The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War and is frequently cited as the war's turning point. After the Confederate defeat, the hopes of the Confederacy to establish a seperate nation dwindled as the likelihood of winning or enticing the intervention of European countries, namely England and France, seemed to waned.
Shortly after Lee's army won a decisive victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, he decided upon a second invasion of the North. Such a move would upset Union plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly relieve the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg. This would hopefully serve several purposes.
It would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich Northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much needed rest. Another summer campaign would have been disasterous for the farmers because they could neither plant nor harvest crops. Also, Lee's 75,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington, D.C. and would strengthen the anti-war movement and bring about a negotiated settlement. A victory on Northern soil could bring much needed foreign recognition for the Confederate government. If England and France saw an aggressive Confederate victory, either might get involved in the war on behalf of the beleaguered Confederacy, or at least give the Union a good reason to sue for peace with the Confederacy on its own terms. Finally, Lee believed that invading the North and threatening Washington, D.C. would lead to a recall of Union troops in the West, thereby relieving the pressure on Vicksburg.
Lee had to restaff his command and time was a constraint. He believed that the new corps commanders could become aquainted with their troops, learn about the Union commanders facing them, and become aquainted with their responsibilities and Lee's command style while the armies moved northward.
The Army of Northern Virginia began its movement in early June. When Hooker learned that the Confederates were on the move, he put his cavalry, under the command of Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, into motion to find out what exactly was happening. On June 8th, the Union and Confederate cavalry clashed at Brandy Station in one of the biggest cavalry battles of the war. Other cavalry engagements ensued during the Gettysburg Campaign, most notably those at Upperville, Aldie, and Middleburg .
On June 24, the Army of Northern Virginia was across the Potomac River. Hooker realized that Lee's army could cut off Hooker's army and take Washington, so he quickly ordered the Army of the Potomac north to position itself between Lee and Washington. Whenever an army is on the move, it must know exactly where the enemy is. Lee needed to know where the Federals were in Pennsylvania, now more than ever, because he was moving onto unfamiliar ground. But Brig. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart was nowhere to be found. Instead of screening the Confederate left and informing Lee where the Union forces were, he went on another of his round-the-Union-army trips. He remained out of touch with Lee for several days, effectively blinding the Army of Northern Virginia. But Lee pushed on, and issued orders that the army should consolidate its forces at Cashtown, west of Gettysburg. Unable to stop Lee's push north, Hooker resigned as commander of the Army of the Potomac, and Lincoln replaced him with Maj. Gen. George B. Meade. Meade assumed command of the army on June 28. He quickly realized he could not take the offensive against Lee with his army spread out as much as it was, so he decided to take a defensive posture to defend Washington, D.C. and Baltimore, and fight a decisive battle on the ground of his own choosing.
On June 29, Lee's army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 28 miles northwest of Gettysburg, to Carlisle, 30 miles north of Gettysburg, to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.
In a dispute over the use of the forces defending the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to get rid of Hooker, immediately accepted the resignation. They replaced him on June 27–28 with Maj. Gen. G. Gordon Meade, commander of the V Corps. Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles west of Gettysburg.
On June 30, one of Hill's brigades, under Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, headed toward Gettysburg. Heth had sent Pettigrew there to secure a supply of shoes and other items for his men. There were rumors that a huge supply of shoes stored in a warehouse. The Confederate army was desperately in need of shoes for its men. When Pettigrew's troops approached Gettysburg, they noticed Union cavalry, under Brig. Gen. John Buford, west of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them.
Buford's troops had barely entered the town when some nervous citizens told them stories of Confederate soldiers west of town. Some citizens related how the Confederates travelling east had passed through town 4 days earlier. Buford evaluated these reports of Confederate sightings and began assessing his position. He concluded that the sightings were not just normal cavalry patrols and that there were too many Confederates were in the area to be just a reconnaissance. The reports indicated the presence of 2 Confederate units operating in the area, which might mean that the Army of Northern Virginia was here.
Buford sent scouts west and north to find out the precise location of the Confederate army. When the scouts returned with messages of concentrated Confederate troops close to town. Buford realized that his force was too small to defend the town. So, he sent word to Meade and the closest Union commanders asking for help in reinforcing the town. Meade ordered Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds to reinforce Buford's army.
As Buford saw it, Gettysburg was the key to central and eastern Pennsylvania.The town itself wasn't that important, but 9 roads converged at the center of town that went out in several directions. This was why he thought the Confederates wanted the town. If Lee was to be stopped, it had to be here, before a Confederate base was established and used to strike out in any direction. Buford sent word to his unit commanders to send out the pickets. He made plans for skirmish lines west of town and then set up his command post at the Lutheran Seminary so he could use its tall spire as an observation post.
When Pettigrew told Hill and Brig. Gen. Henry Heth about what he had seen, neither believed that there was a substantial Union force there, suspecting that it had been only local militia. Despite Lee's order to avoid a general engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a significant reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the Union force in his front.
Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army's cavalry and ride around the Union army. However, Lee's orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals are to blame for the long absence of Stuart's cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. Stuart and his 3 best brigades were absent from the army during the crucial phase of the approach to Gettysburg and the first 2 days of battle.
On July 1, around 5:00 A.M., Heth's division again advanced on Gettysburg. Waiting for them was Buford's cavalry, now dismounted, who stopped the Confederate column on the Chambersburg Road at Willoughby Run. The Confederates greatly out numbered the Union army, but Buford's men held on until relieved by the I Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Reynolds. Heth deployed Archer's Brigade on the right of the Chambersburg Road and Davis's on the left. Behind Woods in which Gen. J.F. Reynolds was killed. Archer on the Herr Ridge were Pettigrew's and Brockenbrough's brigades. Facing Heth was Wadsworth's Division, I Corps. On the left, opposing Archer was Meredith's Brigade (the Iron Brigade) defending McPherson's Ridge with Cutler's brigade fronting Davis on the north side of the Chambersburg road. The Iron Brigade attacked and flanked the Confederate right, capturing 75 Alabamians, including Archer himself. As Reynolds was directing men into action along McPherson's Ridge, he was shot in the neck and died instantly. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command of the field. North of the Chambersburg Road, Davis's brigade flanked Cutler's right and rolled it up, forcing them into retreat. But two of Cutler's regiments attacked Davis and captured over 200 Confederates.
As Doubleday was checking Heth's division, Rodes' division entered the battle from the north. Rodes deployed on Oak Hill, where he set up an artillery battery that began enfilading the Union right. Not long after Ewell arrived, the Union XI Corps also arrived, just in time to support the I Corps. Howard threw the XI Corps, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Carl Schurz, to stop Ewell's advance from the north and link with the I Corps' right flank. Viewing the situation, Ewell decided to attack the Union right with Rodes' Division.
O'Neal's Brigade would strike against Robinson's Division's right. Iverson's Brigade was to attack from the South, and Daniel's Brigade from the West, flanking Robinson's left and rolling it up toward O'Neal. The attacked failed, with considerable loss to the Confederates in killed, wounded, and missing. But Rodes ordered another attack, this time by Dole's Brigade on the left. Barlow's Division, XI Corps, quickly repulsed the attack, which seriously exposed Rodes left. Gen. Schimmelfennig took advantage and attacked Dole's flank, but Dole reacted quickly, and counterattacked, pushing the Federals back. As Rodes was holding his own against the Flying Dutchmen, Early's division arrived on the field from the north and promptly entered the battle on Rodes' left. Gordon's Georgia Brigade attacked Barlow's division throwing them into temporary confusion. Dole attacked Schimmelfennig and sent them into confusion. Howard ordered Coster's Brigade, in reserve on Cemetery Hill, into the battle against Early.
He was quickly defeated, losing over ¾ of his regiment to casualties. The XI Corps retreated in confusion through Gettysburg with the Confederates closely on their heels. In mid afternoon, Heth attacked the Union line again. The attack was strong, and, coupled with Rhodes' attacks from the north, pushed the Union troops into retreat to Seminary ridge. Buford's dismounted cavalry stopped the Confederate advance again. As the attack slowed, Pender moved his division through Heth's in an attempt to dislodge the Union troops from Seminary Ridge. The Union fire was devastating and temporarily halted the Confederate advance. They eventually drove the I Corps all the way to Cemetery Hill.
