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
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

See What It Was Like to Live in a Secret NYC Library Apartment

YouTube
YouTube

Ever wanted to live in a library? For the dozens of custodians who once helped take care of New York Public Library branches, that dream was a reality. Recently, Sarah Laskow of Atlas Obscura stepped into one of these now-vacant apartments in upper Manhattan and explored it in all of its creepy, dilapidated glory (think falling plaster and unsafe floors—there's a reason the space isn't usually open to the public). Since the branches no longer require live-in custodians to shovel the coal that once kept the furnaces humming, the apartments have all been closed down, and are slowly being converted into new public uses. In 2016, one custodian's apartment in Washington Heights was converted into a teen center and programming space. The secret apartment at the Fort Washington library will also eventually be converted—which means that Laskow's trip helped document a space that may soon be only a memory. You can see more inside the space, and learn more about the history of these apartments, in the video below.

The British Codebreaker Who Convinced the U.S. to Join WWI

National Archives
National Archives

On January 16, 1917, Nigel de Grey, a cryptologist working for the British military, intercepted a coded German telegram sent via standard diplomatic channels. This alone was nothing special. The British cryptanalytic office where de Grey worked, called Room 40, had cracked a handful of Germany's ciphers and intercepted their messages daily. Today, however, was different: The jumble of numbers revealed a political bombshell.

We intend to begin on the 1st of February unrestricted submarine warfare. We shall endeavor in spite of this to keep the United States of America neutral. In the event of this not succeeding, we make Mexico a proposal of alliance on the following basis: make war together, make peace together, generous financial support and an understanding on our part that Mexico is to reconquer the lost territory in Texas, New Mexico and Arizona.

The coded message, sent by the German Foreign Minister Arthur Zimmermann, was destined for the German Minister in Mexico City. (Along the way, it had passed through Germany's ambassador in Washington, D.C., Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff.) At the time, America was not involved in the Great War. In fact, President Woodrow Wilson had just secured a second term by riding the slogans "He Kept Us Out of War" and "American First." The decrypted message plainly indicated that Germany was hoping Wilson would stick to his campaign trail talking points.

But the message also showed that Germany was afraid. An escalation of submarine warfare could provoke the United States, compelling it to abandon its isolationist policies and enter the war. If that happened, Germany hoped to distract the U.S. by forcing American troops to focus on an enemy closer to home: Mexico.

Upon realizing the message's significance, de Grey immediately sprinted to the office of his superior, William Reginald "Blinker" Hall.

"Do you want America in the war, Sir?" he shouted.

Hall gave de Grey, who was gleaming with sweat, an incredulous look. "Yes, why?"

"I've got a telegram that will bring them in if you give it to them."

According to an exhibit at the National Cryptologic Museum in Fort Meade, Maryland, "[The British] realized that they held a cryptanalytic 'trump card' that virtually guaranteed America's entry into WWI on the Allied side." Historian David Kahn put it thusly: The "codebreakers held history in the palm of their hands."

When a select few in the U.S. federal government were finally notified of the secret message, many doubted its authenticity, believing it was just a deceitful ploy by the British to win American support. The British assuaged those doubts by acquiring a fresh copy of the coded telegram and handing it over to the Americans. On February 23, a U.S. diplomat saw the message be decrypted with his own eyes—again with the help of codebreaker Nigel de Grey—and independently verified Germany's intentions. The diplomat immediately contacted President Wilson.

When Wilson saw it, he was shocked and insulted. "Good Lord! Good Lord!" he shouted. About one week later, he leaked the message to the press. Americans were similarly outraged.

(As for Mexico, the country knew it was getting a raw deal and never took Germany's bait. Reclaiming the American southwest—what was formerly Mexican territory before the Mexican-American War in the 1840s—was a recipe for disaster. Besides, Germany would have never been able to help anyway: They were blocked by the British Navy.)

By early April, the secret code had compelled the U.S. to join Britain and its allies. Today, the work of de Grey and the other Room 40 codebreakers is widely considered one of the most consequential events in cryptologic history.

 

Hungry for more details about the Zimmermann telegram? Mental Floss’s coverage of the World War I Centennial has you covered here and here.

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