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The American Civil War was a brutal conflict that saw neighbors, families, and friends fight against one another.

It was a particularly bloody war that led to the death of thousands and a young country being torn apart from the inside. Although the Civil War is seen as a brutal conflict, one particular battle was notable for being brutal and influential to the conflict – the Battle of Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the war, and although it only lasted for three days, it created enough momentum to catapult the war into a new phase. It’s a notable battle for a few reasons – from the constantly shifting victories and losses on both sides to the result – the Gettysburg address.

In this article, we’ll summarize the Battle of Gettysburg and outline why it was such a significant battle in the American Civil War.

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Marching on the road to Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg occurred two years into the Civil War, which erupted in 1861. The main crux of this conflict stemmed from the controversial topic of slavery and its permittance in U.S. society. During this period, many white people owned and used black slaves. U.S. President Abraham Lincoln was staunchly against slavery and made moves to abolish it. However, many in the southern states relied on slavery to generate income, so they wanted slavery to stay.

Eleven southern states decided to secede from the United States, or the Union and established the Confederate States of America. This was the beginning of the American Civil War. Over the following two years, many different skirmishes and battles broke out across the country. It was a harsh war, with the tides of war changing sides multiple times.

After a flurry of battles, the Confederates were confident they could take the Union. This was most pronounced during a hard-fought battle in Chancellorsville, Virginia. The Confederate victory here upset the Union, but it emboldened the Confederates to press forward.

The beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg

The leader of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, Robert E. Lee, declared a resounding victory in May 1863 against the Army of the Potomac during the Battle of Chancellorsville. This proved to be the catalyst for his decision to take an offensive stance against the Union. This marked his second attempt to invade the North directly. Lee hoped that this attacking posture would not only move the fighting away from the South but to gain legitimacy for his claims in the eyes of the French and British.

From the perspective of the Union, President Lincoln wasn’t brimming with hope that the Union’s army could effectively take on the Confederates. To combat this, he brought Major General George Gordon Meade to take command of the army. Meade’s first move as commander was to confront Lee’s army of over 75,000 men directly. This led both armies to Gettysburg, where the battle would take place.

Day one of the Battle of Gettysburg

Once Lee had received word that the Army of the Potomac was marching to them for a confrontation, he got to work gathering his army. They settled in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to prepare for the oncoming army. However, when some confederate troops made their way to Gettysburg, they noticed two Union brigades had already settled there. With both armies marching toward Gettysburg, the pieces were laid out in preparation for a colossal battle.

When Lee received news of the Union troops in Gettysburg, he took action and gave his troops the order to attack Cemetery Hill. However, the commander of Northern Virginia’s Second Corp, Ewell, refused to order his men to attack as he felt the Union was in a more advantageous position. By nightfall, the Union had amassed a substantial army in Gettysburg.

Day two of the Battle of Gettysburg

On July 2, 1863, General Lee took note of two notable positions the Union had taken along Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. He went against the guidance of his main advisor, James Longstreet, and decided to attack the Union in its current position. Ewell’s battalion would strike Culp’s Hill, with Longstreet’s battalion taking on the Union at Cemetery Ridge. Although it was intended to be a fast, streamlined operation, Longstreet’s men didn’t attack until 4 pm that day.

Once the fighting began, it didn’t stop for many hours. During the skirmish, there was a considerable loss of life, which spanned several large areas, including the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. The Union dug in deep, though, and refused to sacrifice their position at Devil’s Den.

The other skirmish at Culp’s Hill was equally difficult for the Confederates, with the Union managing to ward off the attacks until dusk. When the fighting subsided for the night, all that remained was a shocking body count of 35,000 dead or injured over the two days.

Day three of the Battle of Gettysburg

On the third day, the Twelfth Army Corps of the Union moved to regain position at Culp’s Hill. It took them over 7 hours, but they managed to repel Confederate forces and hold an advantageous position on Culp’s Hill.

Lee felt that his army was close to victory the day prior, so he focused on pressing as hard as possible to regain control of the area. He sent three military divisions and artillery support to Cemetery Ridge, where the Union had amassed. The 3/4 mile walk was undertaken by a little under 15,000 troops led by George Pickett. The walk was harsh and dangerous, as there was no cover in the open fields.

Against the advice of his advisors, Lee focused on cementing this attack which became known as Pickett’s charge. This would prove to be one of the most climactic charges of the Civil War, which began with 150 confederate guns blasting into Union soldiers. The Union put up a strong counter-offensive, firing at approaching Confederates while undercover.

Ultimately, around half of the Confederate army left Pickett’s charge alive. After this failed assault, Lee quickly fortified his defenses and rallied troops to build a defensive line. By all accounts, Lee’s offensive at Gettysburg proved to be his undoing.

After the Battle of Gettysburg

Most historians point to the Battle of Gettysburg as a turning point in the two-year Civil War. This battle paved the way for the Union to clinch victory in 1865 successfully. The result was more than simply bringing the USA together again – it abolished slavery, too.

President Lincoln eventually made his way to Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, to give his famous speech. During his address, he dedicated a cemetery to the soldiers who died during the Battle of Gettysburg.

Why was the Battle of Gettysburg so significant?

The Battle of Gettysburg was significant for a few different reasons, but the main one is that it marked a shift in control during the Civil War from the Confederates to the Union. Although many might make the connection that winning the Battle of Gettysburg drew the Civil War to a conclusion, it’s a little more complicated than that. It wasn’t the decider, but it highlighted a significant shift in momentum in favor of the Union.

In the end, it wasn’t the Battle of Gettysburg that decided the outcome of the Civil War. It was the opinions and voices of the general population who lost their taste for war and wanted to unite once more. What happened at Gettysburg sparked a catalyst that encouraged people to stand behind Lincoln, which was a hard task during the Union’s numerous losses before Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a huge loss of human life, especially for the time. With casualties estimated to exceed 51,000 people, it ended up being the largest domestic battle the USA has ever seen.