Pennsylvania: Gettysburg Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

Gettysburg National Military Park is a 3,802-acre site that includes the entire U.S. Civil War battlefield of Gettysburg.

Site Office

Gettysburg National Military Park

97 Taneytown Road

Gettysburg, PA 17325

ph.: (717) 334-1124

Web site: www.nps.gov/gett/

Gettysburg sits at a geographical crossroads, unspectacular to the casual observer passing through. Even so, the quiet town has played a significant role in the history of the United States. For three days in July, 1863, it was the site of a U.S. Civil War clash that most scholars call the greatest battle ever to take place in the Western Hemisphere. Along with the simultaneous fall of Vicksburg, Mississippi, the Battle of Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end for Confederate hopes–the turning point that led to the Union victory in 1865.

The Civil War

The Civil War moved into its third year in 1863, progressing much as it had the previous two years, with a series of Confederate victories over Union forces still trying to find the right combination of leadership and strategy. Things were starting to change on the western front, however, as Union general Ulysses S. Grant had surrounded Vicksburg, threatening to topple the final major Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River.

Confederate general Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia remained dominant on the eastern front, defeating Joseph Hooker’s Army of the Potomac in early May at Chancellorsville, Virginia, despite being outnumbered. Lee was confident when he met with Confederate president Jefferson Davis in mid-May to discuss the Vicksburg situation. Though Davis wanted to send some of his eastern troops to Mississippi to try to dislodge Grant, Lee had other ideas, instead convincing the Confederate president to allow him to launch an attack into Union territory. The attack would serve two purposes. Hooker’s troops still sat on the Rappahannock River threatening the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia; Lee wanted to drive him north to defend his own capital. Lee also felt that if he succeeded, Grant would be forced to abandon Vicksburg in order to protect northern soil.

Events Leading to the Battle of Gettysburg

Confederate movements toward the Pennsylvania state line began in June with a series of successful skirmishes led by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry. Lee’s seventy thousand men moved northward steadily, split into three separate corps: one led by James Longstreet, another by A. P. Hill, and the last by Richard Ewell. Hooker was unsure of Lee’s intentions as he marched east of the Confederate forces. He would never have a chance to uncover those intentions, however; U.S. president Abraham Lincoln replaced him on June 27 with George Gordon Meade.

Lee’s three corps closed in on Gettysburg as July 1, 1863, dawned. Some of his troops had actually passed through the town four days earlier, but found few supplies. Now, however, a rumor circulated that somewhere in the town was a storehouse of shoes, invaluable to Confederate soldiers who had gone barefoot for months. As the rebel infantry under Harry Heth sat just to the north of the town, Union cavalrymen led by John Buford coincidentally approached from the south. Throughout June, Northern officials were unsure of the exact whereabouts of the main Confederate army–when townspeople told Buford that Confederates were in the area, he sent scouts north and west to assess their forces.

When they returned the scouts told Buford that there were as many as fifty thousand troops in the area; his force of only three thousand could be easily overwhelmed. Alarmed, he sent word to Meade and to the closest infantry unit, led by Major General John F. Reynolds, eleven miles to the south. Meade debated whether to meet Lee at Gettysburg, or to assume a defensive posture and wait. Lee’s scouts had been in the area as well; based on their reports, he surmised that the main Union force lay due south of Gettysburg, and decided it would be a perfect place to meet with them. When Meade came to the same decision, the stage was set–some 140,000 troops in various locations headed for the small town of only 2,400.

Contact Between Confederate and Union Forces

The first contact occurred early on July 1–Heth’s roughly 7,500 troops met 1,200 of Buford’s cavalry at Herr’s Ridge north and west of town. Though thoroughly outnumbered, the Northern cavalrymen were equipped with repeater rifles that were faster and easier to load than the muskets of their Southern counterparts. This advantage bought them a little time, but they were eventually driven back a mile to another plot of high ground on McPherson’s Ridge. After two more hours, the Union situation was becoming desperate. With no help from Reynolds’s infantry, the Union troops were in danger of being completely overrun, effectively ending the battle before it ever started. The reinforcements arrived at 10 a.m., just as the Confederates were beginning to break through; Reynolds himself was killed shortly after his arrival.

Abner Doubleday found himself in control after Reynolds’s death, and also in a dangerous situation. Two major portions of the full Confederate force led by Richard Ewell and Jubal T. Early had arrived; after two more hours of stubborn fighting they sent Doubleday retreating. With the town now in rebel hands, Union troops regathered on the heights of Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill to the south of town. The Confederates had a prime opportunity to crush what remained of the federal force before the rest of the help could arrive. Couriers brought word of another possible Union disaster to Meade, who pressed on with reinforcements.

Lee saw the chance for the kill, and consulted his field generals on whether they were willing to attack the heights. Hill reported that his troops had clashed with the Union cavalry all morning and afternoon; they were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition. Ewell was nervous that some of the Union reinforcements had stationed artillery on the high ground; he too opted against battle. Thus, fighting on the first day ended–casualties totaled 5,400 for the Union and 5,600 for the Confederates.

