Significance of the Battle of Gettysburg

5 Reasons the Battle Mattered

Prang Painting of Gettysburg

PhotoQuest / Getty Images

The importance of the Battle of Gettysburg of the United States' Civil War was evident at the time of the colossal three-day clash across hills and fields in rural Pennsylvania in early July 1863. Dispatches telegraphed to newspapers indicated how enormous and profound the battle had been.

Over time, the battle seemed to increase in importance. And from our perspective, it's possible to see the clash of two enormous armies as one of the most meaningful events in American history.

These five reasons why Gettysburg mattered provide a basic understanding of the battle and why it occupies a pivotal place not only in the Civil War but in the entire history of the United States.

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Gettysburg Was the Turning Point of the War

The Battle of Gettysburg fought on July 1–3, 1863, was the turning point of the Civil War for one main reason: Robert E. Lee's plan to invade the North and force an immediate end to the war failed.

What Lee (1807–1870) hoped to do was cross the Potomac River from Virginia, pass through the border state of Maryland, and begin waging an offensive war on Union soil, in Pennsylvania. After gathering food and much-needed clothing in the prosperous region of southern Pennsylvania, Lee could threaten cities such as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania or Baltimore, Maryland. If the proper circumstances had presented themselves, Lee's army could even seize the greatest prize of all, Washington, D.C.

Had the plan succeeded to its greatest extent, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia might have surrounded, or even conquered, the nation’s capital. The federal government could have been disabled, and high government officials, including even President Abraham Lincoln (1809–1865), might have been captured.

The United States would have been forced to accept peace with the Confederate States of America. The existence of a pro-slavery nation in North America would have been made permanent—at least for a while.

The collision of two great armies at Gettysburg put an end to that audacious plan. After three days of intense fighting, Lee was forced to withdraw and lead his badly battered army back through western Maryland and into Virginia.

No major Confederate invasions of the North would be mounted after that point. The war would continue for nearly more two years, but after Gettysburg, it would be fought on southern ground.

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The Location of the Battle Was Significant, Though Accidental

Against the advice of his superiors, including the president of the C.S.A., Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), Robert E. Lee chose to invade the North in the early summer of 1863. After scoring some victories against the Union’s Army of the Potomac that spring, Lee felt he had a chance to open a new phase in the war.

Lee’s forces began marching in Virginia on June 3, 1863, and by late June elements of the Army of Northern Virginia were scattered, in various concentrations, across southern Pennsylvania. The towns of Carlisle and York in Pennsylvania received visits from Confederate soldiers, and northern newspapers were filled with confused stories of raids for horses, clothing, shoes, and food.

At the end of June the Confederates received reports that the Union's Army of the Potomac was on the march to intercept them. Lee ordered his troops to concentrate in the region near Cashtown and Gettysburg.

The little town of Gettysburg possessed no military significance. But a number of roads converged there. On the map, the town resembled the hub of a wheel. On June 30, 1863, advance cavalry elements of the Union Army began arriving at Gettysburg, and 7,000 Confederates were sent to investigate.

The following day the battle began in a place neither Lee nor his Union counterpart, General George Meade (1815–1872), would have chosen on purpose. It was almost as if the roads just happened to bring their armies to that point on the map.

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The Battle Was Enormous

Battle of Gettysburg painting by Rufus Zogbaum
Battle of Gettysburg by Rufus Zogbaum.

Minnesota Historical Society / Getty Images 

The clash at Gettysburg was enormous by any standards, and a total of 170,000 Confederate and Union soldiers came together around a town that normally held 2,400 residents.

The total of Union troops was about 95,000, the Confederates about 75,000.

The total casualties for the three days of fighting would be approximately 25,000 for the Union and 28,000 for the Confederates.

Gettysburg was the largest battle ever fought in North America. Some observers likened it to an American Waterloo.

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Heroism and Drama at Gettysburg Became Legendary

The Battle of Gettysburg actually consisted of a number of distinct engagements, several of which could have stood alone as major battles. Two of the most significant would be the assault by Confederates at Little Round Top on the second day, and Pickett’s Charge on the third day.

Countless human dramas took place, and legendary acts of heroism included:

  • Col. Joshua Chamberlain (1828–1914) and the 20th Maine holding Little Round Top
  • Union officers including Col. Strong Vincent and Col. Patrick O’Rorke who died defending Little Round Top.
  • The thousands of Confederates who marched across a mile of open ground under heavy fire during Pickett’s Charge.
  • Heroic cavalry charges led by a young cavalry officer who had just been promoted to general, George Armstrong Custer (1839–1876).

The heroism of Gettysburg resonated to the present era. A campaign to award the Medal of Honor to a Union hero at Gettysburg, Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing (1814–1863), culminated 151 years after the battle. In November 2014, at a ceremony at the White House, President Barack Obama awarded the belated honor to distant relatives of Lieutenant Cushing at the White House.

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Lincoln's Gettysburg Address Underscored the War's Significance

A painting depicting President Abraham Lincoln making a speech known as The Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers' National Cemetery on November 19, 1863 in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
A painting depicting Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

Ed Vebell / Getty Images 

Gettysburg could never have been forgotten. But its place in American memory was enhanced when President Abraham Lincoln visited the site of the battle four months later, in November 1863.

Lincoln had been invited to attend the dedication of a new cemetery to hold the Union dead from the battle. Presidents at that time did not often have a chance to make widely publicized speeches. And Lincoln took the opportunity to give a speech which would provide a justification for the war.

Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address would become known as one of the best speeches ever delivered. The text of the speech is short yet brilliant, and in less than 300 words it expressed the nation’s dedication to the cause of the war.

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McNamara, Robert. "Significance of the Battle of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo, Feb. 22, 2021, McNamara, Robert. (2021, February 22). Significance of the Battle of Gettysburg. Retrieved from McNamara, Robert. "Significance of the Battle of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 21, 2023).