Over 600,000 American combatants lost their lives in the Civil War. According to The American Battlefield Trust, this was about 2% of the population. Based on similar calculations from the same source, this would be six million Americans today. In eight battles of the Civil War, over 3,000 Union and Confederate soldiers were killed. The battle in which the most people were killed was the three-day engagement at Gettysburg, PA, where an estimated 7,000 men died.
The battle lasted from July 1 to July 3, 1863. The Confederate Army was commanded by perhaps the most famous general of the war. Robert E. Lee led a force that was defeated on the third day. The American commander, General George Meade, is much less well known.
According to The History Channel, Gettysburg was the war’s most important battle. While any judgment about how important major battles were, one result of Gettysburg is that it crushed Lee’s effort to invade part of the Union.
The momentum during the first day favored the Confederates. They pushed Union troops half a mile back from their position. According to Gettysburg Battlefield Tours, “The Union troops were quickly overwhelmed and fled.” However, the Union troops stopped their retreat and held their line at Cemetery Ridge.
On the second day of the battle, Lee ordered a large attack across much of the Union’s defensive positions. The plan was thwarted for two reasons. The Union forces continue to hold a key strategic spot known as Little Round Top. And one of Lee’s top generals, James Longstreet, was supposed to make his attack early in the day. He did not start his engagement until 4 PM.
The third day of the battle included one of the greatest debacles of any American war. Lee commanded General George Pickett to attack a wide part of the Union’s position. Known as “Pickett’s Charge,” about 13,000 Confederate soldiers had to cross almost three-quarters of a mile to reach the union positions. According to the Essential Civil War Curriculum, these men were slaughtered as casualties reached over 4,000 in a few hours.
The immediate effect of the end of the battle was Lee’s retreat. The history of the battle includes Abraham Lincoln’s fury that Meade did not pursue Lee and capture or kill most of the Confederate Army.
Gettysburg was also the place where Lincoln gave one of the most revered speeches in presidential history. At the cemetery’s dedication on November 19, 1863, he gave the Gettysburg Address.
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