1863: The Turning Point


“Oh, God! That I could see my mother.”

—Last words of a dying soldier, 1863

The Civil War’s greatest battle was waged on the sprawling fields of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Today, the site is a national military park.

The Emancipation Proclamation Transforms the Northern War Effort


By 1863, the war between the North and South had evolved into a war against slavery itself.

On January 1, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation became law in the United States. After almost 187 years of Federal support, slavery was no longer protected by the Constitution.

Ironically, the Emancipation Proclamation did not actually free any slaves. Instead, it was a strategically calculated maneuver by Lincoln that declared slaves to be free only in areas of the South not occupied by Federal forces and allowed the practice to continue in areas controlled by Northern armies and in the border states.

The president had his reasons: He did not want to alienate border state slave owners who supported the Union, or disturb the peace in federally occupied areas of the South. He wanted to end slavery, but he also saw the proclamation as a tool of war that could undermine the Southern infrastructure. His chief aim of the war remained preservation of the Union. “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it . . . ,” he admitted.

Despite its limitations, the Emancipation Proclamation was a powerful blow against slavery, and Lincoln took an enormous risk in issuing it.

In the South, the majority of the population—even those who did not own slaves—viewed the proclamation as a Northern attempt to provoke a slave uprising. In the North, abolitionists believed it did too little. Union soldiers vowed they would not fight for Negroes and quit the army by the thousands. In Lincoln’s home state of Illinois, the Chicago Times declared the proclamation a “monstrous usurpation, a criminal wrong, and an act of national suicide.”

In New York City, fear of losing jobs to freed slaves led the city’s Irish laborers—who also opposed a new draft law—to engage in a violent race riot, burning buildings in black neighborhoods and murdering black men in the streets. There was even concern within the Lincoln administration that the proclamation might provoke angry Northern Democrats to lead a secessionist movement in the Midwestern states of Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois.

Lincoln also lost important political support. Although the proclamation went into effect on New Year’s Day of 1863, voters knew about it earlier. They registered their unhappiness in the November congressional elections, ousting legislators in Lincoln’s Republican party. When Congress reconvened in 1863, the makeup of the House had shifted.

In the end, however, the Emancipation Proclamation gave Lincoln and the Northern war effort a major boost. It opened the U.S. Army to black troops, and African-American men surged into its ranks despite the army’s segregated structure, ban on black commanders, and unequal pay for black troops. By war’s end, more than 186,000 black Americans, most of them former slaves, had served in the Northern armies.

The proclamation also transformed the goals of the Northern combatants. Instead of fighting just to preserve the Union, Federal forces began to crusade for freedom. The North was able to claim the moral high ground and Abraham Lincoln was elevated to the “Great Emancipator.”

Spurred by word-of-mouth reports of the Emancipation Proclamation, countless slaves fled Southern plantations to follow invading Northern forces.

The numerous slaves who escaped to follow Federal forces were officially designated as “contraband” by the U.S. government.

American slaves celebrated the Emancipation Proclamation, but it was opposed by Northern Democrats and cost Republicans seats in Congress.

The South Begins to Retreat

Robert E. Lee’s Northern invasion fell apart after the Battle of Gettysburg.

January 1 Emancipation Proclamation enacted, freeing slaves in Southern states.

May 1–4 Battle of Chancellorsville, the Confederate victory known as General Robert E. Lee’s “perfect battle.”

May 18 Federal siege of Vicksburg began, led by General Ulysses S. Grant.

July 1–3 Battle of Gettysburg, a pivotal moment for the North. Lee’s Confederate troops retreated to Virginia.

July 4 Vicksburg surrendered, dividing the Confederacy.

August 17 Federal army–navy bombardment of Fort Sumter, which the Confederacy never surrendered.

September 9 Federal forces occupied Chattanooga, led by General Rosecrans and the Army of the Cumberland.

September 21 Rosencran’s forces in Chattanooga were besieged by Confederate troops.

October 27 Federal forces managed to create a supply line through Confederate lines, refortifying the city and setting the stage for the final Battle of Chattanooga.

November 19 Lincoln delivers Gettysburg Address, considered to be one of the greatest speeches in American history.

November 23–25 Battle of Chattanooga; Federal victory paved the way for a Union invasion of the Deep South.

November 27–December 3 Confederate siege of Knoxville; Confederate General Longstreet, defeated by Union troops, retreated prior to the arrival of General William Sherman.

Grant Launches an Attack on Vicksburg


Confederate artillery made Vicksburg, Mississippi the South’s greatest bastion on the Mississippi River—and Federal artillery helped pound it into submission.

By the spring of 1863, Northern forces had already captured both ends of the Mississippi River. But to finally split the Confederacy, Major General Ulysses S. Grant needed to capture Vicksburg, Mississippi, a Southern bulwark positioned on the mighty river between New Orleans, to the south, and Memphis, to the north.

