The Background of The Battle of Gettysburg:
History of Battle of Gettysburg-General Robert E. Lee wanted to isolate a Union army and destroy it. That, he believed, was the quickest way to convince the North to allow the Southern Confederacy its freedom. So he marched his men out of warravaged Virginia through Maryland and into Pennsylvania.
The Battle of Gettysburg:
The battle was fought over three days: 1-3 July 1863, with the final troop totals equaling close to 95,000 Federals and 75,000 Confederates. As the initial skirmishes began, almost accidentally, Kentucky-born Union General John Buford, an old Indian fighter, secured the high ground for the Federals.
The Confederates could have won the battle the first day. They pushed the Federals from their advanced positions in front of Gettysburg and along Seminary Ridge. The subsequent Union position—known as the “fish hook”—eventually formed like the base of the letter J at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, extending straight down Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top and Big Round on the Union left.
Lee asked General Richard Ewell to attack the base of the fishhook, in order to sweep the Federal line, “if practicable.” Ewell, to Lee’s dismay, didn’t think it was, though Confederate General John B. Gordon knew otherwise: “The whole portion of the Union army in my front was in inextricable confusion and in flight . . . my troops were on the flank and sweeping down the lines. The firing upon my men had almost ceased. Large bodies of the Union troops were throwing down their arms and surrendering . . . .In less than half an hour my troops would have swept up and over those hills . . . .It is not surprising that . . .I should have refused to obey that order [to retreat].”
On the Union side of the line, it had been a lucky escape, but with heavy casualties. I Corps had lost nearly 10,000 men and some units had been virtually annihilated (the 24th Michigan suffered casualties of 80 percent). But arriving at midnight was the Army of the Potomac’s new commander, General George Meade, who inspected his defensive positions and found them solid.
That was one opportunity lost for the Confederate army. Another came on the second day, when Lee’s plan was to “attack the enemy as early in the morning as practicable”25 at the opposite end of the fish hook. The attack was entrusted to General James Longstreet. Longstreet, however, disliked Lee’s plan, preferring, according to his later testimony, to maneuver the Confederate army into a defensive position that would force the Yankees to attack it.
Longstreet delayed the attack until near day’s end, waiting for reinforcements. By that time, Union troops under General Daniel Sickles had advanced, contrary to General Meade’s orders, into an area known as the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and Devil’s Den, smack in front of Longstreet’s long-delayed advance.
Confederate General John Bell Hood, dispatched scouts to see if it was still possible to flank the Union left, as originally planned. The answer was yes, if the Confederates moved their attack around to the hills of Little Round Top, which had no more than a Union observation unit, or unoccupied Big Round Top.
Hood reported this intelligence to Longstreet, but Longstreet refused to alter the plan of attack. He sent his men charging, en échelon, uphill, into spewing Union fire. Still, the Union line began to dissolve, and the Confederate attack spilled over to Little Round Top.
There the Confederates met the hastily formed line of the 20th Maine led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain. Chamberlain’s thin blue line forced back the Confederate attacks, and trusting to courage against numbers, he counter-charged with fixed bayonets, stunning the Confederates into retreat and hundreds of surrenders.
But everywhere else on the center-right of the Union line, furious fighting continued. General William Barksdale, pushing his Mississippians to almost pierce the Union line, was killed. Union General Sickles lost a leg (smashed by a cannon ball), but nonchalantly lit up a cigar as though it were nothing. The 1st Minnesota regiment, rushing to plug a gap in the Union line, sustained 82 percent casualties, but did its duty and held the position. Cemetery Ridge remained in the hands of the bluecoats.
Twice, fate—in the form of reluctant generals—had deprived Lee of the victory he thought was possible at Battle of Gettysburg. On day three, Lee resolved on a daring stratagem.
That night, at the Union council of war, Meade and his officers resolved that they would hold their ground and brace for Lee’s next move. Having attacked the Federals on both flanks, Meade suspected that Lee would attack dead center. Meade was the first general to read Robert E. Lee exactly right.
