How the Battle of Gettysburg Worked

A Union cannon at Gettysburg National Battlefield. See more pictures of the Civil War.
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The Battle of Gettysburg was perhaps the most famous battle of the Civil War. You've probably heard more about this battle than any other of the war, whether you watched the Civil War TV documentary by Ken Burns, read one of the thousands of books analyzing it or simply spent a week reviewing it in school.

The battle lasted for three days in July 1863 and resulted in 50,000 casualties -- and a resounding victory for the North. The war would last for nearly two more years, but many historians cite Gettysburg as the beginning of the end for the Confederacy. The superstar of the Confederacy, Gen. Robert E. Lee, led his troops to defeat by the North, which was commanded by the relative unknown George Meade. (Ulysses S. Grant, sometimes mistakenly believed to be at the battle because he is considered Lee's Union counterpart, was entrenched in a siege in Mississippi at the time.) So how did Meade outsmart Lee, something that few Union generals had been able to do?

­While there are plenty of theories and conflicting reports about how the Battle of Gettysburg was fought and won, there is little doubt that the battle in that Pennsylvania town had a profound impact on this country. It is a part of the American psyche, even if many people can't remember who won, much less exactly who fought in it.

But why was the Battle of Gettysburg so important, and why is it considered the turning point of the Civil War? In this article, we'll explore the people involved in the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the controversies surrounding many of their legacies. Plus, we'll find out why the battle started because of shoes.

Prelude to Battle

Confederate troops stormed across this field in Picketts Charge.
Confederate troops stormed across this field in Picketts Charge.
Michael Melford/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Looking back, the Union's triumph in the Civil War might seem inevitable. Instead of being a quick war with a few decisive battles, as some had expected, the Civil War became an exhausting war of attrition. This meant that the Union would probably have prevailed eventually, just based on numbers: It had more men and more resources. Even the Battle of Gettysburg's outcome can seem predictable -- Gen. Robert E. Lee in enemy country, facing a Union army firmly entrenched on "good ground." Additionally, the Confederates were outmanned and left blind to the enemy's movements because Lee was out of contact with his cavalry.

But at the time, the outcome was anything but certain. The Confederates had dominated the Union on the battlefields of the Eastern theater. Lee seemed nearly invincible, leading outmanned Southern troops against a lengthy list of Union generals, none of whom were able to outsmart or outmaneuver him. Much of the early action took place in Virginia, which was also the home of the majority of the Confederate generals. These Southern men knew the land they were fighting on, and they were of the mindset that they were defending their homes, which made for a powerful combination. The Confederate generals were also some of the best to come out of key military schools like West Point and Virginia Military Institute (the nearly mythical Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson taught at VMI).

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In co­ntrast, the Union had plenty of bodies but little enthusiasm for the war. The South was defending their home, but most Northerners were disengaged from the action, unless they were called up for duty. It took the outrage of anti-slavery activists to provoke the war, but for the most part, Northerners cared little one way­ or the other about slavery -- at least, they didn't care enough to want to get killed in a war over it. The long line of generals that President Lincoln commissioned to command the Army of the Potomac ranged from unlucky to inept. It wasn't until after Gettysburg that he found Ulysses S. Grant, the general who would take him to the end of the war.

So what made Gettysburg different? How did the North defeat the seemingly invincible Robert E. Lee, and why did it make all the difference in the Civil War's outcome?

The Stonewall Jackson Question

The final charge of the Union forces at Cemetery Hill
The final charge of the Union forces at Cemetery Hill
American School/Bridgeman Art Library/Getty Images

There's a circle of Civil War enthusiasts who focus on the what-ifs in the war. Some call it the "Confederate Fantasy" -- historians hypothesizing that if some event or person had been different, the Confederacy would have won the war. One of the most popular of these is "What if Stonewall Jackson had lived?" Some hard-core "the South will rise again" fans think the Confederacy never would have lost Gettysburg and the war.

Jackson, considered one of the best military minds around and Robert E. Lee's most trusted general, had been killed by friendly fire in the previous major battle, at Chancellorsville. Some historians theorize that had he been alive, he would have been an invaluable counsel to Lee at Gettysburg.

