Gettysburg campaign, June–July, 1863, series of decisive battles of the U.S. Civil War.
The Road to Gettysburg
After his victory in the battle of Chancellorsville, Confederate general Robert E. Lee undertook a second invasion of the North. The reorganized Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac (June 17) via the Shenandoah valley, which Richard S. Ewell (2d Corps), as leader of the advance, swept clear of Union forces. By late June, Ewell was seriously threatening Harrisburg, Pa., while Lee, with James Longstreet (1st Corps) and A. P. Hill (3d Corps), was at Chambersburg, Pa. However, with the absence of his cavalry under J. E. B. Stuart, which was raiding in the area between Washington and the position of the Union army, Lee was unable to determine the enemy's strength and movements.
When he finally learned that George G. Meade was concentrating N of the Potomac, he ordered the concentration of his own force. Meade, intending to make his stand at Pipe Creek in Maryland, sent ahead John F. Reynolds, commanding the left wing. But on July 1, John Buford's cavalry, covering Reynolds, came into contact with Harry Heth's division of Hill's corps on the Chambersburg pike just W of Gettysburg. The environs of Gettysburg thus became the unintended site of the greatest battle of the war (July 1–3, 1863).
The Federals had the best of A. P. Hill's forces until midafternoon on the first day at Gettysburg, when, outflanked by Ewell, advancing from the north, they were driven to Cemetery Hill, south of the town. Meade on the recommendation of Winfield Scott Hancock abandoned his Pipe Creek plans and hurried up his whole force. On July 2, against the Union left, Longstreet led the main attack, which was not delivered until about 4 descr='[PM]'; the Army of the Potomac thus had time to consolidate its strong position. The Confederates took the Peach Orchard but were repulsed when they attempted to seize Round Top and Little Round Top, commanding eminences at the south end of Cemetery Ridge. On the Union right, Ewell carried Culp's Hill but was beaten off at Cemetery Hill.
Meade's counterattack on the morning of July 3 retook Culp's Hill. Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center with George E. Pickett's division, supported by part of Hill's corps (about 15,000 men in all). After a bombardment of the Union position by the massed Confederate artillery, Pickett moved forward in his famous charge. In the face of terrific artillery and musket fire, the gallant Southerners reached and momentarily held the first Union line. But Pickett's support gave way, and Hancock drove him back with tremendous losses. Meanwhile Stuart's cavalry, in an attempt to get at the Union right and rear, was defeated by David M. Gregg. Both armies, exhausted, held their positions until the night of July 4, when Lee withdrew. High water in the Potomac delayed his crossing back to Virginia, but Meade did not attack him in force.
The Gettysburg battles included more than 160,000 soldiers and many camp laborers. These included thousands of slaves forced to serve the Southern cause. The battles created a bloodbath like none America had ever before experienced. The Union army, which had been the more numerous, lost 23,000 men either killed, wounded, or missing; the Confederate army lost 25,000 (although that figure is questionable). Both commanding generals have been criticized for their conduct of the campaign—Lee for his unwarranted reliance on unseasoned commanders and his authorization of Pickett's charge; Meade for failing to organize his forces to counterattack and pursue the fleeing enemy. The campaign marked the high point of the Confederate activity during the war; thereafter the fortunes of the South went into a marked decline.
See F. A. Haskell, The Battle of Gettysburg (1898); C. Battine, The Crisis of the Confederacy (1905); J. B. Young, Battle of Gettysburg (1913); D. S. Freeman, R. E. Lee, Vol. III (1935); F. D. Downey, The Guns at Gettysburg (1958); E. B. Coddington, The Gettysburg Campaign (1968); B. Catton, Gettysburg: The Final Fury (1974); A. C. Guelzo, Gettysburg: The Last Invasion (2013).