The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1–3, 1863), fought in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, was the battle with the largest number of casualties in the American Civil War and is frequently cited as the war's turning point. Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac defeated attacks by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee's invasion of the North.
Following his success at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley for his second invasion of the North, hoping to reach as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia, and to influence Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved just three days before the battle and replaced by Meade.
The two armies began to collide at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division, which was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp's Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett's Charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire at great losses to the Confederate army. Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 Americans were casualties in the three-day battle. That November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.
Shortly after the Army of Northern Virginia won a decisive victory over the Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (April 30 May 6, 1863), Robert E. Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North (the first was the unsuccessful Maryland Campaign of September 1862). Such a move would upset Federal plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly relieve the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg. It would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich Northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much needed rest. In addition, Lee's 72,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, and possibly strengthen the growing peace movement in the North.
Thus, on June 3, Lee's army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg, Virginia. In order to attain more efficiency in his commands, Lee had reorganized his two large corps into three new corps. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet retained command of his First Corps. The old corps of deceased Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson was divided into two, with the Second Corps going to Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell and the new Third Corps to Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. The Cavalry Corps was commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart.
The Union Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted of seven infantry corps, a cavalry corps, and an Artillery Reserve, for a combined strength of about 94,000 men. However, President Lincoln replaced Hooker with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, a Pennsylvanian, because of Hooker's defeat at Chancellorsville and his timid response to Lee's second invasion north of the Potomac River.
The first major action of the campaign took place on June 9 between the opposing cavalry forces at Brandy Station, near Culpeper, Virginia. The Confederate cavalry under Stuart was surprised and nearly routed by the Union I Corps, but Stuart eventually prevailed. The battle, the largest cavalry engagement of the war, proved that for the first time, the Union horse soldier was equal to his Southern counterpart.
By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was poised to cross the Potomac River and enter Maryland. After defeating the Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, Ewell's Second Corps began crossing the river on June 15. Hill's and Longstreet's corps followed on June 24 and June 25. Hooker's army pursued, keeping between the U.S. capital and Lee's army. The Federals crossed the Potomac from June 25 to June 27.
Lee gave strict orders to his army to minimize any negative impacts on the civilian population. Food, horses, and other supplies were generally not seized outright, although quartermasters reimbursing northern farmers and merchants using Confederate money were not well received. Various towns, most notably York, Pennsylvania, were required to pay indemnities in lieu of supplies, under threat of destruction. The most controversial of the Confederate actions during the invasion was the seizure of some forty northern African Americans, a few of whom were escaped slaves but most freemen. They were sent south into slavery under guard.
On June 26, elements of Maj. Gen. Jubal Early's division of Ewell's Corps occupied the town of Gettysburg after chasing off newly raised Pennsylvania militia in a series of minor skirmishes. Early laid the borough under tribute but did not collect any significant supplies. Soldiers burned several railroad cars and a covered bridge, and they destroyed nearby rails and telegraph lines. The following morning, Early departed for adjacent York County.
Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army's cavalry and ride around the east flank of the Union army. Lee's orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals share the blame for the long absence of Stuart's cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. Stuart and his three best brigades were absent from the army during the crucial phase of the approach to Gettysburg and the first two days of battle. By June 29, Lee's army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg (28 miles (45 km) northwest of Gettysburg) to Carlisle (30 miles (48 km) north of Gettysburg) to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.
In a dispute over the use of the forces defending the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to get rid of him, immediately accepted. They replaced him early on the morning of June 28 with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, at the time commander of the V Corps.
On June 29, when Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles (13 km) west of Gettysburg. On June 30, while part of Hill's Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill's brigades, North Carolinians under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg. The memoirs of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, Pettigrew's division commander, claimed that Pettigrew was in search of a large supply of shoes in town, but this explanation may have been devised in retrospect to justify an overly heavy reconnaissance force.
When Pettigrew's troops approached Gettysburg on June 30, they noticed Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford arriving south of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them. When Pettigrew told Hill and Heth about what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Federal force in or near the town, suspecting that it had been only Pennsylvania militia. Despite General Lee's order to avoid a general engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a significant reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, July 1, two brigades of Heth's division advanced to Gettysburg.
General Buford realized the importance of the high ground directly to the south of Gettysburg, knowing that if the Confederates could gain control of the heights, Meade's army would have difficulty dislodging them. He decided to utilize three ridges west of Gettysburg: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge, and Seminary Ridge (proceeding west to east toward the town). These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small division against superior Confederate infantry forces, meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of town at Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp's Hill.