Vicksburg was protected by a heavily armed bastion with artillery batteries that surveyed river traffic from 200-foot-high bluffs. The city’s commander, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, was a native Pennsylvanian who had sided with the South. He was also a superb military engineer who had so fortified Vicksburg that it was referred to as the Gibraltar of the Confederacy.

After a fumbling, frustrating start, Grant directed a complicated offensive against Vicksburg in the spring and early summer of 1863. He advanced his 41,000-man Army of the Tennessee on a looping course through the Mississippi countryside, fighting a series of fierce battles along the way. By the time Grant reached Vicksburg, he was supported by naval forces and had increased his army to more than 70,000 troops. They were prepared for a prolonged siege.

A City Under Siege

Confederate president Jefferson Davis had ordered General Pemberton to “hold the city at all cost,” and Vicksburg’s Southern defenders stubbornly resisted the Federal onslaught. Yet they were no match for Grant’s forces, and by the end of June, they were near starvation. So too was Vicksburg’s civilian population, which was forced to live in hillside caves during the siege, surviving on mule meat and rats.

“Terror-stricken, we remained crouched in our cave,” a Vicksburg woman would later recall, “while shell after shell followed each other in quick succession. I endeavored by constant prayer to prepare myself for the sudden death I was almost certain awaited me.”

Meanwhile, General Joseph E. Johnston, now in command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee, massed troops in hopes of rescuing Vicksburg, but nothing could save the besieged Mississippi bastion.

Besieged by Federal artillery, Vicksburg’s civilians took shelter in hastily dug caves at what became known as “Prairie Dog Village.” At times, Southern and Northern soldiers hid there as well.

Confederate general John C. Pemberton, a Northerner by birth, oversaw Vicksburg’s defenses.

Major General Ulysses S. Grant tenaciously attacked Vicksburg until its Southern defenders surrendered.

America’s First Income Tax

To finance the Northern war effort, the U.S. Congress implemented America’s first income tax in 1861, introducing a 3 percent levy on anyone earning more than eight hundred dollars a year. In 1864, the rates were raised to ten percent on incomes of ten thousand dollars or more, 7 percent for five thousand to ten thousand dollars, and a 5 percent tax for anyone making from six hundred to five thousand dollars. The income tax was written so that it would expire in ten years. It wasn’t until 1913, when the Sixteenth Amendment was passed, that a federal income tax would be reinstated.

In the South, the Confederate States Congress was hampered by tax restrictions in the C.S. Constitution, and could only enact a tax in kind, which required farmers, planters, and livestock growers to give a portion of their produce.

In order to collect taxes to finance the Northern war effort, President Lincoln’s Secretary of the Treasury, Salmon P. Chase, established the Bureau of Internal Revenue, later known as the IRS.

Fighting Joe Takes Charge


Following the Federal defeat at Fredericksburg, General Joseph Hooker was promoted to command of the Army of the Potomac.

No one who knew General Joseph Hooker accused him of being humble. When introduced to President Abraham Lincoln shortly after the Northern loss at the First Battle of Bull Run, he brashly informed the president, “I am a damn sight better general than you, Sir, had on that field.”

A West Point graduate, Hooker had been decorated for bravery in the Mexican-American War, but fell on hard times afterward, living on the West Coast and “descending almost to the level of a beach-comber,” according to one observer. Like Grant, Hooker saw the Civil War as an opportunity to restore his fortunes, and in the first two years of the war he rose from brigadier to major general.

He was a capable commander, even brilliant at times, but his enthusiasm for gambling, camp women, and whiskey raised questions about his character and discipline. Some even claimed that the name “hooker” was derived from the legion of prostitutes that he allowed to follow his command.

In January of 1863, Lincoln was casting about for a new army commander for the Army of the Potomac after its defeat at Fredericksburg. He settled on Hooker, even though the general had opined that the North needed a military dictator rather than a president. In his official letter appointing Hooker to army commander, Lincoln addressed the comment. “What I now ask of you,” Lincoln wrote, “is military success, and I will risk the dictatorship.”

Hooker earned national attention in the North as “Fighting Joe,”a nickname that he acquired from a mistyped newspaper headline. Hooker lived up to the moniker. He was a bold, aggressive commander whose troops earned a reputation for ferocious fighting—and heavy casualties.

Although bombastic and boastful, General Hooker was known as a competent commander.

While commander of the Army of the Potomac, Hooker improved rations and medical care for Northern troops, but his relationships with his superiors were rocky.

“Fighting Joe,” seated second from the right, posed with staff officers.

Lee Outsmarts Hooker at Chancellorsville


Alfred R. Waud, a Northern combat artist working for Harper’s Weekly, made this eyewitness sketch of the first day of fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

In the spring of 1863, General Joseph Hooker launched a new offensive against General Robert E. Lee’s army, which was in line around Fredericksburg, Virginia. The maneuver skillfully used the Army of the Potomac’s superior numbers and caught Lee off guard with a three-pronged attack.