Lee planned for Ewell to lead a diversionary attack on the Union right while Longstreet made the main attack under cover of the largest artillery barrage ever attempted by the Confederate army. Longstreet, however, wanted to renew his argument from the day before. He wanted either to renew his flanking attack or have the entire army shift to the Union left and establish a defensive line that would compel the Federals to attack.
Lee listened patiently, but rejected Longstreet’s arguments and told him to get his men into position. Longstreet, however, delayed all the morning through the afternoon. Indeed, by the time he got his men moving, the artillery, which had barraged the enemy, was depleted of ammunition.
The Confederates now had the challenge of crossing a mile of open ground with minimal artillery support to suppress federal fire. They did not flinch. The charge would be led by the brigades of General George Pickett. Officers to the front, General Lewis Armistead—whose father had been a general and whose uncle had been the lieutenant-colonel commanding the defense of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812—shoved his black hat over the tip of his sword and waved his men forward. With him were Pickett’s other brigade commanders: James Kemper, a former member of the Virginia House of Delegates whose grandfather had served on George Washington’s staff, and Richard B. Garnett, a West Pointer suffering from a bad knee and worse fever. He advanced on horseback, however obvious a target that made him.
The Confederates marched forward as if on parade, even stopping at one point to adjust and straighten their lines, oblivious to the holes being torn in their ranks by the Union fire. Of Pickett’s Virginians, Brigadier Garnett was shot off his horse, dead. Brigadier Kemper, calling for Armistead’s men to support his brigade, collapsed, shot in the groin.
Armistead waved his men to come on, they were close enough now to the Union line to break into a jog—and they were blasted by canister. But through the storm of smoke, artillery fire, and minié balls, the Union front was suddenly pierced. Chasing a line of retreating Federals was Armistead himself, still waving his black hat on his sword, shouting, “Come on boys! Give them the cold steel! Follow me!” They surged forward into hand-to-hand combat, Armistead and his troopers running straight into two Federal regiments rushing to close the line. Armistead, arm outstretched to a silent Federal cannon, went down, mortally wounded, falling at a point on the battlefield now called “the high tide of the Confederacy.” On another part of the front, the University Greys, made up entirely of students from Ole Miss, managed to plant their colors no more than a yard from the Union line before the devastating Union fire killed every last one of them.
Now it really was over. The Confederate lines wavered and buckled. As one rebel commander said, “The best thing the men can do is get out of this. Let them go.” As the shattered Confederate units drifted back, Lee rode forward to meet them. “All good men must rally. . . .General Pickett. . . your men have done all that men could do; the fault is entirely my own . . . .All this has been my fault—it is I that have lost this fight and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” The Confederate soldiers cheered Lee. They even begged another chance. But Lee waved them down, and prepared them—with a newly revitalized Longsteet—for a counterattack that didn’t come.
Both sides licked deep wounds. The Union army had suffered 23,000 casualties. The statistics were even grimmer for the Confederates. Twenty-eight thousand men were lost, more than a third of Lee’s army, and among them a high proportion of senior officers whose talents and experience could not be replaced. Lee’s officers had sacrificed their lives in the battle they hoped would secure Southern freedom.
What You Need to Know:
Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the turning points of the war. The hopes of the Confederacy would never again rise so high as they did on the battlefield in Pennsylvania.
The Strategic Situation in the East May – June 1863
- Union Problems
- The Union had lost several battles in a row in Virginia, most notably (and recently) Chancellorsville.
- Lincoln could not find an army commander that he could trust.
- The lack of Union success was encouraging the peace movement in the North. Copperheads (anti-war Democrats) said the war needed to be ended right away and the Union restored to the way it was.
- The Union imposed a draft in 1863. The draft was very unpopular and helped the Copperheads gain support.
- Confederate Opportunities
- In early May, Lee’s and Hooker’s armies faced each other in northern VA.
- Bragg and Rosecrans faced each other in east Tennessee
- gE was operating against Vicksburg.
