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Turning Point at Gettysburg

One of the Civil War’s most famous battles erupted when the two sides met, unexpectedly, near a little farm town in Pennsylvania

Universal History Archive/Getty Images

The three-day Battle of Gettysburg claimed more than 7,600 lives.


*Zeke, Confederate soldier

*Tom, Confederate soldier

*Matty, Union soldier

*Clyde, Union soldier

George G. Meade, Union general

*Cal, a young Union messenger

Robert E. Lee, Confederate general

Samuel Cormany, a Union soldier

James Longstreet, Confederate general

Frank A. Haskell, Union officer

John Gibbon, Union general

George E. Pickett, Confederate general

Abraham Lincoln, U.S. president

Narrators A-E

*Indicates a fictional or composite character. All others were real people.


Narrator A: The Civil War (1861-1865) split the United States as no other war before or since. It split families as well: Many fathers, sons, and brothers fought on opposite sides.

Narrator B: Slavery was the primary cause of the war. The South was for it, the North against it. But the North (the Union) and the South (the Confederacy) were also divided by deep-seated economic, geographic, and cultural differences.

Narrator C: The bitter struggle began on April 12, 1861, when Confederate forces fired on a Union military base: Fort Sumter, South Carolina. For the next four years, the two sides fought battle after battle. One of the most famous took place at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on July 13, 1863.

 SCENE 1                              

Narrator D: In May 1863, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army, wins a major battle at Chancellorsville, Virginia. Determined to capture enemy territory—even, he hopes, the capital, Washington, D.C.—he heads north. On June 30, 1863, as his troops march through Pennsylvania, they find themselves near the quiet little town of Gettysburg.

Zeke: When we get to that town, we need to find some boots.

Tom: Too late. My feet are already worn down to bloody stumps.

Narrator E: The Union’s General George G. Meade knows which way Lee is headed, so he sends his own troops toward Gettysburg.

Matty: I’m tired of marching. I want to catch up with them Rebs!

Clyde: Me too. I’m ready to fight!

Narrator A: Neither side realizes how close by the other is.

The Granger Collection, New York

Generals Robert E. Lee (left) and George G. Meade (right)

 SCENE 2                              

Narrator B: Early morning, July 1: A group of Confederate soldiers is searching for supplies, which their army desperately lacks. Suddenly, they run into some Union soldiers.

Zeke: We have no orders to shoot!

Tom: Hear that gunfire? Orders or not, the battle is on. Let’s go!

Narrator C: By noon, the fighting is fierce. The guns have to be reloaded by hand, one bullet at a time, after each firing, so many soldiers fight hand to hand with bayonets when there’s no time to reload. At Meade’s camp . . .

George G. Meade: Any news?

Cal: We need more men, sir!

Meade: How many Rebs are there?

Cal: Smoke from the guns is so thick that it’s hard to tell, sir. But thousands of men, blue coats and gray, are dying where they fall. Countless others have had arms or legs blown off, but manage to survive. So much blood! (He sobs.)

Meade: Is this your first battle?

Cal: Yes, sir. Sorry, sir.

Meade: I fear you’ll see worse before this battle is over.

Narrator D: Meanwhile, Lee is encouraging his own men.

Tom: The Yanks keep coming, sir!

Robert E. Lee: Have confidence, soldier. Our men are driving them back. We have a chance to win this battle. I’m ordering a full attack!

Narrator E: By day’s end, Lee’s men have taken the town and seem sure of victory. But Union reinforcements arrive overnight. By dawn, when the battle resumes, they control an area of high ground called Cemetery Ridge.

 SCENE 3                              

Narrator A: July 2: Lee’s men attack, but Meade’s hold their ground. The thunder of cannon, the clash of sabers, and the screams of the injured fill the air. Thousands more men fall, but the day of bloody struggle ends in a stalemate. That night, Sam Cormany, a young Union soldier, writes in his diary.

Samuel Cormany (writing): We were roused early. We fellows were marched down to the right of the main line to do sharp-shooting. We soon attracted attention, and an occasional shell fell dangerously close. Toward noon, the battle increased in energy and fierceness, and by 2 p.m. the cannonading was most terrific. It was the indescribable battle of the best men on Earth, seemingly in the fight to the finish.

Narrator B: Across the way, Lee meets with his generals.

Lee: This stalemate must end. Tomorrow, we’ll concentrate our forces. Our guns and cannon will pound them till they weaken. Then we’ll charge their line and win!

