The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, during the American Civil War, is one of the most iconic and pivotal engagements in U.S. history.
It took place in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and saw the Union Army of the Potomac, commanded by General George G. Meade, clash with the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee.
This battle would become a turning point in the Civil War, with its three days of intense combat ultimately resulting in a decisive Union victory, altering the course of the conflict and influencing the fate of the nation.
|Events during the Battle of Gettysburg
|July 1, 1863
|– Morning: Confederate forces encounter Union forces on the outskirts of Gettysburg.
|– Fierce battle begins, pushing Union forces back through Gettysburg.
|– Confederate General Ewell chooses not to attack Cemetery Hill.
|July 2, 1863
|– Morning: General Lee formulates a plan for attacks on both Union flanks.
|– Afternoon: Intense fighting at Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard.
|– Confederate attacks on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill repelled on the Union right flank.
|July 3, 1863
|– Morning: General Lee orders Pickett’s Charge, a massive assault on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge.
|– Confederate artillery barrage followed by a failed charge, resulting in heavy Confederate casualties.
|– Confederate forces retreat after Pickett’s Charge fails.
|– Confederate attack on Culp’s Hill repelled again in the afternoon.
|July 4, 1863
|– Morning: General Lee’s army begins retreating from Gettysburg.
|– Union forces do not immediately pursue, allowing the Confederates to withdraw safely.
|– Battle of Gettysburg effectively ends.
Timeline of the Battle of Gettysburg
July 1, 1863
On the morning of July 1, 1863, Confederate forces under the command of General Robert E. Lee advanced into the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. They encountered Union forces under the leadership of General John Buford on the outskirts of the town.
The initial encounter quickly escalated into a fierce battle as both Confederate and Union forces committed more troops to the fight. The streets of Gettysburg became a chaotic battleground with intense fighting.
As the day progressed, Confederate forces gained ground and gradually pushed Union forces back through Gettysburg, with the Union troops making a stubborn stand wherever they could. Key locations in the town, such as McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge, saw heavy fighting.
One significant decision made on this day was by Confederate General Richard Ewell. After gaining an initial advantage, he had the opportunity to launch an attack on Cemetery Hill, a prominent and strategically important position overlooking Gettysburg.
However, he chose not to attack, a decision that would later be a subject of controversy. Had he attacked and taken Cemetery Hill on July 1, it might have altered the course of the battle.
By the end of the day, the Union forces had been pushed through Gettysburg and had established defensive positions on Cemetery Ridge to the south of the town. This ridge would become a critical focal point for the rest of the battle.
July 3, 1863
July 3, 1863, was the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg, and it featured one of the most famous and critical moments of the entire conflict: Pickett’s Charge.
In the morning, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to launch a massive assault against the center of the Union line, which was positioned along Cemetery Ridge. This assault would become known as Pickett’s Charge, named after the division commander, General George Pickett, who led the attack.
Prior to the infantry charge, Confederate artillery began a massive bombardment of the Union center. Over 150 Confederate cannons fired upon the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge, creating a devastating artillery barrage. Union forces responded with their own artillery, resulting in a massive exchange of artillery fire known as the “Cannonade.”
After about two hours of intense artillery dueling, General Lee believed that the Union center had been weakened sufficiently for an infantry assault. He ordered around 15,000 Confederate soldiers, including troops from Pickett’s division and other units, to charge across an open field toward Cemetery Ridge.
Pickett’s Charge was a desperate and bold move. The Confederate soldiers advanced under heavy artillery fire, followed by musket fire from Union infantry positions. The open field they had to cross was about three-quarters of a mile long and provided little cover.
As the Confederate soldiers closed the distance to Cemetery Ridge, they faced devastating casualties. Union artillery and musket fire inflicted heavy losses on the Confederate attackers. Despite their incredible bravery and determination, the Confederate forces were unable to breach the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge.
Pickett’s Charge ultimately failed, and the Confederate forces were forced to retreat. The charge resulted in a catastrophic loss for the Confederacy, with a large number of casualties, including killed, wounded, and captured soldiers.
The failure of Pickett’s Charge marked a turning point in the Battle of Gettysburg. After this assault, General Lee realized that his army could not break through the Union lines, and he began making preparations for a retreat.
In the afternoon of July 3, as the Confederate forces withdrew from their advanced positions, Union forces on Culp’s Hill successfully repelled another Confederate attack, further solidifying the Union victory at Gettysburg.
July 4, 1863
July 4, 1863, marked the day after the conclusion of the Battle of Gettysburg, and it carried significant implications for both the Union and Confederate armies.
In the early morning hours, following three days of intense combat, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, recognized that his position at Gettysburg was untenable.
The Confederate forces had suffered heavy casualties, and their attempt to break the Union lines on July 3, known as Pickett’s Charge, had failed. Lee decided that he had no choice but to begin retreating from Gettysburg and returning to Confederate territory in Virginia.
General Lee’s decision to retreat on July 4 marked the end of the Battle of Gettysburg. His army, battered and diminished, began the challenging withdrawal process. The Confederates faced the difficult task of moving their wounded soldiers, and the retreat was made even more challenging by the presence of Union cavalry harassing the Confederate columns.
Importantly, Union forces under General George G. Meade, who had taken command of the Union Army of the Potomac just prior to the battle, did not immediately pursue the retreating Confederates.
Meade’s decision to hold his position and not launch an aggressive pursuit has been a subject of historical debate. Some believe that a more aggressive pursuit could have inflicted even greater damage on the Confederate army, potentially shortening the war.
Ultimately, General Meade’s caution allowed the Confederate forces to withdraw relatively safely, despite the difficult journey back to Virginia. Lee’s army was battered and demoralized but remained a formidable fighting force.
In the days following July 4, skirmishes and minor engagements occurred between the retreating Confederate army and Union forces, but no major battles took place. The Battle of Gettysburg was over, and it was a Union victory, but the Civil War would continue for nearly two more years.
The Battle of Gettysburg, which culminated on July 3, 1863, is often considered a turning point in the American Civil War. It marked the first major Confederate defeat in a northern state and severely weakened General Lee’s army. While the war would continue for some time, the momentum had shifted in favor of the Union, and Gettysburg is remembered as a critical moment in American history.