Gettysburg National Military Park

The Civil War Soldier

Sgt. Ezra Brown, Co. K, 4th MI Infantry
Sgt. Ezra Brown
Co. K, 4th MI Infantry

The armies that marched into Pennsylvania in the summer of 1863 were well acquainted with each other. The Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by Major General George G. Meade, had been at the literal mercy of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert E. Lee, for nearly nine months prior to opening of the Gettysburg Campaign. Though Union forces often outnumbered Lee's forces on any given battlefield, Lee's brilliant tactics, the leadership of his generals, and the spirit of his troops had secured numerous victories for the Confederacy, among them the humiliating defeat of the Army of the Potomac at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May 1863. Morale among Lee's victorious soldiers was at an all time high and the invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania that summer provided an added boost. Yet the Union Army was far from being a totally dejected lot. Though poor morale and crushed spirits caused hundreds of men to desert the Army of the Potomac, the ranks were still filled with veteran soldiers determined to see the war through. Though their army had suffered terrible losses, most reasoned that these defeats were caused by the constant change in army command, poor generals, and interference from politicians, not by their will to fight. With the Army of Northern Virginia now on Northern soil, the Union men found their roles to be one of liberation, unanimous in their determination to drive Lee's Confederates out of the North. It was enough for many of the deserters to rejoin the ranks as the army set out in pursuit of Lee.

Pvt. John Wesley Knott, Co. A, 6th NC Infantry
Pvt. John W. Knott
Co. A, 6th NC Infantry

The armies that fought the Battle of Gettysburg were similar in many ways. They were organized in a similar fashion of "rank and file" with privates and sergeants, lieutenants and captains, majors and colonels, quartermasters and clerks, teamsters and ordnance officers. Both armies drilled using similar instruction manuals, marched to an almost identical drum beat, used similar weapons, and lived most of their soldier days in tented camps or sleeping under the stars. The soldiers who wore the blue and the gray also shared many similarities. Most had been farmers before the war, thrust into the conflict as volunteers in 1861 with the belief the war would last only a few short months. Others joined later or were conscripted (drafted) into service, convinced that they were needed but uncertain of their place in protecting their homes while being so far away from them. Still others were "substitutes" paid to join the army by others rich enough to afford the $300 neceesary to buy another man's services. Though politics and causes were different, Yank and Reb alike served to protect their homes, their states, and the rights for which each soldier deeply believed just. Most of the soldiers were young men, the average age approximately 21 years. By the summer of 1863, these young men were hardened veterans of war, experienced to the rigors of marching long distances and the horror of battle. For most, war-time service was a brutal journey into manhood.

To find out more about the armies and soldiers that fought the Battle of Gettysburg and the equipment they used, explore the pages below.

The Soldiers of '63The Soldiers of '63
What was life as a soldier like in 1863? Just who were those men who marched in the blue and gray uniforms that third summer of the war? Find out more about them here!

Civil War WeaponsCivil War Small Arms
For a brief period, the rifle-musket was the most advanced weapon available to the Civil War soldier. That rapidly changed. Find out more about the variety of weapons that soldiers relied upon in their deadly work.

The Medal of Honor at GettysburgMedal Of Honor
Who were the Union soldiers won the nation's highest honor at Gettysburg? Check here to find out what each man did to deserve the Medal of Honor.

The CavalryThe Cavalry
The romantic depiction of the cavalry was a dashing young soldier mounted on a handsome horse, charging onto the battlefield armed with only a saber to decide the contest. In reality, cavalrymen played a much more important role as the eyes and ears of the army. Find out more about the soldiers who rode into battle on horse back.

The ArtilleryThe Artillery
Artillery played a decisive role in the outcome of the battle. The cannon that line park avenues today are silent memorials to the men who served them. Find out more about the cannoneers and the big guns at Gettysburg.

A Sea of FacesA Sea of Faces
Photography was still in its infancy in the 1860's, but a lot of soldiers had their portraits taken to be sent home to loved ones. Take a look at some Rebs and Yanks who were at the Battle of Gettysburg, from the collection at Gettysburg National Military Park.

Relics of Soldier Life
View some of the actual items that soldiers used during the American Civil War, now in the museum collection at Gettysburg National Military Park.

National Park ServiceCivil War Flags in NPS Collections
Flags were the pride of every regiment and a banner for which men gave their lives. There were many different types of flags to designate regiments, headquarters, and hospitals. Take a look at some of the original flags in the National Park Service museum collections cared for at some of our nation's best known battlefields.


National Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
97 Taneytown Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325


author: John Heiser
Gettysburg National Military Park
May 1998