Heth's division advanced with two brigades forward, commanded by Brig. Gens. James J. Archer and Joseph R. Davis. They proceeded easterly in columns along the Chambersburg Pike. Three miles (5 km) west of town, about 7:30 a.m. on July 1, Heth's two brigades met light resistance from vedettes of Union cavalry, and deployed into line. According to the lore, the first Union soldier to fire was Lt. Marcellus Jones. In 1886 Lt. Jones returned to Gettysburg to mark the spot where he fired the first shot with a monument. Eventually, Heth's men reached dismounted troopers from Col. William Gamble's cavalry brigade, who raised determined resistance and delaying tactics from behind fence posts with fire from their breechloading carbines. By 10:20 a.m., the Confederates had pushed the Union cavalrymen east to McPherson Ridge, when the vanguard of the I Corps (Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds) finally arrived.
North of the pike, Davis gained a temporary success against Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler's brigade but was repulsed with heavy losses in an action around an unfinished railroad bed cut in the ridge. South of the pike, Archer's brigade assaulted through Herbst (also known as McPherson's) Woods. The Federal Iron Brigade under Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith enjoyed initial success against Archer, capturing several hundred men, including Archer himself.
Early in the fighting, while General Reynolds was directing troop and artillery placements just to the east of the woods, he fell from his horse, killed by a bullet, which struck him behind the right ear. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command. Fighting in the Chambersburg Pike area lasted until about 12:30 p.m. It resumed around 2:30 p.m., when Heth's entire division engaged, adding the brigades of Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough.
As Pettigrew's North Carolina Brigade came on line, they flanked the 19th Indiana and drove the Iron Brigade back. The 26th North Carolina (the largest regiment in the army with 839 men) lost heavily, leaving the first day's fight with around 212 men. By the end of the three-day battle, they had about 152 men standing, the highest casualty percentage for one battle of any regiment, North or South. Slowly the Iron Brigade was pushed out of the woods toward Seminary Ridge. Hill added Maj. Gen. William Dorsey Pender's division to the assault, and the I Corps was driven back through the grounds of the Lutheran Seminary and Gettysburg streets.
As the fighting to the west proceeded, two divisions of Ewell's Second Corps, marching west toward Cashtown in accordance with Lee's order for the army to concentrate in that vicinity, turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads toward Gettysburg, while the Union XI Corps (Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard) raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the Federal line ran in a semi-circle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg.
However, the Federals did not have enough troops; Cutler, who was deployed north of the Chambersburg Pike, had his right flank in the air. The leftmost division of the XI Corps was unable to deploy in time to strengthen the line, so Doubleday was forced to throw in reserve brigades to salvage his line.
Around 2:00 p.m., the Second Corps divisions of Maj. Gens. Robert E. Rodes and Jubal Early assaulted and out-flanked the Union I and XI Corps positions north and northwest of town. The brigades of Col. Edward A. O'Neal and Brig. Gen. Alfred Iverson suffered severe losses assaulting the I Corps division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson south of Oak Hill. Early's division profited from a blunder made by Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, when he advanced his XI Corps division to Blocher's Knoll (directly north of town and now known as Barlow's Knoll); this represented a salient in the corps line, susceptible to attack from multiple sides, and Early's troops overran his division, which constituted the right flank of the Union Army's position. Barlow was wounded and captured in the attack.
As Federal positions collapsed both north and west of town, Gen. Howard ordered a retreat to the high ground south of town at Cemetery Hill, where he had left the division of Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr as a reserve. Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock assumed command of the battlefield, sent by Meade when he heard that Reynolds had been killed. Hancock, commander of the II Corps and his most trusted subordinate, was ordered to take command of the field and to determine whether Gettysburg was an appropriate place for a major battle. Hancock told Howard, who was technically superior in rank, "I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw." When Howard agreed, Hancock concluded the discussion: "Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field." Hancock's determination had a morale-boosting effect on the retreating Union soldiers, but he played no direct tactical role on the first day.
Gen. Lee understood the defensive potential to the Union if they held this high ground. He sent orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken "if practicable." Ewell chose not to attempt the assault; this decision is considered by historians to be a great missed opportunity.
The first day at Gettysburg, more significant than simply a prelude to the bloody second and third days, ranks as the 23rd biggest battle of the war by number of troops engaged. About one quarter of Meade's army (22,000 men) and one third of Lee's army (27,000) were engaged.
