The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1-3, 1863, is considered the turning point of the American Civil War. With over 50,000 casualties between the Union and Confederate armies, Gettysburg was one of the bloodiest battles of the entire war. So what made this three-day battle so deadly and why did so many men lose their lives here?
Here are some quick answers to key questions about the bloodiness of the Battle of Gettysburg:
- Over 165,000 men from both armies converged on the small town of Gettysburg in southern Pennsylvania in early July 1863.
- The battle lasted 3 days (July 1-3) and raged over 8 square miles of land around Gettysburg.
- Total casualties (killed, wounded, missing/captured) exceeded 50,000 men – around 1/3 of all the soldiers engaged.
- More than 7,000 soldiers were killed outright in the battle.
- The Confederate losses were appalling with over 28,000 casualties (39%).
- Tactics and weapons combined with the landscape around Gettysburg led to mass casualties.
- Poor medical treatment meant many of the wounded ultimately died from infections.
Why was Gettysburg so Bloody?
Several key factors came together to make the Battle of Gettysburg an exceptionally bloody encounter:
Massive Number of Soldiers Engaged
By June 1863, both sides had built up huge armies. When the Army of the Potomac (90,000 men) confronted Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia (75,000 men) near Gettysburg it was the largest meeting of American troops during the Civil War. The collision of these massive forces alone meant heavy casualties were inevitable.
Weapons and Tactics
The standard infantry weapons were rifled-muskets with an effective range up to 300 yards. Artillery was widespread and up to 50 pounds of shot and shell could be fired by each gun per minute. However, the tactics had not fully adapted to the increased lethality. Infantry still attacked in dense formations and the artillery was often deployed within 400 yards of the enemy. This combination led to enormous casualties from rifle and cannon fire.
Determination to Fight
By 1863, both sides were highly motivated to fight hard. The Confederates were determined to win victories on Northern soil after defeats in the South. Union forces understood Gettysburg was a chance to destroy Lee’s army and end the war. This determination led to fierce fighting and commanders accepting shocking losses to hold their ground.
Terrain Around Gettysburg
The terrain around Gettysburg offered good defensive positions, especially Cemetery Ridge for the Union forces. However, much of the ground was open farmland and rolling hills – ideal for artillery but leaving advancing troops totally exposed. The famous Pickett’s Charge saw around 10,000 Confederates cross 1 mile of open ground under heavy Union cannon and rifle fire.
Medical Care and Hygiene
Medical care, especially for the wounded, was very poor by modern standards. Many died from lack of care or became infected from unhygienic hospitals and camps. Amputation of mangled limbs using unsterilized tools was common, with only a 50% survival rate. Thousands died in the days and weeks after the battle from their wounds.
Casualty Figures from Gettysburg
The official casualty figures from the Battle of Gettysburg underline how bloody the fighting was:
These figures demonstrate both the intensity of fighting and inadequate medical care. Over 7,800 soldiers were killed in just three days of combat. Nearly 11,000 were initially listed as missing or captured – many of whom later died from wounds. Another 27,000 were injured but survived the battle, often after amputations and field hospital care.
Deaths by Phase of the Battle
Losses mounted each day as the battle progressed:
|July 3rd (Pickett’s Charge)
These figures exclude the thousands of wounded, many of whom later died from infections. They reflect how the carnage accelerated as the armies concentrated around Gettysburg and Lee launched aggressive attacks.
Noteworthy Casualties at Gettysburg
Beyond the horrendous losses of common soldiers, several remarkable casualties occurred:
- Confederate Generals Lewis Armistead, Richard Garnett and William Barksdale were all killed in Pickett’s disastrous charge.
- Future US President James Garfield (then a Union General) was seriously wounded – although he survived.
- 12% of Union Generals (23 men) became casualties along with 32% of Confederate Generals (39 men).
- The First Minnesota regiment lost 215 of its 262 men killed or wounded on July 2nd – a crippling 82% casualty rate.
These casualties demonstrate both the shocking loss of life and how General officers shared the same risks as regular troops.
Aftermath and Impact of Gettysburg Casualties
The bloody cost of Gettysburg had major impacts on the war:
- Lee’s army was wrecked as an effective fighting force. The losses were irreplaceable this late in the war.
- Confederate morale and hope of successfully invading the North were crushed.
- Combined with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4th, Gettysburg marked a key turning point that put the Union on the path to victory.
- News of the casualties polarized attitudes – anti-war sentiment grew in the North while Confederates vowed to fight on.
- Over 16,000 casualties lay on the Gettysburg battlefield initially. Corpses were later reburied but the scale of loss was shocking.
- Nearly 8,000 soldiers became prisoners of war – many died in captivity from disease and poor conditions.
The devastating losses at Gettysburg came to symbolize the horrific human cost of the Civil War. The scale of death and suffering dealt an incalculable blow to American society.
The Battle of Gettysburg was exceptionally bloody by any standard. The collision of huge armies, new weapons and tactics, determination to fight, and exposed terrain combined to produce appalling casualties over three days of combat. Around one third of the 165,000 troops engaged became casualties in this small Pennsylvania town – marking a clear turning point in the Civil War. While a major Union victory was secured, the lasting legacy was one of terrible sacrifice and suffering on both sides.