In comparison to the battle at Antietam (or Sharpsburg) in Maryland in September of 1862, the U.S. victory at Gettysburg had no immediate political benefits for Lincoln or the North. Indeed, the riots in opposition to the military draft that started in New York City 10 days after the Union victory on July 3 required sending several regiments of troops from Gettysburg to help restore order. Political opposition to the Lincoln administration grew after Gettysburg. Victory at Gettysburg did not produce a political turning point like Antietam.
However, Gettysburg was very important for the morale of the U.S. Army of the Potomac. This army’s soldiers were bested (again) by Lee’s army at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and by May 6, 1863, they were retreating (again). Gettysburg was the Army of the Potomac’s first clear-cut victory over Lee. This psychological advantage was squandered by George Gordon Meade, commander of the Federal forces at Gettysburg, as Meade was unable or incapable of exploiting his victory.
The Army of the Potomac would not see ultimate victory until Ulysses S. Grant was brought East by Lincoln to lead the final offensive in Virginia, starting 10 months after Gettysburg.
Instead of a devastating defeat at Gettysburg, Lee’s army – badly bruised but not broken – was able to retreat back into Virginia (again), carrying most of the booty it had plundered in its raid into Pennsylvania. Lee’s army recovered its strength and would live for months off the food, fodder and equipment it plundered.
Gettysburg was the largest battle fought in the North during the Civil War. It was also the largest in terms of number of soldiers that fought there. After the war, U.S. veterans could visit this Pennsylvania battlefield more easily than traveling to the majority of battle sites in the South. As a result, veterans groups returned often to erect monuments and help identify where they stood and fought. By 1887 there were 90 battlefield monuments to regiments and batteries in place. Gettysburg became the most well-preserved and most visited Civil War battlefield – which continues to this day.
Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, as part of the ceremony to dedicate the cemetery to U.S. soldiers on November 19, 1863, just four months after the battle, is one of the most famous speeches in American history.
What about Antietam? The cemetery at Antietam was dedicated in 1867, but the battlefield was not established until 1890. No famous speeches marked Antietam’s dedication. Compared to 1,328 monuments and markers today on Gettysburg national battlefield park, there are only 300 at Antietam. Antietam gets 330,000 visitors per year compared with 1.2 million annual visitors to Gettysburg.
Defeat or victory meant far more to both sides that fought at Antietam and the battle had a greater direct impact on the war.
But Gettysburg won the publicity battle after the war, and it is Gettysburg that most people know about today.
I commemorate the 150th anniversary of Gettysburg as one of the most important battles of the Civil War – but not the turning point.
About the photo: The cyclorama painting of the Confederate’s final charge at Gettysburg is world famous and helps draw 1.2 million visitors to the national battlefield park every year.