 SCENE 4                              

Narrator C: Dawn on the third day. On a high ridge on the Confederate Army’s side . . .

James Longstreet: Look, General Lee, at what lies between us and the Yankees—the steep hills, the rows of artillery, the fences. Our men will have to charge over nearly a mile of open ground under the rain of their gunfire.

Lee: The enemy is there, General, and I am going to strike him!

Narrator D: Later that morning, on the Union side . . .

Frank A. Haskell: Eleven o’clock, and no sound of gunfire anywhere.

John Gibbon: Well, I say it’s a good time for a bite to eat!

Narrator E: The officers eat, then lie back in the sun. Suddenly, there is a loud noise.

Haskell: What was that?

Cal: Look, over there! Smoke from guns and cannon, everywhere!

Haskell: Those Rebels are pouring all their might on us!

Gibbon (grabbing his sword): To arms! To arms! Boy, get my horse!

Narrator A: A boy runs to Gibbon’s horse. But as the boy takes the reins and climbs on, a musket ball tears into his chest. He falls dead.

Narrator B: For almost two hours nonstop, Lee’s cannon pound the Union’s defenses. Meade’s men blast back. The sound is terrifying.

Clyde: Matty, I’m hit!

Matty: Your . . . leg! It’s gone!

Clyde (slowly, painfully): Don’t cry, Matty. Just tell my ma I was brave to the end. (He dies.)

Narrator C: Suddenly, silence falls. Both sides have ceased firing. But before the shock can fade . . .

George E. Pickett (shouting): Up, men! Up! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia! Charge!

Narrator D: Screaming their blood-curdling Rebel yell, about 15,000 gray-coated soldiers pour across the open fields toward the Union lines. But the Union troops up on Cemetery Ridge have a clear view of the attack—and are ready.

Gibbon (riding among his men): Do not hurry, men. Don’t fire too fast. Let them get close before you fire, and then aim low and steady.

Narrator E: Confederates are cut down by Union gunfire. Barely half of them survive death or capture. By nightfall, the battle is over.

The Granger Collection, New York 

The thunder of cannon, the clash of sabers, and the screams of the injured fill the air.

 SCENE 5                              

Narrator A: Lee’s Confederate Army has been driven back in defeat. Bloodied and weary, his men expect Union forces to make a final move and wipe them out. But Meade’s men are worn out too. In the Confederate camp . . .

Lee: So many died! I could weep for them. I never saw troops behave more magnificently than yours.

Pickett: We’ve lost thousands of brave men—in vain.

Lee: We lost a battle, General. But the war is not over.

Narrator B: Later, in his tent, Pickett writes a letter to his fiancée.

Pickett (writing): I can’t write you a love letter today, my Sallie, for with my great love for you . . . comes the overpowering thought of those whose lives were sacrificed—of the brokenhearted widows and mothers and orphans. The moans of my wounded boys, the sight of the dead, upturned faces flood my soul with grief.

Narrator C: Meanwhile, in the Union camp . . .

Cal: What are you doing, Sam?

Cormany: Writing in my diary about what happened after the battle. Listen! (He reads aloud.) We took up the march, crossing the battlefield and other places where dead men, dead horses, and smashed artillery were strewn in utter confusion, the Blue and the Gray mixed. Their bodies so bloated—distorted. They were utterly unrecognizable, save by clothing or things in their pockets.

Cal (sadly): When this thing started, we Yanks were sure it would be over in three months. But the Rebs, they’re tough. This war’s not over yet—not by a long shot.

 SCENE 6                              

Narrator D: So many men are left on the battlefield that they are buried where they lie. Four months later, on November 19, 1863, President Abraham Lincoln travels to the site, now a national cemetery. At the dedication ceremony, he gives his most famous speech—the Gettysburg Address.

Abraham Lincoln: 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 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.

Jim McMahon/MapMan®


Narrator E: Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle in a terribly bloody war. It raged for three days, leaving an estimated 51,000 men dead, wounded, or missing. On the third and worst day, 12,000 men were lost in a single hour.

Narrator A: The battle was a turning point. It was the farthest north Confederate forces reached. The Union victory pushed them back into the South, where they stayed for the rest of the war.

Narrator B: On April 9, 1865, General Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, commander of the Union forces, at Appomattox Court House in Virginia. The war left deep wounds that took generations to heal—and some of the scars remain today.

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