The turning point of the American Civil War and possibly the most important battle in the history of the United States.

Confederate general Robert E. Lee knew that he did not have the strength to take Washington, D.C., but the Army of the North was beginning to harass the southern capital of Richmond, Virginia. By invading the North, Lee felt he could achieve two objectives: moving the North's army away from Richmond and should he gain a victory, the international recognition of Britain and other European states.

The battle began on the northern outskirts of the Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. It started as cavalry engagement between a Southern force attempting to take Gettysburg for a shoe factory and a defending Union brigade. Soon the bulk of both armies was involved in the fighting -- the South under Lee and the North under General George Meade. The South won some resounding victories on the first day of the battle. They forced the North into a defensive posture, and eventually sent the Union line retreating through Gettysburg. The South was too exhausted to pursue at the end of day one, and the North reformed its line on south side of Gettysburg.

At the beginning of the second day, the Union made tactical mistakes, including leaving a 2/3 mile gap in their line, that the South exposed forcing another Union retreat to the aptly named Cemetery Hill. Fortunately for the North, late in the day reinforcements arrived, and Cemetery Hill was held for the evening. The Confederate cavalry encamped at Culp's Hill on the North's right flank, while Lee and the bulk of his army waited out the night on Seminary Ridge on the North's left flank.

Lee had two successful days of flanking the North under his belt and wanted to score a decisive victory on day three of the battle. His plan called for a massive artillery assualt on the center of the Union line, followed by an infantry charge from the southwest. His cavalry was to sweep down from the southeast to hold any gains made by the infantry.

At one in the afternoon the South unleashed a massive, though mostly ineffective, two hour artillery assault. Following that assault, the men of Major General George Pickett and Brigadier General James Pettigrew attempted to charge the Union line 1400 yards from their current position. As the Confederates charged, they were flanked by Union soldiers and artillery who dealt devastating losses to the Rebels. Of the 12,000 Grey soldiers involved in the two hour action that became known as Pickett's Charge, 5,600 were listed as casualties. The Union suffered 1,200 casualties during the same two hours.

Pickett's men did , rather heroically considering the losses they received, manage to take a part of Cemetery Hill only to lose it when the cavalary reinforcements could not break the right flank of the Union line. This forced Pickett's men back across the same, now body strewn, field they had just charged forward across. Southern morale was devastated and the charge effectively ended the battle as a stalemate.

All told the Union suffered 23,040 official casualties of which 8,000 were deaths. Confederate casualties are estimated at 28,000 with 10,000 dead. Nearly a third of those involved in the battle were killed or wounded. This was the last major Southern foray into the North, and the Confederate Army never did fully recover from its losses at Gettysburg.

After his sound defeat of the Union army at Chancellorsville, Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided that the time was ripe for an invasion of the Union. On June 3, 1863, he began moving his Army of Northern Virginia, numbering 75,000 battle-seasoned veterans, through the Shenandoah Valley (the “breadbasket of the South”) into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac, under command of Joseph Hooker, still smarting under it’s defeat, moved cautiously northward, following the Confederate Army while keeping between Lee and Washington D.C. Lee had ordered his flamboyant cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart, to keep him informed about the Federal army’s whereabouts. However, after a showdown against Union cavalry at Brandy Station, Stuart decided to make yet another ride around the Union army. This move left Lee “blind” as he moved further into Pennsylvania. After Lee learned of Hooker’s replacement by corps commander George Gordon Meade on June 28, he began concentrating his army. All his men began moving towards the road hub of Gettysburg. Meade also moved his men towards this hub, and thus the stage was set for a showdown of giants.

After hearing about a supply of shoes to be found at Gettysburg, Confederate divisional commander Heth (part of Hill’s III Corps) decided to probe towards the town from the northwest. On the morning of July 1, 1863, the brigades of Archer and Davis encountered the Union cavalry division commanded by Buford. After some skirmishing, the cavalry formed lines atop McPhersons Hill. Buford realized that he would have to hold the high ground southeast of Gettysburg, and, seeing that the Federal I Corps (commanded by John Reynolds) would arrive soon to support him, he formed a defensive line. Archer and Davis formed to attack the Federals, but were driven back at the timely arrival of Cutler’s brigade and the famous Iron Brigade. The other two brigades under Heth, Pettigrew’s and Brockenbroughs, failed to initially dislodge the Federals. In this fighting, a Confederate sharpshooter killed Reynolds, who’s corps was taken over by Abner Doubleday (who had, 1835, invented what is known today as baseball. However, Archer was captured in the railway gap with some of his brigade. He was the first Confederate general to be captured in the entire war. Heth entrenched on Herr Ridge, opposite the Federals, and awaited developments. Soon after noon, Rodes’ division of the Confederate II Corps marched down from the north and found the Union flank unprotected. He assaulted it and then was supported by Early’s division coming south also. Another Confederate division arrived, Pender’s, which, along with the other Confederates, began to drive the Union (now consisting of Doubleday’s I Corps and Howard’s XI Corps) back. By day’s end, the Federals had routed through the town to Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill south of Gettysburg, where they reformed and entrenched. Ewell was suggested by Lee to attack Culp’s Hill, but did not. Throughout the whole day, the Confederate generals on the field had acted with extreme caution because they knew Lee had not wanted to fight this battle.

