The Battle of Gettysburg is probably the most famous battle of the American Civil War. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought between July 1st and July 3rd 1863 near the town of Gettysburg in Pennsylvania. So many men from both sides died that it took some months to remove the bodies from the battlefield. The memorial to the dead at Gettysburg was dedicated on November 19th 1863 where President Abraham Lincoln made his famous ‘Gettysburg Address’.
In May 1863, Robert E Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia north once again. After his success at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1863), Lee and his men were in a confident mood. Lee planned to threaten Philadelphia and hoped to create such a mood of despair and panic in Washington DC, that politicians there might pressurise Lincoln into pushing for a peace settlement. The Union did appear to be in a somewhat chaotic military situation at this time. Major General Joseph Hooker, the commander of the North’s Army of the Potomac (seen as the primary defender of Washington DC), was relieved of his command by Lincoln and replaced by Major General George Meade. Lincoln ordered Meade to pursue Lee’s army and stop his advance north.
The two armies met at Gettysburg. It is said that Lee’s army approached the town because of the rumour that there was a large supply of army boots to be found there. As his army was frequently short of such things, it seemed like an opportunity not to miss. On July 1st it brought the Army of Northern Virginia directly in line with the approaching Army of the Potomac. A subordinate of Meade, John Buford, quickly set up a defensive position to the northwest of Gettysburg but a much larger Confederate force soon overran this. The day ended with the Meade’s men being pushed to the south of the town where they set up defensive positions at Cemetery Hill. Lee recognised the strategic importance of dislodging the Union troops dug in there. He ordered General Ewell to attack Cemetery Hill “if practicable”. Ewell decided that an attack was not “practicable” and gave the Union forces on Cemetery Hill far more time to dig themselves in and strengthen their defences. It was a decision that was to have major repercussions two days later.
By July 2nd, both armies had fully assembled at Gettysburg. Meade decided after his army’s mauling on the previous day that a defensive approach was appropriate and set up his army accordingly to the south of Gettysburg. Meade built up three major defensive positions at Culp Hill, Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. To defeat the Army of the Potomac, Lee had to go on the offensive. His men inflicted large casualties on Meade’s defenders but the North held its lines and the day ended without either side gaining the upper hand.
On July 3rd large cavalry forces engaged one another to the south and east of Gettysburg. But the crux of the battle occurred at Cemetery Ridge where Lee ordered a large infantry assault on Union lines. 12,500 Confederate soldiers attacked Cemetery Ridge but suffered very heavy casualties – over half did not return to their lines. Lee felt that his only option after such losses was to order a retreat back to Virginia.
Casualties on both sides were very large. The Army of the Potomac lost over 23,000 men – 3,100 killed, 14,500 wounded and 5,300 either missing or captured. Figures for the Army of Northern Virginia vary between 23,000 and 28,000 killed, wounded or missing/captured. It is generally accepted that about 8,000 men were killed at the Battle of Gettysburg. Few of the bodies could be buried immediately and very many were left in the field for days and weeks. The local undertaker claimed that he could only deal with 100 bodies each day. Around 3,000 horses were also killed at Gettysburg. Many of the citizens who had remained in Gettysburg during the battle had to leave the town, as the stench was so great. Despite the very large military casualties, it is said that only one citizen in Gettysburg was killed by a stray bullet.
Historians believe that the South never recovered from its defeat at Gettysburg. The aura that had surrounded Lee went as he admitted that the defeat was entirely his responsibility, especially his decision to charge Cemetery Ridge. It is known that Lee was ill in the lead up to the battle and during it. One of the explanations put forward for his tactical decisions was that he was having a negative reaction to medication given to him to relieve his symptoms. Lee offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis but it was turned down.
The North could cope with the losses it suffered as its population base was much larger than the South’s (though Lincoln did have to use conscription to ensure that his armies were fully manned). However, the South could not recover from the loss of between 23,000 and 28,000 men. It is difficult to quantify the psychological impact the defeat at Gettysburg had on the South’s psyche but it must have been large. The Army of Northern Virginia went from being full of confidence in both its ability after Chancellorsville and its faith in its commander to being a seriously weakened force. In the space of three days the Army of Northern Virginia had gone from a force that was meant to threaten the city of Philadelphia to one pushed into a retreat back to the South. The Army of Northern Virginia did not go on an offensive campaign for the rest of the war.
The citizens of Washington DC and Philadelphia celebrated the victory and comparisons were made with the victory against Napoleon at Waterloo. However, rather than celebrate the victory, Lincoln berated Major General Meade for not following up the victory over Lee. Once again, Lincoln failed to fully grasp the military situation. Previously he had clashed with General McClellan and had ultimately dismissed him as being too cautious. What Lincoln then failed to comprehend was that if McClellan and the Army of the Potomac had lost a battle and had suffered a major defeat, Washington DC would have been open to attack. What he failed to understand after the Battle of Gettysburg was the sheer intensity of the battle. The Army of the Potomac had been in a major three-day battle and had suffered large casualties. It possibly could have chased after Lee but at what cost to itself? Meade knew that his men had to recover if the Army of the Potomac was to remain an effective fighting force. Politicians in Washington DC followed Lincoln’s lead and claimed that Meade had let Lee off the hook. Lincoln for his part made it known that he believed that if Meade had followed up his victory then the civil war would have come to an end.