Battle of Gettysburg Overview

High Water Mark Memorial, Gettysburg National Military Park


In the beginning of June of 1863, the American Civil War had been dragging on for two years. General Robert E. Lee, confident in his army’s abilities, was determined to win a battle on northern soil. Perhaps if he could win such a battle it would break the Union’s strength and determination to win the war.

The Gettysburg campaign began on June 3, 1863, and the Confederate army marched north. During the march, there were skirmishes with Union cavalry and troops.

From Washington D.C., President Lincoln ordered the commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, General Joseph Hooker, to attack Lee’s army. General Hooker hated being bossed by Lincoln, and on June 27 he resigned from his position. With Lee’s army already in Pennsylvania and threatening important cities, Lincoln appointed General George Meade to command the Union army.

On the 29th of June, General John Buford with his Union cavalry headed for the town of Gettysburg to do a little scouting. They reached the small quiet town of Gettysburg on June 30 and noticed the Confederate forces to the west of the community.

This map shows the location of the town of Gettysburg and the surrounding locations. (Public Domain)

This map shows the location of the town of Gettysburg and the surrounding locations. (Public Domain)

July 1, 1863

Early in the morning Confederates  discovered Buford’s Union cavalry on Seminary Ridge, just west of town. The troops on both sides began firing. The Battle of Gettysburg had begun.  The Union cavalry was outnumbered by the Confederates 2 to 1, however, the Union soldiers held their position for hours.

July 1, 1863 (Map by Hal Jespersen,

July 1, 1863 (Map by Hal Jespersen,

At about 10:00 in the morning, Union General John Reynolds met with General Buford.  Reynolds decided that this would be a good place to fight a battle, and he ordered reinforcements up. Soon after, General Reynolds was shot and killed, leaving lower ranking generals in command; General Meade was still  miles away.

The fighting shifted back and forth. More reinforcements came for both sides and the fighting lines extended around the north of the town. In the late afternoon, Confederate troops broke through the Union lines. The Union troops fled. A few blue-clad units continued fighting as they retreated through the town, but others hid. General Lee arrived on the battle field.  He ordered his Confederate soldiers to finish the route. The Confederates pushed the Union troops back capturing several thousand troops in the town.

While the Confederates captured prisoners, and the Union troops tried to reorganize on high ground southeast of town – Cemetery Hill, Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Ridge – another Union general, General Winfield S. Hancock, arrived at Cemetery Ridge. He ordered Culp’s Hill to be occupied and held, this decision was one helped the Union win the battle in the end.

General Lee told one of his generals, General Ewell, (pronounced U-L) to attack “if possible.” Ewell decided it was not possible and didn’t attack. Thus, the Confederate’s chance of surprise and possibly victory slipped away. The disorganized Union troops received more reinforcements. The chance of Confederate victory faded as did the setting sun. The first day was over.

July 2, 1863

By the morning of July 2, General Meade finally arrived on the battlefield. Both he and Confederate General Lee spent the morning making plans with their generals.

General Meade decided to reinforce the defensive position of Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. On the Union’s left side, or flank, General Meade placed General Daniel Sickles and his corps. Troops were placed on Culp’s Hill, which was the Union’s right flank. Other generals and their corps were placed in the middle of the ridge. The Union position on Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill made the shape of a “fish-hook” or a “candy cane,” Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill being the curve and Cemetery Ridge the straight part.

General Lee decided to take the offensive, he ordered General Longstreet to attack the Union’s left flank and General Ewell to attack their right flank. The attacks were supposed to be at the same time and thus by pressured on both flanks the Union army would have to fall back.

Meanwhile, General Daniel Sickles, from his assigned position, saw the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard.  He thought that he should occupy that position and sent a message to Meade asking for permission to move, but did not receive the answers he wanted. Sickles choose to ignore the orders and moved his entire corps forward to the Peach Orchard and Wheat Field and out of line with the rest of the army.

General Hancock, whose corps was to the right of Sickles’, was shocked to see him leave the assigned position, leaving the whole left flank unprotected!

July 2, 1863 (Public Domain)

July 2, 1863 (Public Domain)

At approximately 4:00 p.m., the attack began. The Confederates attacked Sickles’ Corp in the “new” position.  Also Confederates threatened to take the Round Tops, small hills on the far left of the Union line. Fortunately, the Confederate attack was observed and Union generals scrambled to get troops on Little Round Top. The defense of the left flank was fierce – the 20th Maine regiment and the 44th New York regiment made bayonet charges to maintain their positions.

Meanwhile, the disaster with Sickles and his corps unfolded in the Wheat Field, Peach Orchard, and Devil’s Den. The Confederates were too strong, and with limited reinforcements, the Union troops fled back to Cemetery Ridge.

On Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill on the Union right flank, there had been fighting too. Confederate General Ewell drove the Union troops from their trenches on Culp’s Hill. Day was fast fading, and night fighting commenced with both sides shooting at movement. At Devil’s Den uncontrolled night fighting also raged.

In the darkness, the Union flag was still on Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill, and Little Round Top. With the two exceptions of Wheat Field, Peach Orchard and Culp’s Hill, the Confederates had accomplished nothing, but the loss of men on both sides was enormous.

July 3, 1863

In the late evening/early morning, while General Lee made new attack plans, General Meade called a meeting of his corps commanders. They agreed to stay and fight one more day, but not to take the offensive.

Lee’s original plans fell apart when General Ewell again attacked Culp’s Hill at dawn. For several hours fighting took place on Culp’s Hill, and ended around 10:00 a.m. with the Union soldiers driving the Confederates back.

Lee made new plans. He told General Longstreet to attack with his corps and a few other brigades. The attack would be focused on a grove of trees in the Union lines. Longstreet disagreed. He realized that a charge, even of 15,000 men could not make it across a mile of open ground. He begged Lee to reconsider his plan. Lee said no.

July 3, 1863 (Public Domain)

July 3, 1863 (Public Domain)

At approximately 1:07 p.m., two guns were fired and a huge cannonade began and continued for about two hours. The Union artillery held most of their fire, which made the Confederates believe that most the cannons had been destroyed. After a long time, the Confederate artillery commander sent a message to Longstreet saying that the attack should be soon, as the ammunition was running low.

General Pickett, a newly arrived general from Virginia, asked Longstreet if he should start the charge. Longstreet only nodded, and General Pickett ordered the Confederates forward.

The Union troops were waiting, but they were astonished as the battle smoke cleared and they saw 15,000 men advancing against them. On and on the Confederates came. Then the Union cannon open fired. Still the Confederates came on. Then gunfire.  Still, those still standing came on; running now, screaming their terrible battle cry. At the stone wall, they fought their way into the Union lines; the Union troops faltered but only for a moment, then theyand drove the attackers back. The charge failed.

The next night the Confederates retreated. Their hope for success was gone. Meade did not pursue them. He told Lincoln his army was too tired.

Militarily, Gettysburg was a Union victory, but 50,000 casualties were left on the field.

It has been difficult to condense this battle into less than 1500 words. If you have questions, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment and I’d be happen to answer.

For more in-depth study on the Battle of Gettysburg, I’d recommend:

The Long Road to Gettysburg by Jim Murphy (children’s book)

The New Gettysburg Campaign Handbook by J. David Petruzzi and Steven Stanley

They Met At Gettysburg by Edward J. Stackpole

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