The Civil War In Its Third Year
Fought during the first three days of July 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg was one of the most critical battles of the war and occurred at a time when the fate of the nation hung in the balance, the summer of 1863. Despite promising victories on the battlefield in 1862, the Union cause had suffered several reversals most notably in the eastern theater. The Confederacy's most victorious army, the Army of Northern Virginia, had successfully thwarted numerous Union threats against the Confederate capitol of Richmond. Outnumbered and out gunned, this army, under the guidance of General Robert E. Lee, had won strategically important victories at Fredericksburg in 1862 and Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863. By that June, Lee's army enjoyed a surge of confidence in itself having frustrated the much larger Union Army of the Potomac, and the high casualties that resulted cast a pall over the North. President Lincoln had appointed commander after commander to no avail- Lee defeated each and every one. There was one bright spot for the Union cause that summer- the Union Army under General Ulysses S. Grant had encircled Vicksburg, Mississippi, the last great Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River and it was assured to fall into Union hands. As critical as Vicksburg was, President Lincoln and his Confederate counterpart Jefferson Davis, knew all too well that events in Virginia were going to decide the outcome of the conflict.
General Robert E. Lee was not ready to sit idle and wait for the next Union thrust after Chancellorsville. He had communicated with Richmond for several months on his desire to make another invasion of the North and by late May saw an opportunity to take the initiative while Union forces appeared to be in disarray. Lee's objectives were quite simple: take the war out of Virginia so that the land could recover, a necessary measure to provide relief to farms and farmland devastated by battle and foraging armies, and to gather supplies for his hungry army. His army's movement north of the Potomac River would not only force the Union Army out of Virginia, but hopefully also draw Union troops away from the ongoing siege of Vicksburg. Once his army had raided northern territory, he could gather his troops for battle in an area to his liking where advantages of position could force the Union to attack and Lee counterattack as opportunities were presented. Politically, Lee reasoned a conclusive victory on northern soil would add weight to the growing Northern peace movement, apply pressure to the Lincoln administration to end the war and sue for peace, and provide sufficient reason for official recognition of the Confederacy by European powers. Only the political diplomacy of the Lincoln administration had kept England and France from recognizing the southern government as an independent nation. Lee's argument was reasonable to Jefferson Davis and though the Confederate president was nervous about Richmond not being fully protected by Lee's forces, he approved the plan.
Hooker approved a plan to probe Lee's defenses and on June 9, the army's cavalry under General Alfred Pleasanton made a surprise attack on General "JEB" Stuart's cavalry camps near Brandy Station, Virginia. Pleasanton's troopers surprised Stuart, but withdrew when Confederate infantry were sighted approaching the battlefield. From this information, Hooker realized that Lee's forces were no longer concentrated in front of him at Fredericksburg. Yet, indecision seemed to strike General Hooker again. He waited for nearly a week before ordering his troops to break camp and then marched cautiously northward, keeping his army between Washington and the suspected Confederate route of march. By this time, Lee's troops had already defeated a Union force at Winchester, Virginia, and crossed the Potomac River into Maryland.
Confederates ford the Potomac River, drawn by Confederate veteran Allen C. Redwood.
(Battles & Leaders)
|"It has been said that the morale of an army is to numbers three to one. If this be true, the Army of Northern Virginia was never stronger than on entering Pennsylvania that summer." - General Henry Heth|
For Lee's men who had been living for months on reduced rations, Maryland and Pennsylvania were bursting with plenty. "I can hardly believe that a rebel army has actually left poor Virginia for a season," wrote Major Eugene Blackford of the 5th Alabama Infantry. "Of course there is no end of milk and butter which our soldiers enjoy hugely." Encounters with the civilian population of Maryland and Pennsylvania made for good subject matter in letters home such as that of Private William McClellan of the 9th Alabama Infantry, who described Pennsylvanians as, "the most ignorant beings of the world. They don't care how long the war lasts so they are not troubled." Like many of his comrades, McClellan especially detested the females who, "would not look at a Rebel, they would turn up their nose and toss their heads to one side as contemp(t)uously as if we were high way Robers."
A meal on the march, by Allen C. Redwood.
(Battles & Leaders)
Confederates invade a northern store.
This first encounter was not without a bloody mishap. A small squad from the 21st Pennsylvania Emergency Cavalry was chased out of town and Private George Sandoe was shot and killed, the first official casualty of the coming battle. Early did not tarry for long in Gettysburg, but moved on toward York and Columbia where he was stopped by Pennsylvania militia that burned the bridge over the Susquehanna River. Meanwhile other Confederate forces had occupied a large area of south central Pennsylvania and some had even closed on Harrisburg, threatening the state capitol.
