Remembering the Battle of Gettysburg

Story by Sgt. 1st Class Raymond J. Piper, Soldiers Live
This print from the painting Hancock at Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup shows Maj. Gen. George Hancock leading the attack popularly known as "Pickett's Charge." (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)

This print from the painting Hancock at Gettysburg by Thure de Thulstrup shows Maj. Gen. George Hancock leading the attack popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge.” (Courtesy of the Library of Congress)


While the landscape has changed over time, the memory of the Battle of Gettysburg remains strong 150 years after the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia clashed in the sleepy Pennsylvania hamlet. Monuments and markers were erected to indicate battle lines where units fought and to honor the men on both sides who sacrificed their lives for their beliefs and their nations.

One of the reasons that Gettysburg crosses generations and has gained the attention of so many people is because it was one of the few Civil War battles to take place in the north. For the most part, it involved brother versus brother, and the carnage was almost unfathomable.

“(The Civil War) is our war … and by far … the one great event of that entire century, so Americans look to that time period to relate to it. Whether they had ancestors that were part of it, or they are just into military history, it draws all walks of life,” said Kaleb Dissinger, a curator at the U.S. Army Historical and Education Center at Carlisle Barracks, Pa.

The second Confederate invasion of the north during the Civil War began in mid-June 1863, when the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began crossing the Potomac River.  Their first attempt was nine months earlier at the Battle of Antietam, Md., but Union forces turned them back. Louise Arnold-Friend, a historian at AHEC,  said she believes that one has to look at the overall picture of the eastern theater during the first two years of the war.

“While every major engagement was a Confederate victory or draw between the two major land armies, it was still an undecided theater,” she explained. “After two years of war, the Virginia landscape had been decimated, and the civilian population was suffering tremendously.”

After the Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederate high command, including President Jefferson Davis and Gen. Robert E. Lee, held multiple war councils to decide their next move.  Out of those meetings came the plan for a renewed northern invasion effort. (Read more about the Battle of Chancellorsville at

“I believe it was a multi-cause campaign,” Arnold-Friend explained. “Part of the reasoning was to get the war away from the southern civilians, and in the political sphere, to present the northern government with a potential opening for a negotiated peace. Essentially, ‘Mr. Lincoln, you cannot defend your borders if my army gets into your territory.’”

Once the operation was underway and the two armies moved into Pennsylvania, Gettysburg drew them nearer and nearer because of its location. The town was a major junction with roadways feeding into the area from major and minor population centers: Harrisburg, Carlisle, Shippensburg, Chambersburg, Hanover and York in Pennsylvania; Hagerstown, Taneytown and Baltimore in Maryland; and Washington, D.C.

“It was necessary to travel into Gettysburg if you were traversing to or from any of those locations,” Arnold-Friend said.

The northern Army had fairly specific instructions from President Abraham Lincoln: intercept the Confederates and turn them back if possible with or without an engagement.

“Battle wasn’t necessary. They could have used maneuver, but always keeping the Army of the Potomac within a position where they would not permit Lee to gain access to or entry to Washington or the port of Baltimore,” Arnold-Friend explained.

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade took great care to make sure his field commanders knew exactly what the army was being asked to do, she explained.  This clear communication of commander’s intent is something that modern leaders can still apply today, and Meade’s clear instruction would prove invaluable as the Battle of Gettysburg unfolded. It allowed his commanders to take the initiative during a battle

The battle that began haphazardly as Dissinger described it, quickly descended into a snowball effect, locking the two armies into conflict from July 1 to July 3, 1863.

Meade, who had only taken command three days prior to the battle, dispatched a Union cavalry division to provide reconnaissance. Led by Brig. Gen. John Buford, the division had been tracking Lee’s forces.

“Their arrival at Gettysburg on June 30 was simultaneous with Lee’s decision to send a division east … to occupy the town and to get rid of what he had been mistakenly told were local militia forces at the village proper,” Arnold-Friend said.

This meeting in Gettysburg would ignite the battle, drawing the full strength of both armies into a three-day clash that would end in a Confederate defeat.

On the first day of the battle, 40,000 Confederate troops squared off against an 18,000-man Union covering force that was made up of Buford’s cavalry and Maj. Gen. John Reynolds’ infantry, which had arrived three hours after the first shots were fired at 7:30 a.m. on July 1.

The commanders on the ground decided to contain the enemy advance outside of town for as long as possible in order to salvage the high ground at Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and the Round Top line in the event that was where Meade chose to meet Lee in battle.

Fighting extended along both sides of the Chambersburg Pike, which ran northwest out of Gettysburg. North of the road, the Confederates saw early success, but were ultimately repulsed after suffering heavy losses around an unfinished railroad cut. South of the road, the Union made significant gains, but this was tempered by the death of Reynolds, shot while leading his troops just inside of McPherson’s Woods. The battle lulled just after noon, only to resume with renewed vigor around 2:30, with an entire Confederate division engaged. The Union forces south of Chambersburg Pike began losing ground, and when a second Confederate division joined the attack, the Union line was pushed back through Lutheran Seminary and into the streets of town.

“They were able to hold overwhelming numbers of Confederate infantry and artillery at bay until day’s end when their line was overcome by the sheer numbers and forced back to the high ground,” Arnold-Friend said.

With nightfall looming Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s decision that it wouldn’t be practical to attack, the Confederates were unable to mount an offensive to push the Union forces further back. Lee had told Ewell to only attack with his corps if he felt it was practical and would lead to victory.

By the morning of July 2, Meade’s full force of 97,000 men arrived and were arrayed in a short battle line with interior lines and high ground. The Union position had assumed the shape of a fishhook, beginning on Culp’s Hill, curving around Cemetery Hill and proceeding down Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. Because of the advantage of the high ground, they were able to take a defensive position and force the Confederate army to come to them.

