Often described as the Civil War’s turning point, the Battle of Gettysburg marked Union Major General George Meade’s “Army of the Potomac” defeating attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s “Army of Northern Virginia,” ending Lee’s 1863 invasion of the North.
With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the 1863 summer campaign from war-ravaged northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to give up the war, by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, threatening even Philadelphia. Major General Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but Abraham Lincoln relieved him just three days before the battle and replaced “Fighting Joe” with Meade.
Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there. His objective was to engage the Union army and destroy it. A Union cavalry division, under Brigadier General John Buford, defended the low ridges to the northwest of town. It was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the Union lines and sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills to the south.
On the second day of battle, the Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, with fierce fighting at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. Despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles (in which George Custer played a decisive role) raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. It would become known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Union rifle and artillery fire repulsed the charge, at great losses to the Confederate army. Lee, who was not at his best in this battle, led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Between 46,000 and 51,000 soldiers from both armies were casualties in the three-day battle. That November 1863, President Lincoln gave his historic Gettysburg Address at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war.
At the National War College, we used this battle to show future senior military and civilian leaders the nature of war and those military battles often lead to strategic results. I think there are more books written about Gettysburg than any other battle. I like the Osprey Publishing Company’s Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy. Summertime is the best to visit. Check to see when the re-enactments are, as this may affect hotel availability. You will need a full day to visit at a minimum, three days if you want the full experience. Gettysburg is a fine little town with many shops and restaurants. And it is close to Washington, DC.
If you can arrange it, have a family or group member drop you off at the start point for “Pickett’s Charge,” and then have the driver take the car over to where the Union lines were. Then walk across “Pickett’s Charge” to get the full flavor of what the “Army of Northern Virginia” could see and what they could not as they advanced. You can do all three tasks at Gettysburg (what actually happened there – the history piece, capture the feel of the battle – what the emotions were and identifying lessons from the battle that can be applied to your own businesses and organizations today.)