The American Civil War: Battle Of Gettysburg
Where Is Gettysburg
For General Robert E. Lee, the stunning Confederate victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863 provided both his crowning achievement and his darkest moment of battlefield command. Although the Union army under General Joseph Hooker had been routed, Lee’s most capable lieutenant, General Thomas J. ‘Stonewall’ Jackson, had been mortally wounded by friendly fire. Although the loss of Jackson was a severe blow, Lee nevertheless felt compelled to follow up the victory at Chancellorsville. He reorganised the Army of Northern Virginia into three corps, commanded by generals James Longstreet, A.P. Hill and Richard S. Ewell. The Confederate army was flush with victory and stood at the height of its strength; therefore, its commander looked to the north for a second time. Lee’s aims were similar to those that had precipitated the invasion of the North, which had ended nine months earlier with the battle of Antietam.
Destroying the Pennsylvania Railroad Bridge over the Susquehanna River would disrupt enemy communications, and Confederate troops could sustain themselves with supplies procured from Northern farms. Lee might capture Harrisburg, the Pennsylvanian state capital, and threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia or Washington, DC. Perhaps most important, the population of the North was becoming war weary. The presence of victorious Confederate forces in Union territory might bring about peace overtures and secure Southern independence.
The Union General
On the 3rd June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia began streaming steadily to the northwest, across the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and then northward through the Shenandoah Valley. For three weeks, the Confederates operated virtually at will against only token resistance. With Ewell’s corps in the van, the Confederates were spread across miles of the Pennsylvania countryside. By the end of the month, Ewell was menacing Harrisburg; General Jubal Early’s division had occupied the town of York, and Robert Rodes’ division was miles to the north at Carlisle.
Hooker’s Army of the Potomac became alerted to the Confederate offensive on the 25th June, during a heavy clash between Rebel cavalry under General J.E.B. Stuart and Federal horsemen commanded by General Alfred Pleasanton at Brandy Station, Virginia. Hooker set his army in motion to intercept the Confederates and requested that the arsenal at Harpers Ferry be abandoned and its garrison of 10,000 men added to the field army’s ranks. When President Lincoln and the Union army’s general-in-chief, Henry W. Halleck, declined, Hooker asked to be relieved of command. On the 28th June, a mere four days before the battle of Gettysburg, General George G. Meade was placed in command of the Army of the Potomac.
The rapid northwest movement of the Union army caused Stuart to initiate a lengthy ride around Meade and out of contact with Lee. Thus, during a critical period of the campaign, the Confederate commander was deprived of his eyes and ears. Lee, warned by a Southern sympathiser, knew for certain only that the Army of the Potomac was on the march. Without intelligence from Stuart, he had no choice but to concentrate his forces. Reluctantly, Lee ordered Ewell to abandon his planned attack on Harrisburg and join the corps of Hill and Longstreet in Gettysburg.
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In Search Of Shoes
On the morning of the 1st July, Lee was with Longstreet’s Corps at Chambersburg, 25 miles west of Gettysburg. Hill’s Corps was 8 miles west of Gettysburg at Cashtown. Neither Lee nor Meade intended to fight at Gettysburg, which held virtually no strategic value. Lee, in fact, had admonished his subordinate commanders not to bring on a general engagement until the army could be concentrated on favourable ground. Events, however, soon began to develop beyond the control of either senior commander.
Early had already passed through Gettysburg on the 26th June during his division’s march to York. He sent a note to Hill, informing him that a cache of shoes might be found in the town. Four days later, the leading division of Hill’s corps under General Henry Heth, reached Cashtown. Heth sent a brigade down the Chambersburg Pike to Gettysburg in search of the shoes. The brigade commander, General James Pettigrew, withdrew from the Gettysburg area when he spotted a large force of Union cavalry moving up from the south. On the 1st July, Hill ordered two full divisions, those of Heth and General Dorsey Pender, to Gettysburg to determine the strength of the Union force. Probing eastward, the Confederates found two brigades of General John Buford’s cavalry, screening the advance of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac. Buford had ordered his troopers to dismount and take up defensive positions west of the town and waited for the Rebels to return.
The decisive battle of the American Civil War was taking shape while the bulk of both armies and both senior commanders were not present on the field. Buford’s decision to stand and fight combined with Hill’s decision to send a force much greater than necessary on a reconnaissance mission precipitated an engagement from which neither side could readily extricate itself.
State Of Affairs
The First Shot
The First Day
Buford’s dismounted cavalrymen fought like lions against ever-increasing numbers of Confederate infantrymen. For two hours, they stood firm before the infantry of General John F. Reynolds’ I Corps rolled in from the south. As he urged the famed Iron Brigade forward, Reynolds was killed in the saddle by a Confederate sharpshooter. Both sides committed fresh troops to the fray, and the fighting intensified. Union troops from New York and Wisconsin captured more than 200 Rebel soldiers, who had been trapped in the cut of an unfinished railroad. Hard pressed, other Union troops fought desperately to prevent their left flank from being turned.
From about 4 miles away, Ewell and Rodes, on the march from Carlisle, could hear Hill’s artillery firing. By now, elements of the Union XI Corps, under General Oliver O. Howard, were shuffling through the streets of Gettysburg towards the fighting. The Confederate generals, however, recognised an opportunity to hit the exposed Union right flank. Eventually, the combined weight of Rodes’ assaults, the renewed effort of Heth’s division, and advances by three of Pender’s brigades threatened to overwhelm the Union I Corps on Seminary Ridge.
It was however, the XI Corps on the Union right which gave way first. Raising a cloud of dust on the Harrisburg Road, Early’s division appeared from the north and routed a Union division, which had taken up positions on a small knoll. Georgia, Louisiana and North Carolina troops stunned the Union right and successive units of the XI Corps faltered, broke and ran through the town to the relative safety of Cemetery Hill.
With its flank fully exposed, the patchwork battle line of the Union I Corps on Seminary Ridge collapsed. Streaming back through Gettysburg, more and more Union troops reached Cemetery Hill, where General Winfield Scott Hancock, commander of the II Corps, had become the fifth general of the day to command the Union forces. Meade would not reach Gettysburg from Taneytown, Maryland until after midnight. Lee had arrived on the field at 1:30 pm but was largely a bystander during most of the fighting.
As the Union troops scrambled to consolidate their position on Cemetery Hill, Lee grasped the significance of his opportunity to win a decisive victory. He forwarded a cryptic verbal order to Ewell, which said in effect that it was only necessary to ‘press those people’ in order to take possession of the heights and to capture Cemetery Hill, nearby Culp’s Hill or both ‘if practicable.’
The fight, however, had gone out of Ewell. The enemy beyond Cemetery Hill was of undetermined strength. Hill’s corps was spent. Longstreet would not reach Gettysburg for hours. Under protest from subordinates, Ewell declined to continue his attack. During the night, Union reinforcements continued to arrive, Culp’s Hill was occupied in force, and a defensive line was established across Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top. Ewell’s decision remains, to this day, one of the most controversial of the entire Civil War.
State Of The Battle
The Harvest Of Death
The Second Day
In the early hours of the 2nd July, both sides held councils of war. Meade was determined to stand, despite the fact that the rest of the Union army had yet to reach Gettysburg. Lee, acting against the advice of Longstreet, decided that an attack on the Union left combined with a renewed effort against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill might negate Meade’s advantage of interior lines and roll up the entire Union position.
Longstreet took pains to conceal his march to his designated jump-off position and was not ready to attack until about 3:30 pm. Confederate artillery fired on the positions of the exposed Union division commanded by General Daniel Sickles in the Peach Orchard as infantrymen from Alabama and Texas marched to the east and turned northward towards Little Round Top and a jumble of huge boulders known locally as Devil’s Den. Major General Gouverneur K. Warren, the chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, rode to the summit of Little Round Top as the Confederates massed for their assault. He recognised that if the Confederates captured this key hill an enfilading fire would render the entire Union line untenable. Warren searched frantically for troops to defend the position. His plea for help was answered by two brigades of General George Sykes’ V Corps. These troops from Pennsylvania, New York, and Maine scrambled into position moments before the attacking Confederates started up the slope.
While the desperate defenders of Little Round Top, scavenging ammunition from their own dead and wounded, beat back multiple attacks, fighting raged nearby. Successive Confederate assaults shattered Sickles’ salient in the Peach Orchard, and the Wheatfield became a scene of tremendous carnage. At the end of the day, Longstreet had overrun Devil’s Den and his troops controlled the Peach Orchard. However, thanks to Warren’s initiative, Little Round Top was in Union hands.
At Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, Ewell sent troops from the divisions of Early and General Edward Johnson forward in the fading light. Fighting continued for several hours as the Confederates made headway. Some of Early’s troops reached the crest of Culp’s Hill and engaged in hand-to-hand fighting with the defenders. While the rest of his line was unmolested, Hancock was able to reinforce the threatened area, and by 10 pm the fighting had petered out.
The Third And Final Day
The High Water Mark
The Third Day
The climatic day at Gettysburg began on the Union right at Culp’s Hill and Spangler’s Spring, where Confederate forces still held earthworks dug by the Federals on the night of the 1st July. At daylight, further Confederate attacks against the strong entrenchments on Culp’s Hill proved fruitless. Two Union divisions under Generals Thomas Ruger and John Geary rooted elements of Johnson’s division out of their hard-won but meagre lodgement. Before noon, the Federals had regained their lost earthworks, and the fighting had ebbed. A strange silence now hung over the field. It was a deceptive quiet, for the final act of the Gettysburg drama was to unfold in a few short hours.
Lee apparently reasoned that Meade had left his centre vulnerable to attack by reinforcing his flanks. Therefore, a concentrated blow against the Union centre on Cemetery Ridge might break through the line. Longstreet strongly dissented. The attacking troops would be obliged to cross more than a mile of open ground and traverse a picket fence along the Emmitsburg Road, all the while exposed to artillery fire from massed guns on Cemetery Ridge and the heights at either end of the Union line.
Most of Lee’s army had been heavily engaged on the 2nd July, and the only substantial force available to mount such an assault was the division of General George Pickett, which had guarded Confederate supply wagons for the previous two days. Pickett commanded three brigades, led by Generals Richard B. Garnett, James L. Kemper and Lewis A. Armistead. These would be supported by the divisions of Joseph Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble, who had assumed command for the wounded Heth and Pender respectively. The attacking force would number roughly 15,000 men.
At 1pm, nearly 150 Confederate guns opened a cannonade against the Union centre. Soon, approximately 80 Union cannon replied from Cemetery Ridge. The artillery duel continued for two hours. Then, at 3pm, Pickett shouted. ‘Up men and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from Old Virginia!’
Pickett’s troops stepped off to the northeast, wheeled with parade ground precision to the east, and headed towards the Union centre. Their objective was a large copse of trees on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. As they crossed the open fields, Union artillery began to tear large gaps in the Confederate ranks. Then, as the Rebels came closer, Union infantry opened fire from the low stone wall to the front of the charging mass and against both of its flanks. Following the battle, the sharp 90 degree angle of the wall came to be known simply as The Angle.
Garnett was killed, and General Kemper fell seriously wounded. On foot, Armistead led his men through a momentary breach in the Union line, waving his hat perched atop his sword. As he laid his hand on a Union cannon, Armistead was mortally wounded. No Confederate reinforcements were available to exploit the breakthrough, and Union troops steadily closed on both flanks. At long last, the shattered remnants of the famous Pickett’s Charge limped back towards their own lines, having achieved nothing but immortality. The high tide of the Confederacy had smashed itself upon the rock of the Union centre.
A Lasting Memorial
On the 4th July Lee began a long retreat to Virginia, his dream of a military victory on Northern soil dashed. That same day, the Confederate city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, surrendered, and the South was split in two. These devastating defeats sealed the fate of the Confederacy. In the three day orgy of death and destruction at Gettysburg, the Union suffered 3149 killed and 19,664 wounded or captured. The Confederacy suffered 4536 dead and 18,089 wounded or taken prisoner. On the 19th November 1863, President Lincoln offered a short speech of slightly more than 200 words during the dedication of a new cemetery for the Union soldiers killed at Gettysburg. The Gettysburg Address still resonates nearly two centuries later.
A Recording Of The Gettysburg Address
© 2013 James Kenny