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Ten things you didn’t know about the Battle of Gettysburg

By Kate Pais


The 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg is upon us. The Civil War and Gettysburg remain one of the most integral and well-documented parts of American history. In hopes of honoring this extra special anniversary, here are ten little known anecdotes about the Battle of Gettysburg, found in the timeless and timely resource The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, an essay collection edited by Gabor S. Boritt.

The U.S. General Hospital at the battlefield in Gettysburg.
The U.S. General Hospital at the battlefield in Gettysburg. Photograph by the Tyson Brothers, from the United States Sanitary Commission. Source: NYPL Digital Gallery.

(1) Due to the enormous size of the battle, it was really a battle between the every-soldier, despite military historians thoroughly documenting officer strategy. Even Robert E. Lee acknowledged the limits of planning compared to the execution of battle when he said, “I think and work with all my powers to bring my troops to the right place at the right time. I leave the matter up to God and the subordinate officers.”

(2) Renowned war hero Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, who is sometimes credited as the most influential figure in the Battle of Gettysburg, wasn’t even going to enlist in the service originally; he hesitated because he was supposed to take a sabbatical from Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine to study in Europe for two years. He was struck with a pang of patriotism and instead used his sabbatical to grant leave from the school and become lieutenant colonel in the 20th Maine Infantry.

(3) After Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops in May 1863, Richard Stoddert Ewell was suddenly promoted to lead the Army of Northern Virginia. Because of the hasty restructuring and some confusing correspondence, when the Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1st, most of Ewell’s men were sent to Cashtown, eight miles away from the main fight. The Confederate troops took a significant hit in Cashtown before they were redirected, then weakened, towards Gettysburg.

(4) In a quantitative analysis of Day 2, Gettysburg could have easily gone to either side. While the advantages during the middle of the battle remain a mystery, the Union did have one blunder on their side: Major Daniel Sickles disregarding orders and marching his troops past Cemetery Ridge, leaving them exposed to attacks on all sides. If anything, the Confederacy had a leg up, making the ultimate victory by the Union that much more impressive.

(5) The reason for J.E.B. Stuart’s weak performance at Gettysburg? He took his Confederate troops to more than four major battles for sixteen days before they arrived at Gettysburg, having traveled without appropriate rations or sleep for two and a half days when they arrived.

(6) While Pickett’s Charge may be the famous fight on July 3rd, the Union Army launched an attack at 4:30 a.m., reclaiming the tactical advantage and making the first strike. While the Union strategy was more effective, the foolhardy Confederate attack at 1 p.m. would be more memorable.

(7) During the Battle of Gettysburg, another fight went on; the town of Gettysburg, population 2,400, had to defend itself too. Everyone remembers the battlefield, but the civilians defended their town for three days as well. Notable mentions include elderly John Burns who took a gun to the streets to defend against Confederates and schoolteacher Salome Myers who nursed the various wounded in town.

(8) Gettysburg happened in July 1863, but the campaign that built to it began in the spring. Battles at that time were happening in Tennessee, Arkansas, Virginia, and Mississippi. The Southern strategy was to attack multiple areas at once, as they thought the North tended to engage troops in only one place at a time. When the Confederates discovered this was not the case, they regrouped several armies and the Battle of Gettysburg became a behemoth for both sides.

(9) These rare quotations from Elisha Hunt Rhodes of the Second Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry capture how shocking the victory was, and how much it revitalized the Union spirit:

“Was ever the Nation’s Birthday celebrated in such a way before [?]” –4 July 1863

“But what a scene it was. Oh the dead and the dying on this bloody field.” –8 July 1863

“Again I thank God that the Army of the Potomac has at last gained a victory. I wonder what the South thinks of us Yankees now. I think Gettysburg will cure the Rebels of any desire to invade the North again.” –9 July 1863

(10) For two years the Civil War was largely concentrated in Virginia. When plans for a northern battle were formulated, Maryland was considered. Maryland was a gray area, still loyal to the original Union but associated with the Confederacy because of its ties to slavery. Lee decided to attack a location where it would be more of a statement. Pennsylvania was indisputably Northern territory.

Kate Pais joined Oxford University Press in April 2013. She works as a marketing assistant for the history, religion and theology, and bibles lists.

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