The Battle of Gettysburg

Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

“All Over Now” (Alexander Gardner)
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Often described as the turning point of the Civil War, the three days of the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in the largest number of casualties of any encounter during the four-year conflict. It began on July 1, 1863, and ended two days later after “Pickett’s Charge.”

The extensive accounts of Pickett’s Charge, as reported by its participants, journalists, and the official military records, became the blueprint for the Cyclorama painting. For The New York Herald’s account of the battle’s second and third days, click on the image of newspaper headlines, below, left. While there are no photographs of the battle itself, there are images of the battle’s aftermath.

The Battle of Gettysburg saw Union Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac fend off the assault by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.

battlefield map

Bachelder's 1863 Battlefield Map.
Click for detailed view.

Lee was flush with his recent resounding victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in May of that year. He was, in his own words later, operating under the illusion that his “men were invincible.” Elsewhere on the vast field of battle, however, the Confederacy was in peril, particularly at Vicksburg, Mississippi, under siege by Union General Ulysses S. Grant. At Gettysburg, Lee was to be fighting without his brilliant commander, Gen. Stonewall Jackson, who had been killed by friendly fire at Chancellorsville.

Lee had convinced Confederate President Jefferson Davis that instead of rushing to rescue Vicksburg, his army would have more impact by making his attack in Pennsylvania, with the hope that a victory there might open up a pathway to Washington, D.C., and a potential negotiated settlement of the Civil War.

This was not to be. By Independence Day of that year the South had lost Vicksburg, and Lee’s army had been defeated and decimated at Gettysburg.

Although there is some folklore suggesting that Gettysburg was targeted because the Confederate forces were seeking better shoes, the actual reason was that the town, with a population of around 2,400, was at the meeting spot of ten different roads, making it a logical focus for the movement of large armies. On July 1st, the Rebel soldiers entered the town.

General Meade’s forces retreated after the first day’s battle to the high ground around Cemetery Hill, south of the town. It was there that his trusted subordinate Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock, seen here in the Cyclorama, asked if Gettysburg was the appropriate place for a major battle. He was informed that it was “the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw.” Hancock then announced, “Very well, sir, I select this as the battle-field.”

Gettysburg film excerpt.

The 1993 film Gettysburg uses the Cyclorama for its main title.

newspaper page

Front page of the New York Herald, July 4, 1863. Click for detailed view.

The second day would prove to be the bloodiest of the battle. By nightfall, however, neither side had gained the upper hand. As the third day’s fighting began Lee—seen in the background here in the Cyclorama—was determined to prevail at Culp’s Hill, at one end of the Union line. After seven hours of fighting, however, the hill remained securely in Union hands.

By this time, Lee was frequently indisposed during the battle, fighting off his intestinal woes as well as the Yankees. The general’s backup plan was ultimately to prove his undoing. He wanted to use the fresh troops belonging to the three brigades of Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, seen here in the Cyclorama, as well as other brigades under the command of Gen. Longstreet, to spearhead a frontal assault on the center of the Union army up on Cemetery Hill. While there were other officers also leading the 12,500 Confederate soldiers, today this defining act of the Battle of Gettysburg is known as “Pickett’s Charge.”

In the early afternoon of the third day more than 150 Confederate cannon began a bombardment that may have been the largest of the Civil War. While half as many Union guns were used to return the fire, the commander of the Union artillery decided to hold back to save ammunition for the assault he knew would soon follow.

Serendipitously for him, his enemy counterparts misinterpreted the declining Union fire to mean that their own salvos had been successful in knocking out the Union guns. That error would soon cost them dearly, as nearly half of the 12,500 Confederates in Pickett’s Charge would never return to their own lines, mowed down by the formidable cannon and rifle fire of the Union troops occupying the high ground, under the command of Gen. Hancock. The video excerpt (above, right) shows this as depicted in the 1993 Gettysburg film.

Tipton's Bloody Angle

The “Bloody Angle,” by William H. Tipton

The most intense fighting, including hand-to-hand combat, occurred at a spot by a low stone wall known as the “Angle.” For a brief moment, troops under the command of Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead managed to breach the line before being repulsed when Union reinforcements rushed in. This spot is known as the “high-water mark of the Confederacy.” Armistead, leading the charge with his hat carried aloft on the tip of his sabre, was shot three times. The wounded general was captured by Union troops and died two days later in a field hospital. This moment, the focus of the Cyclorama, was clearly the turning point of the Battle of Gettysburg. Afterwards, many historians saw it as the turning point of the entire Civil War.

The opposing armies together suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties—about a third of all the troops fighting at Gettysburg. Nearly 8,000 soldiers lost their lives. When Gen. Pickett was asked, years later, why his assault had failed, he said, “I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.”

As the Cyclorama’s Boston souvenir program put it:

The tidings of the victory at Gettysburg came to the Northern people on the 4th of July, side by side with the tidings of the fall of Vicksburg. The proud old anniversary had perhaps never before been celebrated by the American people with hearts so thankful and so glad.

For the Union the victory at Gettysburg was a shot in the arm, a jubilant reversal from earlier drubbings at Chancellorsville and the Second Battle of Winchester. There was a palpable shift of momentum and cause for celebration in the streets of the cities of the Northeast. There would never be another strategic offensive by Lee’s army.
Four and a half months after the battle, at a time when the bleached bones of the fallen were still being discovered on the battlefield, President Abraham Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg to deliver his brief remarks, now so revered, at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery.