At the beginning of July 1863, with the American Civil War well into its third year of conflict, the Confederate and Union forces clashed near the small town of Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most famous battle of the American Civil War and is widely viewed as a turning point. But why was this battle so significant?
A string of Confederate victories before this point including Fredericksburg (13 December 1862), and Chancellorsville (at the beginning of May 1863) had encouraged General Robert E. Lee, the leader of the Southern forces to move forward with his plan to invade north of the Mason-Dixon Line.
The Union army was led by General George G. Meade who was newly appointed after his predecessor General Joseph Hooker was relieved of command.
Towards the end of June, the two armies realised that they were within a day’s march of one another and converged in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The town of Gettysburg did not have military significance, rather it was the point where a number of roads converged. On a map, the town resembled a wheel.
On 1 July the advancing Confederates clashed with the Union’s Army of the Potomac. The next day saw even more intense fighting as the Confederates attacked the Union soldiers from both the left and the right.
On the final day of the battle, as the union paused their artillery fire, Lee ordered a confederate attack emerging from the treeline. The assault, known as “Pickett’s Charge” was devastating for the Southern army, resulting in thousands of casualties. Whilst they did manage to pierce the Union lines, Lee was forced to withdraw marking his invasion of the North as a failure.
Why was the battle so significant?
The main reason why the Battle of Gettysburg was so significant is that it marked a change in momentum within the course of the war. Due to the fact that the South lost this battle and subsequently the war, there is a perception that the Battle of Gettysburg decided the war. This would be an overstatement. However, the battle did indeed mark a tipping point where the Union gained an advantage.
The battle served as a transition from the South being well on their way to independence, to the Confederates beginning to cling to a declining cause.
Ultimately, the outcome of the war would be decided within the hearts and minds of the people. The Union needed the American public to stand behind Lincoln in order to be able to win the war. After a string of devasting defeats for the Union, victory at Gettysburg inspired confidence for their cause and prevented an invasion of the north. This was important for morale which was underscored and immortalised in the Gettysburg Address several months later.
The Battle of Gettysburg also emphasised the scale and cost of the war. The casualties on both sides and the scope of the battle demonstrated just how resource-heavy winning the war would be. It was the largest battle ever fought in North America with an estimated 51,000 casualties in total.
There were more casualties in the two years after the Battle of Gettysburg than in the two years before, so the war was far from over at this point, yet it was from here that the Union began to gather momentum that led to their eventual victory.