The first day's battle was considered a Confederate victory, considering the ground gained by the Confederates.
On July 2, most of the armies were on the field of battle. The Union army's defensive line was in the shape of a giant fishhook. The fishhokk's tip was at Culp's Hill. The line curved a little over a 1/2 mile northwest to Cemetery hill before straightening into a shank formed by Cemetery Ridge, which extended south from Cemetery hill to the base of Little Round Top. A shallow saddle ran between Little Round Top and Big Round Top. A 1/4 mile west and parallel to the fishhook's shank ran Seminary Ridge. Between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge was the valley harboring the Wheat Field, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard, and down its center ran the Emmitsburg Road, which divided the valley into near-equal halves.
On Seminary Ridge were Longstreet's Corps, making up the Confederate right and Hill's Corps to the left, extending north to meet Ewell's Corps, which held a semi-circular position on the south of town. The Union left, extending almost to the unoccupied Round Tops, was Sickle's III Corps.
To his right was Hancock's II Corps and to his right was Howard's XI Corps, and covering the northern end and right flank of the Union line was I Corps. The morning passed relatively quietly, as Longstreet's Corps had not yet arrived in their jumping-off points for the attack. The plan involved Longstreet's Corps to attack Meade's left flank, which Lee believed sat on the Emmitsburg Road. At the same time, Ewell would attack from the north against Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. In the center, Hill would fient an attack in order to keep the Union center from reinforcing its line against Ewell or Longstreet. Longstreet began his advance at about noon, moving first away from the battlefield in an attempt deceive the Federals, then to their attack positions.
As a result, it was several hours before Longstreet was in position, and they had not even begun to fool the Union observers on Little Round Top. The observers saw Longstreet's movement and Sickles sent out some sharpshooters. They soon encountered Col. Cadmus Wilcox's brigade and sharp fight ensued until the Union troops were forced to retire. When Sickles realized that the Confederates were massing in front of him, he moved his corps from Cemetery Ridge to Emmitsburg Road. This move caused gaps in the Union line, which had to be filled as quickly as possible by units from around the line. Around 4:00 P.M., Longstreet was in a position to launch the much-delayed attack.
Maj. Gen. John B. Hood, Longstreet's 3rd Division commander, saw an opportunity to move even farther south and capture Little Round Top. He proposed to Longstreet this plan but Longstreet denied his request. As the Confederates moved toward Little Round Top, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren saw that the Round Tops were unoccupied, and ordered artillery fire on the advancing Confederates. The 15th Alabama, under Col. William Oates, managed to take the Big Round Top. Soon afterwards, he was ordered to proceed to the Little Round Top and occupy it.
The saddle between the two Round Tops was 500 yards across, and on the summit, Oates could see was a small group of Union signal corpsmen sending their signals. Further north, he could see the Union line digging in, but Little Round Top still did not have any combat troops on it. Oates moved down the slope and joined the 47th Alabama to cross the saddle and occupy Little Round Top.
Little Round Top: As Oates began the movement to Little Round Top, Col. Strong Vincent placed the 20th Maine, commanded by Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, on the southern end to prevent a flank attack. They was part of Vincent's Brigade, which had taken the initiative, and occupied Little Round Top without any orders. Using deadfall and loose rocks, the soldiers formed a crude, knee-high breastworks. They had barely finished when Chamberlain saw the Confederates charging across the saddle heading toward Little Round Top. As Oates turned his attention to capturing Little Round Top, other Confederate regiments joined them. The right of the Union line succumbed to the Confederate attack. Vincent rallied them, and the attack was beaten off, but he was mortally wounded.
The Federals saved Little Round Top and prevented the Confederates from occupying the two Round Tops. If the Confederates had occupyed them, they could have commanded much of the battlefield. In front of the 20th Maine, Oates's regiment continued to attack, and the Federals continued to hold them off. After a failed attack on Chamberlain's position, they regrouped and made a second charge. Finally, as the Federals were running out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge against the Confederates. The bayonet charge succeeded and drove the Confederates back to Big Round Top. Chamberlain would win the Medal of Honor for his defense of Little Round Top.