- Some Confederate leaders (including Davis) believed VA was not that important. They felt Lee should send part of his army to reinforce Bragg and/or Pemberton.
- Lee wanted to keep his whole army and invade the North again. This would take pressure off Virginia farmers and strengthen Peace Democrats in the North.
- Lee also felt that a successful invasion might even lead to British or French recognition of the Confederacy.
Lee Moves North
- Lee was rejoined by Longstreet’s corps. He now has 75,000 men.
- He divided Jackson’s old corps into two. Now he had three corps, one under Longstreet, one under A. P. Hill, and one under Richard Ewell.
- On June 9, when Lee was preparing to set off, his cavalry (led by Jeb Stuart) was attacked by Union cavalry under Alfred Pleasanton at the Battle of Brandy Station. This was the largest cavalry battle ever held in the northern hemisphere. There were 10,000 men on each side. In the end, Stuart drove the attacking Federals away.
- Bio on Stuart (30, WP, had fought in Indian wars, dashing and gallant). Best cavalryman for intelligence gathering. But his pride was stung by Brandy Station.
- The Confederates moved rapidly to the north. On June 16, the Confederates began crossing the Potomac and fanned out over southern PA.
- Lee’s army seized food and other supplies from the locals and paid them with Confederate money (which was, of course, useless in the North). They also seized free blacks and sent them south into slavery.
- Hooker told Lincoln he wanted to capture Richmond. Lincoln told him to instead go after Lee. Hooker quarreled with Lincoln about other issues, and he finally submitted his resignation, which Lincoln accepted.
- On June 27, Lincoln appointed George Gordon Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac (this is the fourth Army commander in just 7 months!). Meade, another West Pointer, had worked his way up through the army ranks and had done well. People called him the “Damned Old Goggle-Eyed Snapping Turtle.” He was good with logistics and topography (as a former engineer).
- Determined to redeem himself after Brandy Station, Stuart made a long ride around the Union army. This deprived Lee of valuable intelligence. Lee learned of Meade’s appointment and the Union march northward from an actor. He ordered his army to re-concentrate. Their orders were to meet at a small town called Gettysburg for Battle of Gettysburg
Day One (July 1)
- Part of Lee’s army under Henry Heth marched to the town of Gettysburg looking for shoes, which the rebels dearly needed.
- Near Gettysburg, Heth’s division ran into a division of Union cavalry led by John Buford.
- Both sides poured reinforcements into the battle so that it turned into a rather large battle
- Ewell’s corps, coming down from the North, was able to flank the Union left (with Jubal Early ably serving).
- Lee gave the order to push the assault. The outnumbered Union soldiers (only two corps) were shattered. One corps lost half of their numbers as casualties.
- The Federals retreated back through the town and were rallied by General Winfield Scott Hancock. They occupied high ground to the east of the town (Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge). A sign near the entrance to the cemetery read “All persons found using firearms in these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.”
- Lee ordered Ewell to continue the attack, but his order was ambiguous (“if practicable”), and Ewell halted the attack.
- The first day was thus a major tactical success for the Confederacy.
- That evening, the rest of both armies arrived, except for one Confederate division (Pickett’s). The bluecoats spend all night entrenching, building breastworks.
- The Confederate army was wrapped around the Union position, which resembled a fish hook. The Federals occupy the high ground and have good interior lines. (Mental map)
Day Two (July 2)
- Longstreet urged Lee to redeploy the army, trying to place it between Washington and the Federal army. Lee refused, saying “No. I am going to whip them here, or they are going to whip me.”
- 65,000 Confederates faced 85,000 Federals. Lee had no idea of the Union army’s strength, since he had not heard from Stuart.
- Lee ordered attacks on both ends of the Union line. The Union right was at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, and the left was at Big and Little Round Tops. Between the ends, it ran across Cemetery Ridge.
- One Union corps commander, Dan Sickles, moved his corps off the ridge without orders. He moved it forward closer to the Confederate potion, thinking he could better use his artillery there. This created a bulge and gaps in the Union line. Meade had to send units to plug the gaps, and this weakened the Union center and right.
