American Civil War: The Battle of Gettysburg and Its Significance


By Gary W. Gallagher, Ph.D., University of Virginia

On 1 July 1863, a full-scale battle near Gettysburg had begun. The three-day battle would later become a great turning point in the American Civil War. Why? And, how did people view it at the time as opposed to how we do now?

An image of the Gettysburg National Military Park.
In the present times, Gettysburg is the most visited Civil War site in the United States. (Image: Zack Frank/Shutterstock)

Gettysburg Day 1: Lee Sees Victory

Following Robert Lee’s plan for invasion of the North, the Confederates were marching toward Pennsylvania to reconcentrate near Gettysburg. They were to take the Union Army and the Army of the Potomac when the battle began on July 1.

As the battle unfolded before him, Lee saw that his troops were coming in in a position to threaten a Federal line that curved in a big arc around Gettysburg—north and west of Gettysburg. He gave the orders to push the assaults, and, by the end of the day on July 1, two Federal corps had been shattered. The famous Iron Brigade, the most famous unit in the Army of the Potomac, lost 1,200 out of 1,800 in the fight.

But that night, Potomac Army chief George Meade arrived on the field, and Union reinforcements poured into the area. The same happened on the Confederate side: James Longstreet’s troops approached the field and there was George Pickett’s division.

This is a transcript from the video series The American Civil War. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

Gettysburg: A Slow Start to Day 2

On the second day, Lee decided to attack both ends of the Union line—the Union right at Culps Hill and the Union left flank, which, at that point, was somewhere, as far as Lee knew, on Cemetery Ridge.

It was late in the afternoon before the Confederates got going. Longstreet attacked the Union left and almost captured the high ground at Little Round Top, and Richard Ewell’s troops almost captured the high ground on Culps Hill. It was a very frustrating day for Lee. He was close on both ends of the line, but he didn’t quite succeed.

Gettysburg Day 3: A Doomed Assault

For the third day, Lee, yet again, decided to attack, using the same plan—pressure against both ends of the Union line. But, things didn’t go as planned. The Federals attacked before Lee could get going on the Culps Hill end of the line and Longstreet argued that his divisions, which had fought so hard on July 2 on the Union left, weren’t up to fighting again.

Thus Lee fell back to another plan, which came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. This was a major assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. About 13,000 Confederates of George Pickett’s division and two other divisions would cover about seven-tenths of a mile in the most famous infantry assault of the war against the center of Meade’s position.

A print of the painting "Hancock at Gettysburg" showing Pickett's Charge.
On Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg, Robert Lee decided to attack the Union Army with a plan that came to be known as Pickett’s Charge. (Image: Adam Cuerden/Public domain)

And, they failed. About half of the men in the assault were shot down. Lee took immediate responsibility and patched together a defensive line. Meanwhile, Meade didn’t try to launch a counterattack, and that was the end of the fighting at Gettysburg. Lee retreated on the 4th of July.

There were at least 25,000 Confederate casualties; at least a third of Lee’s army had been shot down. Meade lost more than 20,000, probably 23,000. The casualties were near or perhaps a bit more than 50,000 killed, wounded, and missing for the three-day battle.

Learn more about the common soldiers of the American Civil War.

Did the Union Army Really Win at Gettysburg?

Image of Abraham Lincoln.
Abraham Lincoln was disappointed that Potomac Army chief George Meade didn’t do more damage to the Confederate Army at Gettysburg. (Image: Alexander Gardner/Public domain)

Today, we see Gettysburg as one of the most important battles of the Civil War. However, back then, there was a much more mixed view. On one hand, Lee had been driven out of Pennsylvania, and it was a victory for the North. But many in the North were of the opinion that Meade should have followed up his success on July 3 and inflicted greater damage on the Confederate Army. Abraham Lincoln was very much disappointed that Meade didn’t do more damage to the Confederate Army.

On the Confederate side, Gettysburg was seen as a battle where they won the first day’s fighting clearly, attacked gallantly and almost succeeded on the second day, and then attacked and fought well again on the third day. The Confederates argued that they were not driven from the field, rather they left of their own volition. And Gettysburg did not have any significant negative influence on Lee’s reputation in the Confederacy.

Learn more about Gettysburg and why Robert Lee invaded the North.

Was Gettysburg the Great Turning Point of the Civil War?

Gettysburg was an important campaign. It stopped the Confederate momentum in the Eastern Theater and it probably killed any chance of Europe intervening. It gave the Federals a badly needed victory and boosted Northern morale. But Lee’s army remained strong, and it remained a major force in the field for nearly two more years.

Today, we think Gettysburg probably should be seen as the turning point because we know a number of things about it that people didn’t know at the time. We know that it was the biggest battle of the war, it was also the last time Lee invaded the North. We know that Lincoln gave his eloquent benediction over the Union dead at Gettysburg. All this make it seem more important.

We also know that Gettysburg is the most visited Civil War site in the United States now, which also seems to give it a special position.

Yet at the time, it did not loom as large as it does to us now.

Union success, Confederate disaster—the battle at Gettysburg wasn’t just that simple at the time. It did not mark the decisive turning point of the war. The war would go on and the Confederacy would still have chances to win the war.

Common Questions about the Battle of Gettysburg and Its Significance

Q: Why was the Battle of Gettysburg important?

The Battle of Gettysburg was significant as it was a victory for the Union Army.

Q: What were the casualties in the Battle of Gettysburg?

The casualties during the Battle of Gettysburg were about 50,000 killed, wounded, and missing.

Q: Why is the Battle of Gettysburg considered to be the turning point in the American Civil War?

The Battle of Gettysburg is seen as the turning point because we know a number of things about it that people didn’t know at the time. It was the biggest battle during the war, it was the last time Robert Lee invaded the North, this was the place where Abraham Lincoln gave his eloquent benediction over the Union dead, and Gettysburg is the most visited Civil War site in the United States now .

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