Throughout the night, reinforcements for both sides arrived in droves. James Longstreet’s men completed the reunification of the Confederate forces, while Meade and the rest of the Union army arrived and dug into the hills for another day of fighting. By July 2, there would be 65,000 Confederate and 80,000 Union troops at Gettysburg. By the end of the conflict, more than one-third of them would be casualties.

The Armies Prepare for Battle

By morning, Union troops had settled into a fishhook formation south and east of town. They were surrounded by high ground, hills known as Big and Little Round Tops to their left and Culp’s and Cemetery Hills to their right. This time, it was Lee who chose the offensive; he would try to occupy the heights. Lee ordered Ewell to attack the right flank at Culp’s Hill, while leaving Longstreet’s men to take the Round Tops.

To find his best route of attack, Lee sent a scout toward the Union left flank early in the morning. To his surprise, the scout was able to ride around the south end of the Union line without meeting a single soldier. The area north of the Round Tops was also lightly guarded–if the Confederates gained superiority, they could set up artillery and blast down on the Union troops, destroying them. At 9 a.m., Lee ordered a protesting Longstreet to assemble his troops for an attack.

Normally known for his quick and efficient activity, Longstreet took his time preparing for the attack; some say it was his unwillingness to fight an offensive war that led him to do so. Because of the delay, troops that had not been in place when the scout had ridden through in the early morning were now stationed near areas on the left known as the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den. By 4 p.m. the attack was ready to begin. John B. Hood, a major general under Longstreet, was informed that the Union far left was still vulnerable to a wider flank attack; he told Longstreet that this would be the best route to take, but Longstreet refused, wanting to stick to Lee’s original plan.

Meade readied for the attack, stationing regiments strategically along his line. One of those regiments was led by Daniel Sickles, sent to the left to counter Longstreet. Never known for following orders, Sickles defiantly moved his troops forward from their assigned position onto slightly higher ground to improve their position, in his estimation. What he failed to realize was that this broke the solid Union front and left their flank vulnerable to attack. When he learned of his disobedience, Meade ordered Sickles to move back, but it was too late–with Longstreet’s attack launched, Sickles’s troops were now pinned beneath enemy fire in the Peach Orchard.

At four o’clock Union major general Gouverneur Warren rode up to the Round Tops. He noticed their strategic importance, and was shocked to find that they were so lightly guarded. To avoid disaster, he sent a courier to contact other field generals to see if they could spare troops for protection. The courier met up with Major General George Sykes, who in turn sent him to gather some of his men. On the way, the courier met up with Colonel Strong Vincent, who ordered four of his own regiments to climb Little Round Top immediately.

Vincent’s men had little time to spare, for as the battle raged farther up the left flank, the Fifteenth and Forty-second Alabama regiments led by William C. Oates had scaled Big Round Top with no resistance. Reaching the summit, Oates looked down at Little Round Top and the battlefield below. He knew that if his men could take Little Round Top, they would have the prime artillery position in the conflict.

Because of the hill’s steepness, Vincent ordered his troops to scale Little Round Top on its east side. Simultaneously, Oates’s men, exhausted from a morning march without water, climbed the steeper west side. In charge of guarding the Union left at the summit was Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s Twentieth Maine, numbering fewer than four hundred men. He faced both of Oates’s regiments knowing that if he wavered, the Union troops would be flanked and crushed.

Union Troops Repel Confederate Attacks

Four times the Confederates attacked, and four times they were driven back; about one-third of Chamberlain’s men were killed or wounded within ninety minutes, often in brutal toe-to-toe combat. As the Alabama regiments prepared for a fifth assault, Chamberlain saw that his men were running out of ammunition. In a final act of desperation and defiance, he ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge down the hill in a seemingly suicidal offensive. Using what little ammunition they had left, the Maine men moved forward. The stunned Alabamians turned and fled as bullets and bayonets seemed to come at them from all sides–the tiny Maine force had held Little Round Top.

The news was not all good for the Union; Sickles’s men were still trapped in the Peach Orchard by Longstreet. Making matters worse for Sickles was a second attack by a division led by Lafayette McLaws, a flanking as well as a frontal assault. His men were being destroyed, and Sickles was forced to give up his position and retreat; he himself lost a leg and had to be carried from the field. Meanwhile, the Confederates had also fought for and taken a rocky crag known as Devil’s Den, dealing the Union more heavy casualties.

Meade sent reinforcements to spell his thinning ranks, but in doing so created an opening on Cemetery Ridge. There were still a few as yet unused Confederate brigades–another Alabama brigade tried to exploit the weakness. Almost immediately, Union major general Winfield Scott Hancock saw the Confederate push, but he had few troops to spare to stop it. He sent the 262-man First Minnesota against the oncoming 1,600 rebels. The Northerners fixed bayonets immediately and charged, staggering the surprised Confederates. The tiny regiment lost 82 percent of its members in the first five minutes; in the end, only forty-seven were left unhurt, but had they fended off the Confederates long enough for the gap to close; the Union line had held again.

