The Battle of Gettysburg – Crucial Turning Point

By Donna K. Keesling

The town of Gettysburg, in southcentral Pennsylvania, was laid out with two hundred and ten lots by James Gettys in 1786, twenty-five years after his father Samuel had established a tavern in the area. It was initially part of York County, then became the county seat for the new Adams County in 1800.

In the 1860s, Gettysburg had a population of around 2400 people. It was a rural area with ten roads leading into the town. There were a few small but thriving industries, including carriage manufacturing, shoemaking, and tanneries. A few educational institutions called Gettysburg home, including the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg which was founded in 1826.

How did this small rural town become the site of a battle that is often referred to as “a crucial turning point in the Civil War?”

General Robert E. Lee believed that a Confederate victory in Pennsylvania would “damage Northern morale, erode support for the war, and disrupt Union plans for the summer.”[1] He also thought that a decisive victory on Northern territory “might finally convince Lincoln and his fellow Northerners to admit defeat and let the Confederate States of America go their separate way.”[2]

The Confederate army began moving north from Virginia on June 3, 1863. They gathered provisions – including food, shoes, horses, and cattle – as they moved through the towns of southcentral Pennsylvania. Seven thousand Confederate soldiers, led by Major General Henry Heth, marched toward Gettysburg early in the morning on July 1, 1863.

The Union forces, initially led by Major General Joseph Hooker and then by Major General George Gordon Meade had been shadowing the Confederates as they moved north. The commander of the Union cavalry, John Buford had noted “the strategic importance of this crossroads village flanked by defensible ridges and hills” and posted his men northwest of Gettysburg.[3] On July 1, the Confederate soldiers were spotted three miles west of Gettysburg by a Union scout named Marcellus Jones. He fired a warning shot. Twenty-seven hundred Union soldiers were then led by Union General John Buford to a position on the McPherson farm, one half mile west of Gettysburg.

During the first day of the battle, the fighting was centered on McPherson’s Ridge. At the end of the day, the Union Army was forced to retreat and regroup on two hills south of town – Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.

On July 2, the Union Army was once again forced to flee after Confederate General John Hood charged an area known as Devil’s Den. This is where Union General Daniel Sickles had positioned some of his troops, despite orders to defend the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, including Little and Big Round Top. Sickles’ other troops, positioned in areas known as the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard, were also forced to give way to the Confederates.

Little Round Top, despite being left undefended when Sickles moved his men, was held by the Union Army after Brigadier General Strong Vincent positioned four regiments in a semi-circle along the western slope. Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain then ordered a bayonet attack, which caused the Confederate army to flee down the hill.[4]

Late in the day, Confederate General A. P. Hill launched an unsuccessful attack against the Union troops along Cemetery Ridge. Although the Confederate Army had some success on day two, the Union Army still held all of what was considered to be key terrain around Gettysburg.

For almost seven hours on July 3, the fighting was focused along the slopes of Culp’s Hill. Then General Lee directed General George Pickett to attack the Union Army on Cemetery Ridge in what became known as “Pickett’s Charge.” The Union Army held firm and forced the Confederate troops to retreat to the woods of Seminary Ridge.

Following defeat at Cemetery Ridge and a loss of more than one third of his army over the three-day battle, Lee prepared to leave for Virginia. Around midnight, the Confederate Army began its retreat from Gettysburg. Although Meade’s army followed at a distance, they did not engage in battle with the retreating Confederates.

The Battle of Gettysburg had a tremendous impact on the town and citizens of the area. Roads were torn up by heavy army wagons and artillery. Farmland was the site of death and destruction. Townspeople were also impacted as they tended the wounded and buried the dead. More than one hundred buildings, including homes, offices, and stores were filled with wounded soldiers by the end of the battle. A hospital was set up east of Gettysburg in mid-July and was used to care for over four thousand Confederate and Union soldiers before it closed in November of 1863.

After prominent Gettysburg residents became concerned about the condition of soldiers’ graves which were scattered over the battlefields of the town, a local attorney named David Wills was appointed to coordinate the establishment of a new cemetery called the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. The cemetery was dedicated on November 19, 1863. In addition to the featured speaker, Edward Everett of Massachusetts, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to deliver remarks during the ceremony. President Lincoln delivered a two-minute speech which came to be known as the Gettysburg Address.

To memorialize the Union Army, the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association (GBMA) was established in 1864. In 1895, The GBMA transferred their land holdings to the Federal government and Gettysburg was designated as a National Military Park. A Federally appointed commission of Civil War veterans oversaw the development of the park as a memorial to both armies by identifying and marking the lines of battle. In 1933, administration of the park was transferred to the National Park Service.

Within the 6,000-acre park, there are approximately 1,400 monuments and memorials. More than sixty percent of the buildings in the park were witness to the Battle of Gettysburg. The Museum and Visitor Center, completed in 2008, includes the 1884 Battle of Gettysburg cyclorama painting. The cyclorama, measuring 377 feet around by 42 feet high, is one of the few surviving examples of this type of entertainment that was popular in the 1800s.

The Battle of Gettysburg holds a significant place in history for many reasons. More soldiers fell at the Battle of Gettysburg than in any other battle fought in North America before or since. The three-day battle resulted in more than 50,000 casualties – soldiers who died, were wounded, were captured, or went missing. With approximately 7,000 deaths, Gettysburg was the deadliest battle of the Civil War. “The Union victory, often referred to as the ‘High Water Mark of the Rebellion,’ resulted not only in Lee’s retreat to Virginia, but contributed to ending the hopes of the Confederate States of America for independence.”[5]

[1] Gettysburg National Military Park Museum and Visitor Center: Official Guidebook (Nashville: Beckon Books, 2011), 46.

[2] Kevin Hillstrom, Defining Moments: The Battle of Gettysburg (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2013), 3.

[3] James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 653.

[4] Kevin Hillstrom, Defining Moments: The Battle of Gettysburg (Detroit: Omnigraphics, 2013), 78 – 81.

[5] Gettysburg National Military Park Foundation Document (National Park Service, 2016), 3.