How a Quiet Pennsylvania Town Changed U.S. History in 1863

Union Civil War re-enactors at Gettysburg. At the time of the battle, it was by no means certain that the Northern states would be able to end slavery and preserve the United States. From July 1 to July 3, Americans are marking the 150th anniversary of what is arguably the most historically pivotal and symbolic battle of the country’s bloody 1861–1865 Civil War, the Battle of Gettysburg.

In 1863 the small college town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, became the site of the largest battle that has ever been fought on the North American continent. For three days, an invading Confederate army of more than 70,000 troops faced off against more than 90,000 Union soldiers. At least 46,000 were killed, wounded or captured, and it remains the place where the most Americans have ever fought and died.

President Abraham Lincoln would later mark the dedication of its military cemetery with his famous Gettysburg Address, in which he defined the war as a struggle to affirm the concept that “all men are created equal” through the Union’s quest to end slavery, and to maintain America’s democratic experiment in a government that is “of the people, by the people, for the people.”

At the time of the battle, the outcome of the Civil War was by no means certain. Although the Northern states had a large advantage in the number of soldiers, equipment and other means to wage war, the Southern states had better strategic commanders. The South was also in a position to gain recognition by European powers who could help force Lincoln to settle for a negotiated peace that would result in an independent Confederate States of America that maintained slavery.

The Battle of Gettysburg was the culmination of a month-long campaign by Confederate General Robert E. Lee to take the war into Northern territory, defeat the Union Army on its own soil, and threaten Lincoln’s government in Washington. A Southern victory would have strengthened Northern politicians who favored a peace settlement and could have undermined Lincoln’s chance to win re-election.

Lee, whose previous battlefield successes had earned him a reputation for being “invincible,” faced an untested Union commander, General George Meade. Meade was not only sent to stop the invasion but, like his predecessors, was under pressure from Lincoln to use the North’s material advantages to overwhelm and destroy the smaller Confederate forces. At the same time, he had to stay between Lee’s army and Washington to protect the U.S. Capitol.

The battle began almost by chance when a small Confederate force encountered a Union cavalry division in Gettysburg while they were foraging for supplies. Once word went out to the commanders on both sides, both armies converged for what they knew would be a decisive battle.

Confederate forces very nearly succeeded in capturing the hill known as Little Round Top, from which they could have easily pummeled Union forces with artillery fire. They were stopped by a small number of troops led by Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, a former Maine college professor, who executed an unusual assault maneuver when his forces were low on ammunition and completely surprised the attackers.

July 3 saw the climax of the battle, with Lee certain that a direct assault on the center of the Union lines would break their defenses and force them to retreat. Approximately 13,000 Confederate forces under General George Pickett advanced en masse, but the result was a complete disaster for the South. Union troops killed, captured or wounded more than half of the Confederate fighters, and the operation, now known as Pickett’s Charge, not only lost the battle, but was an event from which the South never recovered psychologically.

Barack Obama pauses at a 2008 campaign rally with the text of the Gettysburg Address behind him. President Lincoln's brief 1863 speech is considered one of the most important speeches in American history In American historical mythology, the farthest point of Pickett’s advance is now known as “the high-water mark of the Confederacy.” Gettysburg marked the last time Confederate forces would be able to invade the North in large numbers. Lee had lost one-third of his army, and his mission from that point on was an ultimately futile effort to prevent Union forces from capturing the Confederate capitol in Richmond, Virginia, and end the war. His defeat also ruined Southern hopes that European countries would intervene on their behalf.

Even with the Civil War still raging, Northern politicians recognized the significance of Gettysburg and decided to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery at the site to honor the Union dead. They invited President Lincoln to deliver remarks at the November 19, 1863, dedication, and he used the occasion to articulate what is now considered one of the most important speeches in American history.

Lincoln paid tribute to those who gave “their last full measure of devotion” to a cause he said was even greater than preserving the unity of the United States. The soldiers died for the idea of a nation ”conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

It is up to the living, he argued, to ensure that they did not die for nothing, and to work toward a “new birth of freedom” for a country, ultimately, in which everyone, regardless of skin color, would be equal under the law.