Stories from PA History
The Gettysburg Campaign
The Gettysburg Campaign
Overview: The Gettysburg Campaign

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought over of the first three days of July in 1863, was one of the climactic events in American history.
Plum Run (as seen from the Confederate side.)
Little Round Top, by Frederick Rothermel.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee's bold offensive into northern territory resulted in the epic clash of two great armies with perhaps 175,000 soldiers, tens of thousands of horses and mules, more than 600 cannons, and hundreds of supply wagons and ambulances, all of which had traveled from Virginia to south-central Pennsylvania. Here, the two armies suffered a combined total of more than 51,000 men killed, wounded, and missing. Lee's army then walked back to Virginia where it continued to fight for almost two more years.

The great battle was the culmination of a campaign that had begun close to a month earlier, when General Lee's Army of Northern Virginia began moving north from Fredericksburg, Virginia.
Robert E. Lee in battle dress.
Robert E. Lee in battle dress.
Lee's objective was to draw the armies away from war-ravaged northern Virginia and take the war to the North. There his men could draw supplies from Pennsylvania farms, and by winning a battle on Northern soil perhaps still convince a European nation to help the struggling Confederacy. A decisive victory might also weaken Northern morale and lead to peace talks.

Lee's army entered Pennsylvania on June 15, as advance cavalry scouted into Greencastle and then reached Chambersburg. As the main army concentrated in the Chambersburg area, Lee's Second Corps continued north, occupying Carlisle and threatening Harrisburg. One division moved east to York and almost captured the great bridge across the Susquehanna at Wrightsville.

Lee's 1863 invasion was not the first time that southern soldiers had entered Pennsylvania. It was, however, fundamentally different from anything that had gone before or that would come after it - vast in scale, huge in cost, and far-reaching in consequences.
Oil on canvas of Jefferson Davis on horseback.
Jefferson Davis, by Louis Mathieu Didier Guillaume, c. 1862-65.
One essential fact about this campaign, and a key element in its legacy, was that it carried the Civil War to the North. The arrival of Lee's army in Pennsylvania brought thousands of people outside the South inescapable first-hand experience of the movements of vast armies and the devastating consequences of large-scale combat.

The significance of this aspect of the invasion was quickly and widely recognized. On July 2, for example, while the fighting at Gettysburg was still under way, an editorial in the New York Times commented–perhaps a bit smugly–on the prosperity that the North had enjoyed, while fighting the war at a distance. It went on to insist that "The invasion of Lee, by bringing the war to our own threshold, will do more to recall the public mind to some adequate sense of the supreme importance of the struggle, than aught else that could possibly have occurred."

For the thousands of people who were directly in the path of the invasion and for the hundreds of thousands more who feared that the armies might soon be coming to their doors, war was no longer something that happened somewhere else. In Adams, Franklin, Fulton, Cumberland, and York counties soldiers in gray purchased or commandeered large quantities of food and grain for themselves and their animals. Organized raiding parties methodically ransacked towns and villages for hats, shoes, clothing, and other items deemed necessary for military use. They confiscated horses and cattle both for their immediate use and to send south for the future. They seized free blacks living peacefully in Pennsylvania, whom they took south and sold into slavery.

Lee's plan was to capture the state capital at Harrisburg, and send units east to the rich farms of Lancaster County.
Oil on canvas of Abraham Lincoln sitting in an oak chair with red velvet back and seat. His arm bends at the elbow and rests on his knee, while his chin rest in his hand, as he seems to attend to other voices.
Abraham Lincoln, by George P.A. Healy, 1869.
But, the aggressive advance into Pennsylvania of the Union Army of the Potomac, led by its recently appointed commander Pennsylvanian George G. Meade, forced Lee to recall his scattered units. Elements of both armies then began to converge on the crossroads town of Gettysburg, precipitating the three days of fighting. On July 1, troops from two of Lee's three infantry corps forced two smaller Union corps to retreat from their positions north and west of Gettysburg back through the town to rally on the high ground of Cemetery Hill. Perhaps 5,000 Union soldiers were captured during the confused retreat.

Units from both armies continued to arrive on the battlefield that night and on July 2. Late that afternoon, James Longstreet's corps of Lee's army launched a powerful attack on Meade's left flank, anchored by the Third Corps, which had advanced without orders to take a position in advance of the main Union line. Meade hastily brought up reinforcements and by nightfall Longstreet's attack had faltered before the main Yankee line on Cemetery Ridge. Savage fighting in the Devil's Den, the Wheatfield, and Little Round Top saw heroic actions by men on both sides. A later Confederate attack on Culp's Hill nearly seized that height before darkness halted further progress.
Postcard of Virginia Wade, her home, and monument.
Virginia Wade, her home, and monument.

The fighting on Culp's Hill resumed early on July 3, but ended late in the morning after the defeated Confederates fell back with heavy casualties. Suspecting that Meade must have weakened his center to reinforce his flanks, Lee ordered Longstreet to supervise a massive assault on the Union center. At one o'clock, 120 Confederate cannons opened a tremendous barrage on the Union line; eighty Union guns replied. After an hour of this bombardment, 10,000-15,000 Confederate infantrymen advanced toward the Yankee line. However, the attack, popularly known as "Pickett's Charge," was bloodily repulsed. Cavalry fighting east of Gettysburg and a foolhardy Union mounted attack on Lee's right flank ended the major combat at Gettysburg.

