July 1, 2022By Abdulaziz Nchirrah

In the first days of July 1863, two great armies converged at the small town of Gettysburg, in southern Pennsylvania. Begun as a skirmish between Union cavalry and Confederate infantry scouting for supplies, the battle escalated into one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

The final Union triumph at Gettysburg would significantly improve North morale and put a stop to Confederate General Robert E. Lee's audacious plan to invade the North. The fight, which is frequently cited as a crucial turning point in the conflict, would gain even more significance later that year when President Abraham Lincoln visited Gettysburg to dedicate the cemetery on the battlefield.

"Invincible" Army of Lee

After leading his Army of Northern Virginia to an incredible victory in the Battle of Chancellorsville in June 1863, Lee was on a high. From this advantageous position, he persuaded Confederate officials to endorse the audacious plan to invade Pennsylvania in order to deliver the Yankees a humiliating defeat on their own soil.

“Lee says more than once that he believes his men would be invincible,” explains Jennifer Murray, a history professor at Oklahoma State University and the author of On A Great Battlefield: The Making, Management, and Memory of Gettysburg National Military Park, 1933-2013. A successful invasion of Union territory, the Confederate general hoped, would convince Northerners to abandon their support for Lincoln’s war effort in droves.

Edward Robert Lee, at Arlington House 1838

Accidental Meeting at Gettysburg

On June 28, with Lee’s army on the move in Pennsylvania, Lincoln removed Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac, replacing him with George G. Meade. This marked the third change of command seen by the Army of the Potomac in 1863.

“The Union soldiers are confident in themselves,” Murray says. “But they're a little more questionable about their leadership, and about this string of commanders coming in again and again.”

General George Meade

General George Gordon Meade.

SSPL/Getty Images

Along with the news of the command change, Lee soon learned that the Union troops were closer than he expected them to be. “[Lee’s] cavalry, led by J.E.B. Stuart, is out sort of joy riding, and not doing a really good job of bringing intelligence over to Lee,” Murray points out. Abandoning his plan to drive deeper into Pennsylvania, toward Harrisburg, Lee ordered his army to concentrate at Cashtown, a tiny town located about eight miles west of Gettysburg.

With nearly a dozen roads leading into and out of town, Gettysburg was a key destination for moving troops. On June 30, a few Confederate divisions headed there in search of shoes and other supplies, and encountered two brigades of Union cavalry.

Facts About the Battle

Though the bulk of the Army of the Potomac was still in Maryland, fulfilling Lincoln’s orders to stay between Washington and the rebel army, the cavalry units were scouting ahead to find out intel about the enemy position. After initially pulling back to Cashtown, the Confederate soldiers decided to go back to Gettysburg the next day (July 1) and get the supplies they needed, even if it meant confronting the Union troops.

“The first shot of the battle is fired a little bit after 7:00 in the morning,” Murray says. “Neither Meade nor Lee look to Gettysburg on a map and say, we're going to fight there. It begins as an accident, and then it escalates.”

Military history of the conflict Comparison of North and South

The 11 Southern states first appeared to be no match for the 23 states that remained in the Union after secession. The North had a population of roughly 21 million, compared to the South's nine million, of which about four million were slaves. More than 100,000 manufacturing facilities were located in the North, as opposed to 18,000 in the region south of the Potomac River, and more than 70% of the railroads were located in the Union. The Federals also had a 30-to-1 advantage in weapons production, a 2-to-1 advantage in labor force availability, and a significant amount of commercial and financial resources at their disposal. Moreover, the Union had a functioning government and a small but efficient regular army and navy.


Higher commands

Each side had issues with command. Most people believed Davis to be more capable than Lincoln of the two competing commanders in chief in 1861. Davis was a U.S. Military Academy graduate, a hero of the Mexican-American War, a competent secretary of war under President Franklin Pierce, and a senator and representative from Mississippi. Lincoln, who had previously held office in the Illinois state legislature and as an unremarkable one-term representative in the U.S. House of Representatives, could only take pride in a brief stint of military service during the Black Hawk War, during which he did not participate.

[1]The Civil War has been written about as few other wars in history have. More than 60,000 books and countless articles give eloquent testimony to the accuracy of poet Walt Whitman’s prediction that “a great literature will…arise out of the era of those four years.” The events of the war left a rich heritage for future generations, and that legacy was summed up by the martyred Lincoln as showing that the reunited sections of the United States constituted “the last best hope of earth.”

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