Learn about Gettysburg, the Battle of Gettysburg and the Gettysburg Address.
Gettysburg, a borough in Adams County, Pa., is most famous as the site where the Battle of Gettysburg was fought during the Civil War, as well as the location of President Abraham Lincoln's celebrated Gettysburg Address.
The Battle of Gettysburg is historically significant because it was not only the battle with the greatest number of casualties in the American Civil War, but also because it marked the turning point in the long war. It was the decisive moment after which the North began its slow march to victory over the South.
Leading up to the Battle, Gen. Robert E. Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, a Confederate army comprised of 72,000 soldiers, had experienced a run of recent successes on the field. His move into Gettysburg was part of what he hoped would be a successful second attempt to invade the North. Abraham Lincoln sent a huge number of Union forces, known as the Army of the Potomac, to stop Lee's progress under the new leadership of Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade. The two armies converged at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863.
The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days with Union forces firing the first shots in the early morning hours of July 1, although some Confederates also claimed to have made the first shot. Battlefield communications were slow and it was not until around 10 a.m. that Meade found out that a full-scale battle had already begun to take place. In the course of the day, Lee's army succeeded in driving back Meade's troops and by 4:30 p.m., the Confederates had taken the town of Gettysburg. Lee continued to drive back Meade's men eastward toward Cemetery Hill. Lee ordered Confederate Gen. R.S. Ewell to take the hill if practical, but Ewell did not push to take the hill because he was uncertain of the number of Union troops there. Many experts argue that if the Confederates had taken the hill that night, the Battle of Gettysburg probably would have ended in a Confederate victory.
On the first night of battle, a number of reinforcements streamed into both camps, swelling the number of soldiers on each side. On the second day, the morning was spent with both sides maneuvering into fighting formations and performing reconnaissance work to gauge the other side's manpower, weapons and locations. The Union army arranged itself to the east in a "fishhook" shape, while the Confederates created a line running north-south on the western side of the battlefield.
A costly mistake occurred on the Union side as Maj. Gen. George Sickles misinterpreted Meade's instructions and left the high ground of Little Round Top, a Union signal station, to bring his men to Peach Orchard. At Peach Orchard, Sickle's troops were massacred and fighting spread into the surrounding sites of Devil's Den, Wheatfield and Little Round Top. By the end of the day, however, Union forces had succeeded in re-securing the strategically significant sites of Culp's Hill and Little Round Top.
The third day of the battle marked some of the bloodiest fighting of the entire Civil War. In the early part of the day there were intense artillery exchanges, which ended with the Confederates assuming they had destroyed the Union's artillery forces. Under the assumption they were safe from cannon fire, vast numbers of Confederate forces, led by George Pickett, began crossing the open ground of Seminary Ridge. What followed was a slaughter -- as Union artillery mowed down thousands of men. By 4 p.m., the battle was essentially decided in the Union's favor.
Both sides, however, had suffered enormous casualties. It is estimated that the Confederate Army had approximately 72,000 soldiers present at the battle, of which 28,000 were lost. On the Union side, 82,200 men fought, of which 23,000 were killed, critically wounded, captured or went missing in battle. Both armies left Gettysburg by July 5, but more than 25,000 wounded and dead soldiers remained in the town. This overwhelmed the few thousand townspeople who inhabited Gettysburg, as they had to bury to the mounds of human bodies and cremate the thousands of dead horses still scattered across the battlefield. Every building in Gettysburg, including the churches, had to be converted into hospitals to make room for the wounded soldiers.
Many citizens of Gettysburg were concerned about the rather undignified manner of burial used for most of the soldiers and proposed that they better memorialize the men who had lost their lives in the battle. They petitioned the governor of Pennsylvania and received funds to purchase an area of the battlefield that became the Soldiers' National Cemetery. The grounds were designed by prominent landscape architect William Saunders.
The consecration of the cemetery took place on November 19, 1863, although it would not be until many months after that all the bodies had been moved into its grounds. At the service, President Lincoln gave a two-minute oration known as the Gettysburg Address. Lincoln's speech reignited the Northern public's passion for the causes behind the war, winning greater and more widespread support for it. The address is perhaps the most famous and oft-quoted speech given by a politician in American history. Opening with the now-famous words, "Four score and seven years ago," the speech reaffirmed the value of equality set out by the founding fathers, and argued for the need to continue to fight for freedom. The speech also contains the first known usage of the now familiar phrase: "government of the people, by the people, for the people."
Five known drafts of the speech exist and, through cross-referencing these copies, a "complete" version of the speech has been created, although there is still some controversy over a few of the phrases. The address is now carved into one of the walls at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. To read a full text of the Gettysburg Address, and to find out more about its history, visit the Gettysburg Foundation's Gettysburg Address page.
The cemetery and the Gettysburg battlefields quickly became a site to which Civil War veterans from both sides returned to hold reunions. One of the first formal reunions, organized by the U.S. Army, took place in 1913, and 50,000 veterans from across the nation and both sides of the conflict traveled to attend. Today, nearly two million people a year visit Gettysburg to see the hundreds of monuments, historical artifacts and the beautiful scenery that served as a battleground. Read more about Soldiers National Cemetery at Gettysburg.
Gettysburg is among the most-visited historic sites in the country, and offers a number of ways to experience Gettysburg. To plan a trip with young children, teenagers or a group and experience history first-hand, visit the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau.