Battle of Gettysburg: Turning Point of the Civil War

Updated on October 2, 2018
EricDockett profile image

Eric enjoys exploring historical events, and has a particular interest in the American Civil War.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War
The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War | Source

The Turning Point of the Civil War

It is a jagged scar running down America’s past, a reminder of the best and worst of our nation. The American Civil War was a battle of ideals and wills, fought by two cultures trying to exist within the same country.

With one side struggling for their right to choose their own path, and the other clinging to a last-ditch effort to hold our young nation together, it would go down as the bloodiest conflict in American history.

For many historians, the Battle of Gettysburg marks the turning point of the Civil War. These three days in history, had they played out differently, may well have altered the world we live in today.

It’s hard to imagine, but the Civil War could have come to a much different conclusion, and seemed well on the way to a Confederate victory at one point. For the first two years of the war, battles raged throughout the southern states, with the Union taking the worst of it in many cases. Something would snap, and turn the tide of the war. That something would be Gettysburg.

What happened at Gettysburg, and why did it happen? What makes Gettysburg so important compared to other Civil War battles, and how close did the Confederacy come to winning the war, long ago during those sweltering July days?

When Was the Battle of Gettysburg?

The Battle of Gettysburg began on the morning of July 1st, 1863, continued through July 2nd, and ended on July 3rd, 1863. The Confederate Army withdrew from the field on the evening of July 4th.1

  • June 30, 1863: Union cavalry arrives at Gettysburg.
  • July 1, 1863: The battle begins when Union cavalry intercepts Confederate infantry marching toward Gettysburg. Fighting escalates throughout the first day, until Union soldiers are forced to retreat.
  • July 2, 1863: Union forces rally as more soldiers arrive on the field and take up a defensive position. Confederate forces attempt to break or turn the Union line but fail.
  • July 3, 1863: Fighting continues on the third day, culminating with a tremendous but failed assault by the Confederates, now known as Pickett's Charge.
  • July 4, 1863: The Confederates prepare for a Union counterattack that never comes. That night the Confederate army leaves the field and begins the retreat back to Virginia.

Who Fought in the Battle?

During the Civil War both the Federal (Union) and Confederate armed forces were made up of several armies. The largest of these armies, and the main armies in the Eastern theater, were the Army of Northern Virginia on the Confederate side, and the Army of the Potomac on the Federal side. These are the two armies that fought at Gettysburg.

Army of Northern Virginia

Allegiance: Confederate States of America

Commander: General Robert E. Lee

Soldiers Engaged in Battle: 71,699 2

Army of the Potomac

Allegiance: United States of America

Commander: General George G. Meade

Soldiers Engaged in Battle: 93,921 2

Why Was the Battle of Gettysburg Fought?

During the summer of 1863 the Army of Northern Virginia, a Confederate States of America force under the command of General Robert E. Lee, began a march to the north with the idea of bolstering supply stocks and threatening Washington D.C., Philadelphia and Baltimore.

Virginia and Maryland had seen brutal fighting thus far in the war. Lee reasoned that by moving the fight north his army could live off the land during the plentiful summer months, taking advantage of the farms and woodlands of rural Pennsylvania. A successful campaign would further erode the already waning patience of the public in the North, and hopefully spur on the growing cry for peace.

There was also the issue of Vicksburg. General Ulysses S. Grant had been battering the southern city since May. A Northern invasion, it was hoped, would draw him away.

The Army of the Potomac, a Union force under General Joseph Hooker, mirrored Lee’s movements in an attempt to stay between the Confederate army and Washington. Hooker resigned on the 28th of June, and Lincoln appointed MG George Meade as his successor only days before the fateful battle.

The two armies clashed several times in Pennsylvania, in relatively minor skirmishes. Then, in a turn of fate, the outermost tentacles of both forces encountered each other near Gettysburg.

Union Army of the Potomac officers, General Meade seated in center.
Union Army of the Potomac officers, General Meade seated in center. | Source

Union vs. Confederate Goals and Strategy

It’s interesting to consider the goals of both the United States and the Confederacy, which were evident in the battle at Gettysburg. The Union, struggling to reclaim a nation, had to find a way defeat the Confederacy in a manner typical of warring armies throughout history. The Union needed to gain control of their enemy, occupy territory, take or destroy cities, devastate the combat capabilities of the opposing forces, and essentially bend the Confederacy to their will.

The Confederacy needed to do no such thing. They simply had to convince the North to quit the fight, and leave the South to their new nation. Aside from where it might directly accomplish that goal (as in threatening Washington), there was little reason for a Confederate force to occupy a Northern city. Nor did they need to smash the Union armies into oblivion.

Lee simply needed to make the war distasteful enough that citizens of the North no longer supported it. An anti-war movement was already brewing, particularly in cities like New York. President Lincoln's popularity and power were wavering, and with an election on the horizon he might soon find himself out of office. A successful Northern invasion might just crack the whole thing open for the Rebels.

