This lesson is part of the National Park Service’s Teaching with Historic Places (TwHP) program.
On July 11, 1863, Lt. John T. James of the 11th Virginia Infantry, Confederate States of America, sat down to write a letter to his family telling them of his experiences at the Battle of Gettysburg. He explained that on July 3 his unit had been ordered to march about one mile over open, slightly undulating farmland toward a battle-hardened Union army that was defending its own northern soil. James and his comrades believed that the fate of the Confederacy hung on their efforts. But in less than an hour, one-half of the men who marched with him became casualties. The Confederacy lost the Battle of Gettysburg and never again, in a major action, was able to fight on Union soil. James must have wondered how he could possibly describe this enormous loss to his loved ones. His simple explanation told the story: "We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men."
The Civil War (1861-1865) was an epic period in the American experience. Still a relatively young nation of about 33 million people, the United States would see almost 5 million of its men directly engaged in the conflict.
About This Lesson
This lesson is based on the National Register of Historic Places registration file "Gettysburg Battlefield Historic District" and several primary and secondary sources. It was written by John Andrews, former supervisory park ranger, Gettysburg National Military Park. TwHP is sponsored, in part, by the Cultural Resources Training Initiative and Parks as Classrooms programs of the National Park Service. This lesson is one in a series that brings the important stories of historic places into the classrooms across the country.
Where it fits into the curriculum
Topics: The lesson could be used in units on the American Civil War or in geography or ethics courses. Students will study the actions of the armies in the Battle of Gettysburg and the wrenching personal choices made by some of the participants.
Time Period: Civil War Era
United States History Standards for Grades 5-12
Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg relates to the following National Standards for History:
Era 5: Civil War and Reconstruction (1850-1877)
Standard 1A- The student understands how the North and South differed and how politics and ideologies led to the Civil War.
Standard 2A- The student understands how the resources of the Union and Confederacy affected the course of the war.
Standard 2B- The student understands the social experience of the war on the battlefield and homefront.
Curriculum Standards for Social Studies
National Council for the Social Studies
Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg relates to the following Social Studies Standards:
Theme II: Time, Continuity and Change
Standard F -The student uses knowledge of facts and concepts drawn from history, along with methods of historical inquiry, to inform decision-making about and action-taking on public issues.
Theme III: People, Places, and Environment
Standard D- The student estimates distance, calculate scale, and distinguish other geographic relationships such as population density and spatial distribution patterns.
Theme IV: Individual Development and Identity
Standard F - The student identifies and describes the influence of perception, attitudes, values, and beliefs on personal identity.
Theme VI: Power, Authority, and Governance
Standard F - The student explains conditions, actions, and motivations that contribute to conflict and cooperation within and among nations.
Theme X: Civic Ideals, and Practices
Standard G - The student analyzes the effectiveness of selected public policies and citizen behaviors in realizing the stated ideals of a democratic republican form of government.
Objectives for students1) To describe in general terms the Gettysburg Campaign and the major actions of the armies during each day of the battle.
2) To analyze the motives, actions, and experiences of several participants in the battle.
3) To evaluate the Gettysburg Address and its impact in regard to the occasion it was written to commemorate.
4) To prepare an address that points out the importance of a local event or issue and galvanizes public interest and action.
The readings and maps listed below either can be used directly on the computer or can be printed out, photocopied and distributed to students. The photographs appear twice: in a low-resolution version with associated questions and alone in a high-resolution, full-page version.
Materials for students
1) Two maps of the Gettysburg battlefield and surrounding area;
2) Two readings about the battle, including personal accounts of combatants;
3) A copy of the Gettysburg Address; and
4) Two historical photos of the aftermath of the battle.
Visiting the Park
Much of the ground contested during the Battle of Gettysburg, as well as the Gettysburg National Cemetery where Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address, is preserved within Gettysburg National Military Park. The park is located in south central Pennsylvania near the intersection of U.S. Route 15 and 30. It is open year-round. For more information, visit the park web pages.