The slow pursuit of Lee by the Army of the Potomac not only alarmed War Department officials but shocked governors of northern states who clamored for something to be done to stop the rebel invasion. Political pressure on the Lincoln administration added to the tug of war between General Hooker and the US War Department, which finally ended on June 28 as the Army of the Potomac concentrated at Frederick, Maryland. Completely frustrated by the mistrust and lack of support from War Department officials, General Hooker requested to be relieved of command, which was quickly granted.
Major General George Gordon Meade was ordered to take command of the army. "I have been tried and condemned", the surprised general remarked after receiving word of his appointment. Using traces of information known on Lee's whereabouts and objectives, Meade decided to send the army north to feel for the enemy and draw Lee into battle on a defensive line he wanted to establish on Pipe Creek, Maryland. The very next day, the Army of the Potomac marched out of their camps to search for the Confederates in Pennsylvania.
On June 30, Confederate troops left their camps at Cashtown and marched toward Gettysburg in search of supplies. Upon reaching the edge of Gettysburg, scouts spied a column of Union cavalry south of town, closing fast. Under orders not to initiate a battle, the Confederates returned to Cashtown where they reported the encounter to their commander, Lt. General A.P. Hill. Hill agreed to send two divisions of his corps toward Gettysburg the next day to investigate the arrival of the mystery cavalrymen and the stage was set for the opening of the battle on July 1st, 1863.
The southern victory of July 1 was not a decisive one. General Lee took the initiative to attack the following day, July 2, 1863, which would be the bloodiest day of the battle.
|"A most terrible day..."|
The outcome still undecided, General Lee chose July 3 to make one last effort to break the Union line and give the Confederacy its most needed victory. It would steep one of his generals in controversy and give another, George Edward Pickett, lasting fame.
|"I will strike him there."|
The departure of the armies on July 5th did not signal the end of the struggle at Gettysburg. Homes, churches and farm buildings were filled with wounded soldiers, left to the care of army surgeons, Gettysburg doctors and civilians. Crops, fences, and buildings were destroyed, some houses ransacked. The landscape was covered with carcasses of horses and mounds of earth that covered the fallen, many in graves so shallow that rain washed away the soil to reveal hands, arms, and heads protruding from the ground. More died everyday. Despite the efforts of christian agencies and neighbors, it would be years before Adams County citizens could recover from the effects of the battle and many never did. They packed their belongings, sold their property, and moved away from this blighted land that held nothing but sad scenes and horrifying memories. Others rebuilt their disrupted lives and began anew. And there were some who made efforts to memorialize the men who fell on this great battlefield.
||"the last full measure of devotion..."|
"The world... can never forget what they did here."
Participants, bystanders, and intellectuals all attempted to put the story of this great event into words. For most soldiers, the battle was summed up in letters and diaries written in the hours, days and weeks following the close of the campaign. Civilians, too, shared their stories. Historians and scholars discussed and analyzed army movements and controversies, and as time passed Gettysburg's importance grew. Veterans returned to walk the place where they had faced death on portions of battlefield that had been purchased for preservation by a citizen's group determined to preserve the history of the battle and the scars left on the Pennsylvania countryside. The veterans placed their monuments as silent testimony to the sacrifices of their former units. Gettysburg became a gathering place for these old soldiers, 54,000 in 1913 for the 50th Anniversary of the battle. Confederate and Union veteran told and retold the old stories and walked arm in arm over what was once a killing ground. We are fortunate today to have their stories, testimony that bears out the importance of the Battle of Gettysburg and the spirit of unity in a nation undivided.
|Voices of Battle|
| The Battle Begins | "A most terrible day..." | "I will strike him there." | The Last Full Measure |
| The Battle of Gettysburg in Detail |
| Army Organization | US Order of Battle | CS Order of Battle | The Civil War Soldier |
| Voices of Battle | Camp Letterman | Medal of Honor | The Great Reunion | The Book Shelf |
Gettysburg National Military Park Home Page
Sponsored by the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. All rights are reserved. Material on this site may not be duplicated without the consent of the National Park Service.
National Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
97 Taneytown Road
Gettysburg, PA 17325
Experience your National Parks on the World Wide Web at ParkNet.
Author: John Heiser, GETT
Date: September 1998/2004