The Battle of Gettysburg represented a pivotal moment in the Civil War. Over the course of three days, the conflict resulted in more than 50,000 estimated casualties, making it the bloodiest single battle of the war. Following a series of defensive successes in Virginia, General Lee aimed to secure a victory north of the Mason-Dixon line, intending to compel a negotiated end to the hostilities. However, his defeat at Gettysburg thwarted this objective. Subsequently, the beleaguered general retreated southward, accompanied by a wagon train of wounded soldiers heading towards the Potomac. Union General Meade did not capitalize on this moment to pursue the retreating Confederates, missing a critical chance to encircle Lee's forces and force a Confederate surrender. Consequently, the deeply divisive war continued for an additional two years.

On 3 June, shortly after his notable triumph over Major General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee commences his second invasion of enemy territory, leading his troops northward. The 75,000-man Army of Northern Virginia, buoyed by their recent victory, is in high spirits. Alongside their quest for fresh supplies, the soldiers anticipate replenishing their provisions with food from the fertile fields of Pennsylvania, as the war-ravaged terrain of Virginia can no longer sustain them.

Meanwhile, Hooker also marches north but remains hesitant to engage Lee directly following the Union’s crushing defeat at Chancellorsville. This reticence increasingly concerns President Abraham Lincoln, resulting in Hooker being relieved of his command in late June. His successor, Major General George Gordon Meade, then takes charge of the 90,000-man Army of the Potomac, advancing northward with orders to keep his forces between Lee's army and Washington, D.C. Meade prepares to defend the capital's routes, if necessary, while simultaneously pursuing Lee.

By 15 June, three corps of Lee’s army have crossed the Potomac River, and by June 28, they reach the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania. While Lee anticipates vital intelligence on Union troop locations from his tardy cavalry commander, General Jeb Stuart, he receives word from a spy about Meade's nearby presence. Taking advantage of the major local roads that meet at the county seat, Lee maneuvers his forces towards Gettysburg.

On 1 July, in the early morning, a Confederate division under Major General Henry Heth moved toward Gettysburg, aiming to capture supplies. They unexpectedly clashed with Union cavalry. Brigadier General John Buford held off the Confederate advance until the Union I and XI Corps, led by Major General John F. Reynolds, could arrive. Sadly, Reynolds was killed in the skirmish. By the late afternoon, Confederate reinforcements commanded by Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell entered the battle. The soldiers, dressed in wool uniforms, fought valiantly in the intense heat. Outnumbered, with thirty thousand Confederates against twenty thousand Federals, the Union forces withdrew through Gettysburg to set up defenses on Cemetery Hill, just south of the town.


Top photo: Gettysburg, Pa., between 4 July 1863 and 7 July 1863. "Incidents of the war. A harvest of death." Dead Federal soldiers on the battlefield. Photo negative by Timothy H. O'Sullivan, and positive by Alexander Gardner. Source: United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division. 

Middle photo: Gettysburg, Pa., circa fall 2018. "The Angle," is a designated area on the Gettysburg Battlefield notable for several historical features. It encompasses the 1863 grove of trees, which served as a target landmark during Pickett's Charge, the 1892 monument marking the Confederacy's high-water mark, a rock wall, and various other monuments commemorating the Battle of Gettysburg. Source: War History Network.

Bottom photo: Gettysburg, Pa., 15 April 2018: The Gouverneur Kemble Warren monument honors the Union general’s success in arranging the last minute defense of Little Round Top at Gettysburg. Upon arriving at this location as Longstreet’s assault intensified on 2 July, Warren observed that Little Round Top was largely undefended, except for a minor Signal Corps detachment. Understanding its strategic significance to the entire Union flank, Warren took decisive action. Exercising his own discretion, he located Vincent's and Weed's brigades and redirected them to establish a resolute and ultimately triumphant defense of the hill.


On 2 July, the Union army held a fishhook-shaped line of hills and ridges south of Gettysburg, while Confederate forces extended their line to encircle the Union position. That afternoon, General Robert E. Lee commanded Lieutenant General James Longstreet to attack the Union's left flank. Fierce combat broke out at Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge as Longstreet's troops engaged the Union defenses. Major General Winfield S. Hancock of the Union II Corps quickly moved reinforcements to resist the Confederate onslaught. Meanwhile, Confederate forces intensified their attacks on East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill on the Union right. Despite Confederate progress on both flanks, the Union soldiers held their strong positions as darkness descended.

