The Battle of Gettysburg was a crucial turning point of the Civil War and was responsible for the most casualties of any battle throughout the war. The fighting lasted for three days, from July 1 to July 3, 1863, in the pivotal crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Below are the events leading up to the fight, the tactical decisions made by General Robert E. Lee, and the aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg.
April 1863 – The Battle of Chancellorsville
Before the battle took place, the Union Army was undergoing a change in command. General Ambrose Burnside had lost decisively at the Battle of Fredericksburg in December 1862 and was replaced with General Joseph Hooker. General Hooker had his sights set on capturing Richmond, Virginia, the Confederate capital. He trained his troops all spring long in anticipation of a pivotal victory for the Union.
With two divisions of the Confederate Army in southern Virginia, Hooker had a major advantage in men, outnumbering General Lee 115,000 to 60,000. Some say it was the largest advantage in numbers of the entire war. On April 27, 1863, Hooker strategically placed two-thirds of his army near Fredericksburg, feigning a frontal assault. Meanwhile, he led the other third over the Rappahannock River to approach Lee’s forces from the rear. By April 30, Hooker’s army was nine miles behind Lee.
Once General Lee became apprised of Hooker’s advances, he had a decision to make. Lee decided to divide his already limited army, sending troops to hold Fredericksburg and retaining the rest to take on Hooker.
The fighting began on May 1, beyond a large forest west of Chancellorsville, a small town 60 miles north of Richmond. Despite having the numbers advantage, Hooker was forced to retreat into defensive positions, which left the door open for Lee to make another move of tactical brilliance.
Lee sent General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson with 28,000 men to attack the exposed right flank of Hooker’s army. Jackson’s men caused massive Union casualties, killing half of Hooker’s men. But one of Jackson’s most celebrated victories would be his last.
On the night of May 2, Jackson led his men through a forest on a scouting mission. The Confederate North Carolina regiment mistook Jackson’s men for the enemy and opened fire. Jackson was struck directly in the left shoulder, and his arm was amputated. He died from pneumonia eight days later at 39 years old.
On May 3, General Lee again outmaneuvered Hooker, attacking the rear of 27,000 men Hooker had left behind. By May 5, Hooker was forced to retreat back across the Rappahannock and fled to Washington, D.C. In total, the Union lost 17,278 men to the Confederacy’s 12,826.
The battle went down in history as General Lee’s greatest tactical achievement. However, just as with Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, it would be one of his last.
June 1863 – General Robert E. Lee Invades the North
General Lee, feeling particularly powerful after his decisive victory over the Union with far fewer men, was now inspired to launch his second invasion of the North. His first invasion had ended in the fall of 1862 at the Battle of Antietam. Lee’s hope was that after his recent victories, one final movement, if successful, would lead President Lincoln to negotiate for peace.
Ninety miles west of Chancellorsville, there is a narrow opening called the Shenandoah Valley, with Shenandoah National Park to the east and Monongahela National Forest to the west. The Shenandoah Valley was an ideal cover for Lee to make his advance north, which began in earnest on June 3. Lee’s destination was Pennsylvania, 100 miles to the north.
Eventually, Lee was pursued by General Hooker and Union Major General George G. Meade, who had replaced Hooker in command. General Meade’s first decision was to lead the Army of the Potomac with 75,000 fresh troops to intercept Lee’s forces.
General Lee made it into Pennsylvania by mid-June and continued northeast to the Susquehanna River, which he reached on June 28. His first tactical decision was a success, as it took Union soldiers out of Vicksburg, where the South was under siege, and brought the fighting out of Virginia and into the northern state of Pennsylvania.
July 1863 – The Battle Begins
When Lee discovered that the Army of the Potomac was in pursuit, he set up camp at the strategic crossroads town of Gettysburg. But as the first of Lee’s army approached the town, they discovered that two cavalry brigades of the Union had set up camp the previous day.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 1
Both armies remained on a collision course for Gettysburg, and the Confederates were successful in driving the Union forces back. In severe fighting on July 1, Union armies were cleared from the fields to the north and west of the town. But the South was unable to take Cemetery Hill half a mile south of the town.
Reinforcements were on the way for both sides, and Lee saw the opportunity to press his advantage before the Union received more men. Lee ordered General Ewell, who had replaced his most trusted General Stonewall, to lead the Army of Northern Virginia Second Corps to attack Cemetery Hill. Ewell refused, saying the Union’s position was too strong.
Overnight, a Union regiment commanded by Winfield Scott Hancock further strengthened the North’s position. The Union’s defensive position stretched from Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill to Cemetery Ridge in the heart of town, down to Little Round Top seven miles to the south.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 2
Lee’s second in command was James Longstreet, a defensively-minded commander who mixed well with Lee’s offensive mind. Against Longstreet’s advice, General Lee was determined to attack the Union head-on. Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union’s left flank, near Little Round Top, while Ewell attacked the right flank, near Culp’s Hill. Lee’s orders were to attack as early in the day as possible, but it wasn’t until 4 pm that Longstreet’s men were in position.
Fighting near Little Round Top went on for hours. Thanks to the ferocious fighting of a Union regiment from Maine, the North held Little Round Top but lost the surrounding areas. Ewell’s army was similarly stalled in their attacks at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, and the fighting ended at dusk. Both sides lost over 9,000 men on July 2, and the two day total nearly reached 35,000 casualties, the most significant two-day total of the war.
Battle of Gettysburg Day 3
July 3 began with seven hours of fighting starting early in the morning, as the North pushed back the South from Culp’s Hill. General Lee believed his army was on the brink of victory the previous day and was determined again to press his position. Longstreet again protested, but Lee sent three divisions to attack the center of the Union Army at Cemetery Ridge. Led by a division commanded by George Pickett, the Confederates were tasked with advancing nearly a mile across an open field to fight dug-in Union forces.
Around 3 pm on July 3, after the Confederates bombarded the north with artillery attacks from around 150 guns, “Pickett’s Charge” began. With much better positioning, Union soldiers attacked the advancing Confederate forces from covered positions.
Regiments from Ohio, New York, and Vermont hit both sides of the Confederate flanks. Pickett’s division was decimated, with only a third of his men surviving the attack. In total, half of the men sent on Pickett’s Charge were killed. As the survivors slowly made their way back, Lee and Longstreet struggled to realign their defenses.
The Aftermath of The Battle of Gettysburg
Lee waited for an attack from the North on July 4, but it never came. That night, as rain poured down on them, General Lee withdrew his forces. The Battle of Gettysburg had been won by the Union. Over a third of Lee’s army had been killed over three days. In total, the Union lost around 23,000 men, while the Confederacy lost around 28,000 men.
The same day that Lee’s forces retreated from Gettysburg, Union General Ulysses S. Grant was securing a pivotal victory at Vicksburg. Combined, these two events were a true turning point in the war. General Lee had appeared to be on the precipice of peace and secession from the north, but those around him failed – from Stonewall Jackson’s death by friendly fire to his replacement Ewell refusing his orders on the battlefield, to Longstreet failing to convince Lee to restrain his ambitious offenses.
In the end, Lee had no one to blame but himself, and he offered his resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Davis refused, and Lee went on to win more battles in the war, but the height of the South’s power was over.
During the dedication of the National Cemetery in Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, President Lincoln presented his most famous speech in just 272 words. These were the final words of his speech:
“We here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”