Setting the Stage
Gettysburg was a pivotal battle of the Civil War, involving more than 160,000 combatants from both sides. The three days of fighting, July 1-3, 1863, resulted in 51,000 casualties, the greatest number of any Civil War battle. Militarily, it was the South's last attempt at a full-scale invasion of the North. Confederate General Robert E. Lee had hoped to gain European support for the South, fuel the growing movement for peace in the North, turn the attention of Union armies away from Confederate territory, and find provisions for his army. His failure to achieve a victory at Gettysburg made it the turning point in the eastern theater of the war; after the Gettysburg campaign, the Confederate army could no longer sustain an offensive.
After the carnage of Gettysburg, thousands more men would be killed and maimed during the two more years before the Confederates surrendered. The issue of slavery was the main cause of the Civil War. Yet the ordinary soldiers' reasons for fighting in the war were as personal and individual as those that all of us must make in life. The implications of many of these personal choices in the Civil War had great impact on the nation and its future.
What appears to have happened here?
Locating the Site
Map 1: Civil War battles fought in Maryland and Virginia prior to the Battle of Gettysburg.
Why did most major land battles in the eastern theater of the Civil War surround the Washington, D.C.--Richmond, Virginia area?
Map 2: The Disposition of Both Armies During the Three Days of the Battle
Both the Army of Northern Virginia (the Confederate army) and the Army of the Potomac (the Union army) concentrated their forces near Gettysburg after May 1863. The network of roads surrounding Gettysburg was the key to each army's arrival at the battle.
1) According to the maps, how did each army's position change between the start of July 1's main fighting and the start of the July 2's main fighting? In your description, be sure to refer to the roads and terrain features named on the map.
2) How did each army's position change between the start of the main fighting on July 2 and the start of the main fighting on July 3? Again, refer to the roads and terrain features named on the map.
3) What does the map for July 3 show as that day's main event?
4) How did the Union army use the terrain to its advantage during the Battle of Gettysburg?
Determining the Facts
Reading 1: Three Days of Carnage at Gettysburg
(Refer to Map 2 as you read the description of the battle.)
Units of the Union and the Confederate armies met near Gettysburg on June 30, 1863, and each quickly requested reinforcements. The main battle opened on July 1, with early morning attacks by the Confederates on Union troops on McPherson Ridge, west of the town. Though outnumbered, the Union forces held their position. The fighting escalated throughout the day as more soldiers from each army reached the battle area. By 4 p.m., the Union troops were overpowered, and they retreated through the town, where many were quickly captured. The remnants of the Union force fell back to Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, south of town. The Confederates failed to pursue their advantage, however, and the Union soldiers labored long into the night regrouping their men.
Throughout the night, both armies moved their men to Gettysburg and took up positions in preparation for the next day. By the morning of July 2, the main strength of both armies had arrived on the field. Battle lines were drawn up in sweeping arcs similar to a "J," or fishhook shape. The main portions of both armies were nearly a mile apart on parallel ridges: Union forces on Cemetery Ridge, Confederate forces on Seminary Ridge, to the west. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate troops, ordered attacks against the Union left and right flanks (ends of the lines). Starting in late afternoon, Confederate General James Longstreet's attacks on the Union left made progress, but they were checked by Union reinforcements brought to the fighting from the Culp's Hill area and other uncontested parts of the Union battle line. To the north, at the bend and barb of the fishhook (the other flank), Confederate General Richard Ewell launched his attack in the evening as the fighting at the other end of the fishhook was subsiding. Ewell's men seized part of Culp's Hill, but elsewhere they were repulsed. The day's results were indecisive for both armies.