During the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides. On the Confederate side, only 1 of 9 divisions (Pickett’s ill-starred division) was not present yet. Newly arrived Union troops stretched the line from Culp’s and Cemetery Hills through Cemetery Ridge down to the two Round Tops. At dawn, Lee ordered Longstreet to march south and assault these hills.

The march took until 4 P. M., especially because Longstreet had to make a counter-march to avoid being detected (he was, despite this.) At 4 P. M., he formed the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood to attack. Hood would form the extreme Confederate flank. By extreme incompetence, the Union commander of the flank, III Corps commander Dan Sickles, decided to place his entire corps on a peach orchard almost a mile in front of the rest of the line. McLaws and then Hood smashed into Sickles with devastating effect. Meade sent his V Corps (his own former corps, now commanded by Sykes) to reinforce Sickles, but Longstreet broke through and drove right to the base of the Round Tops in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Longstreet’s men attacked through such places as the peach orchard, the devil’s den, Weikart Woods, and the wheatfield to reach the Round Tops. This is where Joshua Chamberlain led his 20th Maine Regiment on a downhill bayonet charge that saved Little Round Top. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct at this battle, and finished the war as the division commander who formally received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.

On the extreme Confederate left was the division of Johnson (in Ewell’s II Corps). His division attacked Culp’s Hill, but only secured a precarious lodgement. As dusk approached, Ewell sent Hays and Avery’s brigades on an assault on Cemetery Hill. They gained the crest, but were forced off after darkness fell. Hill’s III Corps was also not inactive. One solo brigade under Wright gained Cemetery Ridge, which was to be the target of Pickett’s charge the next day. He was unsupported, however, and also was forced to retreat. Lee’s army had pushed back both Union flanks, and Lee was confident. He would order a crushing blow at the Union center on the third day.

Pickett’s division would lead this attack. His division was the only division that had not fought in the first two days of battle, and so rightly should attack. Lee determined that he would be joined by the divisions of Pettigrew (Heth had been wounded) and Trimble (Pender had also been wounded.) Elements of Anderson’s division would support the flanks. Lee’s decision to attack the center was bolstered as Johnson was forced off Culp’s Hill that morning.

At 1 P.M. in the afternoon, E.P. Alexander commenced a massive bombardment of the Union center, commanded by Hancock of the Federal II Corps. Union artillery answered back, then fell silent to conserve ammo for the coming attack. Alexander passed word to Longstreet to hurry and press the attack. Pickett asked Longstreet for permission to advance. Longstreet didn’t answer, but only bowed his head. Pickett understood this as a yes, and marched forward.

Even though the Confederate brigade commanders had been advised to go on foot (to make smaller targets), Garnett of Pickett’s division had been accused by the dead Jackson earlier for cowardice. He insisted on going on horseback, and was shot down before the Confederates reached Union lines. Lewis Armistead, a good friend of the Union general Hancock’s, placed his hat on his sword as a beacon as he led the attack towards the clump of trees atop the ridge. He died with his hand on a Union cannon inside the Angle in the stone wall atop Cemetery Ridge. Of the 13 colonels in the 3 brigades of Pickett’s division, all were killed or wounded. The Confederate attack of 12,000 men was devastated. Only half returned, in a shambled state, to Seminary Ridge, where the Confederate lines were. Lee met these with his words, “It is all my fault.” When Lee ordered Pickett to re-form his men, Pickett cried, “I have no division now.”

The next day, July 4, 1863, was rainy. The two armies simply stared at each other across the lines. That night, Lee began his withdrawal. He had lost a third of his army in the battle, and it would never be the same after. Longstreet’s I Corps would only have 2 divisions instead of 3, after the destruction of Pickett. Lee’s army withdrew into Virginia, leaving behind 28,000 casualties. Meade lost about 24,000 men. Lee submitted his resignation to Jefferson Davis, who refused it. Longstreet also wanted to resign, saying that he thought the South could no longer win the war (he was dissuaded by Lee.) In all, this second invasion of the North (the first culminated at Antietam) ended in a failure.

