The Civil War had a dramatic impact on the political and social evolution of the United States. Indeed, many scholars feel that the Civil War was the most pivotal period in the development of our country. The war preserved our country as one nation, ended slavery, and defined the meaning of freedom, citizenship and equality for all Americans of the Civil War generation and all generations thereafter. The war established a unified nation, propelled our country along an unprecedented explosion of economic expansion, and initiated its growth into a world power. For many Americans today, much of the meaning of the Civil War is represented in the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
The outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 jarred the Gettysburg area out of its pastoral security. For two years, the people of Gettysburg nervously watched the progress of the war in nearby Virginia and Maryland. In the summer of 1863, the network of roads that assured growth for the community became a curse. The invading Confederate army under General Robert E. Lee crossed the Potomac and began to march toward the Susquehanna River in June. Lee hoped that a victory in the north would erode the Union’s will to continue the fight. From July 1st through July 3rd, the armies of the Union and the Confederacy clashed in a titanic battle at this small crossroads town, a battle that would prove decisive in the ultimate outcome of the struggle.
The three days of battle saw 165,000 participants overrun the ridges, creeks, and farm fields of the region and the streets and houses of Gettysburg itself. Fighting first north of Gettysburg, retreating through the town, and then concentrating in the famous fishhook anchored on Cult’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Little Round Top, the Union army met a series of fierce assaults from Lee’s Confederates on July 1st and 2nd.
On the morning of July 3rd, heavy skirmishing continued near the center of the Union army’s battle line at Ziegler's Grove and along Cemetery Ridge (the site of the park’s current visitor centers and parking lots). The skirmishing ended in the early afternoon when an artillery duel between 250 Confederate and Union cannon drove the skirmishers to ground and covered the battlefield with smoke and deafening thunder for 90 long minutes.
After the cannonade, Lee ordered his infantry to attack. Although he hoped that his artillery barrage had decimated the Union artillery and demoralized its infantry, the fact was that neither had occurred. As more than 14,000 Confederate troops advanced across the field toward Cemetery Ridge, a deluge of artillery shot and shell raked their lines. As a result, the left wing of the attacking column was staggering even before it could scale the double wall of rail fencing that enclosed Emmitsburg Road. Many of those who scaled the fence were shot down in the road. Those who still moved on toward the ridge advanced under a hail of fire. Those who survived to reach the Union defense works fell or were captured in the melee that ensued at the Angle, near the Copse of Trees. Thus, Picket’s Charge ended with losses of more than 50 percent.
The three days of fighting had changed the battle’s participants and the town of Gettysburg forever. More than 51,000 casualties (killed, mortally wounded, wounded and captured) had been inflicted along the streets and in the fields of Gettysburg. The extensive losses suffered by Robert E. Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia proved impossible for the war-stressed economy of the Confederacy to replace. With the Union victory at Gettysburg simultaneously occurring with the surrender of the besieged city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, 1863, which restored Union control of the Mississippi river, the Union armies were able to seize the initiative that led to the almost-inevitable collapse of the Confederacy 21 months later.
Abraham Lincoln helped the world understand what Gettysburg meant, when, on November 19, 1863, he came to the small town to dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery. In the few words of the Gettysburg Address, he redefined for the North – and eventually for all Americans – the meaning and value of the continuing struggle for a unified nation: "…that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."