In the very early morning of July 3, the Union army forced out the Confederates who had successfully taken Culp's Hill the previous evening. Then General Lee, having attacked the ends of the Union line the previous day, decided to assail the Union. The attack was preceded by a two hour artillery bombardment of Cemetery Hill and Ridge. For a time, the massed guns of both armies were engaged in a thunderous duel for supremacy. The Union defensive position held. In a final attempt to gain the initiative and win the battle, Lee sent approximately 12,000 soldiers across the one mile of open fields that separated the two armies near the Union center. General George Meade, commander of the Union forces, anticipated such a move and had readied his army. The Union lines did not break. Only every other Confederate who participated in this action retired to safety. Despite great courage, the attack (sometimes called Pickett's Charge or Longstreet's assault) was repulsed with heavy losses. Weakened by extremely heavy casualties in the three days at Gettysburg, the Confederates could no longer continue the battle, and on July 4 they began to withdraw from Gettysburg.
1. Which army had the advantage after the first day of fighting? What were some reasons for their success? Could they have been even more successful?
2. What was the situation by the evening of July 2?
3. What evidence from the previous day's fighting brought General Lee to decide on the strategy for Pickett's Charge on July 3? What was the result of that assault?
4. Why did General Lee decide to withdraw from Gettysburg?
Reading 1 was adapted from the National Park Service's visitor's guide for Gettysburg National Military Park.
Determining the Facts
Reading 2: Perspectives of Participants in the Battle
Elisha Hunt Rhodes enlisted in 1861 as a private, and by the end of the war he had risen to the command of his regiment, the 2nd Rhode Island Volunteer Infantry, U.S.A. His unit, a group within the VI Corps under General John Sedgwick in Eustis' brigade, marched 34 miles to arrive on the Gettysburg battlefield during the second day's action. The unit was present on July 2 and 3 but not seriously engaged. Rhodes survived the war, and the journal he kept during that period was compiled in 1885. He wrote:
Near Manchester, Md., July 1st 1863--It has rained for a week and the roads are muddy. After marching for twenty miles it is not pleasant to lie down at night in the wet without any cover. I am tired--in fact I never was so tired in my life. But Hurrah! 'It is all for the Union.'
We are quite near the Pennsylvania line, and it looks now as if we were to cross over. I am still in good health and spirits and have faith that God will guide us on the final victory. The Rebellion must be put down, and we are doing our best.
Middletown, Md., July 2nd 1863--On the night of July 1st we were camped near Manchester, Md. Rumors of fighting in Pennsylvania have been heard all the days, but the distance was so great to the battle [Gettysburg] that we knew little about it. The men were tired and hungry and lay down to rest early in the evening. At nine o'clock orders came for us to move and we in great haste packed up and started on the road towards Pennsylvania....We struggle on through the night, the men almost dead for lack of sleep and falling over in their own shadows. But we go on in the warm summer night....On the morning of July 2nd we heard firing in front and then we understood the reason for such great haste....The firing in our front grew loud and more distinct and soon we met the poor wounded fellows being carried to the rear....At about 2 o'clock P.M. we reached the Battlefield of Gettysburg, Penn. having made a march of thirty-four (34) miles without a halt. The men threw themselves upon the ground exhausted, but were soon ordered forward. We followed the road blocked with troops and trains until 4 P.M. when the field of battle with the long lines of struggling weary soldiers burst upon us. With loud cheers the old Sixth Corps took up the double quick and were soon in line of battle near the left of the main line held by the 5th Corps....when we were relieved and returned a short distance. The men threw themselves upon the ground, and oblivious to the dead and dying around us we slept the sleep of the weary.
July 3rd 1863--This morning the troops were under arms before light and ready for the great battle that we knew must be fought. The firing began, and our Brigade was hurried to the right of the line to reinforce it. While not in the front line yet we were constantly exposed to the fire of the Rebel Artillery, while bullets fell around us. We moved from point to point, wherever danger to be imminent until noon when we were ordered to report to the line held by Gen. Birney. Our Brigade marched down the road until we reached the house used by general Meade as Headquarters.... To our left was a hill on which we had many Batteries posted. Just as we reached Gen. Meade's Headquarters, a shell burst over our heads, and it was immediately followed by a shower of iron. More than two hundred guns were belching forth their thunder, and most of the shells that came over the hill struck in the road on which our Brigade was moving. Solid shot would strike the large rocks and split them as if exploded by gun powder. The flying iron and pieces of stone struck men down in every direction. It is said that this fire continued for about two hours, but I have no idea of the time. We could not see the enemy, and we could only cover ourselves the best we could behind rocks and trees. About 30 men of our Brigade were killed or wounded by this fire. Soon the Rebel yell was heard, and we found since that the Rebel General Pickett made a charge with his Division and was repulsed after reaching some of our batteries. Our lines of infantry in front of us rose up and poured in a terrible fire. As we were only a few yards in rear of our lines we saw all the fight. The firing gradually died away, and but for an occasional shot all was still. But what a scene it was. Oh the dead and the dying on this bloody field. The 2nd R.I. lost only one man killed and five wounded....Again night came upon us and again we slept amid the dead and the dying.