Instead, Lee's other trusted general, James Longstreet, was in charge. There was quite a bit of controversy at the time over Longstreet's role in the Confederate loss at Gettysburg (in fact, it's still being debated). We know that Longstreet favored a defensive strategy -- he wasn't a fan of the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, which cost the Confederate Army 12,000 men it couldn't afford to lose. This discontent may have led to a further rift with Lee over strategy. One of the most famous Civil War books, Michael Shaara's semihistorical novel "The Killer Angels," later made into the movie "Gettysburg," depicts Longstreet as a wise general who did the best he could with seemingly impossible orders from Lee. However, some historians (and some of Longstreet's men) contended that Longstreet willfully disobeyed orders or, at the very least, acted on Lee's orders too slowly.

­Some historians say that the battle would have turned out very differently if Jackson had been in command because he might have either been able to talk Lee out of the strategy or would have acted more quickly and effectively than Longstreet did.­

A Little Town Called Gettysburg

Reenactors open fire on the 142nd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg
Reenactors open fire on the 142nd anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

In terms of location, [url='399110:0']Gettysburg was not planned by either side. Robert E. Lee had brought his army over the Potomac River into Confederate-friendly Maryland and on to Pennsylvania to invade the north. That way, Northerners would have to see the war firsthand, and they might force Lincoln to end it. Lee's plan was to capture Washington and finally get Europe to officially recognize the Confederacy. Up until that point, most of Europe had been tentatively staying out of what they considered a domestic squabble. While the English secretly traded with the Confederacy, they were not willing to provoke the United States by officially recognizing the Confederacy as a separate country. The South needed this recognition to get money from Europe to further finance the war, the new government and the Southern economy.

While in enemy country, the Confederate army was having an even tougher time outfitting and feeding its troops. Confederate Maj. Gen. A.P. Hill, in desperate need of shoes for his men, pursued a lead that there were shoes in Gettysburg, Pa., just over the state line from Maryland. Quite a few roads crossed in Gettysburg, and the Confederates approached the town from the west. They weren't aware that the Union cavalry was also in town, with the rest of the Union Army only a few miles away. To the south of town lay the hills that would make all the difference in the battle -- the high ground that both armies wanted to fight on for protection and the best view of their enemy's position.

Another controversial what-if of the Battle of Gettysburg is "What if Lt. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart had been in contact with Lee?" Stuart led the Confederate cavalry, known as the eyes and ears of the Southern army. He had humiliated more than one Union general by riding around the entire Army of the Potomac with his troops, providing Lee with information on its whereabouts and strength. Stuart was on one of those rides as the Battle of Gettysburg began but was unable to send messages to Lee. He was surprised to learn that the Union army was even on the north side of the Potomac River, much less so close to the Confederate Army.

­In the next section, we'll discuss what actually happened on the battlefield during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Day One

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days -- July 1-3, 1863. Each day has a basic highlight:

  • Day One: The Confederate Army arrived and ran into Union cavalry. The Union was driven from the town of Gettysburg to the hills south of town, but the Confederates did not drive the Union troops from the heights.
  • Day Two: Lee attacked the Union position from the left and right sides. Both attacks failed.
  • Day Three: Lee attacked the center of the Union line. The attack failed.

Let's take a look at each day.

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Day One

On June 30, Union Maj. Gen. John Buford had arrived with two brigades of cavalry. He spied the Confederate Army's approach from atop a Lutheran seminary. (The Confederates would use the same vantage point a day later.) He sent word to Maj. Gen. John Reynolds, whose corps was about six miles away. Gen. George Meade, who had been given command of the Union army two days earlier, was another six miles behind Reynolds at his headquarters in Taneytown, Md. At dawn on July 1, Buford's cavalry fought Confederates led by Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, who had approached Gettysburg with General Hill to obtain the shoes.

By about 8:30 a.m., the Union cavalry was barely holding on and had retreated to McPherson's Ridge when Reynolds approached with his infantry. Reynolds, considered by many to be the best general in the Union Army, sent word to Meade to send reinforcements. Reynolds himself led his troops to reinforce Buford, but he was killed almost as soon as he arrived on the battlefield. (Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock succeeded him in command of the battle, and the command of Reynolds' corps went to Abner Doubleday, later of baseball fame.)

By noon, the remaining federal forces had to abandon Gettysburg for the hills to the south of town. When the Confederate troops pressed on, they ran into the fierce 1,800-man Iron Brigade, which pushed them back (the Iron Brigade would suffer 1,200 casualties that day). This allowed the Union troops time to amass on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill outside of town. That afternoon, Heth attacked the southern end of the Union flank, while Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes confronted the northern end. Neither knew how large of a force he was engaging.