The Union line ran from Culp's Hill southeast of the town, northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles (3 km) along Cemetery Ridge, terminating just north of Little Round Top. Most of the XII Corps was on Culp's Hill; the remnants of I and XI Corps defended Cemetery Hill; II Corps covered most of the northern half of Cemetery Ridge; and III Corps was ordered to take up a position to its flank. The shape of the Union line is popularly described as a "fishhook" formation. The Confederate line paralleled the Union line about a mile (1,600 m) to the west on Seminary Ridge, ran east through the town, then curved southeast to a point opposite Culp's Hill. Thus, the Federal army had interior lines, while the Confederate line was nearly five miles (8 km) in length.
Lee's battle plan for July 2 called for Longstreet's First Corps to position itself stealthily to attack the Union left flank, facing northeast astraddle the Emmitsburg Road, and to roll up the Federal line. The attack sequence was to begin with Maj. Gens. John Bell Hood's and Lafayette McLaws's divisions, followed by Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division of Hill's Third Corps. The progressive en echelon sequence of this attack would prevent Meade from shifting troops from his center to bolster his left. At the same time, Maj. Gen. Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's and Jubal Early's Second Corps divisions were to make a "demonstration" against Culp's and Cemetery Hills (again, to prevent the shifting of Federal troops), and to turn the demonstration into a full-scale attack if a favorable opportunity presented itself.
Lee's plan, however, was based on faulty intelligence, exacerbated by Stuart's continued absence from the battlefield. Instead of moving beyond the Federals' left and attacking their flank, Longstreet's left division, under McLaws, would face Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles's III Corps directly in their path. Sickles was dissatisfied with the position assigned him on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Seeing higher ground more favorable to artillery positions a half mile (800 m) to the west, he advanced his corps—without orders—to the slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road. The new line ran from Devil's Den, northwest to the Sherfy farm's Peach Orchard, then northeast along the Emmitsburg Road to south of the Codori farm. This created an untenable salient at the Peach Orchard; Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys's division (in position along the Emmitsburg Road) and Maj. Gen. David B. Birney's division (to the south) were subject to attacks from two sides and were spread out over a longer front than their small corps could defend effectively.
Longstreet's attack was to be made as early as practicable; however, Longstreet got permission from Lee to await the arrival of one of his brigades, and while marching to the assigned position, his men came within sight of a Union signal station on Little Round Top. Countermarching to avoid detection wasted much time, and Hood's and McLaws's divisions did not launch their attacks until just after 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.
As Longstreet's divisions slammed into the Union III Corps, Meade was forced to send 20,000 reinforcements in the form of the entire V Corps, Brig. Gen. John C. Caldwell's division of the II Corps, most of the XII Corps, and small portions of the newly arrived VI Corps. The Confederate assault deviated from Lee's plan since Hood's division moved more easterly than intended, losing its alignment with the Emmitsburg Road, attacking Devil's Den and Little Round Top. McLaws, coming in on Hood's left, drove multiple attacks into the thinly stretched III Corps in the Wheatfield and overwhelmed them in Sherfy's Peach Orchard. McLaws's attack eventually reached Plum Run Valley (the "Valley of Death") before being beaten back by the Pennsylvania Reserves division of the V Corps, moving down from Little Round Top. The III Corps was virtually destroyed as a combat unit in this battle, and Sickles's leg was amputated after it was shattered by a cannonball. Caldwell's division was destroyed piecemeal in the Wheatfield. Anderson's division assault on McLaws's left, starting around 6 p.m., reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge, but they could not hold the position in the face of counterattacks from the II Corps, including an almost suicidal counterattack by the 1st Minnesota against a Confederate brigade, ordered in desperation by Hancock.
As fighting raged in the Wheatfield and Devil's Den, Col. Strong Vincent of V Corps had a precarious hold on Little Round Top, an important hill at the extreme left of the Union line. His brigade of four relatively small regiments was able to resist repeated assaults by Brig. Gen. Evander Law's brigade of Hood's division. Meade's chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, had realized the importance of this position, and dispatched Vincent's brigade, an artillery battery, and the 140th New York to occupy Little Round Top mere minutes before Hood's troops arrived. The defense of Little Round Top with a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine was one of the most fabled episodes in the Civil War and propelled Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain into prominence after the war.
Just at dark, two of Jubal Early's brigades attacked the Union XI Corps positions on East Cemetery Hill where Col. Andrew L. Harris of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, came under a withering attack, losing half his men; however, Early failed to support his brigades in their attack, and Ewell's remaining division, that of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, failed to aid Early's attack by moving against Cemetery Hill from the west. The Union army's interior lines enabled its commanders to shift troops quickly to critical areas, and with reinforcements from II Corps, the Federal troops retained possession of East Cemetery Hill, and Early's brigades were forced to withdraw.
