Summary – Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg

Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg – Although the battle itself was a three-day event, the battle occurred in the larger context of the U.S. Civil War. Click to read a chronological summary of the Battle of Gettysburg:

Prelude Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Aftermath

 

Last Update: June 11, 2017 (8:41 pm)

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Have you ever wanted to understand the the Battle of Gettysburg but felt repeatedly overwhelmed by too much information? Most beginners are quickly lost by mind-numbing military jargon and conflicting numbers.

My personal solution was to plan (and enjoy) bicycle tours of Gettysburg National Military Park. I started an electronic “notebook” that integrated my pre-trip study notes with the results of dozens of rides through Gettysburg. My goal was to build a framework (a mental talk-track) for organizing each new lesson learned while bicycling the battlefield. You are reading a portion of my notebook.

This multi-part summary of the Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) is both extremely brief and yet highly detailed. These are my study notes. They are not a complete history by any means. On the other hand, I have tried to be accurate and objective. We began with a summary of the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg. I hope that my notes help you to “decode” the battle.

For help understanding these notes, please consider touring our Glossary. For more in-depth coverage, please see Civil War Cycling’s annotated bibliographies on the Civil War and Gettysburg.

Civil War Context and the Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg

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Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg – What Happened Before July, 1863?

The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Sectional tensions had been boiling for several decades over the issue of slavery. Lincoln’s election in 1860 was the last straw for South Carolina, a southern state that seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. These southern states quickly followed: Mississippi (Jan 9), Florida (Jan 10), Alabama (Jan 11), Georgia (Jan 19), Louisiana (Jan 26), and Texas (Feb 1). By February 18, 1861, the Confederate States of America (CSA) had assembled and elected a president, Jefferson Davis.

Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. A month later, when Lincoln tried to reinforce federal control of Fort Sumter, South Carolina pounded the fort with cannon fire until the Kentucky-born federal commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered.

On the heels of this opening volley of the Civil War — and Lincoln’s April 15 call for 75,000 troops to stop the rebellion — the following southern states seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy: Virginia (Apr 17), Arkansas (May 6), Tennessee (May 6), and North Carolina (May 21). The western portion of Virginia remained loyal to the Union and formed the state of West Virginia (which was officially admitted on June 20, 1863). The “border states” of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri never seceded, but citizens had divided loyalties and families were torn apart.

The Presidents and the Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg

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Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg – Who were the Presidents?

Abraham Lincoln - Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg
President Abraham Lincoln, USA (OpenClipArt)

Abraham Lincoln (1809 – 1865) was the 16th President of the United States. Lincoln was born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana. He consistently opposed secession as a legitimate way to resolve deep sectional divisions on the morality, economics, law, and social and religious structures around slavery. Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved through time. In the end, he is credited with several actions that ultimately abolished slavery in the United States, including issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; framing for the nation the cause of freedom in The Gettysburg Address; winning the Civil War (as Commander in Chief); and pressing for the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery in the United States of America). Lincoln was assassinated by a southern sympathizer on April 15, 1865, at the age of 56. He is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.

Jefferson Davis - Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg
President Jefferson Davis, CSA (NA)

Jefferson Davis (1808 – 1889) was the first and last President of the Confederate States of America. Jefferson was born in Kentucky and made Mississippi his home state. He consistently advocated for the right of sovereign states to secede from the federal government. The owner of a Mississippi cotton plantation and over 100 slaves, Davis was clearly pro-slavery. When the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces in April, 1865, Davis’ presidency – and the Confederacy itself – was effectively over. Davis died from complications associated with a respiratory illness on December 6, 1889, at the age of 81. He is buried in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.

In the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the country was divided against itself. The civil war that began in 1861 bled into the summer of 1863.

Introduction to the Battle of Gettysburg

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Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg – Who were the Army Generals?

The United States Civil War was a war between northern and southern sections of the country. The northern section remained in the Union (USA) and the southern section seceded to form a confederate government (Confederate States of America, CSA). After about two years of civil war that began in 1861, the country had suffered about 200,000 battlefield deaths. Both sides were anxious for the war to end.

Robert E. Lee - Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg
Robert E. Lee (LOC)

Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia (CSA) invaded Pennsylvania through Maryland in June, 1863.  Many reasons are offered for Lee’s bold move, among them his intent to:

  • Draw Union forces away from the port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi
  • Agitate northerners sympathetic to the Peace Movement
  • Take the battle out of Virginia’s farmland
  • Impress European leaders to support the Confederacy
  • End the war

On June 28, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He selected Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to replace Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (Virginia) in May. Lee’s army was experiencing a series of victories, and Lincoln was having trouble finding a commander who could fight and win.

George G. Meade - Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg
George G. Meade (LOC)

The Battle of Gettysburg ignited on the morning of July 1, 1863, when the Army of Northern Virginia probed Union positions in northwest Gettysburg. Lee’s army was scattered and he had not yet decided where to attack. At first, Confederates thought that they had encountered a small assembly of local militia, but it was the Union Army of the Potomac. The surprise was largely the result of Lee’s not having access to reconnaissance information from the “eyes and ears” of his army, Confederate Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. Stuart lost contact with Lee’s infantry in the drive north and arrived in Gettysburg only for the last half of the battle. The battle raged for a total of three days.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the largest, bloodiest battle in United States history. It produced more than 51,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing). The Battle of Gettysburg is hailed as a great Union military victory. But still, Lee’s army was allowed to retreat back to Virginia, something that deeply pained President Abraham Lincoln. One day after Gettysburg, on July 4, the port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Recommended Map: “Gettysburg Campaign Map” by the Civil War Trust.

Recommended Post-Script: “The Roads to Gettysburg” by Stone Sentinels  (Steve Hawks).

Three Days in a Nutshell

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What Happened July 1-3, 1863?

July 1

At daylight, Confederates attacked the ridges northwest of Gettysburg. The fighting panned east as Confederates arrived to attack from the north (at Oak Hill) and the northeast (at Barlow’s Knoll). When the Union line collapsed in the afternoon, fighting moved south through the streets of Gettysburg. South of town, the Union infantry and artillery formed a strong defensive position that was anchored on Cemetery Hill. The Confederate army controlled the town.

As reinforcements on both sides arrived during the night, the Union line resembled the shape of a fishhook whose “shank” was a north-south rise called Cemetery Ridge. Cemetery Hill was the north “bend” and Culp’s Hill was the east “barb.” The Confederate army wrapped around the Union fishhook formation.

Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day One (July 1, 1863).

July 2

Beginning around 4:00 p.m., Confederates attacked the Union left at Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge. Around 7:30 p.m., they attacked the Union right at Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. At great loss of life, the Union defensive line remained strong, but Lee’s victories on this day emboldened him to plan his final assault for the next day.

Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day Two (July 2, 1863).

July 3

After seven hours of early morning fighting (about 11:00 a.m.), Confederates abandoned their effort to capture Culp’s Hill on the Union right. At around 1:00 p.m., Confederate artillery on Seminary Ridge opened a two-hour bombardment of the Union center line along Cemetery Ridge. It remains the largest artillery bombardment in the history of the western hemisphere. Then at 3:00 p.m., about 12,000 Confederates marched over a one-mile open field to attack the Union line, which remained operational because Confederate cannon fire had overshot its mark. Known as “Pickett’s Charge,” about half of the Confederates fell to Union artillery and rifle fire.

After the Confederate retreat back to Seminary Ridge, Lee waited for Meade to counter-attack, and when that did not happen, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated from Gettysburg on July 4.

Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day Three (July 3, 1863).

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