The Battle of Gettysburg, taking place between July 1-3 of 1863, was the most important battle of the Civil War. The Northern troops defeated the Southern troops, thus preventing the Confederate army from moving farther into Union territory. The Battle of Gettysburg helped decide the outcome of the Civil War, and is considered by military historians as a crucial turning point of the long blood-drenched conflict (Catton). By turning back the second and final invasion of the North by General Robert E. Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia, the Union army preserved the country.
The ultimate causes of this momentous battle naturally coincide with those of the Civil war itself. The Civil War, lasting just over five years from April 12 1861 to May 26 1865, took 600, 000 lives and brought freedom to 4 million black slaves: the direct and primary cause of the war was the issue of slavery. There were other complex political and economic issues too. However, the most proximate cause that triggered this decisive battle is, supposedly, as mundane and “down to earth” (literally) as the Confederate infantry’s search for a fresh supply of shoes.
Proximate Causes of the Battle: The origins of the Gettysburg battle lie in the deliberate decision of Robert E. Lee and the Confederate President Jefferson Davis to once again invade the North. Following the battle of Antietam, which had stopped Lee’s first invasion of the North the previous September, the Confederate army fought a series of successful battles in Virginia at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. However, despite these victories, the war was rapidly depleting the limited resources available within the Southern states. The Union blockade of Confederate ports continued to severely limit supplies arriving by ship from Europe.
Lee hoped that another invasion would allow the Army of Northern Virginia to forage the countryside and factories of Maryland and Pennsylvania for supplies to stockpile for future operations. Lee was confident that he could once again defeat any Union army sent to intercept him. Such a victory won in the Federal territory, Lee calculated, would also strengthen the position of the Northern peace movement that was demanding an end to the war. Moreover, the Southern leaders still hoped a great victory might win recognition and support for Confederacy from European nations, despite the slavery issue that was a sticking out like a sore canker.
Therefore there are at least three main motives that drove Lee on the course of war which ended up in Gettsyburg and his complete undoing: 1) Replenish army supplies 2) Bolster the Northern peace movement, should the Confederate side win, thereby possibly precipitating the end of the war 3) Be recognized be European nations by securing a crucial victory In June 1863, Lee crossed the Potomac River and marched north into southern Pennsylvania. Meanwhile, in Washington, President Abraham Lincoln remained concerned about the string of recent Confederate victories in Virginia and the inability of his generals to defeat the rebel army.
When he learned of Lee’s move northward, Lincoln promoted General George Meade, who then became the fifth commander of the Army of the Potomac in less than a year. Meade soon began moving army to intercept the advancing confederates. The scene was set for a major confrontation. It is generally believed that the battle of Gettysburg was triggered by Pettigrew’s brigade marching to this town in Pennsylvania because it was reported to have a large stock of shoes.
However, this commonly accepted version of the most immediate cause of the Gettysburg battle has been entirely discredited by Eicher in his work Gettysburg Battlefield: The Definitive Illustrated History: The stories of Confederate expeditions into Gettysburg to “search the town for army supplies (shoes especially) appear to be spurious post-battle extrapolations which may have been concocted by Heth [Pettigrew’s division commander] to cover himself for moving such a heavy force over to Gettysburg on June 30 and again the following day without order to engage the enemy.
One wonders…why Heth expected that a vast store of shoes would exist in a small town such as Gettysburg. (p. 33) In any case, determining what particular incident set off the fuse for the incendiary war machinery that was ready to explode is not as much a matter of consequence as it is to recognize that the gruesome battle that unfolded in Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, was the ultimate expression and outcome of a host of social, political and economic reasons that drove a nation to fight against itself. Gettysburg was the acme of the Civil War, and its true causes are those of the Civil War itself.