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Battle of Gettysburg

Go to Day 1 – Battle of Gettysburg
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Day 1 – July 1 – 3, 1863

Battle of GettysburgOn the last day of June 1863 tens of thousands of soldiers were streaming toward Gettysburg, Penn. The only troops in the town were two Union cavalry brigades commanded by Gen. John Buford. They were scouting in advance of their Army of the Potomac, which was streaming steadily north through Maryland in an effort to catch up with Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

The Rebels were approaching the area from the north and the west. For a week they had been rampaging through the Pennsylvania countryside seizing livestock, food, and clothes, demanding tribute from prosperous towns heretofore untouched by the ravages of war, and moving to capture the state capital of Harrisburg. A Rebel division, commanded by Gen. Henry Heth, camped four miles west of Gettysburg that night. Heth had learned there was a hidden storage of shoes in the town and told is corps commander, Gen. Ambrose P. Hill: “If there is no objection, General, I will take my division tomorrow and get those shoes.”

At about 8:00 the next morning, Heth and his 7,461 men reached the crest of Herr Ridge, about 1.5 miles from Gettysburg, and saw Buford’s 2,748 dismounted cavalrymen deployed for battle along Willoughby Run below. Rebel skirmishers moved straight down the hill into a hail of lead delivered by the troopers’ rapid-firing breech-loaded carbines and a battery of artillery. The Rebels were stalled but a short time, until reinforcements could arrive to add pressure to the assault.

On Seminary Ridge, 900 yeards east of and parallel to Herr Ridge, was located a Lutheran seminary. Around 9:00 A.M. from atop one of the buildings, Buford was watching his men being pushed back from Willoughby Run when Gen. John Reynolds rode, announced his corps was following him, and asked Buford to hold out until they arrived. “The devel’s to pay!” exclaimed Buford. Then he said simply; “I reckon I can.”

Battle of Gettysburg 2“Up and down the line,” wrote an artillerist on Seminary Ridge northwest of Gettysburg, Pa,., on the afternoon of July 1, 1863, “men reeling and falling . . horses tearing and plunging, mad with wounds or terror’ drivers yelling, shells bursting, shot shrieking overhead, howling above our ears or throwing up great clouds of dust where they struck’ the musketry crashing on three sides of us’ bullets hissing, humming and whistling everywhere. Smoke, dust, splinters, blood, wreck and carnage indescribable.”

Two of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s three corps had converged on Gettysburg from the west and north. At first the furiously fighting Union troops had stymied the approach of Lee’s III Corps from the west. Then Lee’s II Corps started arriving on the right of the Union line, and though their advance was savagely disputed, the Rebels gradually began to push the Yankees out of their position. The veteran Confederate II Corps brigade, led by Gen. Stephen D. Ramseur, came up after the two brigades in front of them had been pushed back and applied the pressure that started the Union soldiers’ falling back from Oak Ridge. Then Gen. Jubal A. Early’s Rebel division of the II Corps arrived on the field, square on the Union flank, causing the Yankees to relinquish their line and to retreat through Gettysburg.

On Herr Ridge with his III Corps, Lee observed Early’s attack and immediately sent the III Corps forward toward the Union troops still holding Seminary Ridge. Simultateously attacked from three sides, the Yankee position became untenable, and the men gave way and flooded down the roads toward Gettysburg. The victorious Rebels pursued, capturing 3,500 prisoners in the town.

Union Gen. Winfield S. Hancock arrived on Cemetery Hill, south of Gettysburg, at 4:30 P.M. and saw below the thousands of Yankees stampeding out of the town and toward him. One of his aides wrote, “Wreck, disaster, disorder, the panic that precedes disorganization, defeat and retreat were everywhere.”

Battle of Gettysburg 3“I think this is the strongest position by nature on which to fight a battle that I ever saw,” said Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock as he surveyed the terrain from his position atop 80-foot high Cemetery Hill on the afternoon of July 1, 1863. The town of Gettysburg, Pa., was just to the north; to the west, across a mile of fertile fields and orchards, he could see Confederate soldiers on Seminary Ridge. Culp’s Hill, a 180-foot high wooded, and boulder strewn eminence, was just to his east; stretching for two miles to the south was low Cemetery Ridge. At the end of Cemetery Ridge were two more rock-strewn hills — Little Round Top and Big Round Top. The natural strength of the high ground was augmented by clear fields of fire, stone walls to offer protected defensive positions, and good roads in the rear for the movement of supplies and troops.