Hooker’s main force moved against Lee’s left flank at a crossroads called Chancellorsville; a second force attacked Lee’s center at Fredericksburg; and a third force posted below Fredericksburg stood ready to crush Lee’s army when it retreated.

“My plans are perfect,” boasted Hooker, who had more than 130,000 troops to Lee’s 60,000, “and when I start [to] carry them out, may God have mercy on General Lee, for I will have none.”

When the battle began, however, it was Hooker—not Lee—who found himself needing mercy. As the Confederate cavalry under Major General J.E.B. Stuart probed enemy lines, they determined that the right flank of Hooker’s army lay unprotected. They also discovered an unguarded, little-used wagon trail from which Lee’s troops could make a surprise attack. To do so, Lee would have to divide his men and risk having his troops destroyed piecemeal. Boldly, he decided to take the gamble.

Troops of the 110th Pennsylvania Infantry assemble near Fredericksburg on the eve of General Hooker’s spring offensive. The regiment would suffer severe losses at Chancellorsville.

A postwar map by a Northern veteran charts the battlefield action at Chancellorsville.

The fighting at the Battle of Chancellorsville was so severe that it shredded entire sections of the Virginia forest.

During the fighting at Sunken Lane, in Fredericksburg, General Hooker’s troops attacked the front and flank of Lee’s army and suffered terrible losses.

Hooker Retreats

Lee ordered Lieutenant General Stonewall Jackson, who commanded a corps of his army, to lead a stealth attack on Hooker’s right flank. On May 2, 1863, Lee advanced 15,000 troops to his front to divert Hooker’s attention. Meanwhile, Jackson took 30,000 troops on a roundabout march through the woods to assault Hooker’s right. Near twilight that day, Jackson’s soldiers charged, screaming, from the forest thickets, surprising Hooker’s troops as they sat around their campfires cooking supper.

The right flank of the Federal army collapsed in a panicky retreat, along with Hooker’s “perfect” strategy. Another day of intense combat followed, but “Fighting Joe” could not recover. On May 5, he began withdrawing his forces. When President Lincoln received the news in Washington, he exclaimed, “My God! My God! What will the country say!”

Hooker put his army into lines north of Fredericksburg and waited on Lee’s next move. The defeat at Chancellorsville “has shaken the confidence of the army,” one of Hooker’s subordinates said. Another described Hooker as the object of “universal disgust among the officers,” while one critic called him “a used-up man.”

Almost 155,000 troops fought at the Battle of Chancellorsville—more than 97,000 Northern troops and more than 57,000 Southerners.

More than 14,000 Federal troops and an estimated 10,000 Confederates were killed, wounded, captured, or declared missing at Chancellorsville.

Lee Loses his “Right Arm”

The Southern victory at Chancellorsville was General Robert E. Lee’s greatest triumph, but it came at a devastating price. As General Stonewall Jackson and his staff reconnoitered in the darkness, they were mistaken for enemy cavalry, and Jackson was shot and seriously wounded by his own troops. In an attempt to save his life, Confederate surgeons amputated Jackson’s mangled left limb. “He has lost his left arm,” Lee lamented, “but I have lost my right.”

As Jackson recuperated in a makeshift hospital ward at Guiney Station near Fredericksburg, he was joined by his wife, Mary Anna, who had recently given birth to their first child, a daughter. At first, Jackson seemed likely to recover, then he developed pneumonia. On May 10, 1863, the great Stonewall died. Said Lee: “I know not how to replace him.”

Lee Moves North


In the summer of 1863, the south-central Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg would become the scene of the greatest—and bloodiest—battle of the Civil War.

In late June 1863, the victorious soldiers of General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia tramped along the dusty roads of southern Pennsylvania, 75,000 strong. It was an invasion of the North, and unlike the campaign that was halted by the Battle of Antietam the year before, this time Lee’s army reached Pennsylvania.

Despite his spectacular victory at Chancellorsville, Lee believed that if the South did not triumph soon, it would not win at all. Northern victories in the Western Theater and along the Confederate coastline were slowly strangling the South, and it was just a matter of time, before the Confederacy would succumb to overwhelming Northern resources.

Lee advised President Jefferson Davis to move the fighting onto Union territory. The shift could benefit the Southern cause in several key ways. It could both provide relief for the residents of the war-ravaged state of Virginia and allow Lee to provision his army from the lush farmland of Pennsylvania. If Lee were victorious, he suspected the growing Southern threat would boost a Northern peace movement and that Union businesses would panic with war on their doorsteps.

What’s more, Lee thought if he were able to capture Washington, Philadelphia, or the Pennsylvania capital of Harrisburg, he could earn the recognition of the Confederacy from Great Britain.

