On Independence Day, 1863, the last thing on the minds of most Americans was celebrating freedom. Just outside a small town called Gettysburg, in Adams County, Pennsylvania, almost 50,000 men were casualties of the bloodiest battle of the Civil War, the battle that was soon recognized as the turning point of the war.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee had succeeded in defeating Union General Joseph Hooker's forces at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May of 1863. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia had managed to repel an army twice their size. Emboldened by the victory, Lee decided to continue his march north. His goal was Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; if he could make it to Harrisburg, he hoped to continue on to Philadelphia.
Throughout the month of June, Lee's army marched north toward Pennsylvania. The graciousness for which Lee was known was evident during this campaign; he instructed his troops to treat the civilians on the road well, not seizing supplies such as food and horses, but rather paying for them. Several towns such as York, Pennsylvania were made to pay indemnity rather than supply the Confederates.
However, on July 1, 1863, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia met Union General George Meade's forces just outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and the battle of Gettysburg began in earnest.
For three days vicious fighting ensued on the hillsides of Gettysburg. Over 165,000 men would converge, and before the fighting ended, the ground would run red with blood. The battle was fierce, and the casualties proved it. But the casualties that resulted would not be in vain, at least for the Union; the formidable power of the Army of Northern Virginia would be stricken a fatal blow, one that they, and the South, would never truly recover from.
To this point, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had proved itself a foe to be reckoned with; more than once they had turned back troops that outnumbered them significantly. And on the first day of fighting, it seemed that Lee would again be victorious.
By the second day, Lee's advantage disappeared. Meade's Army of the Potomac held their ground, outnumbering the Confederate troops by 20,000. When July 3, the third day of fighting, was over, more than a third of Lee's army would be felled.
It was a much needed victory for the North. Hailed as a Waterloo in the Northern papers, Gettysburg seemed to prove that the Union was more than a match for the Army of Northern Virginia, hailed universally as the most accomplished army of either the Union or the Confederacy.
The defeat was more than stunning for Lee; it shook the confidence of a man admired by Southerners and Northerners alike to the core. Still recovering from the recent death of his beloved General Jonathan "Stonewall" Jackson, whom Lee referred to as his "right arm," Lee seemed more than dejected by the loss at Gettysburg; he was stricken. He knew now how important Jackson had been to the Confederacy, and how crippled the Army of Northern Virginia was without Jackson.
"It's my fault," Lee was heard to say after the battle of Gettysburg. He blamed himself for the loss, and he was not entirely mistaken; his decision on the third day of battle to pitch a massive frontal assault on the center of the Union line, known as Pickett's Charge, resulted in horrific casualties that paralyzed the Confederate troops.
Lee's conviction that his orders had resulted in the heavy casualties - casualties the Confederate troops, already outnumbered, could hardly afford - drove him to send a letter of resignation to Confederate President Jefferson Davis, a resignation that was rejected.
Lee's official resignation may have been denied, but his own resignation was obvious; the Army of Northern Virginia never again mounted an offensive attack on the U.S. Forces, nor did they ever attempt any capture of Northern territory on the scale of the Gettysburg campaign. The glorious reputation of the Army of Northern Virginia as invincible was tarnished permanently, and the Union's ultimate victory was only a matter of time.The Battle of Gettysburg - The Turning Point of the War
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