A furious battle had waged all day over the ridges west of Gettysburg between two corps from Gen. Robert E. Lee’s invading Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and two corps of Gen. George Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac. Late in the afternoon, the Union positions had given way under relentless attacks, and the victorious Rebels had chased the Yankees through the town and onto the high ground to the south. Hancock rallied the fleeing soldiers and set up a defensive line to try to hold his position until Union reinforcements could arrive.

Lee, despite his army’s victory, was troubled. He recognized the natural strength of the high ground to which the Union army retreated. Lee sent a message to his II Corps commander Gen. Richard Ewell that it “was only necessary to press those people in order to secure possession of the heights,” and urged him to do so “if practicable.” Ewell was a capable corps commander, but he was new to the position, having replaced Stonewall Jackson, who had died less than two months before. Ewell did not believe the attack was “practicable.” Lee sorely missed Stonewall, a man who surely would have recognized the need to “press those people” and would have done so at once.

“Good,” exclaimed Gen. George G. Meade, commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, “That is just like Reynolds, he will hold out to the bitter end.” Reynolds was one of the army’s ablest generals and commanded the wing of the army advancing toward Gettysburg. He had just notified Meade that he would try to hold the invading Confederate army at that town until the rest of the federal troops could arrive. Reynolds brought his closest division rapidly to the battle being waged on Seminary Ridge, west of Gettysburg. He deployed his men alongside the dismounted cavalrymen who had stalled the Rebel advance for several hours. As Reynolds turned in his saddle to direct an arriving unit into position, a skirmisher’s minie ball struck him behind the right ear, and he fell to the ground, smiled, and died.

Battle of Gettysburg 4“There are those damned black-hatted fellows again!” exclaimed a surprised Reb on the right of the Confederate line when he realized there was more than cavalry disuputing his progress up Seminary Ridge. The black-hatted men of the Iron Brigade had a reputation as fierce fighters, and they provided proof all over again on this first day of July 1863. Their unexpected appearance and added firepower caused the Rebs to retreat, and their rapid pursuit netted them 75 prisoneres, including James J. Archer, the first of Lee’s generals ever to have been captured.

Those on the left of the Rebel line had made better progress before they too were hit by a devastating fire and forced to seek shelter, many of them finding safety in the deep cut of an unfinished railroad bed. When the federals charged the cut, they captured 250 prisoners and sent the other attackers running to the rear. By 11:00 A.M., the Confederate offense had failed all along the line. For the next couple of hours there was a lull in the firing, then cannonballs started dropping in the Yankee rear, fired by a Confederate force that was approaching the battlefield from the north.

Day 2 July 1 – 3, 1863

On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Gen. James Longstreet met Gen. Robert E. Lee on Seminary Ridge outside Gettysburg, Pa. The men watched as two corps of their Confederate Army of Northern Virginia routed two corps from the Union Army of the Potomac, pushing them through the town and onto the high ground to the south. It had been as hard a fight that day as any in the war — the victorious Rebels lost 6,000 men, almost 22 percent of those engaged, while the Union’s 8,900 casualties, or 28 percent, included 3,500 captured.

Battle of GettysburgAs they examined the strong position the Yankees were occupying, Longstreet suggested the Confederate army make a flanking movement to force the Union troops off the heights. But Lee, whose aggressive spirit was roused by the day’s fight, said determinedly, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” “If he is there,” replied Longstreet, “it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”

Union army commander Gen. George G. Meade, along with thousands of reinforcements, arrived at the Union camps before dawn on July 2. After a moonlight inspection of his army’s position, Meade approved the location as being perfect for a defensive fight. Not only was the terrain in his favor but he also had more men on the battlefield than Lee — and more were coming.

Later that morning, Lee met with his II Corps commander, Gen. Richard Ewell, who Lee felt had not been aggressive enough on July 1. Lee told him, “We did not pursue our advantage of yesterday, and now the enemy are in good position.” Coming from gentleman Lee, Ewell recognized the statement as a severe rebuke and no doubt steeled himself to perform better in the day’s coming battle. The Union army was in position, and Lee ordered his army to attack. The main assault would be delivered by Longstreet’s corps on the Union left, while Ewell’s men applied pressure to the right of the line.

Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’s 10,000 men III Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac filed into position on Cemetery Ridge during the night and early morning of July 2, 1863. The corps occupied the extreme left of the Union line, the long shank of the hook-shaped position. Commander Gen. George G. Meade felt there was little possibility of a Confederate attack from that direction and devoted his energies to the other end of the line. Sickles, however was concerned about a low elevation one-half mile to his front, halfway between Cemetery Ridge and the Confederate army on Seminary Ridge.

Battle of GettysburgSickles feared that if the Rebels placed cannon there, his position on Cemetery Ridge, which at his part of the line was only slightly higher than the surrounding ground, would be threatened. A peach orchard was on top of the low, flat topped ridge and the Emmitsburg Road crossed over it. Another low ridge angled back from the peach orchard, past a wheat field, to a jumble of giant rocks known as the Devel’s Den, 1,100 yards away. Five hundreds yards past Devel’s Den was Little Round Top, and between the two was a marshy area through which meandered a little stream called Plum Run.

Much of the day’s fighting would cover this entire area and the names Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top would, from that day forward, connote images of slaughter and mayhem to students of the Civil War. And the low area through which quiet little Plum Run flowed would forever be known as the Valley of Death.

At 3:00 P.M., Sickles marched his corps forward to occupy the area, his new, unsupported line forming a salient that would be exposed to attack from two directions. When Meade heard firing coming from the end of his line, he rushed to the scene and was flabbergasted to see Sickles’s vulnerable position. Amid bursing shells, Sickles offered to withdraw his corps to its original line. “I wish to God you could,” exclaimed an angry Meade, “but those people will not permit it.”

At 5:30 P.M. on July 2, 1863, after the fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg had raged for 1 1/2 hours, Confederate corps commander Gen. James Longstreet launched his second division, under Gen. Lafayette McLaws, into the fight. The first division had attacked and crushed the left of the salient in the Union lines held by Gen. Daniel E. Sickles’s III Corps. This new attack, spearheaded by a brigade of South Carolinians commanded by Gen. Joseph Kershaw and followed by Gen. Paul Semmes’s Georgia brigade, was directed toward the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard, at the center of Sickles’s salient.

Battle of GettysburgUnion army commander George G. Meade had been shifting troops from the right of his line to the endangered left. The Rebel attack was stopped by one of these reinforcing units, Gen. John Caldwell’s II Corps division of four brigades. “I noticed,” recalled a Union soldier, “how the ears of wheat flew in the air all over the field as they were cut off by the enemy’s bullets.”

At 6:00, Gen. William Barksdalel’s Mississippians, other two brigades following, slammed into the Peach Orchard. Although the Pennsylvania regiments holding the position “fought like demons,” they were forced out and fled toward Cemetery Ridge.

McLaw’s last brigade, Gen. William Wolford’s Alabamans, came up on Barksdale’s right, and the two units wheeled to their right, trapping the Union brigades in the Wheatfield between them and Kershaw’s and Semme’s brigades. Joined by Gen. George Anderson’s Georgia brigade from Gen. John B. Hood’s division, the advancing Rebels quickly overran the Wheatfield, busting Sickles’s advanced position wide open and forcing the Yankees to flee back toward the high ground. Confederate division commander Gen. Richard H. Anderson, following orders for an attack in echelon, sent three of his brigades forward toward the Union line north of the Peach Orchard.

On July 2, 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia made an oblique attack on the Union position at Gettysburg, Pa. This attack brought Gen. John B. Hood’s division of Gen James Longstreet’s corps into first contact with the south and east sides of the exposed position of the Union III Corps on the far left of the Union line. Gen. Evander Law’s Alabama brigade moved toward the high hill known as Round Top while Gen. Jerome Robertson’s brigade of Texans and Arkansans drove toward the jumble of large boulders known as Devil’s Den. The area between these two positions, which became known as the “Slaughter Pen,” was littered with bodies of Rebels who were felled by devastating volleys of rifle and canister before the Yankees pulled back to the Devil’s Den.