At this point, yet another Civil War what-if comes up. This time, it's "What if Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell had pushed?" Ewell is blamed for not aggressively pursuing the Union line on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, which left the Union on high ground. There is some controversy over whether Lee had been strong enough in his message to Ewell to take the ground. Some historians say that it's 20/20 hindsight that Ewell could have easily pushed the Union line from the high ground; others say he was too timid.

Either way, Day One of the Battle of Gettysburg ended with the Union on high ground, placed by Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock along Cemetery Ridge north around Culp's Hills. The Confederates suffered nearly 8,000 casualties that day, while the Federals lost 9,000.

Gen. Longstreet arrived on the scene that night and suggested that Lee take the troops north around the Union Army to find high ground on the way to Washington. That way, the Union would have to attack them on ground of their choosing or allow the Confederates to take the capital. Lee refused to disengage the enemy. Longstreet would continue to argue against all of Lee's non-defensive tactics -- and would also possibly disobey his commander's orders.

Day Two

The next day, the Confederate Army awoke to find that the rest of the Union Army had arrived at Gettysburg. They were placed in position by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, who had been sent up a day earlier by Meade to command the battle. The Union's position was in the shape of a fishhook, curving around Culp's Hill in the North, snaking around Cemetery Hill, down the Cemetery Ridge and -- by the end of the day -- ending in a loop around Little Round Top.

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Lee sent Ewell's corps to attack the Union right, around Cemetery and Culp's Hills. He then dispatched Longstreet's corps to attack the Union left, at the northern end of Cemetery Ridge. The plan was to first draw Union troops away from the left flank, leaving them vulnerable to Longstreet's attack. The Union would have to move its troops back to the left flank, leaving the right flank open to Ewell's full attack, causing both flanks to crumble.

Ewell's attack was delayed, as was Longstreet's, so the plan didn't take effect until late in the afternoon. Once again, Longstreet's approach is controversial -- some historians question if he intentionally moved slowly because he didn't believe in the plan. However, there is also some evidence that he was simply surprised by a Union commander, Daniel Sickles. Sickles, who was at the downward slope of Cemetery Ridge, felt exposed because he saw higher ground to his left. In an attempt to protect his flank, he moved his two divisions, including Brig. Gen. William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade, forward into an area known as the Peach Orchard. When Longstreet approached to attack Cemetery Ridge, he ran into Sickles a half mile in front of the ridge. This attack, which spread from the Peach Orchard to the nearby Wheat Field and Devil's Den, resulted in some of the worst fighting of Gettysburg.

As Barksdale's brigade broke through in the Peach Orchard, Meade's chief of engineers, Union Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, realized that just beyond Sickles' position was the hill Little Round Top, which had prompted Sickles' move. If Longstreet's men got around Sickles, they could take Little Round Top and be in a position to fire on the Union line at will. Warren alerted Col. Strong Vincent, who placed his 20th Maine, led by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, on Little Round Top. Chamberlain and his men withstood two hours of attacks. After losing more than a third of his men, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge that saved the Union flank -- this became one of the most famous events in the Battle of Gettysburg.

On the other side of Sickles, another regiment had to protect the gap he had created by moving forward. Maj. Gen. Hancock ordered the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota to slow the attack until reinforcements could arrive. Despite losing all but 47 men, the Minnesotans succeeded. Longstreet's men would continue in their attach, ending Gen. Edward Johson's assault on the Union left.

In all, each side lost more than 9,000 in casualties on the second day of the battle.

Lee decided that he had weakened the Union flanks enough that if he attacked the center the next day, it wouldn't be strong enough to withstand another attack. Longstreet didn't agree.

Day Three

Before the sun rose on July 3, the Federal Twelfth Corps attacked at the base of Culp's Hill to regain the ground that the Confederates had captured the previous day. By retaking these trenches, the Union Army had foiled Lee's hope of hitting the Union's right flank, so he concentrated his attack on what what would come to be known as Pickett's Charge. Confederate Maj. Gen. George Pickett was excited to make a name for himself because his division had missed much of the early action at Gettysburg. So, on the third day of the battle, he jumped at the chance to lead the Charge. The charge of 15,000 men was technically Longstreet's Charge (with Pickett's division and two of A.P. Hill's), but Pickett led the attack with his 5,500 soldiers.

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Longstreet once again protested to Lee about the attack that morning, pointing out that the troops would have to cross an open field that was three-quarters of a mile long. The Union could watch them -- and fire at them -- from their vantage point on Cemetery Ridge. Lee, however, contended that the Union had almost been beaten the day before, and they would be too weak to sustain the charge in the center if the Confederate artillery bombarded the Union line. Whether this disagreement influenced Longstreet's handling of the day remains a point of debate among historians.