As well as being arguably the most important battle in the history of the United States, Gettysburg is also one of the most written-about. You can find detailed narratives of every hill taken and every bullet fired elsewhere on the internet and I won't repeat them here. The point of what follows is to explain why what happened on the field at Gettysburg mattered to the course of the American Civil War and the entire future of the Republic; in so doing, it is a potted analysis of the civil war itself.

First, a few facts. The Battle of Gettysburg was what is called a "meeting engagement", when two opposing armies accidentally run into each other and then end up having an enormous battle. Neither the Union or the Confederacy planned to fight at Gettysburg. The town had been garrisoned by a small Union force, which was stumbled over by a small Confederate force which had heard about a much-vaunted supply of shoes in the town and had been sent to "get those shoes", footwear not being quite as ubiquitous in the under-supplied Confederate forces as the men would have liked. From there, it steadily escalated.

Gettysburg is in Pennsylvania, which meant the Confederates were quite deep into Union territory. Not long before, the rebels had inflicted fairly major defeats on the Union at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. But it wasn't enough. It was 1863, and even this far into the rebellion the South saw no clear way to victory. They kept beating the North in battles around Virginia but they knew that in the long-term, the awesome industrial and manpower resources of the Union would prevail if they kept fighting a war of attrition. The Confederacy would run out of men before the Union did, and President Jefferson Davis and General Robert E. Lee knew it.

The solution that Lee and Davis decided on was to move beyond a war of attrition. Lee decided to sally his forces into Union territory, threaten key cities and possibly inflict a humiliating defeat on the Union, and then reap the political and diplomatic benefits. The inability of the Union to keep Lee's forces off their home turf might persuade overseas powers like England and France to recognize the Confederacy as a separate state, which would boost their chances of never been forcibly reunited with the North; similarly, it might distress and depress northern public opinion and lead to Abraham Lincoln being defeated in the 1864 election or having to bend to the wishes of those in the North who wanted to cut their losses and let the South go. It might even save slavery. Lee's thrust north was also driven by the simple fact that for years, his army had been steadily stripping the Virginian countryside clean of food and forage until nothing was left; by giving Northern civilians a taste of what it was like to be occupied, he might persuade them to turn against the war.

The need for a stunning victory was what led the rebels to make what could be seen as a strange strategic choice. The Confederacy was essentially an insurgency, and insurgencies can often win just by not losing. A low-grade guerrilla war that burned slowly for a decade, or a defensive strategy which dared the Union to keep smashing up against a wall of steel in Virginia might have eventually convinced war-weary northern public opinion to let the southern states go. Instead, Lee - flush with previous victories and knowing that a recent conscription act in the South meant his manpower was now at its peak possible level - instead went on the offensive.

This was risky because technology at the time greatly favoured an army which was playing defence. The American Civil War has rightly been called a forerunner of World War I in this regard, and although the meat-grinder churned through both sides the one on the defensive usually came off better. At Gettysburg, the Union ended up dug in on the high ground (Cemetery Hill) with the rebels trying to assault them. Lee risked everything in this final assault and he lost, as some of his key subordinates warned him he would. Although both sides lost about a third of their men, this was much harder for the Confederacy to bear due to its smaller population. Lee had carried out a daring maneuver into enemy territory and then ended it with a dumb assault in which he forfeited his natural advantages. He was back to trying to attrite the Union forces, but this time he came off worse.

Gettysburg wasn't exactly a decisive victory for the Union, either - Lee's army slinked back to Richmond, while Lincoln was incensed by the fact that General George Meade did not pursue the Confederates and deal a killer blow. Meade was accused of being a traitor and faced Congressional investigations, making it clear that contemporaries did not recognize that Gettysburg would prove to be the "high water mark of the Confederacy", as it is often called.

But the battle marked the point at which the initiative clearly moved to the Union in the war, and when all hopes of diplomatic recognition for the Confederacy by outside powers vanished. It consolidated Lincoln's position and moved him to some of the greatest rhetorical heights in American history in the Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural Address; this was not insignificant as it symbolized the newfound determination of the Union to prevail and subdue the South at all costs. When two democracies are at war, public sentiment matters a great deal, and it was after Gettysburg that the blues began to become sure they would win and the greys sure they would lose. The Confederate strategy of seeking to inflict a decisive defeat on the Union had failed, and after that had failed they became as strategically bankrupt as they were morally.

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