A victory on Northern soil could possibly lead to a negotiated truce, and produce Southern independence. Eventually President Davis agreed, and on June 3, 1863, Lee began moving his army northward.

Alarmed by the news of Lee’s invasion, panicky Pennsylvanians began digging defensive earthworks outside the state capital of Harrisburg and as far away as Philadelphia.

Surprised by Lee’s rapid march northward, General Hooker ordered the Army of the Potomac to break camp and pursue the Army of Northern Virginia.

Brandy Station

The Battle of Brandy Station, fought on June 9, 1863, was the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War and pitted Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Confederate cavalry against Northern horse soldiers under Brigadier General Alfred Pleasanton. Although the battle ended in a tactical Confederate victory, for the first time in the war, Northern cavalry proved equal to its Confederate counterparts.

Witness to War: A Soldier’s Letter Home


In the spring of 1863, morale among Northern troops had waned. Union fife and drum units were charged with boosting confidence.

As Lee’s troops slipped out of their lines near Fredericksburg; and headed northward, the 85,000-man Army of the Potomac was encamped just a few miles away on the other side of Virginia’s Rappahannock River. The army was superbly equipped, and its battle-tested troops outnumbered Lee’s forces—but many of its soldiers were demoralized by their recent defeat at Chancellorsville.

“We have got just enough men now to get licked,” one observed, “especially if the officers get drunk every time.” Some Northern soldiers had come to believe that a Southern victory was inevitable. Private John Sheahan of Maine shared that sentiment in a letter home.

Camp Near Bell Plain

March 2nd, 1863

My Dear father:

As I have got a few moments to spare I will improve them by writing you a few lines. . . . Does it look as tho’ the war is going to end by next fall? I think not. The south are determined to have their Independence and they will have it. And no soldier in the Army of the Potomac doubts but what they will get it.

Some argue that they have not got the means to carry on the war. But how did we carry on a war with England the most powerful of European nations for seven long years? We were fighting for our independence and we were bound to have it cost what it may and we got it and so in my opinion will they. I should be exceedingly sorry to see our country divided and I do not think there is many more willing to do more for their country than I am, but I am almost inclined to think that we shall have to acknowledge their independence.

I must write Mary a letter so I will close this. . . .


Major General George Meade Takes Command


As Lee’s Southern troops moved through the Pennsylvania countryside, Major General George Meade was appointed the latest commander of the Army of the Potomac.

In June of 1863, Northern soldiers in the Army of the Potomac had suffered recent losses and yearned for dependable leadership, but they were still determined to fight.

When Lee’s army headed northward toward Maryland and Pennsylvania, Union military planners were concerned. They urged General Joseph Hooker to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia, but instead the general peevishly tendered his resignation. President Lincoln accepted the offer, then dispatched an officer to inform the man who would be his replacement.

At 3:00 am on June 28, Major General George Gordon Meade, a corps commander in the Army of the Potomac, was awakened in his tent with an important message: Meade was promoted to commander.

He would be the fourth officer to lead the Army of the Potomac in less than a year.

A balding, bewhiskered 47-year-old West Pointer, Meade had led troops in the Seminole and Mexican-American Wars, and commanded a brigade, a division, and a corps during the Civil War. Although occasionally irritable—one officer called him “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle”—he was tested, disciplined, and competent. He was also from Pennsylvania, the Northern state now under invasion. “Meade will fight well on his own dunghill,” Lincoln predicted.

Meade was a native of Pennsylvania—the target of Lee’s invasion. In Lincoln’s words, Meade would be determined to defend “his own dunghill.”

Meade, seated in the center, was asleep in his tent when a messenger arrived to inform him of his promotion to army commander.

At Gettysburg, General Meade set up his field headquarters in this white-washed farmhouse just south of town.

Shots Ring Out at Gettysburg


At Gettysburg, Union general Meade would set up his field headquarters in this white-washed farmhouse just south of town.

In preparation for the campaign in Pennsylvania, Lee had reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia into three corps, which were now on the march through the south-central part of the state. The lead corps was nearing the capital of Harrisburg, prompting panicky civilians to flee, while state employees frantically packed up official records. Meanwhile, advance troops from Lieutenant General A. P. Hill’s corps approached the town of Gettysburg.

By the morning of July 1, 1863, Lee’s invasion was progressing just as he hoped, with one exception. Major General J.E.B. Stuart, Lee’s flamboyant cavalry commander, had taken most of his horse soldiers on a raid around the rear of the Federal army. The maneuver left Lee without up-to-date intelligence reports, and his men had to move blindly through enemy territory at Gettysburg.

Both sides rushed troops to battle, engaging in major skirmishes on the west and north sides of town. After a brief pause to allow for reinforcements, the tide shifted in favor of the Southerners when Confederate troops broke Federal lines. Northern troops streamed through Gettysburg in a disorderly retreat, and Lee appeared to have won a major victory on Northern soil.

