Battle of Gettysburg Overview
GUEST BLOG / By the National Park Service--The causes of the American Civil War (or the War Between the States) go back to the beginning of the country’s history.
There has always been a debate over the power of the federal government vs. the power of the individual state governments. Prior to the Civil War this led some individuals to declare their loyalty to their state and not the Nation.
By the 1850’s, however, the main cause of discontent was over the issue of slavery.
Many people, especially in the Northern states, viewed slavery as an embarrassment in a nation founded on individual liberty. Some called for the immediate abolition of slavery throughout the country. Others called for a gradual emancipation. Most countries in Europe had already ended slavery. The Southern states, however, wanted to retain their “Peculiar Institution.”
By 1860 the extremists on both sides had taken leadership positions and were in no mood to compromise.
Abraham Lincoln, from the northern State of Illinois, was elected the first Republican president in November 1860.
Leaders in the South had threatened to secede, or break away, from the Union if Lincoln was elected.
Lincoln was opposed to slavery; but he felt as president he had no power under the U. S. Constitution to deal with slavery where it already existed. Lincoln wanted to restrict the growth of slavery.
In December 1860, South Carolina became the first state to secede from the United States. Other Southern states followed. By March 1861 they had formed the Confederate States of America with Jefferson Davis as president.
This new “nation” now demanded that Lincoln abandon all U. S. military posts in the new Confederacy. Lincoln refused. On April 12, 1861 the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, guarding the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina.
On April 14, the fort will be forced to surrender.
The shooting war had begun.
In 1861, there were 34 states in the United States. Eleven of these states would secede to join the new Confederacy. However, volunteer units from 10 of the seceded states would also fight for the United States.
To show that the Union would continue, West Virginia became the 35th state on June 20, 1863 and Nevada became the 36th state on October 31, 1864.
During the war, and since, the two sides have been known by multiple names. The United States is often interchanged with such designations as the North, Federals, Union, Billy Yank, and Yankees.
Likewise, the Confederate States are frequently referred to as the South, the Confederates, Southerners, Johnny Reb, and Rebels.
The Federal government also named their armies after rivers: the Army of the Potomac, the Army of the Tennessee. The Southerners named their armies after geographical areas: the Army of Northern Virginia, and the Army of Tennessee.
The Federals also tended to name their battles after geographical features while the Confederates tended to name the same battle after towns. For example: Antietam in the North but Sharpsburg in the South; First Bull Run in the North but First Manassas in the South.
Both sides referred to this battle as Gettysburg.
The United States government, while fielding a small Regular standing Army, fought the war predominantly with a volunteer army. These volunteer units were raised by the individual states but fought for and were paid by the Federal government.
The U. S. War Department did allow Regular Army officers to take a leave of absence to accept commissions in the Volunteer Army.
George Gordon Meade, for example, was a major in the Regular Army (USA) but a major general of volunteers (USV). The war had been going on for two years prior to Gettysburg.
Battles and skirmishes occurred all along the borders. From Northern Virginia, to Tennessee, to the Mississippi River, along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, and even into what is now New Mexico.
Well into 1863 (with notable exceptions at Fredricksburg and Chancellorsville, Virginia) the U. S. forces seemed to be winning on most fronts. By May 1863, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant (USV) had the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi under siege. The loss of Vicksburg, and with it the Mississippi River, would cut the Confederacy in two. In middle Tennessee, Maj. Gen. William S. Rosecrans (USV) was leading a force to drive Confederates out of Tennessee. The United States Navy was effectively blockading all the major Southern ports.
It was only in the Eastern Theater that the Confederates seemed to be winning. This was due to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of Gen. Robert E. Lee.
After winning the battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia in May 1863, Lee decided on an invasion of the North to help revive Confederate moral and to relieve pressure on Vicksburg.
Onward to Gettysburg.
Lee began his movement north on June 3, 1863. He moved west from Fredericksburg, Virginia to the Shenandoah Valley. Lee decided to use the mountains to screen his movement north.
The Federal Army of the Potomac followed Lee’s advance but stayed east of the mountains. The Army of the Potomac had standing orders to protect Washington, DC. The Army of the Potomac had, therefore, to position itself between Lee and the capital. This gave Lee a free hand once he moved into Maryland and Pennsylvania.
On June 28, 1863, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade was named as the new commander of the Army of the Potomac. The army was located around Fredrick, Maryland, about 35 miles south of Gettysburg.
By June 30, a division of Lee’s army, under Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, was located 9 miles west of Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike.
Approaching Gettysburg from the south was a division of cavalry from the Army of the Potomac, under the command of Brig. Gen. John Buford.
The time and place were now set for the largest battle of the American Civil War.
|Brigadier General John Buford, after being asked by Major General John Reynolds about the situation at Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863|
Oil painting "There's the Devil to Pay" by Mort Kunstler.
The main battle opened on the morning of July 1, 1863 with Confederates attacking Federal troops on McPherson Ridge west of town. Though outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until afternoon, when they were finally overpowered and driven back to Cemetery Hill south of town. During the night the main body of the Federal army arrived and took up positions.
