11 Facts About the Battle of Gettysburg

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 1863, 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 the story of America.

1. BY INVADING PENNSYLVANIA, LEE THOUGHT HE COULD DEMORALIZE THE NORTH.

Robert E. Lee
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In the late spring of 1863, the Union Army had Vicksburg, Mississippi in its sights. With its capture, Union generals hoped to split the Confederacy in half while also asserting control over the lower Mississippi River, a vital transportation route. To keep that from happening, some in the Confederate government wanted to send over reinforcements from the Army of Northern Virginia, but Lee had other ideas.

The general, emboldened by recent victories, 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 effort. Lincoln might then lose his 1864 reelection bid, and with Honest Abe out of the White House, the tired north might initiate peace talks. If all had gone well for General Lee, his assault on the Keystone State may have ended the war in the south’s favor. But of course, all did not go well for Lee.

2. THE FIGHT WAS PRECEDED BY AN EXODUS OF BLACK FAMILIES.

On June 12, 1863, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin put his constituents on high alert. In a statement re-printed by newspapers all over the state, he 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: When Confederate soldiers entered Union territory, they’d often seize African Americans—women, children, and freeborn citizens included—as "contraband." By the end of June, hundreds of black refugees from Gettysburg and other southern Pennsylvania towns had come pouring into Harrisburg, the state’s capital. When Confederates tried to take the city on June 28, black volunteers helped thwart their efforts.

3. ONE MAJOR GENERAL BLAMED THE SHOWDOWN ON A NEED FOR SHOES.

According to Henry Heth, a major general in the Confederate army, he was the one who started the Battle of Gettysburg. Heth said that on July 1, 1863, he sent two brigades into Gettysburg, where they encountered Union resistance, and what began as a minor skirmish mushroomed into a three-day conflict—and a critical victory for the North.

All this begs the question of why Heth dispatched those troops into Gettysburg in the first place, considering he was under strict orders not to go on the offensive. Heth explained his rationale like this: He needed to go shoe shopping. “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 [a brigade commander of his] to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.” Pettigrew returned with stories that there was cavalry present in Gettysburg, but the commanders believed that this was just an observation detachment and the bulk of the Union army was far away, meaning an assault on Gettysburg would likely succeed. Heth later recalled saying “I will take my division tomorrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes!”

Historians think Heth wasn’t being entirely truthful about the matter. Another Confederate division had already gone on a "supply run" through Gettysburg and didn’t obtain many shoes.

While it is generally agreed that Heth did send troops ahead for reconnaissance of the area, and those troops’ interaction with Union soldiers started the battle, historians continue to debate the rest of the specifics. Some propose that Heth was searching for non-shoe supplies, while others propose that Heth was eager to impress Lee and might have used the supplies as an excuse to pick a fight. Still others argue that the roads funneled both armies through Gettysburg, making a showdown inevitable.

4. ALMOST 16,000 MEN DIED ON THE FIRST DAY ALONE …

Battle of Gettysburg
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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 just 2748 Union cavalrymen. 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 nightfall, Lee had lost over 6000 men and around 9000 northerners had been killed in total. 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. … AND YET THERE WAS ONLY ONE CIVILIAN CASUALTY OVERALL.

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. It’s estimated that there were between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties at Gettysburg overall.

Still, just about every innocent bystander who witnessed the carnage lived to tell the tale. Twenty-year-old Mary Virginia Wade (also known as "Jennie" or "Gennie") had the distinction of being the only civilian to die within Gettysburg’s borders during the battle. A resident of the town, she was reportedly hit by a stray bullet that tore through her home 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.

While the Civil War is generally viewed as a male conflict with the demure women staying behind, that’s not actually true: Hundreds of women—drawn by a sense of adventure, a commitment to the cause, or just the opportunity for a steady income—are thought to have enlisted. Nine verified female soldiers died on a Civil War battlefield, and one of them was killed at Gettysburg. Lying among the corpses of all the southerners who had fallen in Pickett’s charge was the uniformed body of a woman. Another female Confederate soldier took a bullet to one leg, which had to be amputated. It’s known that a third woman fought for the south at Gettysburg as well—and at least two female soldiers saw action there as part of the Union army.

7. GEORGE PICKETT DIDN’T COMMAND ALL OF THE TROOPS IN PICKETT’S CHARGE.

By the third day, the fighting had shifted to the south of Gettysburg proper. The Union troops stood in a fishhook-shaped arrangement that began down at the twin hills of Big and Little Round Top, stretched the length of Cemetery Ridge (a raised geologic feature), and curved around Cemetery Hill. Confederates were moving in from the north and the west.