- A. P. Hill was ordered to threaten the Union center.
- Longstreet was assigned the job of attacking the Union left. He was not able to launch the attack until 4 PM. His forces encountered stiff opposition in “Devil’s Den”, a heavily wooded and rocky area where Sickles’ forces are, as well as in a wheat field and a peach orchard. Sickles lost a leg in the battle.
- Longstreet almost captured Little Round Top, a hill just south of Seminary Ridge. At first, the hill was undefended. But at the last minute, a Union corps is rushed to the top, and they push back repeated rebel assaults (Tell story of 20th Maine, which ended up catching 400 Confederates).
- At one point, the Union center had developed a mile-long gap. The rebels threatened to cut it in two, but Meade plugs the hole at the last minute.
- At dusk, Ewell attacked the Union right, almost took Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, but narrowly failed.
- That evening, Longstreet again urged Lee to redeploy. Again, Lee refused.
Day Three (July 3)
- Lee ordered another attack on Culp’s Hill, but this failed. Stuart was supposed to get behind the Federals and attack them by the rear, but he was stopped by Federal cavalry who were led in part by 23-year-old General George Armstrong Custer.
- By late morning on the 3rd, Lee felt that the Union center would be weakened (because he believed they had sent many troops to the right and left the previous day).
- He ordered three divisions (13,000 men), under George Pickett, Isaac Trimble and Johnston Pettigrew to march about a mile up a gentle slope and attack the Union soldiers on Cemetery Ridge.
- The attack become known as “Pickett’s Charge.” (misnomer) Meade saw it coming and was ready.
- The Confederates began with an artillery barrage of the hill. Union artillery responded and then stopped. (This is the largest artillery barrage ever to occur in the western hemisphere…it was heard in Harrisburg, PA, 40 miles away!). Lee assumed the Union artillery had been disabled.
- When Pickett asked Longstreet for the order to march, Longstreet couldn’t bear to give it. He just nodded.
- When the soldiers set off, the Union artillery opened up again, decimating the Confederate line. About half of the Confederates became casualties. The attackers were forbidden to fire until they were right on the Union lines.
- A few Confederates reached the Union position, but all were killed or captured.
- The Confederates retreated to where they started, but only half make it back.
- Lee told Pickett to rally his division for a possible counterattack. Pickett replied “General Lee, I have no division.” Pickett never forgave Lee.
- Lee told his men “All of this is my fault.”
Outcome of Battle of Gettysburg
- The Confederates suffered 28,000 casualties (1/3 of the army). 17 of 52 Confederate generals were casualties. The Union lost about 23,000 men. Lee lost 1/3 of his army.
- The total number of casualties was 51,000, making Battle of Gettysburg the bloodiest battle of the Civil War (in terms of total casualties).
- Many regiments were almost destroyed. One TN regiment started with 960 men. When Battle of Gettysburg began, only 365 remained. By the end of the first day, there were only 60 left. By the end of the battle, only 3 had survived.
- Lee retreated back to Virginia on July 4 (which had a lot of symbolic significance).
- Meade wanted to pursue, but doing so was nearly impossible. The Confederate position would have been too strong.
- The battle was undoubtedly a Union victory, but many in the North felt it should have been a much bigger victory. Lincoln was very disappointed that Meade did not do more to destroy Lee’s army.
- The Confederacy did not see it as a major disaster. It had no negative effect on Lee’s reputation. (Although Longstreet later said, “Gettysburg was ground of no value. That day was the saddest day of my life.”)
- It was not the “turning point of the war” although it did stop Confederate momentum. This was the last time Lee would invade the North, and it probably made European intervention impossible (they didn’t know that at the time, of course!)
- Lee wrote Jefferson Davis and offered to resign. Davis refused to accept it.
- A few months later, Lincoln came to dedicate the national cemetery there and gave the now-famous Gettysburg Address. (Read entire speech)