On July 2 the battle lines were drawn up in two sweeping arcs. The main portions of both armies were nearly one mile apart on parallel ridges: Federal forces on Cemetery Ridge, and Confederate forces on Seminary Ridge to the west. Lee ordered an attack against both Federal flanks. Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s thrust on the Federal left turned the base of Little Round Top into a shambles, left the Wheatfield strewn with dead and wounded, and overran the Peach Orchard. Farther north, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell’s evening attack on the Federal right at East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, though momentarily successful, could not be exploited to Confederate advantage.
On July 3 Lee’s artillery opened a two-hour bombardment of the Federal lines on Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill. This for a time engaged the massed guns of both sides in a thundering duel for supremacy but did little to soften up the Federal defensive position.
Then some 12,000 Confederates advanced across open fields toward the Federal center in an attack known as “Pickett’s Charge.”
The attack failed and cost Lee over 5,000 soldiers in one hour. The Battle of Gettysburg was over. The next day, July 4, Lee began his retreat to Virginia.
On November 19, President Abraham Lincoln traveled to Gettysburg to take part in the dedication ceremonies for the new Soldiers’ National Cemetery.
His brief speech, the Gettysburg Address, gave meaning to the sacrifices of the men who had struggled here, and stated his belief that the war would lead to a “new birth of freedom” for the nation.
However, the American Civil War did not end at Gettysburg far from it.
The war continued for another 18 months. During that time, the nation would witness the battle of Chickamauga, in northwestern Georgia, the siege of Atlanta, Georgia, and Maj. Gen. William T. Sherman’s March to the Sea through Georgia.
In Virginia would occur the battles of the Wilderness, Spotsylvania Court House, Cold Harbor and the siege of Petersburg.
Gen. Robert E. Lee finally surrendered to Lt. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant on April 9, 1865, at Appomattox Court House, Virginia.
The Bitter End.
While Lee’s surrender did not officially end the war, his surrender took the heart out of the fight. All Confederate forces will surrender by May 1865. The Nation now faced the hard task of bringing the old Confederate states back into the Union; a process known as Reconstruction.
The American Civil War was the last major war to be fought within the United States. For many Americans the war is still very personal; many having relatives who fought in the war.
The Civil War addressed many of the issues dividing North and South, but not all of them. The proper division of power between the National Government and the States is still a contentious issue.
The causes of the war are still being debated today. For example, we know that slavery caused the war, but descendants of both sides still argue over their ancestors’ personal motivations for fighting that sometimes differed from the cause.
This has led recently to a National debate over Southern monuments. People, also, still argue over the meaning of President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and the phrases “a new birth of freedom” and “the unfinished work.”
When the armies marched away from Gettysburg they left behind a community in shambles and over 51,000 soldiers dead, wounded, or missing. Wounded and dying were crowded into nearly every building. Every farm field or garden was a graveyard.
Most of the dead lay in hastily dug and inadequate graves; some had not been buried at all. Churches, public buildings and even private homes were hospitals, filled with wounded soldiers. The Union medical staff that remained were strained to treat so many wounded scattered about the county. To meet the demand, Camp Letterman General Hospital was established east of Gettysburg where all of the wounded were eventually taken to before transport to permanent hospitals in Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington.
Union surgeons worked with members of the U.S Sanitary Commission and Christian Commission to treat and care for the over 20,000 injured Union and Confederate soldiers that passed through the hospital's wards, housed under large tents.
By January 1864, the last patients were gone as were the surgeons, guards, nurses, tents and cookhouses.
Only a temporary cemetery on the hillside remained as a testament to the courageous battle to save lives that took place at Camp Letterman.
Prominent Gettysburg residents became concerned with the poor condition of soldiers' graves scattered over the battlefield and at hospital sites, and pleaded with Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin for state support to purchase a portion of the battlefield to be set aside as a final resting place for the defenders of the Union cause.
Gettysburg lawyer David Wills was appointed the state agent to coordinate the establishment of the new "Soldiers' National Cemetery", which was designed by noted landscape architect William Saunders.
Removal of the Union dead to the cemetery began in the fall of 1863, but would not be completed until long after the cemetery grounds were dedicated on November 19, 1863. The dedication ceremony featured orator Edward Everett and included solemn prayers, songs, and dirges to honor the men who died at Gettysburg.
Yet, it was President Abraham Lincoln who provided the most notable words in his two-minute-long address, eulogizing the Union soldiers buried at Gettysburg and reminding those in attendance of their sacrifice for the Union cause, that they should renew their devotion "to the cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.."
The Evolution of the Battlefield
In 1864, a group of concerned citizens established the Gettysburg Battlefield Memorial Association whose purpose was to preserve portions of the battlefield as a memorial to the Union Army that fought here. The GBMA transferred their land holdings to the Federal government in 1895, which designated Gettysburg as a National Military Park.
A Federally-appointed commission of Civil War veterans oversaw the park's development as a memorial to both armies by identifying and marking the lines of battle.
Administration of the park was transferred to the Department of the Interior, National Park Service in 1933, which continues in its mission to protect, preserve and interpret the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address to park visitors.