Battle of GettysburgOn the far right, two of Law’s regiments had little opposition and soon climbed to the top of Round Top. There they received orders to assault Little Round Top, a lower hill directly to the north. Quickly moving down into the bog between the two hills, Law’s men were hit by a withering Union volley from the southern face of Little Round Top. Col. Joshua Chamberlain’s Maine regiment had taken possession of the undefended hill just before Law’s men appeared, and though outnumbered, Chamberlain organized a stubborn, heroic defense that saved the strategic position for the Union.

The battle still raged fiercely on the western slope of Little Round Top. There, three other Union regiments were crumbling under the relentless Rebel attack, until Union reinforcements sent by army commander Gen. George G. Meade came streaming over the crest and drove back Hood’s men. West of Little Round Top, the fight for Devil’s Den continued. Another of Hood’s brigades was added, and five Union regiments reinforced the weak Union position. From the Slaughter Pen and from Plum Run, afterwards known as the “Valley of Death,” the Rebels converged on Devil’s Den and overran the position.

Day 3 – July 1 – 3, 1863

Gen. George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac held a position atop Cemetery Ridge outside Gettysburg, Pa. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s I Corps commander, Gen. James Longstreet, tried to dissuade Lee from attacking Meade’s position on July 3, 1863; “General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments and armies, and I should know . . what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”

Battle of GettysburgThe courageous men who braved a storm of shot and shell while advancing under their red battleflags across a mile of open farmland on that hot summer afternoon were amassed from various units in the Confederate army and were all under the command of Longstreet. What has become known as Pickett’s Charge might be better named Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble’s Charge or simply Longstreet’s Advance.

Gen. George E. Pickett’s three Virginia brigades spearheaded the assault. They were fresh, having not taken part in the first two days of the battle. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew formed his division of four brigades, one each from Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia, on Pickett’s left. In Pettigrew’s rear, Gen. Isaac R. Trimble commanded two North Carolina brigades from Gen. William D. Pender’s division. Advancing in support of these nine brigades were an Alabama brigade and a small Florida brigade from Gen. Richard H. Anderson’s division.

As the units approached the Union line, they contracted and converged on a narrow front, and the handful of men that pierced the line disappeared under a wave of Union reinforcements. North Carolinians on the Rebel left are said to have penetrated the farthest. Said Lee in he report, “The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserve success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude.”

At 3:00 P.M. on July 3, 1863, 11,000 steady and disciplined Confederate soldiers emerged from the trees on Seminary Ridge and formed perfectly aligned battle ranks facing the Union position a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. For two days, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had bested Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac in heavy fighting in and around Gettysburg, Pa. But Meade’s troops still occupied a defensive position south of town, and Lee was determined to attack him there.

Three of the nine brigades in the attacking Confederate force were commanded by Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, a 38 year old career soldier from Virginia. Pickett’s division spearheaded the assault, advancing with parade precision. Almost immediately, gaps were blown in the Confederate lines from Union artillery positions. Under orders not to fire and not to let loose their Rebel Yell, the Confederates closed the gaps in their lines and kept advancing. Union artillery changed from shells to canister — tin cans packed with iron balls that made giant shotguns of the cannon — and mowed great swaths through the Confederate ranks. As the attackers continued to close, Union infantry sent volleys of minie balls into the still-ordered Southern troops.

Surviving Rebels returned fire and charged the Union line. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued as the Union line was penetrated, but there were not enough Confederates left after the charge to hold the line. The Confederates’ only choice was to surrender or to go back across the mile of open ground.

Battle of GettysburgAlmost 4,000 Confederate soldiers were captured. General Pickett’s division lost 70% of its men. The Union forces, just half as numerous as the Rebel attackers, suffered only 1,500 casualties — only one-fifth of the number they inflicted. Gen. Robert E. Lee had thought his army was invincible. The proof to the contrary was a blow from which it would never recover.

More than 50,000 men had fallen in the war’s bloodiest battle. The country had never before and would never again see such carnage. Of the 82,000 Union soldiers engaged, 3,155 were killed, 14,329 were wounded, and 5,365 were missing. The 75,000 Confederates suffered 3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing.