Often referred to as the turning point in the American Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg was fought in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, from July 1 to July 3, 1863.
In early May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia soundly defeated Major General Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Despite the Rebel victory, Lee’s army needed food, horses, and equipment after the battle. With northern Virginia ravaged by two years of combat, Lee took the war to the North. Lee planned to disengage from Union forces near Fredericksburg, move his army northwest across the Blue Ridge Mountains, and then push northeast through the Shenandoah Valley into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Lee began concentrating his army near Culpeper, Virginia, and troop movements began on June 3, 1863.
After a series of primarily cavalry engagements in Virginia and Maryland during June, Lee’s had his army poised to enter Pennsylvania, but he had little information about the status of his enemy, which was quickly changing. On June 27, 1863, Hooker attended a strategy meeting with President Abraham Lincoln and General-in-chief Henry W. Halleck. When a dispute arose regarding the disposition of troops at Harpers Ferry, Hooker impulsively offered to resign his command. Lincoln quickly accepted the resignation and had Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton issue General Orders, No. 194 (U.S. War Department) placing Major General George G. Meade in command of the Army of the Potomac. The next day, Meade issued General Orders, No. 66 (Army of the Potomac) assuming command of the army.
Upon taking charge of the army, Meade quickly began moving north from Frederick, Maryland, in search of Lee’s army in Pennsylvania. When Lee learned of Meade’s aggressive pursuit, he ordered his scattered army to gather at Cashtown, about eight miles west of the village of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
By June 30, elements of both armies approached the village of Gettysburg, a strategic location where ten roads intersected. As a brigade of Confederate soldiers from A. P. Hill’s Corps neared the town from the northwest in search of supplies, they observed a Union cavalry commanded by Brigadier General John Buford entering the town from the south. Avoiding an engagement, the Rebels returned to Cashtown to report what they had seen.
July 1–First Shots
On the morning of July 1, 1863, Hill dispatched two brigades, commanded by Major General Henry Heth, to investigate the federal sighting the previous day. As the Rebels marched along the Chambersburg Turnpike near Marsh Creek, they confronted Buford’s troopers who had camped west of Gettysburg the night before. When the two forces collided at roughly 7:30 a.m., Lieutenant Marcellus Jones of the 8th Illinois Cavalry fired the first shot of what would become the pivotal battle of the American Civil War.
Recognizing the strategic importance of Gettysburg, Buford established defensive positions on three ridges northwest of town to delay Confederate troops advancing from that direction. Outnumbered nearly three to one, Buford ordered his men to delay the advancing Rebels as he requested infantry support from Major General John F. Reynolds’ nearby 1st Army Corps. Reynolds rushed forward, ahead of his men, and after meeting with Buford he decided to stand and fight. As Reynolds directed the deployment of arriving Federal divisions from his corps, he dispatched a messenger to General Meade urging him to bring up the rest of the army.
Throughout the morning, the conflict escalated as both sides poured more men into the fray. Initially, the Yankees pushed their foes back. At roughly 10:15, while Reynolds was positioning the 2nd Wisconsin Infantry Regiment at Herbst Woods, a musket ball struck him in the back of his neck, killing him instantly. The source of the missile remains clouded. Some accounts attribute it to a Confederate sniper, others contend it was a random shot fired by approaching Rebel forces, and a few attribute it to friendly fire.
Although Reynolds’ loss was devastating, it was not insurmountable. Under the leadership of Major General Abner Doubleday, the soldiers of the Union 1st Corps prevailed during the morning encounter. As the day progressed, however, the Confederates put more men on the field than the Union could muster.
Around noon, elements of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate 2nd Corps began arriving from the north and reversed the course of the conflict. On the Union side, Major General Oliver O. Howard, who was senior to Doubleday, arrived at Gettysburg and took command of the Federal forces in the field. After establishing his headquarters at Cemetery Hill, Howard deployed most of his 11th Corps to extend the line of the 1st Corps northwest of town. Three hours later, Major General Jubal Early’s Division struck the Union right flank hard from the northeast, forcing Howard’s soldiers back toward town. By 4 p.m., the Union forces were in full flight through the streets of Gettysburg. Following the ensuing chaos, during which the Rebels captured many Bluecoats, the retreating Yankees began digging in on Cemetery Hill as more reinforcements arrived.
Upon witnessing the panicked Union retreat, sometime between 5 and 6 p.m. Lee sent General Ewell a verbal message stating that “The enemy is retreating . . . in great confusion. You only need to press those people to gain possession of the heights . . . Do this if possible.” Ewell then advised Lee that his beleaguered troops would need reinforcements to assault the strongly fortified position on Cemetery Hill. Lee sent a courier back to Ewell with the directive that “I regret that my people are not [able] to support his attack, but . . . I wish him to take Cemetery Hill if practicable.” Lee concluded his instructions with an impossible condition. As Ewell advanced against the growing mass of Union troops and artillery atop the hill, he was to “avoid a general engagement.”
Lee’s puzzling orders must have confounded Ewell. He knew full well that leading his small (4,000 men) and exhausted force in a head-on assault against the entrenched Federals on Cemetery Hill would be suicidal; to do so while “avoid(ing) a general engagement” would be impossible. Ewell wisely chose to spare his men and not execute the attack. Ewell’s decision forever tarnished his reputation in the eyes of Southern apologists who claimed the Army of Northern Virginia would have prevailed at Gettysburg if Ewell had followed Lee’s orders and taken Cemetery Hill on July 1.
Despite failing to dislodge Union forces from Cemetery Hill, the Rebels had earned an impressive victory on one of the bloodiest days of fighting in the Civil War. Because both sides reported their losses for the entire three-day battle, it is difficult to determine the number of casualties sustained daily. The best estimates are that the two sides, combined, suffered over 16,000 casualties (killed, wounded, and captured) on the first day. The Union lost about 9,000 soldiers (about 38% of the men engaged) and the Confederacy lost over 6,000 (about 22% of the men engaged). Considered separately, the first day of the Battle of Gettysburg was the twenty-third largest battle of the Civil War as measured by the number of soldiers engaged and it was the twelfth bloodiest in terms of casualties.
For one of the few times during the war, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia enjoyed a numerical advantage (28,000 to 20,000) over their foe. That edge would disappear overnight as the rest of both armies swarmed into the area around Gettysburg to prepare for a monumental showdown over the next two days.
July 2–Attacks on the Flanks
When the sun arose over Gettysburg on July 2, 1863, the lion’s share of the Union Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia converged upon Gettysburg. As the Federals arrived, Meade deployed six of his seven infantry corps in a fish-hook-shaped defensive line along Cemetery Ridge south of town. Anchored at Cemetery Hill (just south of town), the Federal line curved west to Cemetery Ridge (creating the bend of the fishhook) and then stretched south along the ridge for roughly two miles. The only Union infantry corps not in this line was Major General Henry W. Slocum’s 12th Corps, which occupied Culp’s Hill, just east of Cemetery Hill.
Less than a mile to the west of Cemetery Ridge, eight of Lee’s nine infantry corps spread out along Seminary Ridge, paralleling Meade’s position. The lone exception was Major General Richard Ewell’s Corps, positioned east of Slocum’s corps on Culp’s Hill.
As the two generals deployed their troops, Lee seized the initiative and attacked each end of Meade’s line. Lee’s chief subordinate, Lieutenant General James Longstreet, had expressed his preference to goading the Federals to attack the Rebel army when the campaign began in June. When Lee shared his plan to attack Meade’s flanks, Longstreet objected, noting that the Yankees held the advantage because they occupied the higher ground along Cemetery Ridge. Instead, Longstreet proposed to march his 1st Corps around Meade’s left flank, getting to his rear, and then forcing the Union general to turn and fight on grounds of Longstreet’s choosing. Perhaps haunted by concerns about how long his army could continue to live off of the land, Lee dismissed the proposal. Instead, he ordered Longstreet to prepare for the assault.
As Longstreet was preparing for the ordered attack, Union Major General Daniel Sickles moved his 3rd Corps forward out of Meade’s line without orders. The move left Little Round Top—a strategically important hill at the end of Meade’s defenses—unprotected, except for a small signal station. Fortunately for Meade, when Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren, the army’s chief engineer, rode out to inspect Little Round Top, he discovered that the Union left flank was in the wind. Recognizing the urgency of the situation, Warren quickly summoned reinforcements on his own initiative.
At roughly 3:30 p.m., on the southern end of the Confederate line, Rebel artillery began shelling Meade’s left flank. A half-hour later, Ewell’s artillery opened up against Slocum’s forces on Culp’s Hill (at the other end of Meade’s line) creating a diversion as Longstreet’s 15,000 soldiers stormed out of the woods at the southern end of the line. The Rebels went in piecemeal as they enthusiastically executed the poorly coordinated assault. Furious attacks and counter-attacks from both sides during the next several hours immortalized the names of fiercely contested sites including The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, The Slaughter Pen, and Devil’s Den. At the key Federal position on Little Round Top, Confederate gunfire mortally wounded Colonel Strong Vincent, but his beleaguered brigade withstood repeated onslaughts throughout the afternoon and evening. When the fighting subsided that evening, the southern end of Meade’s line had held.
At the other end of the Union line, elements of Richard Ewell’s Corps launched attacks against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill at about 8 o’clock. Initially, the Rebels surprised the men of the 1st and 11th divisions, who had shouldered the brunt of the fighting on the previous day. Bolstered by reinforcements, however, they recovered and drove the Confederates back.
Casualties suffered during the second day of fighting exceeded the frightful numbers of the first day. The best estimates are that Union losses exceeded 10,000 soldiers (killed, wounded, and missing), and the Confederacy lost 6,800 men. The shocking number of soldiers killed on the field that day probably exceeded 2,600. Considered separately, the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg ranks as the tenth bloodiest engagement of the Civil War in terms of casualties.
At the end of the second day of the battle, the bruised and battered Army of the Potomac still held the high ground at Gettysburg. During the night, Meade and his corps commanders held a council of war and decided that their best course of action was to solidify their lines and maintain a defensive strategy as Lee pondered his next move.
After considering his options that night, Lee planned a three-pronged offensive for the next day. Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s cavalry would strike the Union rear; Ewell’s Corps would attack Meade’s left flank; and Longstreet’s Corps would launch a major assault against the right-center of the federal lines.
July 3–Pickett’s Charge
Before daylight on July 3, 1863, Lee rode to Longstreet’s headquarters on the south end of the Confederate lines to share his plans. When Lee arrived, Longstreet informed him that, “I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.” Irritated that Longstreet was still lobbying to avoid a major engagement on grounds of Meade’s choosing, Lee pointed toward Cemetery Ridge and curtly replied, “The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.”
Soon after sunrise, Ewell’s 2nd Corps began its assault against the northern end of Meade’s defenses at Culp’s Hill. What Lee planned as a coordinated attack became an isolated engagement. By the time Longstreet began his operations against the Union center, Henry Slocum’s 2nd Corps had already stymied Ewell’s advance.
At 1 p.m., roughly two hours after Ewell’s rebuff at Culp’s Hill, Confederate artillerists aligned along Seminary Ridge began firing over 160 cannon toward the right-center of Meade’s line. Their Union counterparts on Cemetery Ridge answered with shelling from roughly 80 cannons for about an hour until they ceased firing to conserve ammunition. Taking this as a sign that the Confederate barrage had silenced the Yankee batteries, the Rebel infantrymen began to advance—nearly two hours after the bombardment began.
Longstreet had amassed about 12,500 soldiers for the assault. Major General George E Pickett’s Division, from Longstreet’s Corps, formed the right end of the strike force. Major General Isaac R. Trimble led Pender’s Division (from Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s 3rd Corps) in the center. Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew’s Brigade (from Major General Henry Heth’s Division of the 3rd Corps), on the left, completed the line.
