The sky turned a glowing red as the sun rose over Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 1, 1863. The fields outside of town were orderly and quiet, with a few large wood-and-stone barns scattered throughout the landscape. Nothing indicated that by the day’s end the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent would be in full force on those very fields.
The bloodiest battle of the Civil War was about to begin.
An artist's illustration shows the intense fighting at the battle of Gettysburg.
THE ROAD TO GETTYSBURG
The Civil War started in the United States two years earlier, in 1861. The war was mostly over the issue of slavery. At the time, some white citizens owned black slaves. Then-President Abraham Lincoln was against slavery and wanted to end it. Many people in the northern states agreed with him; most people in the southern states, however, relied on slaves to farm their crops and did not want slavery to end.
That year, 11 southern states broke away from the United States, which was also known as the Union. These southern states formed what was called the Confederate States of America. The country had officially entered the Civil War.
President Abraham Lincoln
Confederate General Robert E. Lee
For the next two years, battles were fought. Both sides experienced multiple wins and losses. But by 1863, the Confederate Army was in high spirits. In May, despite being outnumbered, they scored a victory over the Union soldiers, also known as the Yankees, in Chancellorsville, Virginia.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee thought if his men got another win, northerners might withdraw their support for the war. His troops began marching north in June.
When news reached southern Pennsylvania that Lee’s army was on its way, residents fled. The area was mostly deserted by the time the Confederate soldiers appeared—except for the Union Army awaiting their arrival. Tipped off by intelligence reports, the Yankees were able to predict when the southerners would arrive—and had camped out in Cashtown to wait for them.
At first the Confederates outnumbered the Yankees. Overwhelmed by the sheer size of the southern army, the Union was forced to retreat from Cashtown to Gettysburg and wait for more troops. There, led by General George Meade, the Union regrouped and set up renewed defenses.
By the second day the Yankees numbered around 94,000 soldiers; the Confederates around 72,000. General Lee attacked first. Both sides took heavy losses, but Meade’s Union defense lines held strong.
Union General George Meade
An artist's illustration shows General George Pickett's surprise attack—called Pickett's Charge—on the Union forces.
On the final day of the battle, General Lee decided to stage an aggressive attack. He sent General George Pickett—with approximately 12,500 men—on a direct charge against the Union Army. Pickett’s attack ultimately failed, resulting in over half of his men being injured or killed. General Lee and the Confederate Army retreated.
The Battle of Gettysburg remains the deadliest battle of the Civil War. As many as 23,000 Yankees and 28,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, or captured over the course of just three days.
Although the war went on for almost two more years, Gettysburg was a turning point toward the final Union victory in 1865. And that victory meant more than holding together the United States as a country. It also meant the end of slavery—the institution that had divided the nation since its founding in 1776.
President Lincoln said it best in his address on November 19, 1863, to dedicate the cemetery for soldiers killed at Gettysburg. The battle not only ensured that the United States would not “perish from the Earth” but also eventually gave the nation “a new birth of freedom.”
A copy of President Abraham Lincoln's short Gettysburg Address speech
Today millions of people visit the battlefield every year. There they shed tears or stand in silent tribute to the courage and sacrifice of the soldiers who lost their lives at Gettysburg.
Visitors to the Gettysburg National Cemetery can pay their respects at the Soldiers' National Monument dedicated to those who lost their lives in the Civil War.
Photo credits (top to bottom): John Parrot / Stocktrek Images / Getty Images; Stock Montage / Getty Images; Photo by Buyenlarge / Getty Images; Bettmann / Getty Images; Niday Picture Library / Alamy; Archive Photos / Getty Images; Jon Bilous / Shutterstock
Text adapted from Summer's Bloodiest Days: The Battle of Gettysburg as Told From All Sides and National Geographic Kids Everything Battles