On 19 November 1863, thousands of spectators arrived at Gettysburg to help consecrate the National Cemetery at Gettysburg. Among those participating in the event was President Abraham Lincoln. Just months earlier, on 1-3 July, the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed in the Battle of Gettysburg. Over 165,000 Americans fought in this decisive battle, leading to 46,000 casualties. The Union victory at Gettysburg was a pivotal turning point in the Civil War, erasing the Confederate’s chance for a quick strike victory in the north.
Following the victory against Union forces in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North. With a considerable number of Union forces tied down in the west besieging the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Lee felt that a push into Union territory would allow for a relief of the war-ravaged Virginia. Assembling his army of 72,000-men, Lee marched north. On 26 June, advance Confederate units occupied the town of Gettysburg after driving off the Pennsylvanian militia. The Union responded by marching their Army of the Potomac to counter the Confederate forces at Gettysburg. The two armies clashed on 1 July.
With hasty defenses, the Union set up on the outskirts of Gettysburg. A massive assault from the north by Confederate forces pushed the Union defenders to the high ground south of the town. The first day’s engagement had been successful for the Confederates, but with the Union control of the high ground, Lee understood victory was still out of reach. The second day of the battle saw Confederate forces push against Union defenses, but failed to drive the northern army from the high ground. The third and final day of the battle saw Lee desperately try to overwhelm the Union. The Union defenses held and decimated the Confederate assaults. One example of the futility of Lee’s attempt to overrun the Union defenses was Pickett’s Charge. The charge saw 12,500 Confederate forces advance over three-quarters of a mile of open ground against heavy Union artillery and rifle fire. The charge was repulsed with over 50 percent casualties on the Confederate lines.
With heavy causalities mounting, and the Confederates inability to breach Union defenses, Lee ordered a retreat from the battlefield. News of the Union victory reverberated throughout the north, with one newspapers headline reading “VICTORY! WATERLOO ECLIPSED!” The Union victory at Gettysburg also corresponded with Gen. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg. With defeat in the north and the west, the high-tide of the Confederacy began to wane, and victory was on the horizon for the Union.
Look for more information regarding the history of the Civil War in 1863 in the upcoming Strategy & Tactics issue #297 article “1863: Turning Point in the Civil War” and join the conversation on Facebook!