Gettysburg today is considered to be the decisive battle in the Civil War. And that is what 19th century commanders strived for– the one big knock out punch that removed the enemy from the field.
Yet at the time, no one knew what the battle meant.
Lee’s army’s escape after the battle certainly didn’t seem to be a big victory for the north. Meade was criticised for letting him escape and spent the rest of his life repairing his reputation.
Still Gettysburg changed not only the Civil War (or War Between States if you are southern) but war in general in many ways.
War is governed by three factors: Societal impact, Organization, and Technology. Gettysburg brought major changes to all these areas.
Society: Gettysburg brought war to the entire nation. Prior to Lee’s crossing of the Mason Dixon line, war had been limited primarily to the south with the majority of the battles being fought in Virginia. Lee took the war to the North and the people of the North now knew that they were not immune from the effects of combat. Not only were the people of Pennsylvania effected during the battle, but when the three days were ended, they were left with the task of dealing with the aftermath. Gettysburg transformed a primarily southern war into a national war. In becoming a war that touched all levels of society, it foreshadowed such events as Sherman’s March to the Sea in Georgia to break the will of the southern people to fight and eerily presaged the coming total war of the 20th century.
Organization: Before Gettysburg, war logistics and tactics had primarily focused on how to bring men to the field and how to wage war. After the battle, a new factor entered into play: how to deal with the dead and the wounded. And not only humans — but how to deal with thousands of dead horses left on the field. The numbers were staggering: 3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate killed, 14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate wounded, 5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate missing, and approximately 5,000 horses and mules dead on the field. Not only were the military field hospitals overwhelmed, but local residents were pressed into dealing with the dead and dying. It can be said that Gettysburg set a new standard of suffering and how to deal with the aftermath of battle.
Technology: While not the game changer that some would later claim, technology still proved itself to be ahead of tactics. The use of repeating rifles, the massing of artillery, more deadly ammunition, the reliance upon the telegraph for command and control, the use of railroads to move men and equipment, and finally, the need to move the wounded and dying from the field, all brought changes to the waging of war. Pickett’s Charge — essentially a setpiece 19th century military engagement ran headlong into the beginnings of 20th century war.
So at Gettysburg we have: Modern and mass War; all Society touched by war; and new innovations in warfare and new solutions to dealing with the dead and dying. These all foreshadowed what would be seen in Europe on the Western Front in WW I nearly 50 years later.
And for the people who lived there and fought there, their lives would never be the same.