The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, General Robert E. Lee commanding, won the fight of July 1. They had pushed Major-General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac southeast through Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill.
Meade arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he was greeted by Major-Generals Oliver O. Howard (of the Eleventh Corps), Henry W. Slocum (of the Twelfth Corps), Daniel Sickles (of the Third Corps), and Brigadier-General Gouverneur Warren (chief engineer). Howard spoke for the group when he told Meade, “I am confident we can hold this position.” Meade replied, “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen. I have already ordered the other corps to concentrate here–and it is too late to change.”
By morning, Meade had adeptly employed his engineering skills by positioning his forces on a strong defensive line. It started at Culp’s Hill on the right (northeast) flank and curled around Cemetery Hill to the west before turning south down Cemetery Ridge. The line ended with the left (south) flank anchored at the base of two hills called the Round Tops. A staff officer noted that as Meade inspected the lines on the Federal right, “he added, as if reflecting something to himself, ‘Well we may fight it out here just as well as anywhere else.’”
Around 1 a.m., Major-General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, put his troopers in motion to join the main army at Gettysburg. It had been one week since Stuart set off on his fateful ride around the Federal army that deprived Lee of vital intelligence. The men and horses were exhausted, having conducted five night marches during the raid.
Stuart and his cavalry finally arrived that afternoon, too late to provide any useful information to Lee regarding the Federal army. Lee greeted his tardy cavalry chief, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” Stuart proudly presented Lee with the captured Federal wagon train, but Lee called it an “impediment to me now.” He ordered Stuart to ride to the Confederate left and block Meade’s possible line of retreat to the east.
Lee’s army concentrated around Seminary Ridge, about a mile and a half west of the Federals. The Confederates held exterior lines that stretched north through Gettysburg and then southeast to oppose the Federals on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town. Lee hoped to follow up on his victory the previous day by breaking the Federal line and achieving complete victory.
Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, inspected the enemy positions that morning. He again urged Lee to move around the Federal left, get between Meade and Washington, and take up strong positions to repel a Federal attack in a manner like the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg last December. Lee refused, insisting, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet replied, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”
Lee would not relent. He directed two of Longstreet’s divisions under Major-Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, as well as Major-General Richard Anderson’s fresh division from Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, to assault the enemy left. Meanwhile, Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would resume attacking the enemy right at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill.
Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. Meade wired Federal General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck at 3 p.m.: “I have to-day, up to this hour, awaited the attack of the enemy, I having a strong position for defensive… If not attacked, and I can get any positive information on the position of the enemy which will justify me in so doing, I shall attack.” The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws finally got into position after 4.
Sickles’s Third Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles observed Confederates marching across his front, just as they had done at the Battle of Chancellorsville, on their way around the Federal flank. Sickles, who did not aggressively confront this movement at Chancellorsville, resolved not to make the same mistake again. He moved his Federals a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. He did not consult headquarters before making this move.
Sickles’s corps occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. Sickles wanted to curve his line around and anchor it at the Round Tops, but he did not have enough men to do it. So instead of strengthening the Federal left flank, Sickles created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line.
When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But before Sickles could move, Hood’s Confederates advanced and immediately exploited the error. Sickles asked Meade if he should still try to pull back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”
Hood swept around Sickles’s left, knocking the Federals out of Devil’s Den and past Plum Run, which separated Devil’s Den from the Round Tops. Hood’s scouts reported that Big Round Top was unoccupied, and Little Round Top had just signalmen on its peak. Hood directed his Confederates to sidle around Sickles and focus on taking Little Round Top.
Longstreet was informed of the lack of Federal troops on the Round Tops and was urged to go to Lee and again argue his point for moving around Meade’s left. But Lee had already rejected that twice, insisting that Longstreet attack the Federals in his front. Longstreet would not risk a third rejection.
Meade quickly ordered the Fifth Corps, his former command now led by Major-General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed Gouverneur Warren to reconnoiter the Round Tops. Warren scaled Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded eminence rising 650 feet. He saw Confederates massing below and quickly realized they could place artillery on this hill and enfilade the Federal army all the way north to Cemetery Hill.
Warren hurriedly called on the nearest Federal units to come and defend Little Round Top. These consisted of a brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent, the 140th New York, and an artillery battery from the Fifth Corps. They arrived and took up positions just minutes before the Confederates rushed up the hill.
