Between 1861 and 1865, Union and Confederate armies clashed in the American Civil War, which left 2.4 million soldiers dead and millions more wounded. In the summer of 1863, Confederate troops were making only their second expedition north. Their aim was to reach Harrisburg or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in an effort to bring conflict out of Virginia, divert northern troops from Vicksburg – where Confederates were also under siege – and to gain recognition of the Confederacy by Britain and France.
On 1 July 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army and George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac met in a rural town, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and for 3 days fought in the deadliest and most significant battle of the Civil War.
Here are 10 facts about the Battle of Gettysburg.
1. General Ulysses S. Grant was not at Gettysburg
General Ulysses S. Grant, leader of the Union Army, was not at Gettysburg: his troops were in Vicksburg, Mississippi, engaged in another battle, which the Union would also win on 4 July.
These two Union victories marked a change in the tide of the Civil War in favour of the Union. The Confederate Army would win future battles, but ultimately, none would bring them victory in the war.
2. President Lincoln appointed a new general days before the battle
General George Meade was installed by President Lincoln 3 days before the battle, as Lincoln had not been impressed by Joseph Hooker’s reluctance to pursue the Confederate Army. Meade, in contrast, immediately pursued Lee’s 75,000-strong army. Eager to destroy the Union Army, Lee arranged for his troops to assemble in Gettysburg on 1 July.
Union troops, led by John Buford, assembled on low ridges in the northwest of the town, but they were outnumbered and southern troops were able to drive the Union Army south through the town to Cemetery Hill on this first day of battle.
3. More Union troops assembled after the first day of battle
Commander of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps, Richard Ewell, declined General Robert E. Lee’s command to attack on Union troops at Cemetery Hill on the first day of the battle, as he felt the Union position was too strong. As a result, Union troops, under the command of Winfield Scott Hancock, had arrived by dusk to fill out the defensive line along Cemetery Ridge, known as Little Roundtop.
Three more Union corps would arrive overnight to strengthen its defenses. The estimated troops at Gettysburg were almost 94,000 Union soldiers and about 71,700 Confederate soldiers.
4. Robert E. Lee ordered an attack on Union troops on the second day of battle
The next morning, 2 July, as Lee assessed the filled-out Union troops, he decided against advice from his second-in-command James Longstreet to wait and play defence. Instead, Lee ordered an attack along Cemetery Ridge where Union soldiers stood. The intent was to attack as early as possible, but Longstreet’s men were not in position until 4 pm.
For several hours, bloody fighting ensued, with Union soldiers in a formation shaped like a fishhook that stretched from a nest of boulders known as Devil’s Den into a peach orchard, a nearby wheat field, and on the slopes of Little Roundtop. Despite significant losses, the Union Army was able to hold off the Confederate Army another day.
5. The second day was the bloodiest of the battle
With over 9,000 casualties on each side on 2 July alone, the 2-day total now stood at nearly 35,000 casualties. By the end of the war, casualties would be an estimated 23,000 northern and 28,000 southern soldiers dead, wounded, missing or captured, making the Battle of Gettysburg the deadliest engagement of the American Civil War.
6. Lee believed his troops were on the brink of victory by 3 July
After a heavy second day of fighting, Lee believed his troops were on the brink of victory and renewed attacks on Culp’s Hill early in the morning of 3 July. However, Union forces pushed back a Confederate threat against Culp’s Hill during this 7-hour fight, regaining a strong position.
7. Pickett’s Charge was a disastrous attempt to break Union lines
On the third day of fighting, Lee ordered 12,500 troops, led by George Pickett, to attack the Union centre on Cemetery Ridge, requiring them to walk almost a mile across open fields to attack the Union infantry. As a result, the Union army was able to hit Pickett’s men from all sides, with the infantry opening fire from behind as regiments hit the Confederate army’s flanks.
Almost 60% of the soldiers involved in Pickett’s Charge were lost, with the survivors retreating to the defensive line as Lee and Longstreet scrambled to reassemble their men after this failed attack.
8. Lee withdrew his defeated troops on 4 July
Lee’s men had been hit hard after 3 days of battle, but they remained in Gettysburg, anticipating a fourth day of fighting that never arrived. In turn, on 4 July, Lee withdrew his troops back to Virginia, defeated, and Meade did not pursue them in their retreat. The battle was a crushing defeat for Lee, who lost over a third of his Army of Northern Virginia – some 28,000 men.
This loss also meant the Confederacy wouldn’t gain foreign recognition as a legitimate state. Lee offered his resignation to Confederacy president Jefferson Davis, but it was refused.
9. The Confederate Army would never again venture into the north
After this heavy defeat, the Confederate Army never attempted to cross into the north again. This battle is considered to be a turning point in the war, as the Confederate Army retreated back to Virginia and struggled to win any significant future battles, with Lee eventually surrendering on 9 April 1865.
10. The Union victory at Gettysburg renewed public spirit
There had been a string of losses leading up to the battle which had left the Union weary, but this victory bolstered public spirits. Despite enormous casualties on both sides, northern support of the war was renewed, and by the time Lincoln delivered his infamous Gettysburg Address in November 1863, the fallen soldiers were set to be remembered as fighting for freedom and democracy.