The Battle of Gettysburg was fought from July 1-3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The United States Army was commanded by Major General George G. Meade. The Confederate Army was commanded by General Robert E. Lee.
Before the battle, Lee tried to capitalize on the momentum created at his recent victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville by carrying the war into Union territory. He hoped to demoralize the North, strengthen the peace movement, and compel the Lincoln administration to negotiate for peace. In contrast, the Union army, under the recently appointed Meade, was determined to intercept and destroy Lee’s forces.
The battle began with an unplanned encounter on July 1, when elements of the Confederate army collided with Union cavalry west of Gettysburg. Lee quickly focused his army on the engagement, and after a day of heavy fighting, Union forces were pushed back to a defensive line on Cemetery Hill.
On the second day with both armies fully assembled, Lee launched fierce attacks on both Union flanks. Union forces on Little Round Top barely held their ground in a storied defense, while Union forces on the right, despite heavy losses, thwarted Confederate attempts to break their line.
The third day witnessed the infamous Pickett’s Charge, where Lee, reasoning that his two attacks on the Union flanks on the previous day had weakened the Union middle, ordered a frontal assault on the center of the Union line. The Confederates, led by Major General George Pickett in what became known as Pickett’s Charge, suffered heavy casualties and were forced to retreat.
That evening, as the Union Army treated its casualties and rearmed for a resumption of the attack the next morning, Lee slipped away and took his forces across the Potomac River and back into Virginia.
The Battle of Gettysburg had several significant consequences for the broader Civil War. First, it ended Lee’s second invasion of the North, maintaining the strategic initiative for the Union. The defeat curbed Southern morale and proved a blow to Confederate diplomacy, thwarting their hope of securing foreign intervention. Additionally, Gettysburg, with its massive casualty figures – approximately 23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate soldiers killed, wounded, or missing – underscored the devastating human cost of the conflict.
Another consequence was the bolstering of Northern morale, especially in tandem with the victory at Vicksburg. Lincoln used the victory to frame the war’s cause in his Gettysburg Address, transforming it from a war for Union preservation to a struggle for human equality, providing a moral dimension to the Union cause.
Finally, Gettysburg had a profound impact on military leadership on both sides. For the Union, Meade, despite his victory, received criticism for failing to aggressively pursue and destroy Lee’s retreating army. However, the battle provided the Union Army with much-needed confidence that helped in future campaigns. On the Confederate side, the battle damaged Lee’s invincibility aura. His decision to launch Pickett’s Charge has been viewed by many as a grave error of judgement.
The Battle of Gettysburg was a critical event in the American Civil War. It halted Confederate momentum, reinvigorated the Union cause, and reshaped the war’s momentum.