When we look back at American History, we see a chain of important moments — from writing the Declaration of Independence to completing the first transcontinental railroad to putting a man on the moon. For all its horror and glory, the Battle of Gettysburg is one of these rare moments that changed our country’s history forever.
It raged in the hot, early days of July 1863 — fought between the Union Army led by General George Meade and the Confederate Army led by General Robert E. Lee. The forces met in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, where they wrote one of the most violent chapters in the history of America.
It would be hard to overstate the importance of this battle. It served as a turning point in the Civil War, that moment when the Confederacy began its slow decline. It is also the moment when confidence in the Union cause began to strengthen. And after the smoke cleared, President Abraham Lincoln came to give an address that would promise the abolition of slavery.
Let’s dive into what happened at the Battle of Gettysburg and why it led to so many profound changes in our country. This will help us understand why this event was so pivotal, and why it continues to fascinate us today.
Overview of the Battle of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg was a major battle in the middle part of the American Civil War. Fought July 1 to 3, 1863, it took place in the little known town of Gettysburg.
Why did the two armies fight over this small village of 2,400 people? It happened to be in an extremely strategic location — a road junction that would prove a vital holding for whomever could take it. As many as 12 major roads converged there, and it was once the end of an important railroad line (before the line was destroyed by the Confederacy).
The battle became inevitable as Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia moved some 80,000 men up into Pennsylvania. They were hot off a victory against the Army of the Potomac, and they were pressing northward once again seeking cities like Harrisburg and even Philadelphia — prized for both its practical and symbolic value.
George Meade moved his Army of the Potomac (about 100,000 strong) in position to stop Lee’s forces. He had reason to be confident. He wielded superior numbers and better equipment. Yet there was plenty of cause for concern, as the Confederates boasted trained cavalry and more experienced men. Both sides knew that, no matter the outcome, it would be a real fight.
The first two days of fighting saw success by Lee’s side but nothing decisive. On the third day, a frustrated Lee decided to attack the center of the Union line and take Cemetery Hill. This would give him a superior position and break his opponent’s army in two.
What resulted was Pickett’s Charge. Unfortunately for Lee and his soldiers, Meade had correctly predicted the South's strategy. Union forces were ready to repel the attack. This single move carried extreme costs. The total losses of Pickett’s Charge included:
Around 1,500 Union soldiers killed and wounded
1,123 Confederate soldiers killed
4,019 Confederate soldiers wounded
3,750 Confederate soldiers captured
The folly of Pickett’s Charge proved the end to the Battle of Gettysburg as well as Lee’s northward march.
Though the above outline of the battle shows that it was a dramatic experience in the war, it doesn’t quite tell us why Gettysburg is so historically important. Let's dive into the main reasons below.
Reason 1: Turning point of the American Civil War
The most immediate impact the Battle of Gettysburg made was turning the tide of the American Civil War. Up until this point, the majority of major battles ended with Confederate victory, and the Union forces were in a state of disarray. To get a sense of just how strong the South’s position was, Lee was in the middle of a campaign to begin taking major Union cities — a project that only ended because of his defeat at Gettysburg.
The defeat went further than a single battle. The Confederate forces suffered massive casualties, and that meant a loss of strength for future actions. On top of that, the feeling of momentum stopped in its tracks.
Though the war wouldn’t end until May of 1865, many historians look back and see Gettysburg as the moment that the possibility of Southern victory dimmed and Northern victory began to solidify.
Reason 2: Significance for the Union
Victory at Gettysburg sent Union hopes high, and it ended a string of defeats that were grinding away at their cause. It also stopped a potentially fatal Southern invasion in its tracks.
By giving the Union an example of their power and capabilities on the battlefield, Gettysburg rejuvenated morale and created a renewed sense of purpose. This had knock on effects for President Lincoln. His handling of the war was seen as fair to poor up to that point. But with such a major victory, his popularity began to climb.
This was not without a high cost. The North suffered heavy casualties at Gettysburg, too. But for the first time, it all seemed to be moving in the right direction.
Reason 3: Loss of Confederate leadership
Among the many dead, Gettysburg’s toll on the Confederate side included important leaders whose talent and abilities were sorely missed.
General James Longstreet: Though Longstreet didn’t die at Gettysburg, he was shot in battle and could not continue to lead as Lee’s top lieutenant. The battle also blighted his record, as it was up to him to lead the doomed Pickett’s Charge.
General J.E.B. Stuart: Commander of the Confederate Cavalry, Stuart arrived late to the battle. He ended up being scapegoated for the loss, undermining his otherwise stellar reputation.
The loss of these leaders had a significant impact on the Confederate army. Without Longstreet and Stuart, the Confederate forces were unable to launch effective flanking maneuvers or coordinate their forces as effectively. This weakened the Confederate army and made it more vulnerable to Union offensives.
Reason 4: Symbol of the American Civil War
There is no battle of the American Civil War more well known than Gettysburg. This is in part thanks to the address given by Lincoln in November of 1863, where the aim of abolishing slavery became a key plank in the Union cause for victory.
But it is also remembered for the extraordinary human cost and the importance it had in the unfolding of the war.
For these reasons, it is still honored today with many monuments, memorials, and reenactments.
The battle is also a symbol of the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers. Those who fought at Gettysburg endured incredible hardships and displayed extraordinary bravery in the face of adversity.
The battle serves as a reminder of the cost of war and the importance of remembering those who fought and died. While so much of our history focuses on the names of generals and presidents, it is always those whose names are lost to time that must bear the greatest burdens.
Final thoughts on the importance of Gettysburg
The Battle of Gettysburg is a defining moment in the Civil War and in American history. You cannot tell the story of our country without including this event. This is why we continue to honor the memory of Gettysburg today. Because though it was bloody, the battle played a major part in the peace that arrived years later. It was a peace that remade the country, another step in our ongoing struggle to achieve a more perfect union.