The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1 – July 3, 1863), fought in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, was the bloodiest battle of the American Civil War and is frequently cited as the war's turning point. Union Major General George G. Meade's Army of the Potomac decisively defeated attacks by Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, ending Lee's second and final invasion of the North.
Following his brilliant success at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley for his second invasion of the North, hoping to reach as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia, and to influence the Northern politicians to give up their prosecution of the war. Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker moved his army in pursuit, but was relieved almost on the eve of battle and replaced by Meade.
Order Of Battle
The two armies began to collide at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there. A Union cavalry division, led by Major General John Buford of the 1st Division, Cavalry Corps, was the first on the scene to defend Gettysburg, and was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry. One of these corps was led by the Pennsylvania native, Major General John F. Reynolds, however Gettysburg would be his final resting place on this day. This engagement was soon noted to be the fight of Seminary Ridge. However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south. The development of the July 1 brought some irony into the equation, being how the Confederates attacked Gettysburg from the north (in a Union State) and the Union ended up defending from the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled. The Union line was laid out resembling a fishhook, stretching the whole way from Culp's Hill to the famous Little Round Top. On this day, Major General James Longstreet, commander of the First Corp of the Army of Northern Virginia, launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines. What was unique about Culp's Hill on this day, was that it was only being defended by a regiment while an entire division lay in wait for orders to ascend upon the hill. Part of the confusion of this, which may have led to the collapse of this part of the Union line could have been because of Lee's health. Lee may have experienced a heart-attack or slight stroke just before the battle of Gettysburg.
Day two of the battle may have been the most important day for the Union. The reasons for this are because already established Union lines were able to hold heavy assault and bombardments from the Confederates, from the middle and flanks of the line. The most famous hold took place on Little Round Top, where Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's 20th Maine managed to hold the 15th Alabama regiment, under command of Colonel William Oates. It was here where the brave men of the 20th Maine incorporated a never-before-seen tactic where they refused the line, in order to face the last onslaught of the Alabama regiment. The last most important move of Day two rested on Chamberlain's shoulders when he decided to break the line, and make a bayonet charge down the side of Little Round Top to capture the 15th Alabama as well as Col. Oates.
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp's Hill and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett's Charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire at great losses to the Confederate army.
Imagine 12,500 Confederate soldiers, marching one mile across an open field (uphill) with Union artillery constantly throwing shells out at them. This was Pickett's Charge…a futile and demoralizing move made by General Lee. With much concern and advice not to go through with the day's schedule, Gen. Longstreet was unable to persuade the good leader (Lee) from going through with his plans. Had Longstreet been able to convince Lee, the battle may very well have been much longer than three days, with more lives taken and a key southern Pennsylvania town left in ruin.
It was here where the legend of General Lewis Armstead was born. Here, with the Angle in site, Armstead stuck his hat on his sword and marched his men straight through the Union line for a bloody hand-to-hand combat mess.
Once the smoke cleared, and what remained of the Confederate charge had retreated, General Lee ordered General Pickett to regroup his division and prepare for a Union counterattack. Famous Pickett words emerged at the end of this conversation with, "General Lee…I have no division."
General Hancock never gave the orders to counterattack, even though if he should have chosen to, the war could have came to end on that very day.
Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. Over 51,000 Americans were casualties in the three-day battle, men commemorated by President Lincoln that November in his historic Gettysburg Address. News of the victory caused great rejoicing in Washington, particularly so when news of the fall of Vicksburg was received a few days later. Confederate Vice-President Stephens, en route with peace proposals from Jefferson Davis was curtly refused permission to cross the Union lines, whilst in Richmond, the Confederate Capital, morale sunk to an all time low. But of more important strategic value was that Lee’s defeat spelt the last hope for the Southerners of any European involvement in the war. The war would continue for another two years but never again would Confederate Armies be in a position to endanger Union territory.
- Battle Cry of Freedom (James m. McPherson, Penguin, 1990)
- Gettysburg National Military Park (National Park Service)
- Military History Online: The Battle of Gettysburg
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