Gettysburg, America’s Bloodiest Battle

Maybe you’ve been to the Gettysburg National Military Park in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, to tour the battlefield and visitor’s center. Maybe you’ve even gone to one of the annual battle anniversaries, where men and women with Civil War-era clothes and weaponry reenact the battle details with great verve. Lasting three days in 1863, from July 1-3, Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle ever fought on American soil, with up to 10,000 Union and Confederate troops dead and another 30,000 wounded. But surprisingly, this tremendous battle was a purely unplanned accident that grew out of a desperate need for soldiers’ shoes!


Image: Battle of Gettysburg Reenactors at “the Wall”. Image source:

Visiting the Gettysburg National Military Park

Having witnessed the activities of scores of reenactors who visited the park during the years I lived near the town, I know that people invest themselves very deeply in the Civil War in general, and in the Gettysburg battle in particular. You don’t have to be an extreme fan to appreciate the silence of the rolling battlefield landscape. Imagining the July heat, the stench of sweat, horse, wool clothing and blood, the cries of pain and death, is easy to do when you’re standing there on that “consecrated ground” as Lincoln said in his famous Gettysburg Address after the battle.

Park officials and enthusiasts always commemorate the battle days in Gettysburg, as is happening this week, and it’s a great event for those who can attend in person. When you want to actually (or mentally) place yourself in specific skirmishes in the battle on specific points on the field, you will need a guide. You can hire a guide to ride with your group and interpret the tour for you. That kind of activity is excellent, but is pricey and requires advance planning.

But if you haven’t visited the battlefield, this sesquicentennial anniversary year is a good time to make a virtual trip, if not a real one. (There are over 12,000 reenactors, with 300 foreign reenactors from 16 different countries, and tens of thousands of visitors anticipated for this year’s 150th anniversary reenactment!)

Starting with these guide and history books below is a great beginning to what could be a life-long interest.

The Best of Guides

To fully understand the Gettysburg Campaign and its significance as the pivotal point in the American Civil War, you need to learn from experts. Fortunately, GPO has publications from the two best sources: the US Army Center of Military History and the National Park Service.

The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 and Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook

   Gettysburg-Campaign-from-GPOThird in “The U.S. Army Campaigns of the Civil War” series  of campaign brochures from the U.S. Army Center of Military History that commemorate our national sacrifices during the American Civil War, The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 describes the turning point in the “Battle Between the States.” Authors Carol Reardon and Tom Vossler examine the military operations and strategies along with the somewhat accidental circumstances that culminated in the pivotal and devastating three-day Battle of Gettysburg. With many maps and illustrations, this helps provide some back story and military strategy, as it goes into the various skirmishes leading up to the battle starting back in June and up to the battle itself.

As General Robert E. Lee of the Confederate Army said,

“It had not been intended to fight a general battle at such a distance from our base, unless attacked by the enemy, but finding ourselves unexpectedly confronted by the Federal Army, it became a matter of difficulty to withdraw through the mountains with our large trains. . . . A battle thus became in a measure unavoidable (Campaign, p. 31).”


The National Park Service’s publication, Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook, delves into the history of the battleground itself, that “consecrated ground” and provides a detailed guide of all the amenities of the park along with the on-field maneuvers and results, as well as insight into the personalities and anecdotes that such an epic event always generates. It also covers post-battle events, such as the establishment of a cemetery at Gettysburg and the genesis of Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as reproductions of 12 battle paintings by F. D. Briscoe. It’s like having a National Park ranger pointing out key aspects and giving you insights about this important national landmark.

Hooker out, Black Hats in

Through both of these excellent publications, you can come to know a bit about the personnel of the Gettysburg Campaign, such as the story of the last-minute, last-ditch replacement of General Hooker as Commander of the Federal Army of the Potomac by General George G. Meade. Commander of the U.S. Army General Halleck replaced Hooker at his own demand, and Hooker left his command in a great hurry. Meade arrived at Gettysburg knowing little of the status of his troops and even less about Lee’s troops. You can also read all the details of General Daniel Sickles’ unauthorized movements from Cemetery Hill.