A half mile south of town, however, the chastened Northerners were rallied by Major General Winfield S. Hancock, a commander of the Federal Second Corps, who redeployed them in a strong defensive line south of town along Cemetery Ridge. By the time the Union’s General Meade arrived to take command that night, he found his army well positioned and ready to do battle again.

When the Battle of Gettysburg erupted, Lee’s army was spread across south-central Pennsylvania. The army’s spearhead, under Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, was nearing the capital of Harrisburg.

Confederate troops from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s, 3rd Corps entered Gettysburg on the morning of July 1, 1863. An advance force from Meade’s army was there waiting for them.

On July 1, Federal cavalry from the Army of the Potomac took position on the outskirts of Gettysburg, awaiting the approach of the Confederate army.

Federal general Winfield Scott Hancock, seated in the center, was known among the ranks as “Hancock the Superb.” His actions at Gettysburg would reinforce this title.

Ferocious fighting marked the first day of battle at Gettysburg, where Confederate forces pushed up McPherson’s Ridge west of town, breaking the Federal line.

At Gettysburg, Brigadier General John Buford deployed his Northern cavalry as infantry and ordered them to wait for the Confederate army. “You will have to fight like the Devil,” Buford warned a subordinate.

U.S. major general Winfield Scott Hancock was an experienced officer whose decisive action on Gettysburg’s first day stopped a Federal panic.

General J.E.B. Stuart

The Missing Eyes of Lee’s Army


For critical battlefield intelligence, General Robert E. Lee looked to Major General James Ewell Brown Stuart, who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry division. Called Jeb, for his initials, the 30-year-old Stuart was a red-bearded West Pointer who had fought Indians in prewar Kansas and quickly gained rank in Confederate service. Daring and flamboyant, Stuart favored thigh-high cavalry boots, a red-lined cape, a yellow sash, and a plumed hat. Twice in 1862, he led the Confederate cavalry entirely around the Army of the Potomac; he also distinguished himself as a commander at the battles of Second Bull Run and Chancellorsville.

Lee valued Stuart’s abilities and looked upon him in an almost fatherly manner. “I can scarcely think of him without weeping,” he would comment after Stuart was killed in action in 1864.

On the eve of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, however, Stuart had been surprised by Federal cavalry at the Battle of Brandy Station. Perhaps in an attempt to restore his reputation—or because he misunderstood Lee’s orders—Stuart led his cavalry on a wide-ranging raid far from Lee’s army during the march to Gettysburg. The lack of cavalry deprived Lee of vital reconnaissance, and left his army to move blindly through enemy territory.

Battle Lines Are Drawn


Little Round Top, on the left, and Big Round Top, to the right, anchored the southern end of the Federal left flank on Cemetery Ridge. Little Round Top offered a strategic advantage to whichever army successfully occupied it.

By midday on July 2, General Meade had deployed his troops in a battle line extending south from Gettysburg. It curved around Culp’s Hill, a rocky, wooded knob on the edge of town, and around nearby Cemetery Hill. From there, it stretched southward along Cemetery Ridge for more than a mile to the base of two wooded hills—Little Round Top and Big Round Top.

While setting his line, Meade and his chief engineer, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, recognized the strategic importance of placing artillery on Little Round Top, and hurriedly sent troops to seize it. The defensive move was designed to prevent Southerners from taking Little Round Top and to preserve the Northern line.

Lee meanwhile deployed his army along Seminary Ridge and through the edge of town. General James Longstreet, commander of Lee’s First Corps, reportedly urged Lee to take a defensive position, but Lee was confident that his troops could make a successful attack.

“No,” Lee said, “the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Lee ordered Longstreet to direct simultaneous Confederate assaults on both ends of the Federal line—and to do so quickly. Longstreet, however, was disgruntled with Lee’s plans and did not launch the Confederate attack until late afternoon.

The Federal Line Holds

Lee’s troops smashed against the Federal line and almost turned it on both flanks—a move which could have ended the battle, and perhaps the war, in a Southern victory. The Southerners also pierced the Federal line near its center.

But the Union forces rallied with unexpected strength. On the Federal far-left flank, the 20th Maine Infantry turned back a Confederate attack on Little Round Top. On Culp’s Hill, an equally heroic stand by the 137th New York Infantry blocked Southern forces. The 1st Minnesota Infantry suffered grievous loss of life, but plugged the break in the center of the Federal line. Despite a bloody battering, at the end of the battle’s second day, the Federal line stood firm.

Culp’s Hill, on the northern end of the Federal line at Gettysburg, was the scene of savage fighting on July 2, as Confederate troops repeatedly attempted to turn the Federal right flank.

Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren rushed Northern troops to hold Little Round Top, preventing Southern troops from putting artillery atop it.

