Gettysburg was the turning point of the Civil War

July 14, 2011|By DON AINES
  • The Battle of Gettysburg unfolds on the Cyclorama wall at Gettysburg National Military Park
Photo by Kevin G. Gilbert, Staff Photographer

Prior to Gettysburg, perhaps just three truly decisive battles had been fought on the North American continent — The British defeat of the French at Quebec in 1759; the 1777 defeat of the British by American forces at Saratoga; and the Battle of Chapultepec in 1847, which secured the United States’ victory over Mexico and annexation of the Southwest Territories.

While the Civil War would continue for almost two years after North and South clashed at Gettysburg, it was the turning point of the Civil War.

The Union rebounded from the slaughter of Chancellorsville two months earlier; Confederate forces were placed on the defensive for the balance of the war and it was the largest battle ever fought on American soil in terms of numbers of combatants, placed at 158,300. Of those, 83,289 were Union forces and 75,054 were Confederate troops, according to National Park Service figures.

Following Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee gambled on sending the Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac through Maryland and into Pennsylvania to forage and threaten the lines of communication to Washington, D.C.

A threat to the capital could have forced Lincoln to withdraw the Army of the Potomac from Virginia to defend Maryland and Pennsylvania.

And another bloody nose for the Union could have been politically damaging for Lincoln in the election of 1864.

The rebel advance into the North began in June with columns headed for Hagerstown, Greencastle, Chambersburg, and Carlisle, as well as Frederick, Emmitsburg and Gettysburg in the east.

Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, who had lost a leg in an earlier battle, arrived in Chambersburg on June 24.

Day One - July 1, 1863

At 7:30 on a Wednesday morning, Lt. Marcellus Jones of the Eighth Illinois Cavalry is believed to have fired the opening shot of the battle against an approaching division of A.P. Hill’s corps a few miles northwest of the town. As the morning progressed, Union forces began forming a defensive line along McPherson Ridge.

By early afternoon Ewell’s Division attacked the right flank of the Union First Corps. By 4 p.m. the right flank wavered and began a retreat to Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.

Confederate forces failed to attack and dislodge those Union positions and Gen. George G. Meade arrived overnight, deciding to reinforce the defensive line and face the rebels the next day.

By the end of the first day of fighting, 9,000 Union soldiers and 6,800 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded, or missing, according to a historical marker on Doubleday Avenue on the Oak Ridge section of Gettysburg National Military Park.

Day Two - July 2, 1863

The Army of Northern Virginia also reinforced overnight and into Thursday. Confederate Lt. Gen. James Longstreet attempted to turn the Union left flank with repeated attacks on the Twentieth Maine holding the high ground at Little Round Top.

“The roar of the tumult reached us on the left and heightened the intensity of our resolve,” Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine wrote of the fighting. “At times I saw around me more of the enemy than of my own men.”

Day Two ended with the Confederates holding the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den, but the Union line was unbroken and still in possession of the high ground south of town.

By the end of the day’s fighting, nearly 20,000 soldiers were listed as dead, wounded, or missing, according to a historical marker on United States Avenue near the Trostle Farm in Gettysburg National Military Park.  

Day Three - July 3, 1863

Efforts to turn the Unions flanks having been thwarted, Lee decided on a two-pronged attack of the Union center with 11 brigades, the assault spearheaded by Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division. As a prelude, 140 Rebel cannon bombarded Union positions for two hours.

At 3 p.m. a mile-long line of about 15,000 Confederate soldiers emerged from the woods of Seminary Ridge and began a mile-long march across open ground toward the Union line, according to the “Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War.”

Union artillery began the carnage from Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill with a lethal crossfire. The attack faltered as more cannon opened up, joined by infantry fire. Although some Confederates reached a point of the Union line known as “The Angle,” they were killed, captured or joined the retreat.

As the remnants of the attacking force fell back to Seminary Ridge, Lee was heard telling them, “It’s all my fault.”


By the time the three-day Battle of Gettysburg ended, there were an estimated 51,000 casualties — 23,000 Union troops and 28,000 Confederate troops, according to National Park Service figures at

On the Fourth of July, the same day Vicksburg surrendered, Lee’s army withdrew to the southwest through a driving rain in a wagon train stretching some 17 miles. Meade’s forces harassed the retreating rebels for days, but most of the Confederates succeeded in reaching the southern banks of the Potomac River.

The old legend that Confederates went to Gettysburg for shoes might be true, but while the battle was lost, the foraging expedition was a success.

Kent Masterson Brown’s book, “Retreat from Gettysburg: Lee, Logistics and the Pennsylvania Campaign,” recounts how the Confederates rounded up tens of thousands of cattle, sheep, hogs and horses, as well as thousands of wagons of food and supplies, much of which crossed the river with the rebels.

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