Michigan-soldier-iron-brigade-Civil-WarDon’t forget to study the awe-inspiring story of the Iron Brigade, also known as the Black Hat Brigade. Some Confederates called them “them Black Hat Fellers” because of the black Hardee hats they wore that were different from the standard-issue Union blue kepi hats. Made up of the 2nd, 6th, and 7th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiments, the 19th Indiana, and the 24th Michigan, the Iron Brigade was famous for its fierceness on the field. The Iron Brigade made a tremendous impact during the Gettysburg Campaign, and they suffered dire casualties as a result. Their bravery in fighting on Herbst’s Woodlot and against the 26th North Carolina had a strong effect on the outcome of the Gettysburg Campaign.

Image: Gochy Charles. Company F, 24th Michigan (Iron Brigade). Image Source:

How can I obtain these Gettysburg publications?

The more you read about these and other stories of the battle, the more easily you can get drawn in to the story of all the human bravery, pathos and drama that was part of the Gettysburg Campaign and the American Civil War. Immerse yourself in the history of The Gettysburg Campaign: June–July 1863 and familiarize yourself with the park through the Gettysburg National Military Park Handbook. You’re likely to be endlessly fascinated.

Federal Depository Librarians: You can find the records for these titles in the CGP.

About the author(s): Our co-bloggers include: guest blogger Jennifer K. Davis from GPO’s Library Services & Content Management Division that supports the Federal Depository Libraries Program (FDLP) and Government Book Talk Editor, Michele Bartram, GPO Promotions & Ecommerce Manager.

25 Responses to Gettysburg, America’s Bloodiest Battle

  1. […] last summer, The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863 was a smash success (Read our post “Gettysburg, America’s Bloodiest Battle” for more […]

  2. Terry says:

    I recently visited the battlefield with my family. I was deeply disappointed that with all the men Texas sacrificed there, there was no memorial for our gallant dead. From my understanding, each state funded the memorials. I feel that these men should be honored just as any soldiers sent forth from this great state.

  3. Daniel C. says:

    Don’t forget that Confederate Gen. Jeb Stuart failed to scout & report the movement of the Union Army. While it is true that Gen. Lee did say that the outcome for the Confederacy at Gettysburg was his fault, Gen. Stuart & the Cavalry left the Army of Northern Virginia and the rest of the Southern Army “blind” by failing to report the Union Army’s movement.

  4. Nosmiley says:

    It’s interesting how the facts change through the years. Or perhaps it’s the definition of “bloodiest”
    I was taught in the 1960′s that the Battle of Shiloh was the bloodiest battle. Shiloh never has gotten good billing, probably because of its rural location, even today. It was according to historians, a very important conflict. The government still lists it as the bloodiest fought up to then.. Antietam came 5 or 6 months later.
    By using different methods more than one battle can be the bloodiest. The battle of Antietam has listed 20,946 killed and wounded- or an average of 6982 killed and wounded per day.
    The Battle of Shiloh had 19,902 killed and wounded during the two day battle, for an average of 9,951 killed and wounded per day.
    The Battle of Vicksburg had a total of 7489 killed and wounded between May 18-July 4, 1863. I can’t get it into the bloodiest category.
    My figures don’t include ” missing”, simply because some of those guys- from both sides, decided war wasn’t for them, and ran home to mamma, or to new horizons. Soldiers captured, or surrendered weren’t necessarily killed, so I didn’t include them either.
    Antietam wins for the total killed and wounded, but Shiloh beats it by nearly 3,000 per day when averaging. If one blinked at Shiloh, they were dead, or wounded .

  5. Galen says:

    Antietam was the single bloodiest one-day battle of the Civil War. Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle in terms of numbers of total casualties, but it lasted 3 days. So, it is legitimate to say that Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle, period, of the Civil War.

