On June 30, 1863, 170,000 men approached a quiet Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg, having no idea that one of the bloodiest and most important battles in American history would begin within twenty-four hours. 75,000 of them – the Army of Northern Virgina – were under the command of General Robert E. Lee. They were being pursued by 95,000 Union troops under Major General George Meade, who was careful to keep his army positioned between the rebels and Washington, D.C.
The South’s goal was to force an engagement against the Army of the Potomac and win, then sue for peace with a war-weary federal government.
Due to an unexpected engagement on July 1 between advance elements of both armies the battle came to them with little chance to plan (Confederate troops had heard that there were shoes to be found in Gettysburg but ran into Union calvary under BGEN John Buford when they got there). By nightfall, Union forces were in command of the high ground to the east of town. Lee spent the next two days trying to dislodge them.
In the end, the Army of Northern Virginia was forced to withdraw, having been beaten and arguably out-generaled. It was the last time the South invaded the North.
The Battle of Gettysburg resulted in over 50,000 casualties. Nearly one out of every three people who fought there were wounded or killed.
But today, 170,000 men were on the move, and there was a rumor that there were shoes in a small town up the road.
For an excellent animated account of the Battle of Gettysburg, click here.