The Federals held desperately against repeated enemy charges, as Brigadier-General Stephen H. Weed’s brigade came up to reinforce Vincent’s right. Weed directed the placement of heavy guns that tore holes into the oncoming Confederates until he was killed in action; Vincent was also killed.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, holding the very end of the Federal line, launched a desperate bayonet charge after running out of ammunition, which shocked Brigadier-General Evander M. Law’s Confederates and sent them running. Chamberlain, a college professor before the war, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
The Confederates then shifted their focus to the north, intending to execute Lee’s plan of launching assaults en echelon. McLaws’s division attacked Sickles’s exposed salient around 5:30 p.m. Fighting surged back and forth as the Wheat Field changed hands six times before the Confederates finally made a breakthrough. However, the Federals held the enemy off with artillery until Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps came up to stabilize the left-center of the Federal line.
McLaws deployed Brigadier-General William Barksdale’s brigade around 6:30 p.m., which swept through the Peach Orchard and captured a Federal battery. However, Barksdale was shot five times and fell mortally wounded, and a Federal counterattack virtually destroyed his brigade. The Confederates next tried breaking the Federal center to no avail. The 1st Minnesota under Colonel William Colvill was nearly annihilated in a futile counterattack.
A Federal officer watching the fighting to his left as the sun went down recalled: “The smoke of their rifles encircled them, the flashes light up the field upon which shadows of evening were advancing, and the scene resembled one of those battles which are seen in pictures, where the lines of battle are formed with mathematical exactness.”
During all this brutal fighting, Sickles was wounded in the leg and carried from the field. He inexplicably blamed Meade for the heavy losses his corps sustained, despite having advanced on his own initiative into the face of massed Confederates.
By day’s end, the Confederates had seized the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the base of the Round Tops. But Federal reinforcements prevented them from penetrating any further. The Federals still commanded the high ground, and their line remained unbroken. Warren received high praise for recognizing the threat to Little Round Top and rushing to stop it. Warren wrote that the fight “was no display of scientific maneuver, and should never be judged like some I think vainly try to judge a battle as they would a game of chess.”
Casualties were extreme for the second straight day, with each side losing another 9,000. Barksdale was killed, Major-General William D. Pender of Hill’s corps was mortally wounded, and Hood was seriously wounded. Over 500 Confederates lay dead in the Wheat Field alone. Sickles lost his leg, and the 1st Minnesota lost 215 of its 262 men, or a horrifying 82 percent.
As President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of the battle in the War Department’s telegraph office, Meade wired around 8 p.m.: “The enemy attacked me about 4 p.m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. I shall remain in my present position tomorrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character.”
Just after Meade sent the message, Ewell finally launched his assault on the Federal right. Two divisions under Major-Generals Robert Rodes and Jubal Early hit Cemetery Hill from the northwest and northeast respectively, while Major-General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division hit Culp’s Hill from the east. The Confederates had bombarded the positions since 6 p.m.; the Federal defenses had been weakened by both the artillery barrage and by pulling troops away to reinforce the Federal left.
Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking the Eleventh Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains. The Federals on Culp’s Hill held firm against Johnson’s division; the hill was defended by just one brigade until a division of the Twelfth Corps came up in support.
Meade, while consulting with Hancock and Slocum, received intelligence from the Bureau of Military Information that Major-General George Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps “has come up and is now in bivouac, and will be ready to go into action fresh tomorrow morning.” The three generals knew that this was Lee’s last reserve. They also knew that they still had an entire corps, the Sixth, in reserve. Hancock yelled, “General, we have got them licked!”
That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters owned by the widow Lydia Leister, on the Taneytown road. Meade sought advice on whether he should stay put as he told Washington or withdraw after sustaining Ewell’s attack. The officers resolved to stay put but maintain a defensive posture. Meade agreed and said, “Such, then, is the decision.”
As the meeting ended, Meade told Major-General John Gibbon, commanding a division near the center of the Federal line, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” When Gibbon asked why, Meade said, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again, it will be on our center.” Gibbon said, “I hope he will. If he does, we shall defeat him.”
Meade had accurate intelligence on enemy positions and strength. He also had full support and agreement on how operations should be conducted from his entire high command. Lee, whose army was operating in enemy territory, had scant knowledge of Federal positions and strength. And he did not have full support and agreement from his subordinates regarding his plans. The Confederates may have won a tactical victory on this day, but it was becoming increasingly unlikely that they would achieve their ultimate goal of breaking the Federal army.
The Confederates once again could not penetrate the Federal defenses. Longstreet was later accused of moving too slowly, and Lee was criticized for not properly coordinating the attacks. Major Walter Taylor of Lee’s staff assessed the day’s fighting: “The whole affair was disjointed. There was an utter absence of accord in the movements of the several commands, and no decisive result attended the operations…”
Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day, and as Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one final push to break the Federals.
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