  6. Retired Neighbor says:

    Ever hear of the United States’ and its 1918 “100 Days War”?

    • Are you referring to the “Hundred Days Offensive” from the beginning of WWI? Wikipedia describes it as follows:

      The Hundred Days Offensive was the final period of the First World War, during which the Allies launched a series of offensives against the Central Powers on the Western Front from 8 August to 11 November 1918, beginning with the Battle of Amiens. The offensive essentially pushed the Germans out of France, forcing them to retreat beyond the Hindenburg Line, and was followed by an armistice. The term “Hundred Days Offensive” does not refer to a specific battle or unified strategy, but rather the rapid series of Allied victories starting with the Battle of Amiens.

      Thanks for writing in!

  7. Jim 1776 says:

    Soryy but the Battle of Antietam was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War not Gettysburg.

    • Sterling Ferguson says:

      You are wrong Vicksburg was bloodier than Antietam. Gettysburg was the battle of the civil war and it led to the defeat of the South. The man that saves the day for the Federal forces was George Custer that ambushed the rebel forces.

      • TK says:

        Citation needed. Casualty toll according to Wiki at Vicksburg is very small.

      • Scott says:

        Vicksburg did not lead to the defeat of the South. Southern defeat resulted from numerous causes including but not limited to the coastal blockade, dwindling resources, being outnumbered in battles with little reserve manpower, and ultimately lack of food from the invasion and march across the South by Sherman and Grant’s relentless pursuit of the Army of Northern Virginia.

      • Scott says:

        Gettysburg did not lead to the defeat of the South either. See earlier post.

      • Scott says:

        Stirling…where do you get your history from? What brought Gettysburg to a close was General Lee making a terrible mistake with Picketts charge. Custer didn’t abuse tens of thousands of hardened Confederate veterans.

      • kevin says:

        many many more men were killed and wounded at antietam then at Vicksburg. Again, antietam was 1 day with 4-5,000 deaths outright and another 15-20,000 combined wounded. Vicksburg was a siege and that lasted 47 days and still didn’t produce that number of casualties.

      • kevin says:

        custer ambushed nobody. never did anything until the third day of the battle and by that time, the climax (pickett’s charge) was well on it’s way to ending against the south. the battle’s out come would have ended no different if custer was sitting in a tent in michigan.

      • Kirk Boothe says:

        Yep, Custer was there as aBG but did not get into action until the third day, he won his skirmish but very little effect on the overall battle. Antietam was the bloodiest DAY of the Civil War…

    • Scott says:

      Antietam was the single bloodiest DAY of the war.Or at least that claim is made about Antietam.

    • kevin says:

      sorry jim 1776 you are wrong. antietam (sharpsburg) was bloodiest single day of the war and of u.s. history. gettysburg was the bloodiest battle.

    • t.wurtz says:

      it was the bloodiest single day. gettysburg had more casalties

  8. Encinitas Chiropractor says:

    This is a good post for a learning bite in American history. Very informative. If I want to witness the commemoration of the battle days, would you know how much will the rate of a guide?

    • Sterling Ferguson says:

      The battle of Gettysburg wasn’t over shoe but the attempt to divide the north. General Lee made the mistake of letting General Meade take the high ground and placed cannons overlooking the Rebel army. When the Rebels tried to attack the Federal forces, they were met with massive cannon fire. The mistake that Lee made at Gettysburg was the same mistake the Japanese made at Midway, they didn’t scout the area.

      • Scott says:

        You’re wrong. The Confederate soldiers who first made contact with the Federal forces were dispatched to Gettysburg to acquire shoes. The reason the Southern troops were in Pennsylvania was to provide an offensive on Northern soil in an attempt to solicit help from potential European allies.

  9. C. Petro says:

    Great job with “Government Book Talk.” I look forward to each edition.

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