Interesting Historical Facts about Gettysburg

12 Interesting Historical Facts About Gettysburg

Picture this: you’re standing on the hallowed ground of Gettysburg, feeling the weight of history pressing down on you. But beyond the well-known stories of valor and sacrifice lies a treasure trove of lesser-known historical facts about the Battle of Gettysburg. Curious to uncover some of these hidden gems? Let’s dive in! 

12 Interesting Historical Facts about Gettysburg

The Battle of Gettysburg, fought from July 1 to July 3, 1863, stands as one of the most significant events in American history. It was not only a turning point in the Civil War but also a moment that shaped the nation’s future. For history enthusiasts, Civil War buffs, and potential tourists, Gettysburg offers a wealth of fascinating stories waiting to be uncovered. Here are 12 intriguing historical facts about Gettysburg that you might not know.

  1. The Prelude to Battle Began Nearly a Month Earlier

While the actual Battle of Gettysburg started on July 1, 1863, the campaign began almost a month before, on June 8, near the Rapidan River in Virginia. The initial conflict, known as the Battle of Brandy Station, was the largest cavalry battle of the Civil War and set the stage for the subsequent battle at Gettysburg.

  1. Early Confederate Incursions

The Confederates had already made their presence known in Gettysburg before the main battle. On June 26, Confederate General Jubal Early’s Division marched through the town on their way to Wrightsville. This early movement included a brief skirmish with Union emergency militia and a cavalry clash on the Baltimore Pike.

  1. The First Union Casualty

Private George Sandoe was the first Union soldier to die at Gettysburg, killed on June 26, five days before the battle officially began. Sandoe’s unit later became part of the 21st Pennsylvania Cavalry Regiment. His death, occurring during a skirmish with Confederate cavalry, marked the conflict’s early stages. The heat of June 1863 was killing men even before the battle. Annie Hays, who was visiting her husband Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays (commander, 3rd Division, 2nd Corps) just as the Army of the Potomac began to move wrote “Sixty thousand men have marched past our door since Sunday, destination unknown.” she added, “In one division, 20 fell dead from the march, while 400 were sent to the hospitals.”

  1. The Time Dilemma

Standard timekeeping did not exist during the Civil War, making it challenging for historians to piece together an accurate timeline of the battle. Each community set its own time based on local noon, leading to discrepancies in the reported times of events. Even the precise timing of the massive artillery barrage that preceded Pickett’s Charge remains uncertain. Standard Time Zones would not be created until decades later, as an effort to standardize national train schedules.

  1. The Myth of the Shoe Factory

One popular myth suggests that the Battle of Gettysburg occurred because the Confederates were searching for shoes. However, there was no shoe factory or warehouse in Gettysburg. Nor was the local Seminary (for which “Seminary Ridge” is named) in possession of any great number of stored shoes, as some have suggested. Jubal Early’s ransom demand to the town on June 26 included a request for 1,500 pairs of shoes, but there were none to be had.

  1. Civilian Involvement

Around 2,500 civilians were in the battle area, with many contributing to the effort. One notable figure was John Burns, a seventy-plus-year-old man who grabbed his musket and joined Union troops on July 1. He was wounded during the fight and is honored with a statue on the battlefield. As Confederate troops marched through Greencastle, Pennsylvania, a young girl defiantly waved a Union flag at them and called them traitors. Things might have turned ugly, but an officer cheerfully tipped his hat in salute to the girl, prompting his men to do likewise. That officer’s name? General George Pickett.

  1. Confederate Ransoms

As Confederate forces moved through towns like Gettysburg and York, they demanded supplies and money in exchange for lenient treatment. York had to “contribute” $28,000 to the Confederate cause. These ransoms were tolerated as a strategic effort to support the Confederate army’s needs, but a large amount of such ransom money was sent back south for later (often personal) use by the extorting commanders at a later date. Jubal Early himself negotiated a large sum from the town of Gettysburg to be sent to him in such a way. After the South fell, the demanded money was never sent, so Early (who would go on to practice law as a civilian) unsuccessfully attempted to sue the town of Gettysburg to recover the sum, decades after the war.

  1. The Oldest Generals

The oldest general officer at Gettysburg was Confederate Brigadier General William Smith, aged 65. He fought against the oldest Union general, Brigadier General George Greene, who was 62. Their experience and leadership played crucial roles in the battle’s outcome.

  1. The Misconception of Pickett’s Charge

Although named after Confederate Major General George Pickett, Pickett’s Charge involved more than just his troops. Pickett commanded only three of the nine brigades in the main assault. Lieutenant General James Longstreet was in overall command, and six of the nine brigades were from A.P. Hill’s Third Corps.

Nor was Pickett’s Charge the largest assault of the Civil War, not even close. Pickett’s Charge involved some 12,000 Confederate soldiers, but the Confederate charge at Franklin had roughly 20,000. Even that assault pales in comparison to the grand Confederate charge at Gaines’ Mill, which involved more than 50,000 Confederate troops.  And the famous 260-gun artillery bombardment that preceded Pickett’s Charge was not the largest of the war. There was at least one such bombardment at the Battle of Petersburg with over 400 cannons involved.

  1. The Confounding Wagon Train

After the battle, the Confederate wagon train of wounded soldiers stretched 17 miles long. This massive convoy encountered difficulties, including floodwaters on the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland, and attacks from Union cavalry in what became known as “the Wagoner’s Fight.”

  1. The Toll on Horses

More than 3,000 horses were killed during the Battle of Gettysburg. Lydia Leister, who owned the small farmhouse used by General George Meade as his headquarters, found 17 dead horses in her yard. Her only compensation for the extensive damage to her property was selling the horses’ bones at half a cent per pound.

  1. Abandoned Weapons

At the height of the war, the Union manufactured 5000 muskets a day, whereas the South could barely manage to produce 100. After the battle of Gettysburg, a huge number of 37,574 rifles were collected from the battlefield. Of these, 24,000 were still loaded, with many containing multiple rounds in the barrel. This indicates that in the chaos of battle, soldiers often reloaded their weapons without firing, potentially leading to dangerous situations had they eventually been able to successfully ignite the multiple charges in their weapon barrels, potentially causing the overloaded weapons to explode.

The Battle of Gettysburg remains a pivotal moment in American history, marked by numerous intriguing and lesser-known historical facts. From early skirmishes and civilian involvement to misconceptions and the sheer scale of the conflict, Gettysburg’s story is rich and multifaceted.

For those interested in exploring this historic site further, Gettysburg Battlefield Tours offers an immersive experience that brings these stories to life. Whether you’re a history enthusiast, Civil War buff, or simply curious about this significant event, walking the same ground where so many soldiers fought and died can provide a deeper understanding of the sacrifices made and the impact of the Civil War on American society. Additionally, exploring the battlefield allows you to envision firsthand the strategic decisions, heroic actions, and human stories that unfolded during those fateful days in July 1863.

Visit Gettysburg in Person

Plan your next excursion with us! Our bus tours of the historic Gettysburg Battlefield are active and ready to show you the sites of the historical battleground. Reservations can be made by calling our toll-free number at 877-680-8687. You can also purchase bus tour tickets online.  Tours depart from the Gettysburg Tour Center located at 777 Baltimore St., Suite 100.