In the early afternoon, the Confederate and Union artilleries exchanged fire for about two hours, but the Union stopped firing early on. The Union's chief of artillery, Gen. Henry J. Hunt, correctly strategized that he could trick the Confederates into believing the Union didn't have enough firepower. But they actually had had plenty of reserve ammunition to fire as the Confederate troops crossed the open field.

Around 3 p.m., Longstreet ordered Pickett's three brigades, with Hill's six brigades behind him, to charge Cemetery Ridge. Historian James M. McPherson summed up it up this way: "Pickett's charge represented the Confederate war effort in microcosm: matchless valor, apparent initial success, an ultimate disaster" [source: McPherson]. Of the nearly 15,000 Confederates in the charge, only about half came back. Of the 5,500 men in Pickett's Division, 224 were killed, 1,140 wounded and 1,499 surrendered. He lost all 13 of his colonels.

In the end, only one Confederate brigade, Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead's, made it to the top of the ridge. This is sometimes referred to as the "high-water mark of the Confederac­y." Armistead was shot down by Union troops shortly after reaching the top. His best friend, Winfield Scott Hancock, who led the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge, was also seriously wounded in the battle.

Shortly after Armistead was shot down, Pickett's Charge mostly fell apart. With the Confederate troops repulsed, the Confederates who were able to stumble back across the field (without getting killed) regrouped disjointedly -- and eventually retreated.

­

Results of the Battle of Gettysburg

The cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park
The cemetery at Gettysburg National Military Park
Dennie Cody/Taxi/Getty Images

Of the 88,000 Northern troops in the battle, more than 23,000 were killed or wounded, about 26.1 percent. Of 75,000 Confederate troops, more than 28,000 were killed or wounded, approximately 37.3 percent. More than 7,000 men died over the course of those three days. More important for the war, however, the Confederate Army was forced to retreat back to Virginia and would not return to the North. That eased tensions for Northerners worried that the war was coming to their doorstep, and it ensured that Robert E. Lee would not capture Washington, D.C., and force a peace from Lincoln.

The Battle of Gettysburg did not end the war. Some in the North, including Lincoln, blamed Gen. George Meade for not pursuing the defeated Confederate Army and for allowing it to cross the Potomac and regroup. In fact, Lincoln would fire Meade shortly after the battle because of this. However, some historians argue that the Union Army had suffered greatly at Gettysburg, too, and may not have been physically able to pursue the enemy, especially since Meade had lost two of his top generals, Reynolds and Hancock.

Civil War After Gettysburg

The defeated Confederate Army (under the command of General Robert E. Lee) retreats from the battlefield after the Battle of Gettysburg, July 4, 1863.
The defeated Confederate Army (under the command of General Robert E. Lee) retreats from the battlefield after the Battle of Gettysburg, July 4, 1863.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Where was Ulysses S. Grant? While the Battle of Gettysburg was being fought, another, much longer, fight was taking place in Mississippi. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant led a 47-day siege on Vicksburg that ended with the town's surrender on July 4, 1863 -- the day after the Battle of Gettysburg ended. Perhaps less theatrically dramatic than Gettysburg, Vicksburg was equally, if not more, important to the Union.

By taking control of Vicksburg, Grant concluded a Western campaign that reclaimed the Mississippi River, a vital trade route, for the North. Additionally, it helped to cut the Confederacy in two, which made supplying the Southern troops that much more difficult. It's often overshadowed by Gettysburg's more symbolic victory, but Vicksburg may be the real reason July 1863 is regarded as the turning point of the war.

Regardless, the Civil War continued for another two years. The South would win more battles, but Lincoln's new general, Ulysses S. Grant, was much more willing to play the numbers against Lee, which the previous line of generals had been unwilling or unable to do. While considered a butcher by some, Grant would not back down after a Union defeat -- he would simply regroup and continue pursuit. He was unlike anyone Lee had faced before, and it would eventually spell the demise of the Southern Army and the Confederacy.

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More Great Links

Sources

  • "American Civil War." Encyclopedia Britannica. 2007. Encyclopedia Britannica Online. http://search.eb.com/eb/article-9006104.
  • Foote, Shelby. "Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign." Random House, Inc.: 1963
  • Gettysburg.com. http://www.gettysburg.com/
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  • Jennie Wade House Web site http://www.jennie-wade-house.com/
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