Lee wanted to strike at the heart of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge. But to get there, his men would have to cross an open field, leaving them exposed to Union artillery fire. Against the advice of his righthand man General James Longstreet, Lee went ahead with the charge. Of the 12,000 Confederate men who were ordered to participate, more than half were killed, captured, or wounded while the Union line remained unbroken (though it suffered heavy losses as well). Remembered today as the “High Watermark of the Confederacy,” this disastrous event was romanticized by southern writers and incorporated into Dixie’s “Lost Cause” narrative. The effort is more formally called “Pickett’s Charge” because one division in the Confederate attack was led by George Pickett, a Major General from Richmond. He would spend the rest of his life nursing a grudge against Robert E. Lee; in Pickett’s own words, “That old man … had my division massacred.”

Posterity may have attached Pickett’s name to the charge, but his division only supplied between 4000 and 6200 of the soldiers who were in it. Accompanying his men were thousands of other troops under the command of James Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble.

8. GEORGE A. CUSTER WAS THERE.

Pickett’s charge is thought to have been one half of a pincer-like assault: While Pettigrew, Trimble, and Pickett himself led their brigades towards Cemetery Ridge, 6000 mounted cavalrymen tried to sneak around it. By doing this, the horsemen could have opened fire on the Union line from the east just as Pickett and company were rushing over from the west. Enter George A. Custer—a graduate of West Point and a Brigadier General in the Union army—who stopped them in their tracks with their own cavaliers. The Confederate riders were eventually driven away, leaving the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge free to mow down Pickett’s charge.

Gettysburg wasn't the only infamous battle Custer would be a part of: In 1876, he and 267 of his cavalrymen were killed by Sioux, Cheyenne, and Arapaho warriors in a Montana valley in the Battle of Little Bighorn.

9. THE WAGON TRAIN OF WOUNDED CONFEDERATES WAS 17 MILES LONG.

Beaten and battered, 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, the convoy ran into trouble at the Potomac River. The weather had been calm and cloudy throughout the clash at Gettysburg. But on July 4, a heavy rainfall arrived that lasted for several days. So when Lee’s men finally reached the Potomac, high water levels trapped them on the northern side of it.

Lincoln wanted General Meade to grab this opportunity and wipe out the now-cornered Army of Northern Virginia. Meade chose to proceed with caution—in part because his troops were still weary from the action at Gettysburg. Some of his outfits had skirmishes with Lee’s men until the Confederates were finally able to cross the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland on July 13/14. “Our army held the war in the hollow of their hand and they would not close it,” said a disappointed Lincoln.

10. THE BODY OF ONE FALLEN SOLDIER DIDN’T TURN UP UNTIL 1996.

Once the fighting at Gettysburg subsided, the town’s 2400 residents had to dispose of nearly 7000 human corpses the armies left behind. Shallow, rock-covered graves were hastily dug for the deceased.

After the battle, Governor Curtin lobbied for a Soldier’s National Cemetery to be built at Gettysburg. His request was granted, and the bodies of Union soldiers were reinterred at the chosen burial site, which was formally consecrated on November 19, 1863. President Lincoln attended the ceremony and gave the speech that would come to be known as the Gettysburg Address. The scent of death hung in the air while Abe spoke. That’s because thousands of Confederates were still lying in shoddy graves on the town’s outskirts—attracting flies and vultures. Most remained in situ until southern organizations started digging up fallen Confederates in 1871 so the bodies could receive proper burials.

A few cadavers 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. (It’s been suggested that he was a Mississippi Confederate.)

11. THERE WAS A BIG REUNION IN 1913.

With some help from the U.S. War Department, multiple state legislatures, and a Major League baseball player who had become Pennsylvania’s governor, Gettysburg threw a massive party to commemorate the 50th anniversary of its great battle. The event began on June 29, 1913 and lasted until the sixth of July. Over 50,000 Civil War vets—most of whom were in their seventies—turned up to commemorate the battle. New memorials were dedicated, former enemies took photos together, and President Woodrow Wilson dropped by to give a speech. A highlight was the peaceful reenactment of Pickett’s Charge: 200 men retraced the steps they’d taken half a century prior and then met up on Cemetery Ridge to trade handshakes.

The Other Gettysburg Address You Probably Haven't Heard Of

Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)
Image Composite: Edward Everett (Wikimedia Commons), Background (Wikimedia Commons)

The greatest speech in American history had a tough act to follow.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered an address at the dedication of a new National Cemetery in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. As the president offered some brief remarks before a war-weary crowd of around 15,000 people, he modestly said, “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.”

Lincoln was only half right about that. Despite his humble prediction, the president's Gettysburg Address has shown remarkable staying power over the past 155 years. The unifying oration has been engraved onto monuments, memorized by countless schoolchildren, and painstakingly dissected by every Civil War historian under the sun. It has even achieved international fame: Across the Atlantic, language from the speech was woven into the current constitution of France.

But at that gathering in Gettysburg, President Lincoln wasn’t the primary speaker. His immortal words were merely the follow-up to another speech—one that was meticulously researched and, at least by some accounts, brilliantly delivered. It was a professional triumph for a scholar and statesman named Edward Everett who had been hailed as the finest orator in America. Yet history has all but forgotten it.

DISTINGUISHED IN ACADEMIA—AND POLITICS

Everett was born in Massachusetts on April 11, 1794, and he was exceptional even as a young man. The son of a minister, Everett was admitted to Harvard University at 13 and graduated at 17. After studying to be a minister himself, and briefly serving as one, Everett's alma mater offered him a spot on its faculty. The position allowed time abroad in Europe, and Everett spent some of those years studying at the University of Göttingen in modern Germany, where he became the first American to earn a Ph.D. (U.S. schools didn’t offer that type of degree at the time). When he returned from Europe, Everett took up his post at Harvard.

For many people, landing a spot on Harvard’s payroll would be the achievement of a lifetime. But after Everett started teaching in 1819, he quickly found himself longing for a career change. In 1825, he ran for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Elected as a conservative Whig, he served for a full decade before setting his sights on state politics. In 1835, Everett won the first of four one-year terms as the governor of Massachusetts. As governor, he revolutionized New England schools by spearheading the establishment of his state’s first board of education.

Like most politicians, Everett suffered his fair share of defeats. Due largely to his support of a controversial measure that limited alcohol sales, he was voted out of the governor’s mansion in 1839 (he lost by just one vote). But he soon got another shot at public service: In 1841, the John Tyler administration appointed Everett as the U.S. ambassador to Great Britain, a job that enabled him to play a major role in settling a Maine-New Brunswick border dispute that had created a great deal of tension between the two countries.

Academia beckoned once again in 1846, when Everett—after some coaxing—agreed to become the president of Harvard. Following his resignation in 1849, President Millard Fillmore appointed him Secretary of State. Everett subsequently bolstered his political resume with a one-year tenure in the U.S. Senate, resigning in 1854 after failing health caused him to miss a vote on the Kansas-Nebraska Act.

In the election of 1860, Everett found himself pitted against future president Abraham Lincoln. Without Everett's consent, the Constitutional Union Party—which favored ignoring the slavery issue to prevent a civil war—nominated him as its vice presidential candidate. The ex-Governor reluctantly accepted the nomination, believing that doing otherwise would cause too much damage to the ticket—but he flatly refused to campaign. Privately, he believed that the party had no chance, writing to a friend that June that his nomination was “of no great consequence; a mere ripple on the great wave of affairs.”

“A VOICE OF SUCH RICH TONES, SUCH PRECISE AND PERFECT UTTERANCE”

Something that was of great consequence, however, was Everett’s growing reputation as a first-rate public speaker. He'd taught Ralph Waldo Emerson at Harvard; in the budding philosopher’s words, Everett had “a voice of such rich tones, such precise and perfect utterance, that, although slightly nasal, it was the most mellow and beautiful, and correct of all the instruments of the time.” Everett's other celebrity fans included Thomas Jefferson, who praised a speech that Everett gave at Harvard on behalf of the visiting Marquis de Lafayette.

The American people grew well-acquainted with Everett’s oratory skills after he left the Senate. Once the war broke out, he started touring the northern states, making pro-Union speeches wherever he went. So when a Pennsylvania-led commission finished assembling a burial ground for the soldiers who’d fallen at Gettysburg, they naturally asked Edward Everett if he’d speak at the cemetery’s formal dedication in October 1863.

Everett received their official invite on September 23. His response was an enthusiastic yes, although he did request that the consecration date be pushed back to November 19 so he’d have time to research and gather his thoughts. The request was granted, and Everett got to work.