July 4th 1863--Was ever the Nation's Birthday celebrated in such a way before? This morning the 2nd R.I. was sent out to the front and found that during the night General Lee and his Rebel Army had fallen back. It was impossible to march across the field without stepping upon dead or wounded men, while horses and broken Artillery lay on every side. We advanced to a sunken road [Emmitsburg Road] where we deployed as skirmishers and lay down behind a bank of earth. Berdan's Sharpshooters joined us, and we passed the day in firing upon any Rebels that showed themselves.
July 5th 1863--Glorious news! We have won the victory, thank God, and the Rebel Army is fleeing to Virginia. We have the news that Vicksburg has fallen. We have thousands of prisoners, and they seem to be stupefied by the news. This morning our Corps (the 6th) started in pursuit of Lee's Army. We have had rain and the roads are bad, so we move slow. Every house we see is a hospital, and the road is covered with arms and equipment thrown away by the Rebels.
July 9th 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.
Excerpted from Robert Hunt Rhodes, ed., All for the Union: The Civil War Diary and Letters of Elisha Hunt Rhodes (New York: Orion Books, 1991), 114-117. Copyright 1991 Robert Hunt Rhodes.
In 1861 Georgian Edward Porter Alexander was an officer in the U.S. Army stationed in Washington Territory. He commanded the 1st Corps, C.S.A. Reserve Artillery at Gettysburg, and later in his career took command of the entire First Corps' artillery. He was responsible for mounting the large bombardment preceding Longstreet's assault on July 3. Alexander rose to the rank of Brigadier General in the Confederate army and survived the war. He later wrote:
Of course as soon as the news of the secession of Georgia reached us at Fort Steilacoom, some three or four weeks after the event, I knew that I would finally have to resign from the U.S. Army. But I did not believe war inevitable & I felt sure I could get a place not inferior in a Southern army, & I really never realized the gravity of the situation. As soon as the right to secede was denied by the North I strongly approved of its assertion & maintenance by force if necessary. And being young & ambitious in my profession I was anxious to take my part in everything going on. As it soon became clear that our detachment would be ordered to return to the East...I waited for the orders to come & to get back to the East before resigning.
I did not feel any doubt about what I had to do under the circumstances. Georgia had seceded. All the seceded states had united & organized a Confederacy, & the Confederacy was raising an army. The only place for me was in that army. So in the course of a day or two I had a talk with [his Commanding Officer] McPherson, telling him that I felt bound to resign & go home, & asking that he would receive & forward my resignation & give me leave of absence that I might sail on same steamer taking it & not be required to wait in California to receive its acceptance, which would detain me about two months.
McPherson's reply was remarkable....He said: ' Aleck if you must go I will do all I can to facilitate your going. But don't go. These orders, sent by Pony Express to stop you here, are meant to say to you that if you wish to keep out of the war which is coming you can do so. You will not be required to go into the field against your own people, but will be kept out on this coast on fortification duty. Gen. Totten likes you & wants to keep you in the corps & that is what this order means'....His earnest talk impressed me deeply & made me realize that a crisis in my life was at hand....I could only answer this: ' Mac, My people are going to war, & war for their liberty. If I don't come & bear my part they will believe me a coward--and I will feel that I am occupying the position of one. I must go and stand my chances.' ...I told McPherson we were going to fight for our ' liberty.' That was the view the whole South took of it. It was not for slavery but the sovereignty of the states, which is practically the right to resume self government or to secede.
