The Battle of Gettysburg was the longest battle of the American Civil War, lasting three full days from July 1-3, 1863. Fought in southern Pennsylvania, the Battle of Gettysburg marked a pivotal turning point in favor of the Union during the brutal four-year conflict that divided the nation.
Lasting a total of 31 hours over its three day span, the Battle of Gettysburg saw the Union Army of the Potomac under General George G. Meade repulse attacks by General Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. With over 50,000 casualties between both sides, the mammoth clash marked the bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War.
Background to Gettysburg
In the summer of 1863, emboldened by recent victories, Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia to invade Union territory northward through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. His goal was to gain a strategic foothold on Northern soil and strengthen the Confederate morale and political will to continue the fight.
In response, Meade and the 90,000 strong Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s 75,000 soldiers northwest towards Pennsylvania to thwart this incursion. The two armies unwittingly collide near the small town of Gettysburg on July 1st, igniting the consequential battle.
Day 1 – McPherson’s Ridge
On the first day alone there were over 20,000 casualties combined. Fighting erupted west and north of Gettysburg when Confederate brigades ran into Union cavalry. Reinforcements from both sides rushed to the area as skirmishes broke out on and around McPherson’s Ridge.
The Union forces were outnumbered but managed to hold defensive positions until overwhelming Confederate advances forced them to retreat east through Gettysburg to dig in on higher ground like Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. The first day ended inconclusively.
Day 2 – Little and Big Round Tops
The second day centered around Confederate attempts to dislodge Union flanks near two key hills called Little Round Top and Big Round Top just south of Gettysburg. Intense fighting raged all afternoon with severe losses.
Heroic defense efforts by Union forces including the 20th Maine regiment managed to hold these strategic positions mostly intact by nightfall. Both Little Round Top and Big Round Top would play deciding roles the next day.
Day 3 – Pickett’s Charge
On July 3rd, Lee orchestrated a massive frontal assault on Union positions during mid-afternoon, known as Pickett’s Charge for the commander leading it. Over 12,000 Confederate troops advanced across open fields towards entrenched Union lines on Cemetery Ridge in Lee’s boldest gamble to break the Union lines.
Under heavy fire nearly the entire way, Pickett’s divisions reached the Union front but ultimately failed to penetrate the defenses. With his exhausted army depleted and hoped-for-reinforcements absent, Lee had no choice but to cede Gettysburg and retreat back to Virginia having suffered his first major loss.
Aftermath and Impact
Gettysburg represented the last time Lee’s forces seriously threatened Northern territory. His aura of invincibility was shattered while Union morale soared. With Vicksburg falling on July 4th, Gettysburg proved the dual turning points that put the Confederacy firmly on the defensive for the remainder of the war.
Lincoln gave his iconic Gettysburg Address there that November honoring the fallen and redefining the meaning of the war to unite the nation. Gettysburg established itself as the war’s seminal battle for both sides in scale, consequence, and sacrifices made.
Why Gettysburg Was the Longest Battle
Various factors contributed to Gettysburg’s distinction as the longest continuous clash of the Civil War:
- The exceptionally large number of troops engaged over 90,000 Federals v. 75,000 Rebels.
- Both sides gathering full strength as the encounter unexpectedly escalated.
- Inconclusive Day 1 results prevented early disengagement.
- Difficult terrain preventing breakthroughs forcing prolonged clashes.
- Lee’s commitment to keep attacking in hopes of attaining victory.
- Strong defenses presenting constant obstacles to quick capitulation.
The culmination of these conditions extended the Battle of Gettysburg to an exhaustive three day ordeal, cementing its unique place as the longest single contest of wills of the entire Civil War.
FAQs about Gettysburg
What year did the Battle of Gettysburg occur?
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1-3, 1863 during the American Civil War. It took place in and around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
How many casualties were there at Gettysburg?
The enormous battle resulted in a combined total of over 50,000 casualties between both armies (23,000 Union and 28,000 Confederate).
Who won the Battle of Gettysburg?
The Union forces won a critical victory at Gettysburg, finally defeating Lee’s invasion of the North and turning the tide of the war.
Who were the commanding generals at the Battle of Gettysburg?
The Union was led by Major General George G. Meade while General Robert E. Lee commanded the Confederates.
Why was Gettysburg a turning point of the Civil War?
Gettysburg repelled Lee’s northern ambitions for good and combined with Vicksburg ended Confederate momentum, putting them on the permanent defensive.
In sum, Gettysburg marked the longest and most decisive battle of the Civil War, halting a Confederate invasion and coming to symbolize the turning of the war’s tide after three grueling days of combat. The gallantry and horrors witnessed became etched into American history.