He began by going over every available account of the battle. From Union general George G. Meade’s staff, Everett received an official report on what had transpired. And when Robert E. Lee submitted his own account to the Richmond Inquirer, Everett went through it with a fine-toothed comb.

By November 11, Everett’s speech had begun to take shape. As a courtesy, he submitted an advance copy to another man who’d been asked to say a few words at Gettysburg: President Lincoln. The plan all along was for Everett to deliver a lengthy oration which would be followed by what one pamphlet described as “a few dedicatory remarks by the President of the United States.” Nobody expected the Commander-in-Chief to turn many heads with his brief comments. It was to be Everett’s show; Lincoln was an afterthought.

Everett traveled to Gettysburg on November 16, still constantly revising his notes. Since a large chunk of his speech would be dedicated to recounting the historic battle, he decided to familiarize himself with the terrain on which it was fought. Professor Michael Jacobs of Gettysburg College, an eyewitness to the battle, guided Everett through the hills and fields that surround the Pennsylvania town. Dead horses and soldiers still lay rotting where they’d fallen that summer. The whole town was polluted with their stench.

Lincoln arrived one night before he was to deliver his speech; both the president and Mr. Everett were given lodging at the home of event organizer David Wills. The next morning, the honored guests made their way towards the cemetery.

THE OTHER GETTYSBURG ADDRESS

The dedication began with some music, followed by a prayer that Reverend Thomas H. Stockton, a prominent anti-slavery cleric, delivered with trademark zeal. And then, Everett—his speech memorized in full—took the stage. Because the New Englander had weak kidneys, a tent had been placed behind the podium so that he might take a break and relieve himself during the speech if necessary.

“Standing beneath this serene sky,” he began, “overlooking these broad fields now reposing from the labors of the waning year, the mighty Alleghenies dimly towering before us, the graves of our brethren beneath our feet, it is with hesitation that I raise my poor voice to break the eloquent silence of God and nature.”

From there, Everett drew parallels between the cemetery’s consecration at Gettysburg and the reverence with which the ancient Athenians buried their fallen soldiers. His speech was loaded with historical references: As the address unfolded, Everett mentioned everything from the War of Roses to the fall of ancient Rome. He also quoted such great thinkers as Pericles and David Hume. He provided a detailed, point-by-point retelling of the battle at Gettysburg, denouncing the Confederacy, condemning the continued practice of slavery, and urging the north to strengthen its resolve. Still, Everett held firm to the belief that reconciliation between the two sides might still be possible. “There is no bitterness on the part of the masses,” he proclaimed. “The bonds that unite us as one people … are of perennial force and energy, while the causes of alienation are imaginary, factitious, and transient. The heart of the people, north and south, is for the Union.”

When Everett’s address came to a close, he had spoken more than 13,000 words over the course of two hours. B.B. French, a musician who’d penned a hymn for the occasion, later wrote, “Mr. Everett was listened to with breathless silence by all that immense crowd, and he had his audience in tears many times during his masterly effort.” The Philadelphia Age offered a more lukewarm review, stating “He gave us plenty of words, but no heart.” President Lincoln, however, loved the speech. In Everett’s diary, the orator remarks that when he stepped down, the president shook his hand “with great fervor and said, ‘I am more than gratified, I am grateful to you.’”

Those who remained in the audience were then treated to French’s hymn, as performed by the Baltimore Glee Club. And then, the president rose. Within three minutes, his speech of around 270 words (there’s some debate over its exact phrasing) was over and done with. According to one witness, “The extreme brevity of the address together with its abrupt close had so astonished the hearers that they stood transfixed. Had not Lincoln turned and moved towards his chair, the audience would very likely have remained voiceless for several moments more. Finally, there came applause.”

Everett knew a good speech when he heard one. One day after the consecration, he wrote to the president and asked for a copy of the little address. “I should be glad,” Everett wrote, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” James Speed, Attorney General from 1864 to 1866, would later recall that Lincoln treasured Everett’s kind words and said “he had never received a compliment he prized more highly.”

Lincoln was more than happy to offer up a copy of the speech—and to return the kind sentiments. “In our respective parts … you could not have been excused to make a short address, nor I a long one,” Lincoln told Everett. “I am pleased to know that, in your judgment, the little I did say was not entirely a failure.

“Of course,” he added, “I knew Mr. Everett would not fail.”

Guess the Famous Person Who Was Afraid of Being Buried Alive

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