On the afternoon of 3 July 1863, Robert E Lee, commander of the Confederate army of Northern Virginia, heard that his troops had been repulsed just south of Gettysburg, a Pennsylvania town only 80 miles away from the nation’s capital, Washington DC. He reassured his frightened men: “All this will come right in the end: we’ll talk it over afterwards; but in the meantime all good men must rally.” He was overheard to say to a subordinate: “It is I that have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it in the best way you can”.


Lee’s ambitious invasion of the North had started well. After victory at the battle of Chancellorsville (1–5 May 1863), Lee had decided that he would move north on 3 June, beginning the Gettysburg campaign. He would cross the Potomac river that traced the border between the Union and the Confederacy, bring pressure to bear on the Federal government and turn the tide of war.

The Confederate vanguard, Richard S Ewell’s Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia, crossed the Potomac on 15 June 1863. They pushed through Maryland, entered Pennsylvania and threatened the state capital, Harrisburg. The pace of Lee’s advance caused panic, yet as Confederate troops fanned out to subsist off the countryside, the danger increased that they might collide with Federal troops and bring on a battle Lee was not best prepared for.

Their opposition, the Union Army of the Potomac, was commanded by Joseph Hooker, who had been defeated by Lee’s smaller force at Chancellorsville. Instructed by President Lincoln that his object was Lee’s army, he advanced north, shielding Washington DC. His relations with the general-in-chief, Henry W Halleck, had deteriorated badly and on 27 June he asked to be relieved. The following day, George G Meade was appointed in his place, protesting his inadequacy. It was not the best time to change commanders.

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Meade proved a skilled tactician, but he had to overcome the defensive-mindedness that had, by now, soaked into his army. On his first day in command he received an accurate estimate of the size of Lee’s army – 80,000 men. Meade planned to fend off Lee’s manoeuvres and withdraw to an advantageous defensive position, but as the Union army advanced north, events overtook this scheme. Some of Lee’s previous triumphs had been based on the skilful gathering and utilisation of intelligence. Now, in enemy country, he could not rely on information brought to him. On 25 June he made his position even more challenging by despatching General JEB Stuart’s best three brigades on a cavalry raid around the Union army. Stuart found himself cut off from reporting back and could not return the way he had come because he had seized 125 wagons and had a long vulnerable ‘tail’. He was out ofcontact for a week, a terrible handicap as Lee groped blindly northwards.

By 28 June, Lee had only the haziest idea as to the location of the Army of the Potomac. That evening he received some hard intelligence when one of General Longstreet’s (Lee’s subordinate, whom he referred to as his “old war horse”) spies, Henry T Harrison, rode into camp. Harrison reported that Union troops lay between South Mountain and Frederick, Maryland. Lee assumed that they remained south of the Potomac. He intended to catch individual Union corps unawares and destroy them piecemeal. In the past, Lee had made his own luck and exploited events, but that demanded accurate information, which he did not now have.

On a collision course

Meade’s army, meanwhile, had entered Pennsylvania. Meade had retained an innovation of Hooker’s by placing almost half his army, the First, Third and Eleventh Corps, under the command of his old friend, John F Reynolds. On 30 June, two brigades of Union cavalry entered Gettysburg. Lee’s army advanced eastwards through the Cashtown Gap, “to see what General Meade is after”. The commanders’ orders made a collision between the armies very likely.

Fighting began on 1 July, when two brigades of Confederate General Henry Heth’s division clashed with Union cavalry. This sucked larger units into the fray.

Two Union corps, the First and the Eleventh, then were defeated by the larger two Confederate corps, the Second and the Third. Lee had hesitated to bring on a big battle, but at 2.30pm he received word that Stuart’s return was imminent. An assault on the Union left and centre broke through. Union troops fled back through Gettysburg and streamed up on the high ground south of the town, leaving behind 8,800 casualties and General Reynolds’s corpse on the field. Meade sent forward Major General Winfield Scott Hancock to take command.

Lee had enjoyed initial success but he knew little of the ground or forces in front of him. Over the next two days, each small win would lure him into gambling for higher stakes and he rapidly lost his freedom of action.

Lee suggested to General Ewell that he take the high ground “if practicable”. Ewell, his men exhausted, decided that it was not – a decision that some believe altered the eventual outcome of the battle. Lee changed his mind twice as to whether Ewell should stay put or move behind the Union position, finally deciding in favour of the former. This ensured that a great battle would be fought over this ground.

The field of Gettysburg was much more open than the scene of some of Lee’s earlier triumphs, with undulating fields and meadows, and some rugged hills dissected by ravines cut by small streams. Seminary Ridge, occupied by Lee’s troops, was wooded.