Lieutenant General James Longstreet


Known as “Old Pete,” James Longstreet was one of the Confederacy’s most distinguished commanders. Born in South Carolina, Longstreet was a veteran of the Mexican-American War where he served in the 8th Infantry. While he was one of General Lee’s most trusted men—Lee called him “my old war horse”—Longstreet criticized Lee’s battle tactics after the war, which made him a controversial figure in the South.

On July 2, the North turned back several powerful assaults by the Confederates, including one at Trostle Farm, which left artillery horses lying dead in the field.

At a critical moment on Gettysburg’s second day, Colonel William Colvill and the 1st Minnesota Infantry saved the Federal line from breaking. Of 262 troops, only 47 of the Minnesotans survived.

Confederate troops, shot down in the second day’s fighting at Gettysburg, awaited burial on the edge of the battlefield’s blood-soaked Peach Orchard.

The 20th Maine Infantry made a bold bayonet charge down Little Round Top’s boulder-strewn slope, driving back an assault by Lee’s army.

The Killer Angels

The Battle of Gettysburg is immortalized in Michael Shaara’s 1975 Pulitzer Prize winning–novel The Killer Angels. Using real characters such as Generals Robert E. Lee, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, and James Longstreet to tell the story, Shaara captures the emotional lead up to battle and the three bloody days of fighting. Hailed as one of the most accurate accounts of war in fiction, the novel was the basis for the 1993 film Gettysburg.

The Faces of War: The Battle of Wills on Little Round Top


Colonel Joshua Chamberlain:

The Professor

Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine Infantry, was a former college professor and theologian, and not a professional soldier. He was a natural leader, however, and led his regiment in a successful defense of the Federal far left flank at Little Round Top.

When Lee’s army struck Little Round Top on July 2, the Federal far-left flank was defended by the 20th Maine Infantry under Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. “I place you here!” Chamberlain’s superior officer told him. “You are to hold this ground at all costs.”

The 34-year-old Chamberlain was a college professor, not a professional soldier. A devout Christian, he taught classes in “revealed and natural religion” at Maine’s Bowdoin College and was fluent in ten languages. Mild-mannered and disciplined, Chamberlain was a natural leader who had joined the army instead of taking a paid sabbatical to Europe. He and the 20th Maine underwent a bloody baptism of fire at Fredericksburg; at Little Round Top they stubbornly turned back repeated assaults by some of Lee’s best troops.

For his leadership at Gettysburg, Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. After the war, he ran as a Republican and was elected governor of Maine.

Colonel William Oates: The Runaway

Colonel William C. Oates led the 15th Alabama Infantry in repeated assaults against the 20th Maine. The Alabamians, however, could not overwhelm the men from Maine.

Spearheading the assault on Chamberlain’s position on Little Round Top was the 15th Alabama Infantry, commanded by Colonel William C. Oates.

Raised in a poor farming family in southeastern Alabama, Oates received little formal education as a child, and fled Alabama after a brush with the law at age 16. He worked as a house painter, deckhand, and gambler until he cobbled together enough money to attend school. He later became a teacher, and then a lawyer, and newspaper editor.

When the war began, Oates raised his own infantry company, saw combat in Stonewall Jackson’s Shenandoah Valley Campaign, and was made colonel and commander of the 15th Alabama Infantry by age 28. The regiment started July 2 marching 25 miles that day, but when Oates was ordered to assault the Federal far-left flank at Little Round Top, he obeyed.

“With a withering and deadly fire pouring in upon us from every direction,” he would later recount, “it seemed that the entire command was doomed to destruction.” The exhausted Alabamians finally retreated when Chamberlain and his troops—almost out of ammunition—struck them with a bayonet counterattack.

Later in the war Oates would survive a near-fatal wound. Like Chamberlain, he entered politics and in 1894 was elected governor of Alabama.

The assault against the 20th Maine was led by troops of the 15th Alabama Infantry, who had to scale Big Round Top, in the distance, before they could make their attack.

The High-Water Mark


Federal artillery crews poured fire into the distant Confederate ranks as the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge advanced toward the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge, depicted in this painting. The Federal artillery and infantry fire was described as “murderous—too much for human valor.”

The next morning, Friday, July 3, 1863, General Lee planned to resume his attack on the Federal flanks, believing the Union troops there were near the point of breaking. However, General Longstreet—Lee’s second-in-command—was again slow to get the Southern troops in place. So Lee changed his battle plan: He would attack the middle of the Federal line.

As a ploy to divert Federal troops, Lee started by dispatching General J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry, which had finally arrived from their raid, to assault the Federal rear. Lee then proceeded with a massive artillery bombardment of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge. Starting at 1:00 PM, it seemed as if “the whole Rebel line was pouring out thunder and iron,” a Northern officer would recall.

