The Battle of Gettysburg: Major Turning Point of the Civil War

During the first two years of the Civil War, the Confederate soldiers, most of whom came from the south, maintained the majority control of the war. That remained true until the Battle of Gettysburg. This battle took place the first three days of July, 1863; three days was all it took for the entire course of the war to change. During the first two days, the Confederates dominated the battlefield over the Union; but on the third day of fighting the Confederates made a very costly bargain to attack the Union through the center that did not bare any success. The Confederate plan ended in a disaster. After this battle, General Robert E. Lee was never again to take the offensive in the war.1

On day one of the battle, Confederate General A.P. Hill, who was second in command, had to take initiative to move forward with the plan to attack, since Gen. Robert E. Lee of the Confederate army was absent. On the morning of July 1, 1863, Gen. Hill commanded the brigades to advance along the Chambersburg Road towards Gettysburg. Once they did, the Confederates found out just how strong the Union army was. The Confederate army was only four miles away; the Union army fired shots upon them. Another Confederate General, John Buford, prepared for the waves of the Union so they would not get destroyed. They held the lines up until aid came. With the support of the Union Gen. Pegram’s artillery, their army charged down the long slope and across Willoughby Run against Buford’s men. Fortunately, the Union army had recently received a batch of Spencer repeating carbine rifles, much needed by the army. The Union army was holding strong against the Confederates, just long enough until aid finally came. When Gen. John F. Reynolds from the Union army came with more men, the soldiers rejoiced because of the extra help; but that joy quickly faded away when Gen. Reynolds was killed by a Confederate sharpshooter.2 The tension grew when more forces from both sides joined the battlefield. The Union army retreated to land that would have been advantageous to them. When Gen. Lee got to the battlefield, he witnessed all that had happened with the Union army. He saw the retreat of the Union troops through Gettysburg and he also saw their attempts to reestablish the lines on Cemetery Hill. Upon seeing this, he ordered the men to go strong against the Union, so that the Confederates could take control of the Hill.3 It is evident with the events of the first day, the Confederates took the victory.

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Marines during reenactment of Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania | Courtesy of The Library of Congress

On day two of the battle, around noon on July 2, 1863, the powerful forces of Meade and Lee were united, and a great battle was about to begin. On this day, the Union was trying to get to a position on Little Round Top, which might have helped them defend themselves against the Confederates. When Lee realized this, his plan was to attack from the left, because the Union was going to be very occupied attacking. Since the Union was going into an offensive position, they did not focus on defensive measures that would make them vulnerable to an attack. When Lee made this decision, he sent Gen. Longstreet to attack the left flank. Little did they know, they actually attacked the right flank. Gen. Longstreet saw there was nobody there. Part of the Union army was located at Devil’s Den, where they awaited to reunite with the rest of the army. Once the rest of the Union army arrived, the battle commenced. The Union army had some great and promising young soldiers, but were later killed during the bloodshed. After all the killing was done, Gen. Longstreet had taken possession of a lot of Union land; but the Union still had possession of Little Round Top.4

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Marines during reenactment of Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania | Courtesy of The Library of Congress

On the third and final day of the battle, Pickett’s charge was the most important encounter between the Union and the Confederates in Gettysburg. On July 3, 1863,  Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to attack the Union forces from the center. He came to this decision because of his many failed attempts to attack from the right flank. The majority of the Confederate charge contained men from George Pickett’s division, who was a major general of the Confederates. The charge itself contained about fifteen-thousand men.5 After some time of Confederate bombardment, the charge moved through the open field and up Cemetery Ridge. By the time the Confederates reached the Union lines, their forces had been broken up into smaller groups, which made it impossible to attack the center with full force. This failed attack from the Confederates ended the battle of Gettysburg. On July 4, Gen. Lee decides to retreat back to Virginia.

