This most famous and most important Civil War Battle occurred over three hot summer days, July 1 to July 3, 1863, around the small market town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It began as a skirmish but by its end involved 160,000 Americans. Before the battle, major cities in the North such as Philadelphia, Baltimore and even Washington were under threat of attack from General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia which had crossed the Potomac River and marched into Pennsylvania.
The Union Army of the Potomac under its very new and untried commander, General George G. Meade, marched to intercept Lee.
On Tuesday morning, June 30, an infantry brigade of Confederate soldiers searching for shoes headed toward Gettysburg (population 2,400). The Confederate commander looked through his field glasses and spotted a long column of Federal cavalry heading toward the town. He withdrew his brigade and informed his superior, Gen. Henry Heth, who in turn told his superior, A.P. Hill, he would go back the following morning and "get those shoes."
Wednesday morning, July 1, two divisions of Confederates headed back to Gettysburg. They ran into Federal cavalry west of the town at Willoughby Run and the skirmish began. Events would quickly escalate. Lee rushed 25,000 men to the scene. The Union had less than 20,000.
After much fierce fighting and heavy casualties on both sides, the Federals were pushed back through the town of Gettysburg and regrouped south of the town along the high ground near the cemetery. Lee ordered Confederate General R.S. Ewell to seize the high ground from the battle weary Federals "if practicable." Gen. Ewell hesitated to attack thereby giving the Union troops a chance to dig in along Cemetery Ridge and bring in reinforcements with artillery. By the time Lee realized Ewell had not attacked, the opportunity had vanished.
Meade arrived at the scene and thought it was an ideal place to do battle with Lee's Army. Meade anticipated reinforcements totaling up to 100,000 men to arrive and strengthen his defensive position.
Confederate General James Longstreet saw the Union position as nearly impregnable and told Lee it should be left alone. He argued that Lee's Army should instead move east between the Union Army and Washington and build a defensive position thus forcing the Federals to attack them instead.
But Lee believed his own army was invincible and he was also without his much needed cavalry which served as his eyes and ears during troop movements. Cavalry leader Jeb Stuart had gone off with his troops to harass the Federals. Stuart's expedition would turn out to be for the most part a wild goose chase which left Lee at a disadvantage until he returned.
Lee decided to attack the Union Army's defensive position at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge which he thought was less well defended.
About 10 a.m. the next morning, Thursday, July 2, Gen. Longstreet was ordered by Lee to attack. But Longstreet was quite slow in getting his troops into position and didn't attack until 4 p.m. that afternoon thus giving the Union Army even more time to strengthen its position.
When Longstreet attacked, some of the most bitter fighting of the Civil War erupted at places now part of American military folklore such as Little Round Top, Devil's Den, the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard. Longstreet took the Peach Orchard but was driven back at Little Round Top.
About 6:30 p.m. Gen. Ewell attacked the Union line from the north and east at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. The attack lasted into darkness but was finally unsuccessful at Cemetery Hill, although the Rebels seized some trenches on Culp's Hill.
By about 10:30 p.m., the day's fighting came to an end. The Federals had lost some ground during the Rebel onslaught but still held the strong defensive position along Cemetery Ridge.
Both sides regrouped and counted their casualties