More than 170 pieces of Confederate field artillery pounded the Federal line, but bombardment was largely sound and fury—most of it overshot the Federal line and did minimal damage.

At about 3 pm, more than 13,000 Southern troops emerged from the distant woods opposite Cemetery Ridge and began advancing toward the Federal line under fluttering red battle flags, as if on parade. On the right was Major General George E. Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps, and on the left was Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew’s division, supported by two other brigades. They advanced resolutely over more than three-quarters of a mile of open fields. “It was a magnificent line of battle,” a Northern officer would later admit. “[It] looked like a stream or river of silver moving toward us.”

Staggering Losses

The Federal army was ready. During the night, General Meade polled his senior commanders, asking if they thought the army should be withdrawn to do battle elsewhere. “Stay and fight it out,” they advised him. Meade agreed—and predicted that Lee would next strike the center of the Federal line.

Accordingly, he shifted troops to the center of his line, which was supported by well-placed artillery. As a huge mass of Southern soldiers advanced across the fields under fluttering flags, they were decimated by Federal artillery fire. “Arms, heads, blankets, guns, and knapsacks were thrown and tossed into the air,” an Ohio soldier grimly observed.

It was a similar scene wherever Confederates breached the Federal line. When they reached the top of Cemetery Ridge, they were brought down by volley fire that one New Jersey soldier described as “a slaughter pen.” Reduced to almost half their numbers, the bloodied survivors streamed to the Confederate rear. There they were met by Lee on horseback, who rode among them, saying repeatedly, “It’s all my fault. It’s all my fault.”

On the Northern side, when General Meade was assured that his army had won, he looked surprised, and simply muttered, “Thank God.”

The face-off at Gettysburg between the troops of General George Pickett and those of James Pettigrew was the last time the South came close to winning the war and would become known as the “High-Water Mark of the Confederacy.”

Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought on the North American continent. More than 51,000 troops were killed, wounded, or missing— approximately 28,000 Confederates and 23,000 Federals.

After waiting a day for a Federal follow-up attack that never came, General Lee led his defeated army back to Virginia. Horrible, bloody fighting would continue for almost two more years, but the Battle of Gettysburg marked the beginning of the end of the Civil War.

Civil War Stats:

The Human Cost of Battle at Gettysburg
















A surgeon embalms the body of a fallen soldier.

Federal troops wounded in the Battle of Chancellorsville convalesce.

Brigadier General Alexander Hays commanded the Federal troops facing Pettigrew’s advancing Confederates. As the Southerners approached, Hays yelled to his men, “Now, boys, you’ll see some fun!”

General Pickett, mounted, received permission from General Longstreet to lead off the Pickett-Pettigrew Charge. Although placed in command of the attack by General Lee, Longstreet obeyed orders reluctantly.

General James Johnston Pettigrew


A professor at the Naval Observatory, James Johnston Pettigrew had no combat training or field experience before the war. He initially resisted command by enlisting in the Confederate army as a private, only to be rapidly promoted.

General George E. Pickett


By contrast, George E. Pickett was an experienced soldier, having earned two promotions in the Mexican-American War. He nonetheless carried the dubious distinction of finishing last in his West Point class. The charge he led at Gettysburg with Pettigrew ended disasterously.

The Gettysburg Address


A crowd of 15,000 gathered before President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863.

On November 19, 1863, Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address—but he was not the main speaker. The event was the dedication of a new cemetery for the Northern dead at Gettysburg, and the ceremony’s organizers had invited famed orator Edward Everett to rally the crowd. As an apparent afterthought, the president was included to make “a few appropriate remarks” and given second billing.

The day he left Washington, Lincoln almost canceled his appearance because his young son, Tad, had fallen seriously ill, and his wife Mary was fearful. But the president proceeded with his plans and, upon arriving at Gettysburg, was relieved to learn that Tad’s condition had improved.

An estimated 15,000 spectators attended the gathering and listened as Everett delivered a rousing two-hour patriotic speech. Lincoln followed, and spoke for two minutes: The Gettysburg Address consisted of 272 words. When he finished, the audience was subdued. Lincoln sat down, appearing dejected, and muttered to a colleague, “that speech won’t scour.”

When a transcript appeared in Northern newspapers, however, the public response was enthusiastic—and over time the acclaim increased. Lincoln’s stirring words—that “this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom . . . and that government of the people, by the people and for the people, shall not perish from the earth” would ring through the ages as an inspiration for all Americans.

Lincoln wrote several drafts of his Gettysburg Address. The audience initially reacted with stunned silence, prompting Lincoln to conclude, “that speech won’t scour.” Instead, it would become one of the most famous addresses in American history.

Today, the site where Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address is marked by a memorial.

No Trial for prisoners

During the Civil War, Lincoln stirred controversy by suspending habeas corpus, which guaranteed a prisoner the right to a trial. As many as 20,000 Americans were imprisoned without trial for opposing administration policy, but Lincoln defended his actions as a wartime necessity.

Vicksburg Surrenders to Northern Forces


As depicted in this 1863 newspaper image, General Grant, left, met with Confederate General Pemberton to arrange Vicksburg’s surrender. Pemberton, who knew Grant from the Mexican-American War, hoped to gain good terms by surrendering on the Fourth of July.

Private W.P. Ward served in the 40th Georgia Infantry, which was engaged in the defense of Vicksburg until forced to surrender.

Private Charles “Charlie” Judkins of the 9th New Hampshire Infantry. His regiment was among the victorious Federal troops who captured Vicksburg.

During the siege of Vicksburg, Federal troops repeatedly assaulted the Confederate defenses—sometimes with disastrous results. “We [were] shot down like dogs,” one Northern solder reported.

On July 4, 1863—the day after the South’s decisive loss at Gettysburg—Confederate troops surrendered the vitally important stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi. It had been a harrowing 47-day siege by Northern forces under General Ulysses S. Grant, and Vicksburg’s defenders could take no more. They had lost 30,000 troops, 60,000 small arms, 172 cannons, and suffered a huge blow to morale.

By capitulating to the North on Independence Day, Lieutenant General John C. Pemberton, Vicksburg’s Confederate commander, hoped to get better terms. But when he met with Grant, the Union general was firm. He would take nothing less than unconditional surrender.

The victory, which split the South and enabled Northern forces to finally seize control of the Mississippi River, lionized Grant in the North. “The Father of Waters,” proclaimed Abraham Lincoln, “again goes unvexed to the sea.”

The Richmond Bread Riot

By 1863, the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia was flooded with wounded troops. Rampant inflation and severe food shortages caused crime to soar and threatened thousands with starvation. On April 2, 1863, a mob of one thousand women looted stores and warehouses in what became known as the Richmond Bread Riot.

Confederate Forces Collapse in Tennessee


Despite determined resistance and serious losses, Confederate forces had been pushed out of most of Tennessee by late 1863, depicted in this illustration.

General Braxton Bragg took command of the Confederate Army of Tennessee in the late summer of 1862. Although Bragg was a longtime friend of President Jefferson Davis, he quarreled with his fellow officers, who despised him, and was known for his failure of will in combat. His troops often booed and hissed when he rode through the ranks. Confederate cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest once even threatened to whip Bragg—or worse.

Bragg’s record on the field was equally unimpressive. His 1862 invasion of Kentucky had ended in failure, and during a Tennessee campaign in early 1863, he had lost almost 12,000 troops at the Battle of Stones River while gaining nothing.

During the summer of 1863, while Grant was besieging Vicksburg, Bragg and his army had been driven across Tennessee into Chattanooga. They were to remain there to defend the key port, but things did not start off well. When Major General William S. Rosecrans and his 60,000 men of the Federal Army of the Cumberland advanced on the city in September, Bragg was unnerved. He abandoned Chattanooga without a fight and retreated into north Georgia.

Unexpected Turn of Events

Then, unexpectedly, Bragg rebounded. His army had been reinforced by two divisions of seasoned troops sent from the east by General Lee under General James Longstreet. So, when Rosecrans and his army pursued Bragg into Georgia, Bragg was ready. From September 18 through 20, Bragg and his men overwhelmed Rosencrans’ troops at the Battle of Chickamauga. Rosecrans retreated back to Chattanooga, which Bragg then besieged for the next two months.

The effort did not bring gains for the Confederates, however. General Grant, now commanding all Federal troops in the Western Theater, arrived on October 23 with reinforcements and drove Bragg away from Chattanooga. He then routed Bragg’s army in a series of hard-fought battles—Orchard Knob, Lookout Mountain, and Missionary Ridge. The loss of Chattanooga and its important rail center was another major strategic blow to the Southerners. By late November, Bragg’s beaten and depleted army retreated back into Georgia, and the Deep South stood open to Federal invasion.

After months of siege, Northern troops, reinforced by General Grant, successfully drove General Bragg’s forces out of Chattanooga. These victorious Union solders posed for a picture atop Chattanooga’s Lookout Mountain, the site of recent combat.

Union forces shipped Confederate prisoners of war to Northern prison camps following battles. These Southern soldiers were waiting at a Chattanooga, Tennessee railway depot.

Under General Braxton Bragg, Confederate forces lost the important rail center of Chattanooga. Bragg, opined a fellow officer, “was simply muddle-headed.”

General Nathan Bedford Forrest


Few officers on either side in the war matched the rise in rank achieved by Southern cavalry commander Nathan Bedford Forrest. Just shy of age 40 when he volunteered for Confederate service, Forrest soared from private to brigadier general in just over a year, and his extraordinary cavalry combat earned him the title Wizard of the Saddle.

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