For all practical purposes, the defeat of the July 3 Confederate attack into the center of the Union line at Cemetery Ridge marked the end of the fighting. Although there were some brief cavalry engagements on that day east and south of Gettysburg and in the area of nearby Fairfield, none had significant impact on the outcome of the three-day battle. The Confederate Army was defeated. One of every three Confederate soldiers Gen. Robert E. Lee brought into Pennsylvania with him was either killed, wounded, captured or missing.
With the coming of daylight on July 4 also came recognition in the mind of Lee of the fact that, given the casualties sustained by his army, there was now no hope of achieving the significant victory over the Union Army which he sought. In the morning hours of July 4, Lee issued orders to shorten the Confederate line, bringing Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell’s Second Corps west of the town, thus forming a 2 ½-mile line along Seminary Ridge between the Mummasburg and Emmittsburg roads.
Lee also issued orders for the retreat, which started late that afternoon. A 17-mile-long wagon train, containing the remaining ammunition and supplies as well as wounded Confederate soldiers and Union soldier-prisoners capable of traveling, began moving westward through Cashtown Gap. Brig. Gen. John Imboden’s cavalry brigade was ordered to guard the wagon train while two brigades of Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry division covered the withdrawal. The remainder of the Confederate Army withdrew that evening through the Fairfield and Monterey passes south of Cashtown Gap. An estimated 6,800 Confederate soldiers were left behind, too badly wounded to travel.
While the Union Army of the Potomac emerged as the victor in the three-day battle, the victory was not readily apparent on July 4. One of every four Union soldiers participating in the battle was either killed, wounded, missing or captured. However, the casualties were not evenly distributed across the command. In some infantry divisions, regiments were now the size of companies and companies consisted of only a handful of men with no commander.
An immediate counterattack or close pursuit of the withdrawing Confederates by Gen. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac was not possible. The Union men were badly in need of rest, reorganization and distribution of food, ammunition and other supplies.
By July 5, with the bulk of the Confederate Army already into the mountains leading south into Maryland and the Potomac River crossings, the Union Sixth Corps conducted a reconnaissance toward Fairfield, where it was halted by the Confederate rear guard. A much broader Union advance in the wake of the with-drawing Confederates began on July 7, but it was too little to late in catching Lee’s army before it began crossing south of the Potomac River on July 13, thus ending the Gettysburg campaign.
As a Licensed Battlefield Guide, I am often asked if Gettysburg is the turning point of the American Civil War. My answer is that Gettysburg certainly was a significant Union military victory. Moreover, President Abraham Lincoln, in his famous address at Gettysburg in November 1863, added a moral victory to the Gettysburg laurels as well. But if one is speaking of a turning point in the war, the surrender of the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, Miss., to Union Gen. Ulysses Grant on July 4 must also be considered. Taken together, the two near simultaneous Union victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg can be seen as a turning point in the war.
Yet, for the participants in the American Civil War, the fog of war made any such turning point invisible to their eye and incomprehensible to their mind. The war went on for nearly two more years after Gettysburg and Vicksburg. There were many more hard marches to be made and much more dying to be done before this heroic struggle was brought to an end and the country eventually reunited.