attack, and was successful…but only because the Union did not have its entire army present either. Lee faced a new opponent, General George Meade, who had been promoted to command the Army of the Potomac only days before.
On July 2, the entirety of both armies arrived at the battle. Again, Lee had the Confederate forces attack, ending the day in an exhausted draw. On the third and final day, Lee launched a final attack after a lengthy artillery duel with the North. This full-frontal assault was ultimately unsuccessful and cost the South some 5,000 soldiers dead or wounded in a single hour. Although isolated units briefly broke through Union lines, the Confederacy was defeated. The sheer loss of manpower at Gettysburg meant the South could never again invade the North in force, rendering it on the defensive for the remaining two years of the war.
5 Facts About the Battle of Gettysburg
There were over 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg, making it the bloodiest battle in the war. However, because the battle occurred over three days, it did not replace Antietam as the bloodiest single day. As a result of its full-frontal attacks, the Confederacy suffered higher casualties, with 750 more battle deaths and over 4,000 more injuries. Both armies suffered about 5,400 missing and captured troops. Suffering some 5,000 more casualties (dead, wounded, missing, and captured) than the North was a tremendous blow to the South, which lacked the capacity to replace the lost soldiers and equipment.
The Union commander was George Meade, a West Point graduate who had served briefly in the Indian Wars before retiring. In 1842, he returned to the Army and served during the Mexican-American War, along with most other future Civil War generals. On June 28, 1863, only days before the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade replaced Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Partially as a result of failing to pursue Lee after winning the battle, Meade was eventually replaced by Ulysses S. Grant in early 1864. Therefore, the popular imagery of Robert E. Lee versus Ulysses S. Grant did not include the Battle of Gettysburg.
Robert E. Lee was the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Lee had invaded the north once before, leading to the Battle of Antietam in September 1862. He was considered an excellent military tactician and was popular with his troops; he came from a military family (his father was a Revolutionary War hero) and was actually offered command of the most powerful Union army in the spring of 1861, shortly before the beginning of the civil war. Instead, Lee resigned when his home state of Virginia seceded and joined the Confederacy as its top commander.
3. Number of Forces Involved
Gettysburg was a titanic battle that saw some 93,000 Union troops engaged against almost 72,000 Confederate soldiers. Added together, the total number of troops is greater than that of the preceding Battle of Chancellorsville. The huge number of troops, combined with the frontal assault tactics, resulted in Gettysburg being the battle with the greatest number of casualties during the American Civil War. There were more than twice as many casualties compared to Chancellorsville (24,000) or Antietam (22,700). To the engagement, Lee brought three infantry corps and a cavalry corps, compared to Meade’s seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps, and an artillery reserve corps.
4. Visiting Gettysburg
Visitors today can explore Gettysburg National Military Park near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the site of America’s largest battlefield, the National Park Service hosts guided tours and many different history-related activities. The visitor center and museum is owned and operated by the Gettysburg Foundation, which also offers many history-related activities and events. Many tourists stay in the nearby town, which also hosts non-battle related events for tourists.
5. Trivia: Most Famous Single Attack of the War
The climax of the Battle of Gettysburg, on its third and final day, was the famous Pickett’s Charge. After a one-hour artillery barrage beginning at about 1:00 PM on July 3, some 12,000 soldiers led by Confederate general George E. Pickett marched across an open field to engage some 5,000 Union troops. The dramatic scene has been memorialized in art and film, and is famously known as the “high water mark” of the Confederacy due to it being the last organized Confederate offensive on Northern soil.
Unfortunately for Pickett’s men, their artillery barrage had been unsuccessful in destroying the Union artillery on the other side of the field, resulting in the Confederate troops being decimated during their charge. When the two sides met, they engaged in intense, hand-to-hand combat. Pickett’s aggressive–many would say unwise–strategy led to a 42 percent casualty rate among his troops. Ultimately, Pickett’s charge failed and the Union had won the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg
The costly battle had saved the Union by ruining the South’s chances of mounting any future major offensives against the North. Any chance of capturing Washington DC by force or panicking the North into submission was over. Although the war would continue, the Confederacy only had the means to maintain a defensive posture. Months after the battle, on November 19, 1863, Union President Abraham Lincoln delivered at the battle site one of the most famous speeches in American history: the Gettysburg Address.
Lincoln’s speech was very brief, but extremely powerful. While dedicating a portion of the battlefield as a national cemetery, the president reminded Americans of the uniqueness of their nation’s founding and reiterated that all men are created equal. He urged citizens to remain focused on the “great task remaining before us” so that the dead “shall not have died in vain.” The speech underlined Lincoln’s resolve to win the war and end the Southern secession, and reinforced public support behind him. He would go on to win re-election in 1864.