Lee’s plan focused on coordinated attacks on the Union right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. But due to faulty intelligence, made worse by the absence of Maj. Gen. J.E.B Stuart’s cavalry (which had broken away to attempt a flanking maneuver of the Union army prior to the Battle of Gettysburg), the Confederate generals did not realize Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles had repositioned his corps. Sickles had advanced further west past Cemetery Ridge onto the high ground in the area of the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den.

Shortly after taking command, Meade ordered his seven corps commanders to assemble a team of signal communication troops. These men were schooled and trained in using flag communication. They communicated Confederate movements to the Union leadership from the top of the Little Round Top, which provided each adjacent corps and the Union headquarters the ability to maintain secure communications throughout the battle.

“Rarely, if ever, during the campaign and battle was Meade out of touch with any major element of his party,” Arnold-Friend said.

The Union army’s chief engineer, Maj. Gen. Gouverneur Warren, seeing the need to defend the signalmen’s position, requested troops be moved to its defense. Col. Strong Vincent, part of Maj. Gen. George Sykes’s V Corps that was reinforcing the Union left flank, redirected his brigade to take up position on Little Round Top — without waiting for orders from his direct superiors.

By the end of the day, the Confederate army would capture Devil’s Den and the Peach Orchard, but the federal line on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge held firm.

Believing that Meade’s center would be weak from the previous day’s attack, on July 3, Lee planned to apply 12,500 Confederate soldiers of one fresh division and two compounded divisions against the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Unbeknownst to Lee, Meade had anticipated this and was ready to reinforce his internal lines.

The resulting attack is known as Pickett’s Charge because Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division represented the majority of the attacking troops.

“Pickett and his division were really the only “fresh” (Confederate) troops left,” Dissinger said. “The remainder of the first corps and the majority of the second and third corps were both fairly beat up, so (Lee) really didn’t have a lot of options left aside from what he used.”

Lee wanted his remaining troops on his left in the eastern Culp’s Hill sector to strike against the flank as well.  A third portion of the action involved the Confederate cavalry, which arrived in the battle area around midnight as the second day gave way to the third.

Stuart was to swing his mounted force around and appear at the Union rear as a diversion.

“Now this was, Lee hoped, simultaneous with the beginnings or perhaps just before the infantry advance,” Arnold-Friend said.

A barrage of more than 100 cannons aimed at the Union artillery preceded the infantry attack. Union positions were camouflaged and held their fire until the Confederate cannoneers were nearly out of ammunition, so most of the cannons overshot their targets and the barrage was largely ineffective. As the bombardment ended, Pickett’s Charge and the other attacks began.

Union fire, both artillery and rifle, raked the attacking formations as they approached. Pickett’s men were further slowed when they reached Emmitsburg Road and had to take down fences that blocked their path. Increasingly accurate musket fire by infantry and canister shot from the cannons as the Confederate forces drew closer to the Union lines caused the attack to falter, but not stop.

A gap opened in the Union line that the Confederate soldiers tried to exploit, but they would be beaten back by fierce hand-to-hand combat and point-blank cannon fire.

Southern losses from the attack exceeded 50 percent and in Pickett’s division, 26 of 40 field grade officers became casualties, as did all three brigade commanders. The battle was essentially over. Lee began withdrawing a day and a half later, first his wounded followed by the able-bodied serving as a rear guard.

Meade’s public reputation after the battle became tarnished, as many people believed he should have pursued the Confederate army and Lee more aggressively, Arnold-Friend said. But like Lee’s army, the Union army had been battered. Of the 51,000 casualties, 28,000 were Confederate and 23,000 were Union.

“That’s the equivalent of two of the seven corps out of combat action,” she explained. “I don’t know that Meade had enough logistical apparatus, or quite frankly, manpower to chase Lee off into the mountains west of Gettysburg, and that was not his mission. His mission is complete. Lee is leaving.”

Gettysburg’s road from battlefield to national symbol began in the post-war years as the northern states looked for a place of Union victory that was close by and easy to reach.

“Gettysburg met all that criteria and more,” Arnold-Friend said. “There was also some local marketing on the part of the town and the community itself to be recognized, because that community was devastated by this event,” she continued, noting that after the battle the town of Gettysburg was left to its own devices to recover, clean up and get on with their lives. “There was no FEMA, no recovery funds, and nobody did a benefit concert after this disaster.”

In the immediate post-war period, it became a place of remembrance largely for the north.

“Many men had been lost there or permanently damaged, physically or mentally, and it was a place that virtually every family was either impacted by, or at least, very well aware of,” Arnold-Friend explained.

Civil War veterans in the prime of their lives created the battlefield memorial. As veterans became successful later in life and had more expendable income, and as states contributed money, those veterans began placing memorials and markers around Gettysburg.

In addition, “It also was one of the handful of places the Army itself later in the 19th century was interested in preserving … for Soldiers to come study terrain, tactics and command decisions,” Arnold-Friend said.

The Army lobbied Congress to identify some of the National Military Parks for that purpose and between 1865 and 1886, legislation was passed to create them formally as national parks under the War Department.

In 1913, there was an enormous veterans’ reunion at Gettysburg. Some 80,000 Civil War veterans visited for a week. After that the numbers of living veterans began to dwindle, Arnold-Friend said.

At the 75th anniversary in 1938, there was another reunion but this time the numbers didn’t even reach 2,000 for veteran participants, she said. “It’s around that time we are starting to … look at Gettysburg as a national symbol,” for reunion, for reunification and for remembrance. The battlefield continued to be a national symbol as the centennial approached and passed.

“There are people who make their lives’ work studying the war itself, but this battle in particular has captured (people’s) imagination,” Arnold-Friend said.

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