The Battle of Gettysburg Facts for Kids

  • On July 1, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg began. 
  • It was a pivotal moment in US history and one of the most famous battles ever fought on American soil. 
  • The battle lasted three days and changed the course of the civil war forever. 

Overview

The Battle of Gettysburg was a fight against the Union Army on July 1, 1863. General Robert E. Lee had won at Chancellorsville in Virginia, so he took his army to Pennsylvania. They went to Gettysburg and fought against General George Meade’s Army on July 1, 1863.

The next day, the Confederates and the Federals fought even harder. The Confederates attacked on both sides of them. On July 3, Lee ordered an attack by less than 15,000 troops to the center of Cemetery Ridge. It was successful but eventually failed at a high cost of rebel soldiers’ lives.

Lee had to withdraw his army after being battered on July 4th. The Union won in a major turning point that blocked General Lee’s invasion into Northern territory and inspired President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address speech.

Location

The Battle of Gettysburg happened at a place called Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It is 8 miles from Maryland, and there are roads that go in all directions. 

Gettysburg also had a railroad that came from Hanover, but it was destroyed by Confederate troops before the battle.

The important reasons for the battle happening were the road system in Gettysburg and its position on the east side of mountains where there is good land to defend.

The Gettysburg Campaign begin with both armies separated by the Rappahannock River in Virginia. The North had attacked across the river twice before and won both times. Both times they were able to retreat back across the river and rebuild themselves.

Robert E. Lee invades the North

In May 1863, Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had won a battle against the Army of the Potomac. Lee decided to invade the North twice. This was just after  he had just ended the invasion at Antietam.

The reason for this was to bring the war out of Virginia and take pressure off Vicksburg. He wanted recognition from Britain and France so that people would want peace in America.

Lee’s problem was that he could not just stay south of the river and send armies to attack. His army would get weaker over time, because the North had more people who were healthy and strong. 

There was no food near Lee’s army, so his horses were hungry too. And there is a limit to how many people could he continue feeding. He knew that one day, the North might find a way to win.

Lee’s plan was to take the war to Pennsylvania. This would let farmers in that area harvest their crops and give Lee’s army a chance to fight and win a battle in the open. It would threaten Union cities such as Baltimore, Harrisburg, and Philadelphia. 

July 1: The battle begins

The Union Army of the Potomac was coming towards Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. So General Robert E. Lee wanted to set up his army there to fight them. But when they arrived in Gettysburg, they found that Union troops already had a place there.

Some Confederate forces and some Union forces went to Gettysburg. The Confederate army was stronger than the Union army, so they were able to make the Union soldiers go back through town.

The first soldier to die at Gettysburg was George Sandoe. He was killed on June 26, five days before the “First Shot” of the battle. His cavalry company became part of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment whose monuments are today on Baltimore Pike where he died.

Lee wanted to attack the Union forces before they had more troops arriving. So he gave orders to General Ewell, who was in charge of the Army of Northern Virginia’s Second Corps after Lee’s most trusted general, Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson, died at Chancellorsville.

But Ewell declined because he thought that they were too strong and his refusal earned him many comparisons to the great Stonewall. The Union army got to the battlefield by dusk.

They built a line of defense along Cemetery Ridge and they also went to Little Round Top. More Union troops arrived that night, and they strengthened the line.

July 2

The next day, the Union had strong positions on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge. It was not good for Lee. He thought about giving up the fight, but he did not want to do that because he knew it would be bad for him. That is when he decided that his soldiers would attack the right side of the Union Army, near Culp’s Hill.

Longstreet had orders to attack early in the day, but he didn’t get his men into position until 4 p.m. Then he opened fire on Union corps.

On July 2nd, Ewell’s men attacked Union forces on Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill. The Union forces stopped the attack. 

On this day, there was a lot of fighting. From each side, almost 9,000 soldiers died or were hurt badly enough to need to leave the battlefield. There were more than 35,000 casualties in all from only two days of fighting.

Gettysburg had 3,000 horses killed. Lydia Leister’s farmhouse was used as the headquarters for General George Meade. She found 17 dead horses on her property. Her only compensation was selling their bones at half a penny per pound.

July 3

On the morning of July 3, Union soldiers pushed back a Confederate threat against Culp’s Hill and regained their strong position. They believed that they had been about to win the day before, so General Lee decided to send three divisions of his men against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The Confederates were followed by an artillery barrage.

George Pickett was leading an army of fewer than 15,000 troops. They were supposed to walk across open fields into Union positions. Lee wanted this attack to happen despite Longstreet’s protests. It happened around 3 p.m., and it is known as “Pickett’s Charge.”

Pickett’s Charge

Pickett’s Charge was the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg. It lasted about an hour and happened on July 3, 1863. Around 12,000 Confederates fought against less than half that number in Union troops.

Robert E. Lee was having a hard time attacking the Union army. He tried to attack them again and asked his soldiers to cross a field that is around three-quarters of a mile long. They were defeated and lost half their number.

Union soldiers shot at the rebels while regiments from Vermont, New York, and Ohio hit their sides. The Confederates had a hard time fighting against Union soldiers coming from all sides. Not many of them survived. 

Pickett’s division lost two-thirds of its men in this attack. When they went back to their position, Lee and Longstreet tried to fix up their line after the failed assault.

After the attack failed, Southerners faced controversy. Veterans from North Carolina were not happy with Virginians because they made the attack happen. They wanted to explain why it failed. The Southern Civil War supporters said that the charge was a “High Water Mark” in Confederate hopes for independence from the Union.

The Gettysburg Address

On November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln gave a recognized speech at the National Cemetery that is in Gettysburg. He said the battle had been an important struggle for liberty and equality. His speech only lasted 272 words.

The last words of the speech were:

From these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Consequences

General Lee and his army had a plan to invade the North. But he lost at Gettysburg. The Union won Gettysburg. This made the North happy while the South mourned their hopes to have other countries recognize them.

Though Meade was cautious and did not go after the enemy in Gettysburg, it was a disaster as well for the Confederates. The Union had 23,000 casualties and lost some 28,000 men–almost a third of Lee’s army. 

The Confederate general, Robert E. Lee, was upset by the Union’s victory at Gettysburg. He offered to resign his position, but President Jefferson Davis refused it. 

After this defeat, he went on to win other battles that were not so important as the Battle of Gettysburg. The Battle of Gettysburg and Ulysses S. Grant’s victory at Vicksburg changed everything in the Civil War in favor of the Union Army who won both battles on July 4, 1863.

It’s hard to know how many people died at Gettysburg because there is not a complete record. We estimate that there were 45,000 and maybe as many as 51,000 casualties in the two armies. And this includes soldiers who were wounded or captured.

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