Summer in the Park: The Incredible History of the Gettysburg Battlefield

All regions have their own personalities, and southern Pennsylvania is no different. Until late June 1863, few if any anticipated that Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, would become the site of the greatest battle fought in North America. The Army of the Potomac, under George G. Meade, headed north in pursuit of Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, ultimately resulting in one of the bloodiest battles of the Civil War.

Though neither side won a decisive victory, the battle became the turning point of the war. The history of the battlefield and eventual creation of a national park on the site make Gettysburg one of the most story-rich areas in the country.


Thunder at the Crossroads

The town of Gettysburg sits at a crossroads. Many roads and highways lead from around Pennsylvania and Maryland straight to this small hamlet in Eastern Pennsylvania, only about 85 miles from Washington DC. Along these roads, tens of thousands of men in blue and gray marched, fought and died in the summer heat.
The battle started by accident. Southern troops casually headed to town on the first day of July looking for shoes. Their approach was so casual that they placed artillery batteries in the lead. Surprised to encounter two brigades of dismounted Union Cavalry, their march forward stalled as two Union Infantry Corps took up positions west and north of the town.

As more Confederate troops arrived, the Rebel troops attacked to the west of Gettysburg. Two more Rebel divisions approached from the north. Hitting the Union flank hard, they forced the collapse of the Union line and captured the town. Rather than capitalize on the victory, the army stalled due to mistakes in transmitting battle orders and the time of day. The Union forces still held the high ground south and east of town.


The Second Day

Until mid-afternoon, the second day of Gettysburg was relatively quiet. In one of the Civil War’s more controversial actions, General Lee ordered General Longstreet’s I Corps to swing south to hit what scouts reported as an exposed Union flank around Little Round Top. Longstreet’s march took longer than anticipated, so when he launched his attack, he found the Union III Corps vulnerable and out of position.

The Union flank headed uphill on Little Round Top, and despite desperate fighting throughout the day, the men in blue held their ground, anchored by the 20th Maine, led by Joshua Chamberlain. Late in the day, a Rebel attack on the Union northern flank on Culp’s Hill faltered with heavy losses.


Pickett’s Charge

With both armies fully committed to the field, Lee made a fateful decision on July 3. Rather than try to maneuver around Meade, he ordered an attack on Cemetery Ridge. Following a 90-minute bombardment that was largely ineffectual, 15,000 Confederate soldiers crossed the mile of open fields toward what became the famous Copse of Trees, led by Confederate General Pickett.

Union troops held their fire until the last minute, when it would have delivered the greatest effect. Once the firing commenced, the attack lost steam quickly. The Confederates reached the Union line, but due to lack of support and heavy casualties, they could not gain any ground.

The battle ended with 7,058 men lying dead or dying on the field. An additional 33,264 men received treatment for injuries. Referred to as Pickett’s Charge, this destructive battle was one of the bloodiest in Civil War history.


The National Cemetery

In the aftermath of the battle, local citizens banded together to create a National Cemetery. From October 1863 through the Spring of 1864, the cemetery workers recovered and reinterred the bodies of the Union dead, buried in temporary graves on the battlefield. 

The dedication of the cemetery took place on November 19, 1863 and featured a two-hour oration by the most famous speaker of the day, Edward Everett. Following his address, President Abraham Lincoln delivered the Gettysburg Address. His speech, though one of the most famous and most quoted of any speech from a U.S. President, was so short that the photographer wasn’t able to capture the moment on film.

Lincoln’s short speech, according to eminent U.S. historian Garry Wills, “remade America.”  The Gettysburg Address, in 272 words, placed the battle in a greater, more meaningful context, outlining the significance of the battle as it related to the principles of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the United States of America.


Creation of a National Military Park

Land acquisition to memorialize the battleground began in 1864. Federal government acquisition followed, and in 1895, the government created the National Military Park. The park contains monuments to the Union regiments and Confederate brigades that fought in the battle.

The park hosted the 50th and 75th reunions of the battle. Over 50,000 veterans from 46 states attended in 1913, with the largest contingents coming from Pennsylvania and New York. Some 1,845 veterans attended in 1938.


A major effort by the park to restore the battlefield to how it looked on July 1, 1863 began in 1999 and is nearing completion today. Park officials cleared the acreage and restored farms close to the battle site. Workers removed undergrowth to match the conditions on the battlefield during the 1860s. When the project is complete, the stone walls and fences will be recreated so the area reflects the conditions during one of the most famous battles in American history.