StMU Research Scholars

The Battle of Gettysburg: Major Turning Point of the Civil War

During the first two years of the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers, most of whom came from the south, maintained the majority control of the war. That remained true until the Battle of Gettysburg. This battle took place the first three days of July, 1863; three days was all it took for the entire course of the war to change. During the first two days, the Confederates dominated the battlefield over the Union; but on the third day of fighting the Confederates made a very costly bargain to attack the Union through the center that did not bare any success. The Confederate plan ended in a disaster. After this battle, General Robert E. Lee was never again to take the offensive in the war.1

On day one of the battle, Confederate General A.P. Hill, who was second in command, had to take initiative to move forward with the plan to attack, since Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army was absent. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Gen. Hill commanded the brigades to advance along the Chambersburg Road towards Gettysburg. Once they did, the Confederates found out just how strong the Union army was. The Confederate army was only four miles away; the Union army fired shots upon them. Another Confederate General, John Buford, prepared for the waves of the Union so they would not get destroyed. They held the lines up until aid came. With the support of the Union Gen. Pegram’s artillery, their army charged down the long slope and across Willoughby Run against Buford’s men. Fortunately, the Union army had recently received a batch of Spencer repeating carbine rifles, much needed by the army. The Union army was holding strong against the Confederates, just long enough until aid finally came. When Gen. John F. Reynolds from the Union army came with more men, the soldiers rejoiced because of the extra help; but that joy quickly faded away when Gen. Reynolds was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter.2 The tension grew when more forces from both sides joined the battlefield. The Union army retreated to land that would have been advantageous to them. When Gen. Lee got to the battlefield, he witnessed all that had happened with the Union army. He saw the retreat of the Union troops through Gettysburg and he also saw their attempts to reestablish the lines on Cemetery Hill. Upon seeing this, he ordered the men to go strong against the Union, so that the Confederates could take control of the Hill.3 It is evident with the events of the first day, the Confederates took the victory.

Marines during reenactment of Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania | Courtesy of The Library of Congress

On day two of the battle, around noon on July 2, 1863, the powerful forces of Meade and Lee were united, and a great battle was about to begin. On this day, the Union was trying to get to a position on Little Round Top, which might have helped them defend themselves against the Confederates. When Lee realized this, his plan was to attack from the left, because the Union was going to be very occupied attacking. Since the Union was going into an offensive position, they did not focus on defensive measures that would make them vulnerable to an attack. When Lee made this decision, he sent Gen. Longstreet to attack the left flank. Little did they know, they actually attacked the right flank. Gen. Longstreet saw there was nobody there. Part of the Union army was located at Devil’s Den, where they awaited to reunite with the rest of the army. Once the rest of the Union army arrived, the battle commenced. The Union army had some great and promising young soldiers, but were later killed during the bloodshed. After all the killing was done, Gen. Longstreet had taken possession of a lot of Union land; but the Union still had possession of Little Round Top.4

Marines during reenactment of Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania | Courtesy of The Library of Congress

On the third and final day of the battle, Pickett’s charge was the most important encounter between the Union and the Confederates in Gettysburg. On July 3, 1863,  Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to attack the Union forces from the center. He came to this decision because of his many failed attempts to attack from the right flank. The majority of the Confederate charge contained men from George Pickett’s division, who was a major general of the Confederates. The charge itself contained about fifteen-thousand men.5 After some time of Confederate bombardment, the charge moved through the open field and up Cemetery Ridge. By the time the Confederates reached the Union lines, their forces had been broken up into smaller groups, which made it impossible to attack the center with full force. This failed attack from the Confederates ended the battle of Gettysburg. On July 4, Gen. Lee decides to retreat back to Virginia.

At the end of this battle there was an estimated 51,000 deaths between both armies. After the Confederate loss on that third day of July, the Union obtained the offensive, signifying that they would eventually win the remaining battles of the war. Not only did Lee not regain the offense for the remainder of the war, he did not try to go into northern territory again. Lee’s loss in the battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, together with the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg that same July 4. So great was this battle that it changed the course of the whole war. Abraham Lincoln, a couple of months after, delivered his now famous speech “The Gettysburg Address.” He gave this speech on November 19, 1863, and the speech was the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, a cemetery were all the Union soldiers now rest. It has since become a national hymn to the American spirit:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth. —Abraham Lincoln

  1. William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey In Time (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 54-55.
  2.  Frederick Tilberg, Gettysburg (Washington D.C., National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 9, 1954), 7.
  3. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 11.
  4. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 17.
  5. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 21.

43 Responses

  1. Interesting article, I quite enjoy learning about the Civil War and have read many sources about it. I found it important how the Battle of Gettysburg was the high water mark of the Confederacy as it would no longer have the manpower to launch an invasion into the North again and lost momentum. It would be interesting to know what would had happened if day 3 went well for the Confederacy and they had won the battle.

  2. The author did a good job detailing in talking about this battle. The story arch was entertaining and matches the twists and turns of the battle very well. I thought that the resolution of this article was excellent and helps remind the audience that we are talking about the deaths of thousands of people. This rings true with Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, for after the battle he pleaded to not let these soldiers die in vain. All in all, this article was very interesting.

  3. Reading about this, hearing about this, and watching movies about this in school or in a theater is crazy to even think about how catastrophic this battle of Gettysburg was to both the confederate south and the union north during our civil war. It gives me chills to think that if I were my current age around the time of the civil war I would have very well been a soldier fighting on the front lines.

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