Where: Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
Why: The Union’s response to Lee’s second incursion into the North.
When: July 1-3, 1863.
“We can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract.” – Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.
The Battle of Gettysburg remains to this day the largest battle ever fought in the western hemisphere. For three days in a quiet corner of rural Pennsylvania, the two great armies of the Potomac and Northern Virginia hammered away at each other, ending in a Confederate retreat and around 50,000 casualties on both sides. The battle started without the knowledge or consent of either commander, Meade (who had been in charge for just three days) or Lee, but the battle soon turned into a massive bloodbath. The Army of the Potomac pursued Lee’s invasion after a great Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May, tainted only by the premature death of Stonewall Jackson from friendly fire. After taking defensive positions in the hills to the south of the town, Lee launched a huge assault on the second day, focussing on now-famous Pennsylvania features – Little Round Top, the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard. At Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, further massive Confederate assaults battered the Union lines, which somehow held. On the third day, Lee issued his most calamitous order. While the assault continued at Culp’s Hill, Lee ordered a massed infantry charge of 12,500 men against the centre of the Union lines at Cemetery Hill, lent its famous name by one of the leaders, Maj. Gen. George Pickett. Amidst reservations of its success by commanding general James Longstreet, the charge was repelled by heavy rifle and artillery fire, resulting in a Confederate casualty rate of over 50%. The battle utterly defeated the Confederacy physically and psychologically and it never truly recovered. Lee ordered a painful retreat back to Virginia with the remains of his beaten army. Sixty-three Medals of Honor were issued to Union soldiers for their heroic efforts in stopping the relentless Confederate onslaught.