Union Wins the Battle of Gettysburg 

U.S. #1180 was created by the Post Office’s first nationwide contest to design a U.S. postage stamp.

On July 3, 1863, Union forces turned the tide of the Civil War with their victory at the Battle of Gettysburg.

During the summer of 1863, General Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia across the border of the Confederacy into Pennsylvania. He hoped to relieve the war-torn citizens of Virginia and knew his men could get food and supplies from the fertile farmlands of the North. Lee’s main objectives were to destroy the Union Army, reduce some of the pressure on Vicksburg caused by the Northern siege, and approach Harrisburg or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. The General hoped victories on Union soil would convince Northern politicians to end the war with the Confederacy.

U.S. #2975t – From the 1995 Civil War sheet.

On June 30, Confederate forces under Lieutenant General A.P. Hill spotted Federal troops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Hill decided to send a large scouting party the following morning to get more information on the size of the enemy army.

The Union’s Army of the Potomac had a change in leadership just three days before the battle began. Major General George Meade took charge after Major General Joseph Hooker resigned. Most of Meade’s army was assembling to the south of Gettysburg along a section of hills and ridges that made strong defensive positions.

Hill’s troops met the Union’s advance forces west of the town where the Northern cavalry was guarding ridges and buying time for the rest of the army to arrive. Confederate troops attacked from the north and northwest. Though the Union held for a while, they were forced to retreat through the streets of Gettysburg.

U.S. #4788 pictures an 1887 chromolithograph by Thure de Thulstrup.

Later that evening and into the next morning, reinforcements arrived for both armies. The Union took advantage of the landscape and formed a defensive line in the shape of a fishhook along the hills and ridges. Confederate forces aligned themselves parallel to their opponents in a line that stretched nearly five miles to the west and northeast. Both sides were now prepared for the intense warfare to come.

Union Major General Daniel Sickles was assigned a position on the south of Cemetery Ridge. He felt higher ground, about a half mile away, would be a better spot for his artillery. Sickles’ decision proved costly because his line had no protection on the flanks.

Lee ordered General James Longstreet to attack early in the morning on July 2. After multiple delays, his First Corps began their maneuvers after 4:00 p.m. In spite of the postponements, they overwhelmed Sickles’ forces at the Peach Orchard. Pennsylvania reserves reinforced the Union line and stopped the advance. Sickles’ Third Corps was destroyed in the attack.

Item #M11547 pictures Colonels William C. Oates, Joshua Chamberlain, and fighting around Little Round Top.

To the north, Confederate units began their assault of Culp’s Hill at about 7:00 p.m. Many of the Union troops had been sent south to help fight against Longstreet, but strong defenses had been built. The remaining forces were able to hold off the Confederate advance, but the Southern Army took control of a small portion of land at the base of the hill.

Fighting resumed in the morning of July 3. Union troops at Culp’s Hill bombarded the Confederates to regain their lost land. By 11:00 a.m., fighting ceased on the hill when the South abandoned the base.

General Lee decided it was time to attack the Union’s center. At 1:00 p.m., Confederate artillery began bombarding the Union position on Cemetery Ridge. In order to save ammunition, the Northern forces did not return fire for the first fifteen minutes, and then joined in the barrage. Around 3:00, the shelling stopped. Out from the smoke appeared 12,500 Confederate soldiers. As they crossed open fields for three-quarters of a mile, they were fired upon by Northern troops and artillery. A small break in the Federal line allowed the Southerners to reach a point later known as the “High-water mark of the Confederacy” (the closest the Confederacy ever came to victory over the North), but they were driven back. Almost half of the attacking force did not return to their lines.

Item #M11551 pictures Generals Robert E. Lee, George Meade, and scenes around Cemetery Ridge.

That night and the next morning, Lee strengthened his defensive position along Seminary Ridge and waited for Meade to attack. By nightfall on July 4, it became apparent the cautious Northern commander was not going to launch an assault, and the Army of Northern Virginia began their retreat to the South.

The Battle of Gettysburg produced the greatest number of casualties in the Civil War. In all, between 46,000 and 51,000 men were killed, wounded, captured or missing by the time it ended.

Item #CNSSEGP – Mystic-enhanced Gettysburg gold-plated silver dollar.

The Northern victory raised the morale of the Army and the public. President Lincoln wrote, “Now, if General Meade can complete his work so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” Meade did not aggressively pursue the Confederates, and they crossed safely over the border into Virginia. The war dragged on for almost two more years.

The Battle at Gettysburg ended just one day before the fall of Vicksburg. These two events have been called the turning points in the Civil War. The Confederacy lost all hope of European recognition and Lee’s army never again went on an offensive campaign.

Click here for a neat video and animated map of the Battle of Gettysburg.

And click here to see what else happened on This Day in History.

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  1. Interestingly the Confederate forces got alarming close to the Union’s storage area for the gold of the nation. Union Deposit sits on the east side of the Susquehanna River. Could acquiring that gold have changed the outcome of the war?

  2. What an amazing video. It is just terrible, the great loss of life. It was brilliant and it was folly as both sides made heroic battles. I remember the Cyclorama when I visited in 1970’s. The 360 degree mural is impressive and depicted much of the war surrounding Gettysburg. I still treasure my set of 35 mm slides I purchased. The area that Pickett had to cross was soooo open and it now seems folly that he even tried. Of course hindsight is 20-20, but I still don’t understand the logic of crossing such an open space of such distance, unless the intelligence was severely lacking by the South. The South was just cut to ribbons on this futile charge.

  3. Once again it is your dedication to detail that has filled in the blanks. You take a well known incident, occasion, occurrence and add info that makes it seem new and until now unknown. Thank you for additional and interesting knowledge.

  4. Back in the year of o’one, when I was in college, the final for Civil War history was like Robert’s question `above: “Would the United States be different if the South won the war?” We were given a Bluebook of at least 8 pages for the answering of this complex question.. I wrote down the following “I do do believe that after only a hundred years that the out come of the civil war woulld be not much different as it is today” . That was all I wrote. The teacher did not like it, due to fact I did not explain why. I only answered the question. And gave no more than was asked. After a few weeks or back and forth I receive a good grade.

  5. Meade’s decision not to attack the Confederate army was not to be considered an error in judgment. Rather, it was a command decision by Meade because in his judgment the Army of the Potomac had fought bravely for three brutal days and he felt strongly that the army needed a rest, Hence Meade decided not to pursue Lee and his forces across the Potomac .Lee’s error was one in judgment, because as Lee himself said, he thought the Confederate army was invincible. No army is ever invincible.

  6. The Battle of Gettysburg has been studied and re-studied, examined and re-examined for over 150 years. It is very interesting to read about, and is an extremely interesting place to visit as are all of the Civil War battlefields. But Gettysburg in particular demonstrates the futilely of this war. Three days of fighting with over 50, 000 casualties (killed, wounded, captured, and missing), and it settled nothing. The south was beaten, but they would not stop fighting. The war went on for another year and nine months with many thousands more casualties.

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