Memorial to Union General Hancock on the Gettysburg battlefield.
Memorial to Union General Hancock on the Gettysburg battlefield.

The Battle of Gettysburg is one of the best-known battles in American history. More than 50,000 soldiers became casualties in the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, fought in July 1863 around the small Pennsylvania town. Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army invaded Union territory in an effort to bring the war to the North and was opposed by Union forces commanded by Major General George Gordon Meade. After three days of fierce fighting, the battle ended in a Union victory.

A Union Victory

Gettysburg was the first time a Union army had defeated Lee. Lee's victories at Fredericksburg in December 1862 and Chancellorsville in May 1863 gave him confidence, while the Union army was actually getting smaller as the men who joined on nine month enlistments in the summer of 1862 returned home. The Union victory at Gettysburg stopped the Confederate invasion in its tracks and renewed Northern confidence.

Military Losses

The losses hit harder on the Confederate side. Lee lost 28,000 troops in the battle--around one third of his entire force, and so much equipment that the South was never again able to mount an offensive challenge on Northern territory. Later, Confederate president Jefferson Davis and others acknowledged that the defeat dampened the spirit for war in the South and Confederate politicians began to disagree on the best way forward. The final Southern assault, a massive frontal attack known as Pickett's Charge, was turned back at the center of the Union lines. The spot came to be known as the highwater mark for the entire Confederate war effort. On the Union side, the victory sparked a wave of new military enlistments as Northerners began to believe they could win the Civil War, say authors Dennis Hall and Susan G. Hall in their book "American Icons."

Nation Building

Perhaps the best-known effect of the Battle of Gettysburg did not result directly from the battle. On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln attended the dedication of a military cemetery at Gettysburg. In the two minute long speech that came to be known as the Gettysburg address, Lincoln made a statement about the significance of the war and appealed to Americans to build a new free nation. According to the Gettysburg Foundation, many people consider the speech the “best summation in the nation’s history of the meaning and price of freedom.”