Reprinted from Fighting for the Confederacy: The Personal Recollections of General Edward Porter Alexander. Edited by Gary W. Gallagher. Copyright 1989 by the University of North Carolina Press. Used by permission of the publisher.
Andrew Baker was a soldier in the 22nd North Carolina Infantry, C.S.A., Pettigrew's brigade. He participated in the brutal fighting that opened the battle on July 1 and in the culmination on July 3. He wrote about his experience on the final day of fighting for the magazine of a Confederate veterans' organization. The Capt. W. T. Magruder to whom he referred was a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and fought for the Union as a captain in the 1st U.S. Cavalry until October 1, 1862. Magruder then joined the Confederate army, became a captain in the 26th North Carolina Infantry, and died at Gettysburg at the hands of his former comrades. Baker wrote about that action:
When we reached to within one hundred yards of the plank fence, which stood on the opposite side of the road passing the cemetery to that of the stone fence, the officers of the Eleventh Mississippi had been largely killed or wounded, and the officer who seemed to be in command was Capt. John V. Moore, of the University Grays. He was then in front of Company D, endeavoring to hold the regiment back in line with the troops on our right. I hallooed to him, saying: ' John, for heaven's sake give the command to charge.' He replied that he could not take the responsibility. I then, without authority, gave the command myself, which was promptly repeated and responded to, at which time a run was made for the fence and over it. Just after getting over the fence, and when about half way across the road, I was shot down. The balance of the command which had not been killed or wounded rushed on and jumped the stone fence, charging rapidly to the top of Cemetery Ridge, in line with the Twenty-sixth North Carolina on the right.
Just after I had fallen I looked to my right, where a little house stood, just against which the end of the stone fence rested on either side. Behind this house some ten or twelve of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina boys for a moment halted, with Capt. W. T. Magruder, who had been formerly a colonel of cavalry in the U.S. army, and who had resigned after the emancipation proclamation and had joined our army, said to them: ' Men, remember your mothers, wives, and sisters at home, and do not halt here.' All responded in a moment, and rushed on to rejoin the regiment, then going to the top of Cemetery Heights. Capt. Magruder himself leaped the stone fence on the western side of the house, and was shot down at once, either as he went over the fence or just after getting over it.
Excerpted from Andrew J. Baker, "Tribute to Capt. Magruder and Wife," Confederate Veteran Magazine (November 1898): 507.
Part A Questions
1. What part did Elisha Hunt Rhodes play at Gettysburg?
2. How was he able to justify the suffering endured by the Union troops?
3. How did he respond to the Union victory?
Part B Questions
1. How did Edward Porter Alexander feel about Georgia's secession?
2. What option did the U.S. Army provide Alexander to avoid becoming involved in the conflict?
3. How did he justify his choice?
Part C Questions
1. According to Andrew Baker, after what event did Captain W. T. Magruder resign from the Union Army? Based on the timing of his resignation, why do you think he resigned?
2. Why do you think Captain John Moore did not give the order to charge?
1. How does reading these personal accounts compare with reading summaries of Civil War battles in textbooks?
2. What are some disadvantages of relying on personal accounts of historical events?
Determining the Facts
Reading 3: The Gettysburg Address
November 19, 1863
With more than two years of war gone by, and with no certain end in sight, President Abraham Lincoln needed to reassure, buoy, and rededicate the spirit of the nation to continue the struggle until its ultimate end. He accomplished this when he was asked to deliver "a few appropriate remarks" at the dedication of a cemetery for the Gettysburg Union dead:
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate--we cannot consecrate--we can not hallow--this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain--that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom--and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
1. How long after the battle did Lincoln give his address?
2. What did he say about the men who were buried in the cemetery?
3. How did he give meaning to their sacrifice?
4. What was it that Lincoln wanted the people of the United States to do for the dead soldiers?
Photo 1a: Union Dead near Peach Orchard.