Fighting was fierce on Little Round Top, but also was it at other parts of the battlefield, especially at Devil's Den, The Wheatfield, and The Peach Orchard. The 1st Texas, 3rd Arkansas, and elements of Benning's Brigade took Devil's Den late in the day from Brig. Gen. Hobart Ward's brigade, and did not give it up until the retreat of the Army of Northern Virginia. At the Wheatfield, Brig. Gen. George Anderson's brigade attacked Gen. de Trobriand's weakened brigade. However, Union reinforcements were provided and the Confederates were held at bay-but only for a short time.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Kershaw's brigade, entered the battle at the Wheatfield and helped push the Union line back.
As the Union line wavered, Brig. Gen. John Caldwell's division, II Corps, arrived to save the day. They charged into the Wheatfield, pushing the Confederates back and mortally wounding Brig. Gen. Paul Semmes. The Confederates mounted another attack, inflicting heavy casualties on Caldwell's division, which retired from the line. The Union line held and the Confederates were denied Little Round Top. As the brigades on the Confederate right advanced and pushed the Union troops back at Devil's Den and the Wheatfield, it was time for the next brigade in line to move forward. As they advanced, the Federals met them but were pushed back. They tried to regroup in the Peach Orchard, but the Confederate attack, supported by artillery, proved to be too much. The Federals fell back with heavy casualties.
Late in the afternoon, Anderson's division launched its attack against the Union line at the Emmitsburg Road. Wilcox's, Perry's and Wright's brigades advanced and pushed the Federals back to Cemetery Ridge but were stopped by a strong Union defense and lack of support from the brigades to their left.
As the Confederates pulled back from Cemetery Ridge, the fighting on that part of the battlefield came to an end. On the northern end of the battlefield, Early launched an attack against Cemetery Hill and took it without much opposition. Union troops rallied and kicked the unsupported Confederates off the hill. At Culp's Hill, Johnson attacked. He ran off some of the Federals from their position, but night rolled in, and the fighting ceased until the next day.
The second day's battle was considered an inconclusive victory. Neither side had a decisive advantage at the end of the day. Both sides held the same ground that they had at the beginning of the day.
On July 3, the fighting began on Culp's Hill. At 4:30 A.M., Union artillery open fire on Johnson's artillery and infantry as they prepared for another attack. The effect was devastating, but the Confederates attacked anyway, with little success. The Union position proved to be just too strong, and fighting on Culp's Hill ended with the withdrawal of Johnson's division. With the Confederate left unable to turn the Union right, Lee had to come up with a new plan.
The plan he devised was a frontal assault against the center of the Union line, focusing on a copse of trees near a stonewall at Cemetery Ridge. This was defended by Gibbon's and Hay's divisions of the II Corps. Lee believed that Meade's left and right flanks were too heavily defended from the previous day's reinforcements. Longstreet strongly urged Lee not to commit to the frontal attack, but to no avail. This attack would become known as Pickett's Charge. Pickett's division, which had just arrived on the field, would make up the center of the charge. On his left would be Heth's Division, and on Pickett's right would be 2 brigades (Anderson's and Wilcox's) from Anderson's division. Longstreet wanted to have the charge start during the artillery barrage so that they would have some protection from the Union fire.
The terrain to be travelled across was open fields hundreds of yards long. The men making the charge would be exposed for virtually the entire advance. The almost one mile charge would take about 16 minutes to complete. The Confederates hoped that an artillery barrage would weaken the Union center by the time the infantry made it to the wall. The Confederates massed 140 guns for their artillery barrage, stretching from Oak Hill on the northern end to the Peach Orchard, some 2 miles to the south. Meade believed that the Confederates would not attack this day because both armies were too tired and would use the day to rest their troops. The Union army wasn't expecting an attack and was using the day to recuperate and rest their troops.
At 1:07 P.M., the Confederate artillery barrage began. The Union artillery also started their own barrage. The Confederate artillery had little effect on the Union line. At the time, their aim was too high. Smoke covered the field, and the Confederates never realized they were off target. The Union artillery however, proved much more effective, killing hundreds of Confederates as they prepared to launch their final assault. Meade decided to slack off on their artillery fire as to give the impression that the Confederates had destroyed much of their artillery. Actually, Meade had his artillery pieces pulled back down the hill and hide it from the Confederates. Once they started their charge across the field, Meade would bring his guns back in line and open fire on them.
About 3:00 P.M., the cannons ceased their fire and a silence fell over the field. The Confederates marched down Seminary Ridge, across open fields toward the Union line. The Confederates thought they saw the Union artillery backing away from their line, thus thinking that the Union line was retreating. Artillery Chief Henry J. Hunt decided to silence his guns and pull them back from the line. This, he hoped, would lure the Confederates into making the attack prematurely. When the charge was to get close enough to the Union line, the artillery would be moved back up in line and used to destroy the oncoming Confederates. During the Confederate artillery barrage, Hancock rode up to the center line on his horse. When asked to to move back, out of the way of the front, Hancock replied "There are times when a corps commander's life does not count."
As soon as the Confederates saw the Union guns pulling back, Longstreet knew that he would have to give the order to attack. Pickett rode up to him and asked if his men could advance. Overwhelmed by emotion that rendered him unable to reply, he just merely bowed his head. Taking this to be affirmation, Pickett left to start the attack. Longstreet knew that the charge would be a disaster and that at least half of the attackers would be a casualty.
Pickett led the start of the attack. Under orders neither to fire nor to emit any yelling, the 3 divisions advanced through the woods in silence at a steady pace of about 100 yards per minute. While advancing, there were still some Union guns that were firing into the Confederate line. These guns were having their desired effect.
As the Confederates crossed the fences, they exposed themselves to the Union artillery, which took advantage and poured a devastating fire into advancing ranks. As they neared ever closer, Pickett's men straightened their lines. The Confederates charged, but the fire from the defending Union infantry and artillery proved too much and the attack began to waver. But still they came, pushing forward to their target-the copse of trees. Behind the copse of trees ran a stonewall, and as the Confederates approached, the Union soldiers unleashed a continuous and devastating fire.
The Confederates still pushed forward, hitting the wall and engaging in hand-to-hand combat. With the support of Armistead's, Perrin's, and Lane's brigades, the Confederates breached the wall. But it was not enough. The Federals rallied and hit the Confederates hard, mortally wounding Armistead in the process. Within minutes, every Confederate who crossed the wall was either killed or captured. The Union line held, and Pickett's Charge came to a crushing halt. His gallant men retreated back to their lines with the division virtually destroyed. Union officers tried to get their men to pursue the retreating Confederates. Meade decided not to attack the Confederates, fearing that Lee might attack his army again. He was satisfied with the Union victory.
After witnessing his men being slaughtered, Pickett started to ride back to the Confederate lines. On the way back, he ran into Lee. When Lee ordered him to reform his men for another possible assault, he responded "General Lee, I have no division now." Neither Pickett nor his remaining men had any fight left. He would grieve for his men for the rest of his life. He also blamed Lee for the slaughter of his men and never forgave Lee.
On the other side, jubilation swept the Union lines. For the first time in the war, the Army of the Potomac had defeated Lee and his Army of Northern Virginia. They had stopped Lee's invasion of the north. As the day ended and night fell, Lee ordered his men to prepared for a counter attack.
Although losses were similar in numbers, the relative costs to the Confederates was greater because in the battle of attrition, they could not afford to lose the same number of men that the Union could. The Confederates would never be able to fully rebuild their decimated units. Lee's task was to now preserve the Army of Northern Virginia at all costs, because men and material lost could not be replaced.
On July 4, Lee sent a messenger to Meade suggesting an exchange of prisoners. Meade did not wish to do so, knowing that the captured Confederates could not fight his army again. He also realized that the Confederates could not replace their lost manpower. After Lee got his answer, he decided to withdraw his army this day before the Union army could react. Lee believed that the Union army would not attack right away. Lee's plan of retreat was to withdraw west of the mountains. It would be 48 hours after the end of the battle before the Union army would began a late pursuit of the retreating Confederates.