On 3 July, bolstered by the belief that his foes were weakened, General Lee aimed to capitalize on the prior day's victories with fresh attacks on the Union defenses. Intense fighting erupted again on Culp's Hill, with Union troops striving to recapture territory. While cavalry clashes flared to the east and south, the main action was a substantial infantry offensive led by General Longstreet.

12545618082?profile=RESIZE_584xThe most famous and decisive moment of the battle was Pickett's Charge, a frontal assault by Confederate forces against the center of the Union line. Pickett's Charge was a costly and futile mistake that sealed the fate of the Confederate army and the Confederacy itself. Pickett's Charge was named after General George Pickett, who led the assault. Pickett was a Virginia-born West Point graduate who had distinguished himself in previous battles, including the Battle of Fredericksburg. Pickett's Charge was a desperate move by Lee, who believed that a decisive victory at Gettysburg would lead to the recognition of the Confederacy by European powers and an end to the war.

The Confederate plan was to concentrate their artillery fire on the Union center, to weaken the Union line, and then send three divisions, led by Pickett, Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Major General Isaac R. Trimble, to charge the Union line. The Confederate soldiers would have to cross an open field, about three-quarters of a mile long, under heavy fire from Union artillery and infantry. The Union line was fortified with stone walls and fences, which provided cover for the Union soldiers.

The charge began at 3 PM on 3 July. As the Confederate soldiers advanced, they were hit by a barrage of Union artillery fire, which decimated their ranks. The surviving Confederates reached the Union line, but were met with a withering fire from the entrenched Union soldiers. The Confederate soldiers who managed to breach the Union line were quickly overwhelmed and forced to retreat. The charge lasted less than an hour, but it resulted in over 7,000 Confederate casualties, including many of the South's best soldiers. The Union army suffered less than 1,500 casualties.

The failure of Pickett's Charge was due to several factors. First, the Confederate artillery fire did not weaken the Union line enough to make the charge successful. Second, the Confederate soldiers had to cross an open field, which made them easy targets for Union fire. Third, the Union soldiers were well-entrenched and had superior firepower. Fourth, the Confederate leadership was divided and lacked clear direction. Finally, the Union soldiers were highly motivated and fought with great courage and determination.

The aftermath of Pickett's Charge was devastating for the Confederate army. The defeat at Gettysburg marked the end of Lee's invasion of the North and the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Lee's army suffered over 28,000 casualties at Gettysburg, a loss it could not afford. The Confederacy lost its best soldiers and its morale was shattered. The Union army, on the other hand, was emboldened by its victory and went on to win the war.

Pickett's Charge was a fateful mistake that sealed the fate of the Confederate army and the Confederacy itself. The charge was a desperate move by Lee, who believed that a decisive victory at Gettysburg would lead to the recognition of the Confederacy by European powers and an end to the war. However, the charge failed due to several factors, including the failure of Confederate artillery fire, the open field that made the Confederate soldiers easy targets, the superior firepower of the Union soldiers, the lack of clear direction from Confederate leadership, and the determination of the Union soldiers. The aftermath of Pickett's Charge was devastating for the Confederate army, and it marked the beginning of the end of the Confederacy.

10860567082?profile=RESIZE_584xAs many as 51,000 soldiers from both armies are killed, wounded, captured, or missing in the three-day battle. The carnage proves overwhelming, yet the Union victory renews President Lincoln’s hopes of concluding the war. With General Lee retreating southward, Lincoln anticipates that General Meade will intercept the Confederate forces and compel their surrender. However, Meade has no such plan. Despite Lee's retreat being hindered by flooding on the Potomac, Meade does not pursue them. Upon learning of this missed opportunity on 12 July, Lincoln laments, “We had only to stretch forth our hands & they were ours.” Months later, in November 1863, a portion of the Gettysburg battlefield is designated as a final resting place for the Union dead. President Lincoln uses the dedication ceremony at Gettysburg’s Soldiers’ National Cemetery to honor the fallen and reaffirm the war’s purpose in his historic Gettysburg Address.



Catton, Bruce. Bruce Catton: The Army of the Potomac Trilogy (LOA #359): Mr. Lincoln's Army / Glory Road / A Stillness at Appomattox. New York: Library of America, 2022.

Foote, Shelby. The Civil War Box Set: With American Homer; Reflections on Shelby Foote and His Classic the Civil War; A Narrative. New York: Random House, 2011.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003.

Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Boston / New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2003.

Sheehan-Dean, Aaron, editor. The Cambridge History of the American Civil War. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

You need to be a member of War History Network to add comments!

Join War History Network

Votes: 0
Email me when people reply –