Jeb Stuart and his three cavalry brigades arrived in Gettysburg around noon but had no role in the second day's battle. Brig. Gen. Wade Hampton's brigade fought a minor engagement with George Armstrong Custer's Michigan cavalry near Hunterstown to the northeast of Gettysburg.
General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the Federal left, while Ewell attacked Culp's Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Union XII Corps troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp's Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works. The Confederates attacked, and the second fight for Culp's Hill ended around 11 a.m., after some seven hours of bitter combat.
Lee was forced to change his plans. Longstreet would command Pickett's Virginia division of his own First Corps, plus six brigades from Hill's Corps, in an attack on the Federal II Corps position at the right center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Prior to the attack, all the artillery the Confederacy could bring to bear on the Federal positions would bombard and weaken the enemy's line.
Around 1 p.m., from 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Army of the Potomac's artillery at first did not return the enemy's fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 Federal cannons added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position. Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1,200 m) to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as "Pickett's Charge". As the Confederates approached, there was fierce flanking artillery fire from Union positions on Cemetery Hill and north of Little Round Top, and musket and canister fire from Hancock's II Corps. Nearly one half of the attackers did not return to their own lines. Although the Federal line wavered and broke temporarily at a jog called the "Angle" in a low stone fence, just north of a patch of vegetation called the Copse of Trees, reinforcements rushed into the breach, and the Confederate attack was repulsed.
There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the Federal right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called "East Cavalry Field" (not shown on the accompanying map, but between the York and Hanover Roads), Stuart's forces collided with Federal cavalry: Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg's division and George A. Custer's brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer's charge, leading the 1st Michigan Cavalry, blunted the attack by Wade Hampton's brigade, blocking Stuart from achieving his objectives in the Federal rear. Meanwhile, after hearing news of the day's victory, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick launched a cavalry attack against the infantry positions of Longstreet's Corps southwest of Big Round Top. Brig. Gen. Elon J. Farnsworth protested against the futility of such a move but obeyed orders. Farnsworth was killed in the attack, and his brigade suffered significant losses.
The armies stared at one another across the bloody fields on July 4, the same day that the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. Lee reformed his lines into a defensive position, hoping that Meade would attack. The cautious Union commander, however, decided against the risk, a decision for which he would later be criticized. He did order a series of small probing actions, including sending the U.S. Regulars over a mile towards the right of the Confederate lines, but they withdrew under artillery fire and Meade decided not to press an attack. A series of sharp exchanges between the opposing skirmish lines merely added more names to the casualty lists. By mid-afternoon, the firing at Gettysburg had essentially stopped, and both armies began to collect their remaining wounded and bury some of the dead. A proposal by Lee for a prisoner exchange was rejected by Meade.
On July 5, in a driving rain, the bulk of the Army of Northern Virginia left Gettysburg on the Hagerstown Road; the Battle of Gettysburg was over, and the Confederates headed back to Virginia. Meade's army followed, although the pursuit was half-spirited. The recently rain-swollen Potomac trapped Lee's army on the north bank of the river for a time, but when the Federals finally caught up, the Confederates had forded the river. The rear-guard action at Falling Waters on July 14 ended the Gettysburg Campaign and added some more names to the long casualty lists, including General Pettigrew, who was mortally wounded.
In a brief letter to Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck written on July 7, Lincoln remarked on the two major Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. He continued:
Halleck then relayed the contents of Lincoln's letter to Meade in a telegram. However, despite repeated pleas from Lincoln and Halleck, which continued over the next week, Meade did not pursue Lee's army aggressively enough to destroy it before it crossed back over the Potomac River to safety in the South.
Some economic historians have pointed to the fact that after the loss at Gettysburg and Vicksburg, the market for Confederate war bonds dropped precipitously. "European investors gave Johnny Reb about a 42 percent chance of winning the war in early 1863 prior to the battle of Gettysburg. ... However, news of the severity of costly Confederate defeats at Gettysburg/Vicksburg led to a sell-off in rebel bonds and the probability of a Southern victory fell to about 15 percent by the end of 1863.
The two armies had suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing). Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate. Many authors cite about 28,000 overall casualties, but Busey and Martin's definitive 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing). The casualties for both sides during the entire campaign were 57,225. There was one documented civilian death during the battle: Ginnie Wade, 20 years old, was shot by a stray bullet that passed through her kitchen in town while she was making bread.
Nearly 8,000 had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench. The ravages of war would still be evident in Gettysburg more than four months later when, on November 19, the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated. During this ceremony, President Abraham Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address re-dedicated the Union to the war effort.