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Civil War Context and the Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg
Lead Up to the Battle of Gettysburg – What Happened Before July, 1863?
The first shots of the Civil War were fired at Fort Sumter, South Carolina, on April 12, 1861. Meanwhile, sectional tensions had been boiling for several decades over the issue of slavery. Finally, Abraham Lincoln’s 1860 election tipped South Carolina over the edge, and that southern state seceded from the Union on December 20, 1860. Likewise, six southern states quickly followed: Mississippi (Jan 9), Florida (Jan 10), Alabama (Jan 11), Georgia (Jan 19), Louisiana (Jan 26), and Texas (Feb 1). By February 18, 1861, the Confederate States of America (CSA) had assembled and elected a president, Jefferson Davis.
Lincoln was inaugurated on March 4, 1861. A month later, when Lincoln tried to reinforce federal control of Fort Sumter, South Carolina pounded the fort with cannon fire until the Kentucky-born federal commander, Maj. Robert Anderson, surrendered.
On the heels of this opening volley of the Civil War—and Lincoln’s April 15 call for 75,000 troops to stop the rebellion—the following southern states seceded from the Union and joined the Confederacy: Virginia (Apr 17), Arkansas (May 6), Tennessee (May 6), and North Carolina (May 21). The western portion of Virginia remained loyal to the Union and formed the state of West Virginia (which was officially admitted on June 20, 1863). The “border states” of Delaware, Kentucky, Maryland, and Missouri never seceded, but citizens had divided loyalties and families were torn apart.
The Presidents and the Lead Up to the Battle of GettysburgMore...
Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865)
Abraham Lincoln served as the 16th President of the United States. He was born in Kentucky and raised in Indiana. Notably, Lincoln consistently opposed secession as a legitimate way to resolve deep sectional divisions on the morality, economics, law, and social and religious structures around slavery. But also, Lincoln’s position on slavery evolved through time. In the end, history credits him with several actions that ultimately abolished slavery in the United States, including issuing the Emancipation Proclamation; framing for the nation the cause of freedom in The Gettysburg Address; winning the Civil War (as Commander in Chief); and pressing for the 13th Amendment (which abolished slavery in the United States of America). President Lincoln was assassinated by a southern sympathizer on April 15, 1865, at the age of 56. His body lies in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois.
Jefferson Davis (1808–1889)
Jefferson Davis served as the first and last President of the Confederate States of America. He was born in Kentucky and made Mississippi his home state. Contrary to Lincoln, Davis consistently advocated for the right of sovereign states to secede from the federal government. Above all, the owner of a Mississippi cotton plantation and over 100 slaves, Davis was clearly pro-slavery.
When the Army of Northern Virginia surrendered to Union forces in April, 1865, Davis’ presidency—and the Confederacy itself—effectively ended. Much later, Davis died from complications associated with a respiratory illness on December 6, 1889, at the age of 81. His body lies in Hollywood Cemetery, Richmond, Virginia.
To summarize, in the lead up to the Battle of Gettysburg, the country was divided against itself. The civil war that began in 1861 bled into the summer of 1863.
Introduction to the Battle of GettysburgMore...
Gen. Robert E. Lee
Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia (CSA) invaded Pennsylvania through Maryland in June, 1863. Many reasons are offered for Lee’s bold move, among them his intent to:
- Draw Union forces away from the port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi
- Agitate northerners sympathetic to the Peace Movement
- Take the battle out of Virginia’s farmland
- Impress European leaders to support the Confederacy
- End the war
Maj. Gen. George G. Meade
On June 28, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln appointed a new commander of the Union Army of the Potomac. He selected Maj. Gen. George G. Meade to replace Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, who was defeated at the Battle of Chancellorsville (Virginia) in May. Lee’s army was experiencing a series of victories, and Lincoln was having trouble finding a commander who could fight and win.
The Battle of Gettysburg ignited on the morning of July 1, 1863, when the Army of Northern Virginia probed Union positions in northwest Gettysburg. Lee’s army was scattered and he had not yet decided where to attack. At first, Confederates thought that they had encountered a small assembly of local militia, but it was the Union Army of the Potomac.
The surprise was largely the result of Lee’s not having access to reconnaissance information from the “eyes and ears” of his army, Confederate Maj. Gen. J. E. B. Stuart. Stuart lost contact with Lee’s infantry in the drive north and arrived in Gettysburg only for the last half of the battle.
The Battle of Gettysburg raged for three days, and it was the largest, bloodiest battle in United States history, producing more than 51,000 casualties. Hailed as a great Union military victory, Lee nevertheless successfully retreated to Virginia, something that deeply pained President Lincoln. One day after Gettysburg, on July 4, the port city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, fell to Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.
Recommended Map: “Gettysburg Campaign Map” by the Civil War Trust.
Recommended Post-Script: “The Roads to Gettysburg” by Stone Sentinels (Steve Hawks).
Three Days in a NutshellMore...
At daylight, Confederates attacked the ridges northwest of Gettysburg. The fighting panned east as Confederates arrived to attack from the north (at Oak Hill) and the northeast (at Barlow’s Knoll). When the Union line collapsed in the afternoon, fighting moved south through the streets of Gettysburg. Most importantly, the Union infantry and artillery formed a strong defensive position that was anchored on Cemetery Hill, south of town. The Confederate army controlled the town.
As reinforcements on both sides arrived during the night, the Union line resembled the shape of a fishhook whose “shank” was a north-south rise called Cemetery Ridge. Cemetery Hill marked the north “bend” and Culp’s Hill anchored the east “barb.” The Confederate army wrapped around the Union fishhook formation. Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day One (July 1, 1863).
Beginning around 4:00 p.m., Confederates attacked the Union left at Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, and Cemetery Ridge. Around 7:30 p.m., they attacked the Union right at Cemetery and Culp’s Hills. At great loss of life, the Union defensive line remained strong, but Lee’s victories on this day emboldened him to plan his final assault for the next day. Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day Two (July 2, 1863).
After seven hours of early morning fighting (about 11:00 a.m.), Confederates abandoned their effort to capture Culp’s Hill on the Union right. At around 1:00 p.m., Confederate artillery on Seminary Ridge opened a two-hour bombardment of the Union center line along Cemetery Ridge. It remains the largest artillery bombardment in the history of the western hemisphere. Then at 3:00 p.m., about 12,000 Confederates marched over a one-mile open field to attack the Union line, which remained operational because Confederate cannon fire had overshot its mark. Known as “Pickett’s Charge,” about half of the Confederates fell to Union artillery and rifle fire.
After the Confederate retreat back to Seminary Ridge, Lee waited for Meade to counter-attack, and when that did not happen, the Army of Northern Virginia retreated from Gettysburg on July 4. Click here for a more detailed study guide to Gettysburg Day Three (July 3, 1863).