Late on July 4, Lee began to retreat toward the Potomac River in the midst of a heavy rain.
An oil on canvas of an epic Civil War battle scene.
The Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge, by Peter Frederick Rothermel, 1869.
His cavalry guarded a wagon train of wounded men reputed to be seventeen miles in length. Meade pursued cautiously, for the heavy fighting had decimated his own army. A rain-swollen Potomac River halted Lee's retreat, but before Meade could attack, Lee's engineers built a pontoon bridge across the river that enabled the southern army to cross in safety on July 13.

Shortly after the fighting ended, the initial steps were taken in a process that would eventually lead to the transformation of the bloody and debris-strewn Pennsylvania countryside into a precious shrine and a symbolic center of American culture. Since then, generations of political leaders and veterans, scholars and creative artists, popular commentators, and casual visitors have looked to the Pennsylvania battlefield for answers to core questions about the American experience. While the meanings they have found at the hallowed ground have varied, Gettysburg remains one of our nation's primary symbols of heroic struggle and devotion to principle, of fratricidal conflict and eventual reunion, of national purpose and dynamic commitment to the ideal of equality.
Pennsylvania Monument, Battlefield photograph
Pennsylvania Monument, Battlefield photograph

The site of one of the most crucial battles in American history also has been closely linked with American attitudes toward war. The battle yielded a blasted Pennsylvania countryside and left behind appalling conditions, described in gruesome detail by area residents, relatives of fallen soldiers, newspaper correspondents, and medical aid-givers. Powerful images of the grisly landscapes were captured by a number of America's greatest nineteenth-century photographers, the first of whom reached the battlefield well before Lee's Army had re-crossed the Potomac. Moreover, residents of southern Pennsylvania struggled for many years, often unsuccessfully, to recover damages for property lost during the invasion.

After the Union and Confederate armies marched south to continue their struggle, the Pennsylvania battlefield remained accessible to Northern visitors, and thus facilitated the creation of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, the first of our great national burial grounds. When the time came to consecrate the cemetery grounds in November 1863, their accessibility from other Northern states and the relative proximity of Washington made it possible for Abraham Lincoln to attend the ceremony and deliver the short address that imperishably articulated the war's purpose and the nation's ideals.
Grisly photograph of dead soldiers.
Dead soldiers posed on the battlefield by photographers, 1863.

In the decades that followed, Gettysburg became a source of boundless popular interest and a magnet for tourists, drawn by the millions to the southern Pennsylvania countryside over which the Union and Confederate armies once marched and fought. The bloody and debris littered battlefield was gradually transformed into a pastoral landscape - a complex site that conjured up powerful memories of violent struggle and appealing images of natural regeneration and, eventually, national reunion. In the 1880s and 1890s, scores of monuments were erected by Union veterans working through regimental organizations–and generally with substantial assistance from the government. (Today the battlefield has 1,300 monuments, markers, and plaques, more than any other battlefield in the world.) They sought to mark the battlefield and to tell their stories, as they believed they ought to be told.

By the mid-1890s, a monument erected near the clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge where Pickett's Charge had ended provided a physical embodiment of what had come to be a widely held view: that Gettysburg constituted the high water mark of the Confederacy. It was also in the mid-1890s that the battlefield park passed into the hands of the federal government (to be administered first through the Department of War and since 1933 by the National Park Service). This transfer of authority reflected the mounting sentiment for sectional reconciliation and helped ensure that Gettysburg would become a national and not merely a northern shrine.

Uniformed Veterans, standing on opposite sides, shake hands.
Veterans shaking hands at the 50th anniversary of the battle.
In the early decades of the twentieth century -most notably in 1913 and 1938, on the 50th and 75th anniversaries of the battle – massive reunions brought thousands of aging Union and Confederate veterans back to Gettysburg to walk the fields again and to pose for photographs, sometimes clasping the hands of their former enemies in friendship and reconciliation. In the years after World War II, as the Cold War intensified and the last of the Civil War survivors faded from the scene, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission erected most of the Gettysburg Campaign markers across the southern Pennsylvania countryside that had been touched by the invasion. Following the state's extensive array of historical markers, one can retrace the footsteps of the Confederate invasion and the skirmishes that preceded the fateful battle at Gettysburg.

Each year, more than 1.5 million people visit the park to learn more about the battle and its importance. The campaign has spawned more than 300 books since 1863; sixty published between 2000 and 2004. Annual reenactments near the park attract tens of thousands of participants and spectators. Scores of local businesses hawk their wares to tourists. Several specialized museums interpret the battle and the Civil War in general to visitors.

Every November, thousands from around the country gather to honor President Lincoln's visit to Gettysburg. The great Northern battlefield of the Civil War is richly endowed with military connections – yet this scene of awesome violence and bloodshed has gradually become a peaceful park and pastoral landscape in a dynamic twenty-first century world. Ironically, this in some ways makes it a particularly apt military symbol for a nation that has, until recently, felt reasonably assured that its wars would be fought somewhere else.

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