Civil War Battles and Strategy

Start Free Trial

Why was the Battle of Gettysburg a turning point in the American Civil War?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Battle of Gettysburg is remembered as the turning point of the Civil War mainly because of Pickett's Charge and the Confederates' unsuccessful attempt to invade the North.

Happening on the third and last day of the battle, July 3, 1863, Pickett's Charge was an attempt by the Army of...

Unlock
This Answer Now

Start your 48-hour free trial to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your 48-Hour Free Trial

The Battle of Gettysburg is remembered as the turning point of the Civil War mainly because of Pickett's Charge and the Confederates' unsuccessful attempt to invade the North.

Happening on the third and last day of the battle, July 3, 1863, Pickett's Charge was an attempt by the Army of Northern Virginia to take over the Army of the Potomac's strategic positions. The South's target was the center of General Winfield S. Hancock's troops located on Cemetery Ridge. The general consensus is that General Longstreet was aiming for the copse of trees located on Cemetery Ridge. The charge was ordered by Robert E. Lee and was commanded by Longstreet. The assault was led by Major General George Pickett, General J. Johnston Pettigrew, Major General Isaac R. Trimble, and Lt. General A. P. Hill.

From the start of when the charge was ordered, the Confederates made mistakes, and the futility of the charge was already known by Longstreet. A. P. Hill, due to health issues, was not able to select which of his troops would participate. The major mistake was Lee ordering a charge that was not likely to succeed strategically. Lee's plan was to charge at the Union center after a major artillery bombardment had taken place. Lee hoped that the Confederate bombardment of the Union would take out the North's cannons and demoralize them, giving the Confederates a chance at a massive frontal assault. The bombardment started around 1 p.m. and lasted about two hours. In spite of the ferocity of the bombardment, it proved to be ineffectual, as the guns overshot and the smoke made it almost impossible to see. Union guns that overshot often overshot into Seminary Ridge, where the rest of the Confederate soldiers were waiting to make the charge. Seeing as the Union was running out of ammo, the Union artillery chief, General Henry J. Hunt, ordered the Union troops to stop firing to conserve ammo and to fool Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, the Confederate artillery chief. This strategy worked, so the illusion of Union guns being destroyed made the Confederates think the bombardment was working. The charge went forward.

About 12,500 Confederate troops made the charge. They marched in a straight line, until they were only within a few hundred yards, to make the charge. While marching, they encountered Union guns firing upon them. The terrain also did not help their position. The ground was rocky, and they were marching up a steep hill. Some Confederate troops became so demoralized that they turned around and fled down the hill. They were being bombarded from all sides. The farthest point north the Confederates were able to make it to was called "The Angle," where the Union Army was able to push them back. The Angle was a stone wall that had an eighty-yard right-angle turn. It is known as the "high-water mark of the Confederacy." With the constant firing of bullets from the Union raining down on the Confederates, and the Union's ability to hold its decisive position, Pickett's Charge failed. The charge lasted less than an hour, and it was the first and last attempt by the Confederacy to invade the North.

After retreating, Lee ordered troops to be ready to defend in case the Union counterattacked, but it did not happen, and the Confederates had no troops to spare in the aftermath of the charge. In total, there were about 10,000 casualties, and 1,500 of those were Union soldiers.

Gettysburg was the first major defeat for General Lee, and he attempted no more strategic offenses. Lee was on the defense until the end of the war. The battle remains the largest ever fought on American soil.

Although this battle and this charge are seen as the turning point of the Civil War, there is disagreement among historians. Looking at the casualties and the result of what this battle did to the Confederacy, it is safe to say that the battle definitely helped the Union in the Confederates' eventual defeat and surrender at Appomattox Courthouse.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The Battle of Gettysburg was an important turning point because it ended with the repulse of the final major invasion of the North by Confederate forces. General Robert E. Lee brought his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania hoping to score a major victory on Union soil, a development that he thought would bring the war to an end and achieve Confederate independence. Of course, the Confederate forces were defeated at Gettysburg, and from then on, the Army of Northern Virginia was on the strategic defensive. 

Another reason the battle was such a significant turning point was that the Confederates, already stretched for manpower, suffered horrific casualties, particularly on the third and final day of the battle. Lee's army suffered over 28,000 casualties, over one-third of his pre-battle strength. These losses proved difficult to replace for the Confederacy, unlike the Union, which suffered similar losses but drew from a far superior base of manpower.

Finally, timing made this a particularly devastating blow for the Confederacy. The battle ended in Union victory on July 3, 1863. One day later, the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi surrendered to a Union force under General Ulysses S. Grant. This gave the Union Army complete control over the Mississippi River, severing the Confederacy in two. While there was still much bloody fighting to do, the fact that Gettysburg and Vicksburg occurred in such rapid succession made the defeat at Gettysburg all the more devastating, both in terms of morale and strategically.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team