The Battle of Gettysburg: Three Desperate, Bloody Days
By late June 1863, the U.S. Civil War had been going on for over two years. The fighting had not gone well for the Union side in the Eastern Theater of the war. Defeat followed defeat at First Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Seven Days Battles, Second Battle of Bull Run (Manassas), Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. The Union desperately needed a decisive victory. This was the state of the war when General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia invaded Pennsylvania, where he was met by General Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac. After three days of fierce fighting, the North had the victory it so badly needed.
Article continues after this newspaper image from the July 16, 1863, issue of the New Hampshire Sentinel (Keene)
The Battle of Gettysburg produced the largest number of casualties in the U.S. Civil War—nearly 50,000. It is generally recognized as the battle that turned the war for the Union. The fighting took place on the hills and ridges held by the Federals south of the town of Gettysburg, whose command of the heights gave them the strategic advantage.
The engagements between the armies are named for the different places the armies were trying to capture or hold: Culp's Hill, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, and Round Top. The final great effort by the Confederates to win the battle was a brave infantry assault on the third day, against overwhelming odds, known as Pickett's Charge. This near-suicidal last-ditch effort was repulsed and the Army of Northern Virginia retreated. Lee's Northern invasion had failed.
Though casualties were roughly equal, the more populous North could more easily absorb and replace its losses than the South, and the defeat at the Battle of Gettysburg was a severe blow to the Confederacy. The next day, on July 4, 1863, another important victory at Vicksburg, Mississippi, gave the Union control of the Mississippi River and split the Confederacy in two. The political impact of these two victories gave the Union a needed boost of confidence and renewed faith in Lincoln’s presidency.
That November, the bravery of the Union soldiers was honored in a ceremony at the battlefield, when a new national cemetery was dedicated. The main speaker was a retired politician and famed orator named Edward Everett, who delivered a two-hour speech. By contrast, President Abraham Lincoln’s following remarks were only two minutes long—but his concise and eloquent Gettysburg Address is recognized as one of the greatest speeches of all time.
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