At the end of this battle there was an estimated 51,000 deaths between both armies. After the Confederate loss on that third day of July, the Union obtained the offensive, signifying that they would eventually win the remaining battles of the war. Not only did Lee not regain the offense for the remainder of the war, he did not try to go into northern territory again. Lee’s loss in the battle of Gettysburg was the turning point of the war, together with the Confederate surrender at Vicksburg that same July 4. So great was this battle that it changed the course of the whole war. Abraham Lincoln, a couple of months after, delivered his now famous speech “The Gettysburg Address.” He gave this speech on November 19, 1863, and the speech was the dedication of the Soldier’s National Cemetery, a cemetery were all the Union soldiers now rest. It has since become a national hymn to the American spirit:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—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. —Abraham Lincoln

  1. William A. Frassanito, Gettysburg: A Journey In Time (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1975), 54-55.
  2.  Frederick Tilberg, Gettysburg (Washington D.C., National Park Service Historical Handbook Series No. 9, 1954), 7.
  3. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 11.
  4. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 17.
  5. Tilberg, Gettysburg, 21.

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This Post Has 43 Comments

  1. Avatar

    My mom is an extreme history buff, especially with the civil war and the revolutionary war so I knew a lot about Gettysburg, but reading this I really like how the three days of fighting were broken up to give more detail about each day. It really made the war feel closer to home instead of a hundred years away.

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    This was a very interesting article on the Battle of Gettysburg. This battle was very pivotal in deciding the Civil Wars outcome, as it had trickle effects for the rest of the battles in the war. It is interesting to wonder what would have happened if the Confederates did not make that decisive mistake in battle. Overall, this was a great article on the Battle of Gettysburg.

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    I really enjoyed reading this article. I haven’t heard about this battle before, but I thought this article did it brilliantly due to the fact that it wrote it in three separate days rather than the battle as a whole. I think it was able to get the most important and crucial moments this way, instead of missing important parts by doing it as a whole. Very good article to read. I found it also interesting because this was such a horrific battle, however, it was a major turning point in the Union Army.

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    I admit I didn’t know much about military history, let alone the Civil War History. But, I am surprised the Battle of Gettysburg was three days long. The author does a wonderful job of really walking the reader through the battle. No detail is too minor and the story really flows well so it was easy to read and follow. Nice inclusion of the Gettysburg address, it was a great way to tie up the article as well as further emphasize its impact on the war.

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    This was a great article about the Battle of Gettysburg. There was a great amount of detail and I enjoyed the map of progress for the battle. Many believed that this battle was avoidable and completely unnecessary. All the Confederate Army needed to do was to keep marching north and capture cities in the north and break the will of the Union to keep fighting the war. General Lee committed to unnecessary tactics during the battle that led to the decline of the confederates ability to keep fighting the war.

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    This article was very detailed and enjoyable. It was easy to read and that is probably because of the timeline you choose. I liked how you separated it into different days. This battle has always peaked my interest. Although it was extremely deadly, I could not imagine Americans killing Americans to be one of the deadliest battles. Very interesting and well-written article!

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    The Battle of Gettysburg was such a bloody and gory battle for both sides, the Union Army came out on top this was ultimately the turning point in the Civil War. This war fought between the North and the South was one of the most bloodiest and sorrowful battle fought in American history to this day. Despite this battle being one of the most tragic in the War it ultimately changed the tide of the war.

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    This article did a great job of separating the Battle of Gettysburg into the three separate days rather than simply discussing it as a whole and missing key details. The description of the tactics used during the battle along with moments of both triumph and anguish on both sides made for excellent reading while also being informative. I must commend the use of the Gettysburg Address to close out the article, overall well done.

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    With Gettysburg being one of the, if not the deadliest battles fought on US soil it is usually just talked about in its entirety. But the way you broke it down day by day going over the main events of the three days of pure hell that the soldiers of both the Union and Confederacy went through. It shows how it became the turning point for the Union and for the reunification of the nation.

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    In my American Literature class, we just read Abraham Lincoln’s famous speech, “The Gettysburg Address”, so this fits perfectly in with what I am reading. I thought this article was super interesting. In my opinion, anything that has to do with the Civil War has my immediate int rest. It was one of the bloodiest and even most sorrowful battle in America’s history. Even though many lives were lost in the Battle of Gettysburg, it is still an interesting battle due to the fact that it was the major turning point of the war for the Union army. Despite the horror of the battle, The Battle of Gettysburg will be one of the most interesting and deadliest wars of American history.

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