Note to educators: This image depicts human remains and is blurred out of sensitivity. To view the unaltered image, click on the photograph.
Photo 1b: Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg, Trostle House.
1. Can you find evidence in the readings that indicates any of the men mentioned had witnessed scenes like these?
2. The Civil War was the first war that was extensively recorded by photographers. How might these images have affected the citizens who saw them?
3. What effect would the real views, rather than these photographed views, of the battlefield have had on veteran soldiers, new recruits, and officers in command? How might these images have influenced their readiness to obey orders in future battles, or the strength of their convictions?
4. How might the personal convictions of soldiers influence the outcome of a battle?
Putting It All Together
The Battle of Gettysburg was not the clear-cut victory President Abraham Lincoln had been waiting for. As the Confederate army limped back to the south, the Union army failed to follow up its advantage and allowed the enemy forces to retire across the Potomac River to the relative safety of Virginia. When the Union victory at Gettysburg was followed by the July 4 surrender of Vicksburg in the western theater of the war, however, President Lincoln had tangible evidence that the United States could prevail. The following activities will help students empathize with the soldiers of the Battle of Gettysburg and help them put the Gettysburg Address in proper context.
Activity 1: Describing the Experience of a Civil War Soldier
Based on the readings and other available primary sources, have students pretend to be journalists who have interviewed a soldier soon after the battle of Gettysburg. Ask them to write an article based on their imagined interview. Students should cover who their interviewee is and a description of the interviewee’s activities during the battle. Remind students that they do not need to like their interviewees or defend their position in the war. Rather, they are describing how one soldier experienced the Battle of Gettysburg. Ask a few students to read their articles aloud and then hold a classroom discussion on the different choices made by the soldiers that students "interviewed." Emphasize the point that for those who took part in the Civil War most decisions were life and death matters.
Activity 2: Comparing Perspectives
President Lincoln revealed his aspirations for the nation and his thoughts about the war in his two minutes of remarks at Gettysburg. Ask students to reexamine the Gettysburg Address, keeping the following questions in mind: What do you think is the value of a symbolic speech such as the Gettysburg Address? What phrases or images are particularly powerful? What is Lincoln's attitude toward the soldiers? toward the Civil War? Why do you think the Gettysburg Address became such a famous speech? After students have had time to formulate answers, hold a classroom discussion based on their ideas.
Next, have the class work as a group to identify issues in their lives or in society today that generate conflict or disagreement. Discuss the kinds of choices that they would face in these situations. Pay particular attention to ways disagreements can be resolved without violence.
Activity 3: Persuasive Writing and Speaking
There were many battles in the Civil War, but only one evoked Lincoln's great oration. Ask students to think of a problem or controversial issue facing their community and write a persuasive speech that will energize people to work toward finding a solution. Speeches should be limited to 300 words. Ask for volunteers to share their effort with the class.
The Soldiers at Gettysburg--
Choices and Commitments: The Soldiers at Gettysburg examines what many consider the turning point of the Civil War. Those interested in learning more will find that the Internet offers rich variety of materials, both about the battle itself and about the war in general.
Gettysburg National Military Park
This historic battlefield forms one unit of the National Park Service. The park's web pages detail the history of the building, the events that took place there, and the city in which it stands. Included are photographs, descriptions, and materials for teachers.
Library of Congress
The American Memory collection offers a wide variety of resources about Gettysburg, including maps, documents, and photographs. Start with the search engine, being sure to choose "Match this exact phrase" before you enter the topic you want to search.
The Valley of the Shadow
The Valley of the Shadow Project takes two communities, one Northern and one Southern, through the American Civil War. This hypermedia archive includes newspapers, letters, diaries, photographs, maps, church records, population census, agricultural census, and military records. Students can explore every dimension of the conflict and write their own histories, reconstructing the stories of women, African Americans, farmers, politicians, soldiers, and families.
Last updated: July 8, 2021