Lee had tried this the year before, getting as far as Maryland. That campaign ended with the brutal conflict at Antietam, a fight that saw the most deaths of any single-day battle in American history. Antietam ended in a stalemate, with each side staggering away to fight another day.

But, after an impressive one-sided Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May of 1863, the time seemed right for Lee to march north once again.

Weather During the Battle

Fought in July, the weather during the battle was typical of Pennsylvania summers. We know this because a math professor at the nearby Pennsylvania College (which later became Gettysburg College) named Dr. Michael Jacobs recorded his weather observations three times each day. 5

July 1st, the first day of the fight, was 76 degrees with cloudy skies.

The July 2nd temperature reached a high of 81 degrees, with skies clearing up later in the day.

The third day was again warm and cloudy, with a thunderstorm breaking out later in the day.

Where Is Gettysburg?

The Town of Gettysburg
The Town of Gettysburg | Source

As you can see on the map above, many roads converge at the town of Gettysburg. With two huge armies in the area, a conflict was almost inevitable.

Summary of July 1st: Day One

On June 30th, 1863, Union cavalry under the command of BG John Buford arrived in Gettysburg. While they had no direct orders to defend the little town, when elements of Confederate infantry commanded by MG Henry Heth marched on Gettysburg on the morning of July 1st, Buford nonetheless chose to dig in his heels and make a stand.

Outgunned and out-manned, Buford attempted to establish a defensive position atop nearby Seminary Ridge. Union cavalry fought hard and held the Confederates until Union infantry arrived later in the morning.

What started as a small skirmish soon escalated to a full-scale battle as more forces arrived on the field on both sides. Late in the day the Union line disintegrated, inciting a retreat which sent some soldiers through the town of Gettysburg itself.

Retreating troops met friendly forces making their way to the field, and reassembled along several ridges to the south and east of town.

During the course of the next three days Confederate forces would make several key errors that eventually determined the outcome of the fight. One possible miscommunication meant the lost opportunity to end the battle on day one.

With the U.S. Army in disarray following their retreat, and seeing the tactical advantage of the high ground where the Union forces were amassing, Lee had ordered Corp Commander General Richard Ewell to take a small elevation called Cemetery Hill if possible.

Using his own discretion, Ewell chose not to assault the hill. It was a missed opportunity that allowed the Union to hold a strong defensive position for the remainder of the battle.

Today this is often viewed as a major blunder early in the battle. However, some military historians argue that Ewell's actions must be considered in the light of Lee's previous orders 3, which stated he hoped to avoid a prolonged fight.

Analysis of Ewell's Decison

Summary of July 2nd: Day Two

On the second day of the battle, forces on each side continued to make their way to the field. Union commander MG George Meade was finally on the field as well, having arrived late the previous night.

Meade had taken command of Army of the Potomac only days before the battle at Gettysburg. After their retreat on the first day, Meade had to choose whether or not to continue the fight. He knew Lee well, having met him in battle on numerous occasions, and decided his best option was to establish a strong defensive position against the aggressive Confederate leader.

Union forces took up a defensive line atop Cemetery Ridge in what would become known as the “Fish Hook”. The rough battle lines of the conflict had been drawn.

The Confederates mounted numerous attacks in an attempt to shatter the Union position, without success. After winning the first day, they struggled to dislodge the deeply entrenched Union line.

Much of Lee’s attention focused on the Union left flank, and a pair of hills called Round Top and Little Round Top. These hills abutted the southern end of the Union Fish Hook. Lee believed taking those positions, and thus Cemetery Hill, was the key to the battle.

Lee was also furious over the absence of MG J.E.B. Stuart, who commanded the Confederate cavalry forces. The cavalry were the eyes the army depended on to gather intelligence, and, without Stuart, Lee did not have a clear picture of exactly what to expect.

Even with diversionary attacks on Culp's Hill to the Union right, meant to pin down Meade’s ability to reinforce his left, Confederate efforts to turn the Union left flank failed. Attacks were mistimed and ineffective and, due to poor communication, it appeared Ewell had dropped the ball once again.

Spearheading the Confederate attack on the Union left was the 15th Alabama Infantry regiment, led by Col. William Oates. Slowed and shredded by snipers on their approach to the main battlefield, they still had the strength to assault the Union line on the left flank. If not for the courage of Col. Joshua Chamberlain, a college professor in civilian life, and the 20th Maine Infantry, the Battle of Gettysburg may have ended on Day Two.

The Confederates charged again and again. Beaten back and decimated, out of options and nearly out of ammo, Chamberlain knew he must hold the flank at all costs. He ordered his men to fix bayonets, and led a charge down the hill. The left wing of the 20th Maine wheeled and flanked the men of the 15th Alabama, sending them in a desperate retreat and winning the fight.4

Gettysburg on Day 2.
Gettysburg on Day 2. | Source

Day Three and Pickett's Charge

On the afternoon of July 3rd, General Lee ordered one of the most infamous military moves in history. The Confederates launched a massive cannonade, followed by an infantry assault that is known today as Pickett’s Charge.

Confederate forces numbering 12,500 6 began a three-quarter-mile march to the center of the Union position, taking tremendous casualties from cannon fire along the way.

The Confederate assault on the third day was supposed to have been a three-pronged attack. J.E.B. Stuart had finally shown up, and his cavalry was tasked with riding around the Union position and attacking from the south. Forced to defend his rear, Meade would not have been able to reinforce the main battle line.

But Union Cavalry clashed with Stuart east of the field, preventing his disruptive attack. To make matters worse, the Confederate cannonade had mostly missed the Union line, instead flying overhead and hitting pack animals and supplies.

With no support, and in withering numbers, the Confederate infantry attacked the Union line, and a vicious hand-to-hand fight ensued.

The High Water Mark

How close did the Confederacy come to winning the Civil War? There is much room for debate on which battle and which circumstance most turned the tide toward a Union victory, but the High Water Mark at Gettysburg is surely near the top of the list.

The Confederates did break through the Union line in some places, even getting as far as Union cannons before they were eventually beaten back. The devastation the infantry had sustained during the long march across an open field left them in too few numbers to route the entrenched Union forces.

The furthest point where Confederate soldiers penetrated the Union line is known today as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy, as is marked by a the High Water Mark of the Rebellion Monument. This spot, many historians believe, marks the turning point of the Civil War.

Had the Rebel assault succeeded in breaking the Union line on the third day it is very likely the Confederates would have won the Battle of Gettysburg, and possibly even crushed the Army of the Potomac to the point where it was no longer a valid threat. This would have given Lee free reign in the North, and a straight shot at Washington.

On the other hand, had the second day of fighting gone differently for the Confederates, the assault on the third day would not have been necessary. Had Lee been able to turn the Union left the Army of the Potomac would have crumbled like dominoes.

On the first day, had General Ewell found it practicable to assault Cemetery Hill the battle may have then ended with a Union retreat, leaving Lee's army to wreak havoc in the North.

Of course it is all conjecture, and countless scenarios are easy to imagine. Equally easy to imagine is the impact of a Confederate victory on the future of America itself. Had the events on the third day at Gettysburg played out differently, would there now be two Americas instead of one?

The High Water Mark Monument at the Gettysburg National Military Park.
The High Water Mark Monument at the Gettysburg National Military Park. | Source

Total Casualties

Estimated casualties at the Battle of Gettysburg 2

Total: 51,112

Union

Total: 23,049

Killed: 3,115

Wounded: 14,529

Missing/Captured: 5,365

Confederate

Total: 28,063

Killed: 3,903

Wounded: 18,735

Missing/Captured: 5,425

Why Was the Battle of Gettysburg Important?

The Union victory was a much-needed shot in the arm for the United States. Until then, Robert E. Lee was an almost mythical figure, invincible it seemed. The Union army, and the Northern citizens, now knew he could be defeated.

Historians and military experts debate Lee’s decision to assault the center of the Union line on July 3rd to this day. This “all eggs in one basket” attack would cost him the battle, and he never again attempted an offensive in the north.

Lee himself questioned his decision to launch Pickett’s Charge, which resulted in the destruction of half of his attacking force. As survivors staggered back to the Confederate lines, he reportedly rode out to meet them, remorsefully taking the blame for the disaster. 6

Despite the victory, MG Meade was not without reproach. President Lincoln chastised him for not pursuing Lee and finishing him off, instead allowing the Confederate force to retreat back to Virginia.

It’s an easy accusation to make: the Army of Northern Virginia had been decimated at Gettysburg, and was ripe for the picking. However, the Army of the Potomac, though victorious, had been hit hard as well. Meade’s decision to remain on the battlefield and lick his wounds following Lee’s retreat will be forever argued.

Also up for debate is the impact Gettysburg would have on the outcome of the war. Some claim this was where the Union ultimately won their victory; others call it a temporary setback that should have been a footnote. Either way, history was made in the farms and fields of rural Pennsylvania, near a tiny town called Gettysburg.

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Sources

1. Battle of Gettsyburg, history.com

2. Battle Facts, battlefields.org

3. Did Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell Lose the Battle of Gettysburg? historynet.com

4. Joshua Chamberlain, Wikipedia

5. Battle of Gettysburg Anniversary: How Weather Impacted the Bloodiest Battle of the War, accuweather.com

6. Gettysburg Day Three, civilwaracademy.com

Comments

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    • EricDockett profile imageAUTHOR

      Eric Dockett 

      6 months ago from USA

      Thanks, Karen! Vickburg surrendered on July 4th, the same day Lee retreated from Gettysburg, so it was quite a bad day for the Confederates and part of the reason Gettysburg was so significant.

    • DreamingBoomer profile image

      Karen Kay 

      6 months ago from Jackson, MS

      Excellent recap! Thanks for all this great research and info. It had not dawned on me before that the B of G was during the siege of Vicksburg.

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