As the Confederate soldiers struck out across the open, undulating field between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, Federal batteries on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top began shelling their flanks. The Rebels soon discovered that their cannoneers had done little to neutralize the Union batteries to their front. As the Confederates advanced toward a copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge, which they had established as their visual objective, Federal artillerists greeted them with a barrage of deadly canister and grapeshot. Adding to their ordeal, Union soldiers, protected by a stone wall, punished them with a torrent of musket fire.
Despite the blistering sheet of hot lead laid down by the Yankees, one group of about 200 Rebel soldiers, led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, penetrated the Union defenses between the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania regiments at a position known as “The Angle,” just north of the “Copse of Trees.” Federal soldiers quickly filled the void and drove the Rebels back, gravely wounding Armistead during the fight. Historians often refer to the site of Armistead’s breach as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy,” symbolically representing the closest the South ever came to winning its independence on the field of battle.
By 4 p.m., the Rebels were in full retreat. Watching the slaughter unfold from Seminary Ridge, Lee reportedly lamented, “It’s all my fault,” as survivors streamed past him.
On the backside of the Union lines, Stuart’s cavalry assault was also unsuccessful. Federal troopers from Brigadier General David McMurtrie Gregg’s 2nd Division and Brigadier General George Armstrong Custer’s Brigade engaged Stuart’s horsemen at a site now known as the East Cavalry Field. Although neither side scored a conclusive victory, the Federal troopers prevented Stuart from threatening the rear of Meade’s lines during Pickett’s Charge.
Casualty rates for the third day of the battle were not as great as the first two days, but they were much more one-sided. The Union suffered about 1,500 losses (killed, wounded, and missing). The Confederacy’s losses may have exceeded 10,000—over one-third of the soldiers engaged. Casualty rates for Pickett’s Charge are fairly reliable. During the ill-fated assault, 5,142 of the roughly 12,500 Confederate soldiers who marched toward Cemetery Ridge were killed on the field (1,123) or wounded (4,019). Many of the wounded later died or became Union prisoners. Reportedly, when Lee ordered Pickett to assemble his division as they returned from the slaughter, Pickett responded, “General, I have no division.”
Lee spent July 4, 1863, preparing for a counterattack that never materialized. By the end of the third day, both armies were badly mauled. Meade saw little to be gained by reversing roles and sending his battered army against the remains of Lee’s forces entrenched along Seminary Ridge. As rains descended on the battlefield that afternoon, Lee began withdrawing his army, concluding the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. For the next few weeks, Meade cautiously pursued Lee’s army as it retreated into Virginia. Following encounters at the Battle of Williamsport (July 6–16, 1863), the Battle of Boonsboro (July 8, 1863), and the Battle of Manassas Gap (July 23, 1863), Meade could not prevent Lee’s escape and called off the chase, much to the dismay of President Lincoln.
Each of the three days of fighting at Gettysburg rank in the top fifteen deadliest battles of the Civil War. Combined, they make up the bloodiest engagement of the conflict. The savage struggle cost the Army of the Potomac 23,055 casualties (killed, wounded, or missing)—over one man out of every four who took part in the engagement. The Army of Northern Virginia reported losses totaling 20,451, but their returns are questionable; their actual casualties may have been nearer to 28,000—over thirty-seven percent of their force. Of the combined 40,000 to 50,000 casualties, 7,058 were battlefield fatalities (3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate). Another 33,264 were wounded (14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate) and an additional 10,790 were missing or captured (5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate).
For the next few weeks, Union doctors treated thousands of wounded men from both armies who were packed into churches, barns, and private homes in and around Gettysburg. Primarily for health reasons, Union burial details quickly interred the bodies of soldiers from both armies left on the battlefields in mass graves. A few months later, workers exhumed the remains of over 3,500 fallen Union soldiers and re-interred them in individual graves in the newly created Soldiers’ National Cemetery on Cemetery Hill. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln dedicated the burial site by delivering his historic Gettysburg Address. In 1871, benevolent associations undertook the daunting task of identifying and returning the remains of 3,320 Confederate soldiers to the South. They re-interred the vast majority of the corpses at Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond, Virginia. They delivered others for burial in local cemeteries in their hometowns.
Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is one of the most visited sites operated by the National Park Service.