By mid-1863, Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had humiliated the Union in the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. They seemed unbeatable—yet when they met the Union's blue-shirted troops in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in July, General Lee was outdone at last. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was a badly needed win for the north. But like all victories, it came with a price: This fight went down in history as the Civil War’s bloodiest confrontation. Here’s a short introduction to one of the great turning points in American history.
1. Lee thought he could demoralize Union forces by invading Pennsylvania.
In late spring 1863, the Union Army captured Vicksburg, Mississippi. Union generals hoped to split the Confederacy in half and control the lower Mississippi River, a vital transportation route. To keep that from happening, some in the Confederate government wanted to send reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia, but Lee had other ideas.
Lee mounted an offensive campaign into Pennsylvania. He believed that a strong Confederate presence north of the Mason-Dixon line would pressure the Union into withdrawing some of its soldiers from the Mississippi delta—and that a huge Confederate invasion would set off a panic in cities like Philadelphia and New York, weakening northern support for the war. President Abraham Lincoln might then lose his 1864 reelection bid, and northern states might initiate peace talks. If Lee won, the war could end with a Confederate victory.
2. An exodus of Black families preceded the battle.
On June 12, 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin announced that “information has been obtained by the War Department that a large rebel force, composed of cavalry, artillery, and mounted infantry, has been prepared for the purpose of making a raid into Pennsylvania.”
This news was especially alarming to Black families, because Confederate soldiers often seized African Americans as "contraband" when they raided Union territory. By the end of June, hundreds of Black refugees from Gettysburg and neighboring areas had escaped to Harrisburg, the state’s capital. When Confederates tried to take the city on June 28, Black volunteers helped thwart their efforts.
3. One Confederate officer blamed the battle on shoes.
Major General Henry Heth claimed to have started the Battle of Gettysburg when he sent two brigades into town, despite being ordered to stay put. They encountered Union resistance, and what began as a minor skirmish mushroomed into a three-day conflict—and a critical victory for the North.
Why disobey orders? Heth needed shoes. “Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg,” Heth wrote in 1877, “and greatly needing shoes for my men, [on June 30] I directed General Pettigrew to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.” Pettigrew returned and suggested that an assault on the lightly defended Gettysburg would likely succeed. Heth later recalled saying “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes!”
Heth may not have been entirely truthful about the matter. Another Confederate division had already gone on a supply run and didn’t obtain many shoes. Historians agree that he did send troops ahead, and they started the battle, but their motivations are still debated.
4. Almost 16,000 people died on the first day ...
At first, the rebels’ odds of scoring a victory in Gettysburg seemed pretty good—the first major clash on July 1 involved 7600 Confederate infantry fighting against 2748 Union cavalry. Later on that day, around 27,000 Confederate soldiers approached from the north and drove 22,000 Union soldiers out of the town, leaving them to reconvene on Cemetery Hill to the south. By evening, Lee had lost over 6000 men and around 9000 northerners had been killed. Had the fighting ended after that first day, Gettysburg still would have had one of the 20 highest body counts of any battle in the war.
5. ... But there was only one civilian casualty.
The Union forces bounced back on July 2 with the arrival of Major General George Meade and most of his army, which brought the total number of northern troops up to 90,000. They were fighting against 75,000 Confederate troops. The battle stretched into July 3, with the Army of Northern Virginia leaving the area the next day. There were between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg overall.
Twenty-year-old Mary Virginia Wade (also known as Jennie or Gennie) had the distinction of being the only civilian to die at Gettysburg during the battle. A resident of the town, she was hit by a stray bullet as she was baking a loaf of bread. Wade is now commemorated by a statue on Baltimore Street.
6. Female soldiers fought on both sides.
Hundreds of women are thought to have enlisted in the battle. Nine verified female soldiers died on a Civil War battlefield, and one of them was killed at Gettysburg. One died in Pickett’s charge, the final skirmish at the Battle of Gettysburg. Another female Confederate soldier took a bullet to one leg, which had to be amputated. At least one more female Confederate and two female Union soldiers also saw action.
7. Pickett's charge was a disaster for the Confederates.
By the third day, the fighting had shifted to the south of Gettysburg. The Union troops stood in a fishhook-shaped arrangement at the hills dubbed Big and Little Round Top, stretched the length of Cemetery Ridge, and curved around Cemetery Hill. Confederates were moving in from the north and the west.
Lee wanted to strike the Union line along Cemetery Ridge, but that meant his troops would need to cross an open field, exposing them to Union fire. Against the advice of his colleague General James Longstreet, Lee went ahead with the charge. More than half of the 12,000 Confederate troops were killed, captured, or wounded while the Union line remained unbroken. The disaster was later romanticized by southern writers as part of the racist, revisionist “Lost Cause” narrative.
The attack is known as Pickett’s charge because one division of the offense was led by George Pickett, a major general from Richmond, Virginia. He spent the rest of his life nursing a grudge against Lee for having his division "massacred.”
8. George Custer played a part in Pickett's charge.
Pickett’s charge is thought to have been one half of a pincer assault; the other half comprised 6000 cavalry trying to sneak around it. By doing this, the mounted soldiers could have opened fire on the Union line from the east just as Pickett and company were rushing over from the west. Union General George Custer—later famous for his catastrophic "last stand" at the Battle of Little Bighorn— stopped them. The Confederate riders were eventually driven away, leaving the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge free to mow down Pickett’s charge.
9. A wagon train carrying wounded Confederates was 17 miles long.
The Army of Northern Virginia pulled out of Gettysburg on the fourth of July (the same day Ulysses S. Grant finally took Vicksburg). There were enough wounded Confederates to fill a 17-mile wagon train that Lee took back to the South. On its way back to Virginia, flooding following several days of heavy rain trapped them on the northern side of the Potomac River.
Lincoln wanted Meade to wipe out the cornered rebels. Meade argued that his troops were in no shape for more fighting, and the rebels were able to cross the river. “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it,” Lincoln said.
10. A Gettysburg soldier's body turned up in 1996.
Gettysburg's 2400 residents had to dispose of nearly 7000 corpses the armies had left behind. They were buried in shallow, rocky graves.
Union soldiers were eventually reburied in the national cemetery, consecrated on November 19, 1863, at Gettysburg. Lincoln attended the ceremony and gave the speech that would come to be known as the Gettysburg Address. But thousands of Confederate dead still lay at the town’s outskirts. Southern organizations started digging up the rebel soldiers in 1871 so the bodies could receive proper burials.
A few apparently escaped their notice: In 1996, the body of a Civil War soldier was found near Railroad Cut. Archaeologists couldn’t identify the man, or even determine which side he’d fought for.
11. Gettysburg veterans held a big reunion in 1913.
Gettysburg threw a massive party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its great battle. The event began on June 29, 1913 and lasted until July 6. More than 50,000 Civil War vets—most of whom were in their seventies—turned up to commemorate the event. New memorials were dedicated, former enemies took photos together, and President Woodrow Wilson gave a speech. A highlight was the peaceful reenactment of Pickett’s charge: 200 veterans retraced the steps they’d taken half a century earlier and then met up on Cemetery Ridge to trade handshakes.
A version of this story ran in 2018; it has been updated for 2022.