As this bloody fighting raged on the left, Ewell’s men sat idle on the right, a diversion so that Meade would not send large numbers of troops to the battle. As the day wore on, heavy losses left Meade no choice–he rushed troops away, leaving Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill vulnerable to Ewell’s attack. Ewell tried to take advantage, but not until nightfall, and was only moderately successful even with superior numbers of troops. Still, he was able to drive some Union troops from their trenches at the base of Culp’s Hill; but, with darkness fully set in, the second day of fighting ended.

The Second Day of Fighting

July 2 was in many ways a nightmare for the Union, which lost more than nine thousand men to six thousand for the Confederates; Sickles’s brigade was all but obliterated, and many other divisions were decimated. Still, Union forces managed to keep their line of defense intact, despite Ewell’s toehold on Culp’s Hill. Though the Confederates had fought well, they had little to show for it–Lee sought to change that on the third day.

Confederate Frontal Assault on Day Three

Lee was certain as July 3 dawned that the heavy casualties the Union had suffered rendered them unable to launch any kind of offensive. Early in the morning, Union major general Alpheus Williams decided to try to take back the trenches at Culp’s Hill. Williams’s men used artillery to soften up the Confederates, then moved in. Throughout the next couple of hours, a series of small battles raged on; by 11 a.m., the Northerners had managed to drive the rebels away. The aid Ewell was supposed to get from Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was halted by the Union cavalry led by George Armstrong Custer. Lee’s plan to attack the federals on their flanks and collapse their defenses into the middle had failed on both ends.

For Lee, the only option that remained was an all-out assault on the federal center. Lee believed this plan could work because Meade had to use so many troops in the flank attacks; his center was now weak. Longstreet disagreed vehemently; he thought such an operation would result in the same kind of suicide he had watched Union troops commit at Fredericksburg. Lee would not relent; he put together a makeshift force of fifteen thousand, led by General George E. Pickett’s men, to make the charge.

Meade once again anticipated Lee’s movements, and readied his men. At the center of the Union lines, eerily reminiscent of Fredericksburg, stood a stone wall. This time, it was the Union troops who waited in defense. At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery began shelling the Union positions. Union guns responded for an hour, but then Meade ordered them to stop. Doing so, he thought, would accomplish two goals: save ammunition for the main Confederate charge, and fool Lee into thinking he had destroyed the Union batteries with his shelling.

Meade’s plan worked. When Longstreet gave the go-ahead for Pickett’s troops, Lee thought they would have an easy time overcoming the Union defenders. Nearly thirteen thousand Confederates marched out of the woods with one goal: to climb over the stone wall and crush the Union center. As they marched, Meade’s artillery opened fire again. Shells killed up to ten rebels at once, but still more filled their places.

The federals were instructed not to shoot until the invaders came into range. When the order was given, eleven cannons and more than seventeen hundred rifles fired at once, slaughtering hundreds of Confederates. Despite massive casualties, the Confederates moved on, driving for a section of the wall broken into a right angle. The high point in the Confederate assault came when some were actually able to clamber over the wall, driving the men of the Seventy-first Pennsylvania from their defending positions.

Their success would be short-lived. Though the Confederates still had numerical superiority, their leaders were being killed, and their march was deteriorating into disorganization. Union troops quickly rebounded and then flanked and surrounded the rebels. Every Confederate who had crossed the wall was either killed or captured. The attack had ended up a total failure, forever living in Confederate infamy as the failed Pickett’s Charge.

Confederate casualties were horrible; nearly sixty-five hundred men, half of those who charged, had fallen or been taken prisoner. Pickett’s division had been completely shattered; all three of his brigade commanders and fourteen of fifteen regimental commanders were lost. Pickett never forgave Lee for sacrificing his men; Longstreet later wrote that he never believed the frontal assault would work.

The Butcher’s Bill

In all, twenty-three thousand Union and twenty-eight thousand Confederate soldiers had fallen at Gettysburg. Yet, despite these huge losses, it was not apparent on July 4 that the battle was over. Meade and Lee each thought the other was preparing for another attack, and warily stayed put. The Confederates could ill afford to lose the numbers they did; Lee soon understood that he did not have the manpower to continue northward, and retreated to Virginia the next day, ending the campaign in full by July 13.

Four months later, in his now famous speech, Abraham Lincoln helped to remember the dead at the dedication of a national cemetery in Gettysburg. Today, visitors can travel throughout the battlefield and visit the places where men of both sides gave their lives. Monuments to various regiments dot the countryside and help to commemorate three days that can only be remembered as an American apocalypse.

For Further Information
  • Smith, Carl. Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy. London: Osprey Military, 1998. An analysis of the Battle of Gettysburg, illustrated with battlescene plates. Includes bibliographical references.
  • Symonds, Craig L. Gettysburg: A Battlefield Atlas. Baltimore: Nautical and Aviation Publishing, 1992. Provides an overview of all the individual battles in the conflict with detailed and helpful maps.
  • Ward, Geoffrey C. The Civil War. Reprint. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. A colorful and complete history of the conflict. The book is the basis for a multipart television program.
  • Wheeler, Richard. Witness to Gettysburg. New York: Harper, 1987. Tells the battle story in narratives from individuals who lived through the conflict.
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