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Significance of the Battle of Gettysburg

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Five Reasons the Battle of Gettysburg Mattered
19th century lithograph depicting combat at the Battle of Gettysburg

19th century lithograph depicting combat at Gettysburg

Library of Congress

The importance of the Battle of Gettysburg was evident at the time of the colossal three-day clash across hills and fields in rural Pennsylvania in July 1863. But the significance of Gettysburg actually increased as time passed.

These five reasons why Gettysburg mattered provide a basic understanding of the battle and why it occupies an enormous place in American memory.

1. Gettysburg Was the Turning Point of the War

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought on July 1-3, 1863, was the turning point of the Civil War for one main reason: the plan Robert E. Lee had to invade the North and force an end to the war failed.

What Lee hoped to do was cross the Potomac, pass through the border state of Maryland, and begin waging an offensive war on Union soil, in Pennsylvania. After gathering food and much-needed clothing in the prosperous region of southern Pennsylvania, Lee could threaten cities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, Baltimore, Maryland, or perhaps an even greater prize, Washington, D.C.

Had the plan succeeded, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia might have surrounded, or even conquered, the nation’s capital. The federal government could have been disabled, and high government officials, including even the president, might have been captured.

The United States would have been forced to accept peace with the Confederate States of America. The existence of a slave-holding nation would have been made permanent.

The collision of two great armies at Gettysburg put an end to that audacious plan. After three days of intense fighting, Lee was forced to withdraw and lead his battered army back through western Maryland and into Virginia.

No major Confederate invasions of the North would happen after that point. The war would continue for nearly two years, but after Gettysburg it would be fought on southern ground.

2. The Location of the Battle Was Significant, Though Accidental

Against the advice of his superiors, including the president of the C.S.A., Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee chose to invade the North in the early summer of 1863. After scoring some victories against the Union’s Army of the Potomac that spring, Lee felt he had a chance to open a new phase in the war.

Lee’s forces began marching in Virginia on June 3, 1863, and by late June elements of the Army of Northern Virginia were scattered, in various concentrations, across southern Pennsylvania. Carlisle and York received visits from Confederate soldiers, and northern newspapers were filled with confused stories of raids for horses, clothing, shoes, and food.

At the end of June the Confederates received reports that the Union Army of the Potomac was on the march to intercept them. Lee ordered his troops to concentrate in the region near Cashtown and Gettysburg.

The little town of Gettysburg possessed no military significance. But a number of roads converged there. On the map, the town resembled the hub of a wheel. On June 30, 1863, advance cavalry elements of the Union Army began arriving there, and 7,000 Confederates were sent to investigate.

The following day the battle began in a place neither Lee, or his Union counterpart, General George Meade, chose on purpose. It was almost as if the roads just happened to bring their armies to that point on the map.

3. The Battle Was Enormous

The clash at Gettysburg was enormous by any standards, and a total of 170,000 Confederate and Union soldiers came together around a town that normally held 2,400 residents.

The total of Union troops was about 95,000, the Confederates about 75,000.

The total casualties for the three days of fighting would be approximately 25,000 for the Union and 28,000 for the Confederates.

4. Heroism and Drama at Gettysburg Became Legendary

The Battle of Gettysburg actually consisted of a number of distinct engagements, several of which could have stood alone as major battles. Two of the most significant would be the assault by Confederates at Little Round Top on the second day, and Pickett’s Charge on the third day.

Countless human dramas took place, and legendary acts of heroism included:

  • Col. Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine holding Little Round Top
  • Union officers including Col. Strong Vincent and Col. Patrick O’Rorke who died defending Little Round Top.
  • The thousands of Confederates who marched across a mile of open ground under heavy fire during Pickett’s Charge.
  • Heroic cavalry charges led by a young cavalry officer who had just been promoted to general, George Armstrong Custer.

5. Abraham Lincoln Used Gettysburg to Justify the Cost of the War

Gettysburg could never have been forgotten, but its place in American memory was enhanced when President Abraham Lincoln visited the site of the battle four months later, in November 1863.

Lincoln had been invited to attend the dedication of a new cemetery to hold the Union dead from the battle. He took the opportunity to give a speech which would provide a justification for the war.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would become known as one of the best speeches ever delivered. The text of the speech is short yet brilliant, and in less than 300 words it expressed the nation’s dedication to the cause of the war.

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