The Union position has been likened to a ‘fishhook’, anchored in a long twist from Culp’s Hill along Cemetery Hill, before swinging south along the high Cemetery Ridge that stretches for a mile and a half, until finally supported by two prominent conical hills, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. The soldiers of both sides that took up position here were proud, experienced and hard-bitten. Union troops had been unmoved by their defeat at Chancellorsville, not deserving the ridicule doled out by over-confident Confederates.

General Meade did not arrive to take personal command of his Union troops until about 2am on 2 July. At daybreak, he recognised the strength of his position and hurried up the Second, Third and Fifth Corps to tighten his grip on it. He planned to place the Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge with the Third to its left anchored on Little Round Top.

Third Corps, commanded by Daniel E Sickles, arrived on the position at about 10am. He noticed that the ground beyond, covered by a peach orchard, was higher than Cemetery Ridge, and queried Meade’s orders, even riding to headquarters at the Leister House to question them personally. Meade observed that Sickles could interpret his orders so long as they remained within the general’s framework. Thus encouraged, Sickles ordered his corps to advance towards the peach orchard without telling Meade, weakening the Union position.

In the early hours of the morning Lee’s reconnaissance party reported that the Union left flank was exposed. Shortly afterwards, Longstreet argued the desirability of moving around Meade’s position; he would later present this as a cogent defensive-offensive plan that would tempt Meade to attack Lee. But without the necessary guidance from Stuart where would the army move to? Longstreet did not say. Lee had not rejected his suggestions, but with clear intelligence available, Lee decided to attack the Union left. Longstreet, as the most experienced corps commander, was chosen to command what Lee hoped would be a decisive stroke.

Lee is often criticised for what many see as a ‘vague’ plan. His army was insufficiently concentrated for a great battle. When Lee returned from a visit to Ewell at about 11.30am, he was displeased that Longstreet had made few preparations for the assault. But Longstreet pleaded that he should wait for General Law’s brigade, which arrived about 30 minutes later. Shortly afterwards, Stuart arrived to face brusque treatment from Lee; he was given instructions to take his troopers to the north-east of Ewell’s corps.

During the mid-afternoon, elements of the Union Fifth Corps occupied Little Round Top. The concave shape of Meade’s position enabled the Federals to move and act more swiftly than the Confederates. The concentrated Union position covered about two miles, while the Confederates’ stretched for six. Yet even allowing for this disadvantage, Longstreet’s assault, finally launched at 4pm, was not well directed. Hood’s division became distracted along Devil’s Den and into Rose Woods, and was absorbed by the fight for Little Round Top.

Running out of options

Union troops rushed in to hold the line. In consolidating their ground facing south, a colour-bearer rode up. “Colonel, I’ll be damned if I don’t think we are faced the wrong way. The Rebs are… in the woods behind us, on the right”. The colonel discovered he was correct, as southern Rebels and northern Yankees were all mixed up, and it was difficult to find the ‘front line’.

Major General McLaws’ division had more success, driving the Union’s Third Corps back up Cemetery Ridge. Despite this advance, nothing decisive was achieved. Longstreet failed to get his artillery up onto Little Round Top or Cemetery Ridge, which would have made General Meade’s position untenable.

General Ewell’s diversionary attacks on the Union right had made little impact on Longstreet’s assault and the pattern would again be repeated on 3 July at Culp’s Hill. Lee decided to focus on the Union centre, which he calculated had been weakened in numbers so as to better prop up the flanks.

A tense meeting took place on the morning of 3 July. Longstreet urged Lee to manoeuvre around Ewell’s right. Lee overruled him and stuck to his plan. He was running out of options. The 5,000 Virginians of General George Pickett’s division were to be the centrepiece of the attack, however the bulk of the 13,000 troops came from three divisions of Hill’s corps. (Interestingly, few contemporaries – unless directly engaged – actually record witnessing ‘Pickett’s charge’. Its fame is a triumph of the Virginian writing of Confederate military history).

Much of the meeting was taken up resolving differences between Longstreet and Hill over the mode of attack. Lee hoped to aid the breakthrough by ordering Stuart to advance down the Bonaughton Road and cause mayhem in the Union rear. Greater unanimity prevailed at a Union council of war convened by Meade before midnight. His commanders agreed they should remain on the defensive for another day. Meade correctly predicted the attack would come from the centre.

The infantry attacks

Just after 1pm, a Confederate bombardment of 162 guns opened up, making remarkably little contribution to the drama of the afternoon. Union guns eventually went silent to conserve ammunition. At this point the Confederate infantry emerged through the woods and began its march up towards the guns on Cemetery Hill.

This was one of the most dramatic moments of the entire war. The cry went up along the Union line: “There they are… There comes the infantry!” For all their dress irregularities, these long lines of Confederate infantry were perfectly aligned as if on parade, with colours unfurled, advancing silently. As they moved into the shallow area between Seminary and Cemetery Ridges, the Union artillery opened fire, tearing great holes in their ranks.

A considerable gap opened in the middle of the Confederates’ formation between Pickett’s troops and Hill’s men on their left. Pickett’s division had to swerve to the left towards its objective: a small copse of trees in the middle of Hancock’s Second Corps line. Union fire had a truly deadly effect: Meade’s troops used solid shot at a distance and canister when close up (best at point-blank range). This was supplemented by rifled-musket volleys.

As Union regiments began to advance to move around the Confederates’ exposed flanks, a participant listened above the din of battle. He heard a “strange and terrible” sound, one “that came from thousands of human throats, yet was not a commingling of shouts and yells but rather like a vast mournful roar”. The commander of the closest Confederate brigade, Lewis Armistead, placed his hat aloft on his sword tip to guide those behind. The line, however, weakened as they closed on the Union troops. Armistead fell mortally wounded among 6,000 Confederate casualties. The survivors of the Confederate assault streamed back to be met by their commander. But there was no good news to be found. Three miles away Stuart’s weary troopers failed to break a resolute Union cavalry defence, mounted among others by a certain George A Custer.

A terrible death toll

Some 28,000 casualties had been sustained by the Confederates and 23,000 by the Union (3,903 Confederate dead, 3,155 Union dead). But, despite the carnage, the significance of the South’s defeat was not appreciated immediately by the surviving participants. Many of Lee’s soldiers hoped Lee would lead them north again.

Yet Gettysburg was a disaster for the Confederacy. Lee’s was a defeat explained by a series of errors – in intelligence, command and tactics – that prevented him from landing one powerful blow. He and his men were over-confident and excessively contemptuous of their enemy. For his part, Meade committed no serious errors, and mounted a cohesive defence with adequate reserves. But, despite his victory, long-term glory was not to be his. His over-cautious pursuit of Lee, which permitted him to escape, revealed to Lincoln that Meade was not the man to galvanise the Union war effort. Nevertheless, Meade destroyed the offensive capacity of Lee’s army, which never returned to northern soil again.

The Union victory at Gettysburg – three days of fighting in which the Confederates consistently attacked and the Federals defended – brought huge relief in Washington. News arrived on 4 July, and was followed by reports of the fall of Vicksburg on 4 July – an equally massive boost to the Union cause. The North gained the initiative both in military and moral terms and the Confederate cause lost appeal in the wider world, especially in London, where slavery had already been abolished.

On 19 November, President Lincoln visited Gettysburg. In his celebrated address – a mere 272 words – he declared a “new birth of freedom”, and that a “government of the people, by the people, for the people” had been safeguarded. The North gained a great advantage in the war of values, ideas and propaganda. The defeat at the battle of Gettysburg was not the only cause of the reverse in southern fortunes, but it accelerated the disintegration of what had appeared to be the all-conquering Army of Northern Virginia. Gettysburg, by neutering Lee’s army, was a significant milestone on the road to Confederate defeat – a point that would take another 22 months of arduous travel before it was reached.

In context: the American Civil War

By the 1830s the United States of America, a country formed when 13 former colonies declared their independence from Britain in 1776, was deeply divided over the issue of slavery. In 1861 war broke out between the free states in the north of the Union (where slavery was prohibited) and slave states in the south that were deeply dependent on slave labour. The southern states seceded from the Union to form the Confederacy.

The resulting civil war lasted four years, characterised by ferocious battles, with hard-won victories for both sides. In strategic terms, the Union needed to be on the offensive in order to conquer the South – the war would largely be fought in the southern states. But the South took the offensive whenever it could, and it was in July 1863 on a raid into the North, up the Shenandoah Valley and into the state of Pennsylvania, that Confederate forces commanded by Robert E Lee met Union troops led by General George Meade at Gettysburg.

The battle of Gettysburg was one of the war’s bloodiest clashes, and a turning point in the conflict. In the three-day battle, or series of battles, from 1-3 July, Lee’s forces suffered a serious military reversal, and retreated back into Virginia. Lee’s army never fully recovered and from then on the Union waged an all-out war in the south, aiming to destroy the Confederacy’s morale and its capacity to wage war. The South put up determined opposition and the war dragged on for another 22 months. However, the Confederates eventually surrendered at Appomattox, Virginia, in 1865.

Gettysburg was the inspiration for President Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, given when he dedicated the military cemetery at the battle site in November 1863. He explained why the struggle and the sacrifice had a dignity and a purpose of universal significance: “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.”

The reputation of his Gettysburg address has grown over the years, as Americans have sought to find an uplifting meaning in the slaughter of the war. Gettysburg, and the American Civil War as a whole, continue to loom large in history, not only in the United States, but in the wider world as well.

Brian Holden Reid is professor of American history and military institutions, King’s College London, and has written several books on the American Civil War.


This article was first published in the July 2013 issue of BBC History Magazine