Home » Personal Musings » July 1, 1863 – Battle of Gettysburg

July 1, 1863 – Battle of Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg and The American Civil War
[The Gettysburg Foundation &
National Park Service, U.S. Dept. of the Interior]

The epic Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – 3, 1863) changed the course of U.S. history.

The first steps toward the Battle of Gettysburg started in June 1863. Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s soldiers crossed the Potomac River in Virginia and began to march toward the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, with thoughts that a victory in the North would erode the Union’s will to continue the fight.

The Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, 1863, when Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia met Gen. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. During the three-day battle, about 165,000 soldiers clashed in and around the small town of Gettysburg (battle-era population: 2,400).

When the Battle of Gettysburg was over on July 3, 1863, 51,000 soldiers were casualties (killed, wounded, captured or missing) in what remains the largest battle ever fought in North America.

The two armies met by chance on June 30, 1863. The first shot of the Battle of Gettysburg was fired early in the morning of July 1, 1863, when fighting broke out north and west of town, with Confederates attacking Union troops on McPherson Ridge. Though outnumbered, the Federal forces held their position until afternoon, when they were finally driven back to Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill south of town. That night, the Union troops labored over their defenses while the rest of the Army of the Potomac arrived and took up positions for the next day’s meeting of the armies.

Author Gregory Coco tells the story of the hospitals at Gettysburg – public buildings, private homes, orchards and groves, outbuildings and meadows – that were transformed into a “vast sea of misery” that sheltered and housed tens of thousands of Union and Confederate soldiers wounded in the three days of battle. In truth, the battle would continue for four more months, but this time in the hospitals filled with the suffering and dying.

“In every direction lay men of all classes, the rich man and the poor man, the commander and the private. At one place, near a fence, lay privates, corporals, lieutenants, majors and colonels, from New York, North Carolina, Indiana, Mississippi, Connecticut, Georgia, New Hampshire, Alabama, Maine and Delaware side by side, on the bare ground, or on a little wet straw; no distinction.” (p. vii, “A Vast Sea of Misery”)

The Trinity German Reformed Church was one of many buildings that served as one of Gettysburg’s hospitals. By 11 am on the morning of July 1st, Dr. Abraham Stout, assistant surgeon of the 153rd Pennsylvania Infantry, had taken possession of the church after being ordered to by a Colonel in the Louisiana Infantry and opened it as a hospital.

Witnesses described the scene inside:

“The wounded were carried into the lecture room of the church and there was so much amputating done there that the seats were covered with blood and they had to bore holes in the floor to let the blood run away…” (Eva Danner, 16 years old)

“Men were lying on boards on tops of the pews, the walls splattered with blood…”

“I found the church full… I should call it a slaughter-house. There must have been 10 or 12 amputation tables in one room…they were all busy… The doctors had their sleeves rolled up to their shoulders and were covered with blood.” (Reuben Ruch, 153rd PA Infantry, Company F)

The Gettysburg hospitals don’t tell a Union story or a Confederate story, but a human story. Acts of kindness by volunteer nurses and civilians, performed out of charity and with love, often with steadfast courage, have been passed down, in marked contrast to the utter brutality of the battle itself. Ordinary, common people showing extraordinary, uncommon valor as caregivers to soldiers regardless of the color of their uniform or the manner of their speech.

Sarah Broadhead, a volunteer nurse, described her first reaction to the hospitals of Gettysburg: “I turned away and cried.”

One hundred fifty years later, when looking at the photographs of the aftermath of the battle and reading first-hand accounts, we may still feel the need to “turn away and cry.”

Instead, I send up a prayer for the souls of all those lost in all wars since the beginning of time. In remembering them, we honor their sacrifices.

Instead, I turn toward their memory and cry.


Alexander Gardner

Alexander Gardner

“It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.” ~ Gen. Robt. E. Lee

10 thoughts on “July 1, 1863 – Battle of Gettysburg

  1. Gettysburg is one of my favorite places to visit on earth. I couldn’t even say how many times I have been there – walking the fields at night and in the day. Somewhere in the vicinity of Spangler’s Spring something profound happened to me – but it wasn’t in this life. Yes, strange, but it is a knowing that I feel. Great post, and God bless them all. Peace . . .

    • Everything you wrote, I can say the same, except not specifically about one place at Gettysburg. I’ve gone there since I was a little girl, and there is a knowing about it, a familiarity, a tightening, a despair. Please check back for more Gettysburg posts on the 2nd, 3rd & 4th (Aftermath). Namaste, my friend.

  2. Hi Theresa, I’ve spent the last half an hour reading through these posts and found them quite moving. Especially the human side of war, not the fighting and killing but the kindness and humanity shown by enemies to the wounded, and the observations of civilians and nursing volunteers. It amazes me that the civil war didn’t do more damage than it did to the country’s psyche. I’ve read of the hatred and bitterness in the south that made its way like tendrils into the future, where people still hold grudges. Yet the suffering, courage, pain and loss hasn’t diminished over time because the survivors wrote so eloquently about their experiences. Their words fill us with humility at their stoicism and belief in a cause. The photographs remind us that war is hell on earth, and show the determination of humanity to inflict as much damage as possible on others in the pursuit of that same cause.

    • I am reminded of the phrases “war is hell” and “freedom is not free” when writing these posts, but I am always called to the passages about ordinary human beings doing extraordinarily humane things in the midst of the barbarism of war. That helps to ease the rawness of the pain inflicted, at least for me. Would that the earth never see another day of war… I dream, but I can hope as well. If you enjoyed this post, please check back for more about Gettysburg on the 2nd, 3rd & 4th (Aftermath). Blessings…

      • The sad part about war Theresa is that conflict has made up the total sum of human history. There’s been conflict since the first human threw a rock. I think it’s part of why we’re here, conflict challenges us to become better people. I know it’s a huge waste of life but what else can you think, when thousands of years of religion, soothsaying, good deeds etc haven’t changed the status qou one iota. What it has done is make many people shine as they overcame enormous odds, sacrificed themselves for others, found courage and so on. Naturally it would be nice if there was another way to achieve these things, however I don’t think there is anything that can stir people to stand up and be human. I’ll give the other sections a look.

  3. I lived in DC for 6 years and visited many battlefields. Each one was a very spiritual experience. I could feel the life that was and the lives which were taken and the despair but I could also feel hope – the beauty of the grounds and museums. These truly are special places and the places themselves and the events and lives lost should never be forgotten.

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