Fought July 1 through July 3, 1863, considered by most military historians the turning point in the
American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg was a decisive engagement in that it arrested the
Confederates’ second and last major invasion of the North, destroyed their offensive strategy, and forced
them to fight a defensive war in which the inadequacies of their manufacturing capacity and transportation
facilities doomed them to defeat.
The Army of the Potomac, under the Union general George Gordon Meade, numbered about 85,000; the
Confederate army, under General Robert E. Lee, numbered about 75,000. After the Battle of
Chancellorsville on May 2 to 4, an important victory for the Confederates, Lee divided his army into three
corps, commanded by three lieutenant generals: James Longstreet, Richard Stoddert Ewell, and Ambrose
Powell Hill. Lee then formulated a plan for invading Pennsylvania, hoping to avert another federal
offensive in Virginia and planning to fight if he could get the federal army into a vulnerable position; he
also hoped that the invasion might increase Northern war-weariness and lead the North to recognize the
independence of the Confederate States of America. In pursuit of this plan, Lee crossed the Blue Ridge
Mountains, proceeded up the Shenandoah Valley, and, crossing Maryland, entered Pennsylvania. Upon
learning federal troops were north of the Potomac, Lee decided to concentrate his who!
le army at Gettysburg.
On June 30, Confederate troops from General Hill’s corps, on their way to Gettysburg, noted federal troops
that Meade had moved down to intercept the Confederate army. The battle began on July 1 outside of
Gettysburg with an encounter between Hill’s advance brigades and the federal cavalry division commanded
by Major General John Buford, supported by infantry under Major General John Fulton Reynolds. Hill
encountered stubborn resistance, and the fighting was inconclusive until Ewell arrived from the north in the
afternoon. The Confederates pushed against General Oliver Howard’s corps and forced the federal troops to
retire from their forward positions to Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, southeast of Gettysburg. The fighting
had been heavy on both sides, but the Union troops suffered more losses. More than 4000 men were taken
prisoner by the Confederates, and Federal General John Reynolds was killed in battle. The federals did
manage to capture Confederate General Archer, the fi!
rst Confederate officer to be taken prisoner after Lee assumed command of the Confederate army. The
corps led by Ewell did not move in to attack the Union troops but waited for General Longstreet to bring in
his corps to reinforce the outnumbered Confederate troops.
On the following day, July 2, Meade formed his forces in the shape of a horseshoe, extending westward
from Culp’s Hill and southward along Cemetery Ridge to the hills of Little Round Top and Round Top. The
Confederates, on the other hand, were deployed in a long, thin, concave line, with Longstreet and Ewell on
the flanks and Hill in the center.
Lee, against the advice of Longstreet and despite the fact that he had no cavalry, resolved to attack the
federal positions. Longstreet was unable to advance until late afternoon, thus allowing the federal troops to
make preparations for the expected assault. General Abner Doubleday of the federal army strengthened his
hold on Cemetery Hill. The federals held Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top, but Longstreet moved
Confederate troops along Peach Orchard, driving the federals from their positions there. Although Ewell
won part of Culp’s Hill, he was unable to break the federal line there or on the eastern part of Cemetery
Ridge. On the night of July 2, Meade held a council of war in which the decision was made not to retreat.
On the third day of battle, the federals were secure in their positions and the Confederates had lost their
offensive stance. General Lee decided to mount an attack despite opposition from other Confederate
generals. The offensive did not begin until afte!
r noon. Groups from three Confederate divisions, including the division led by Major General George E.
Pickett, totaling fewer than 15,000 men, took part in a memorable charge on Cemetery Ridge against a
withering barrage of federal artillery and musket fire. The attack is known as Pickett’s Charge. Although
the Confederate troops breached Meade’s first line of defense, the strain on the Confederates proved too
great, and they fell back, having lost over three-fourths of their force.
With the repulse of Pickett’s Charge, the Battle of Gettysburg was virtually over. On the night of July 4,
Lee began his retreat to Virginia, expecting a counterattack from the federal army. Meade, however, did not
attack, due perhaps to heavy rains which hampered pursuit of the retreating Confederates. During the three
days of battle, the federal army lost 3070 killed, 14,497 wounded, and 5434 captured or missing. The
Confederates lost about 3500 killed, 18,000 wounded, and 5150 captured or missing.