Category Archives: Pennsylvania

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Fight or Flight

July 12, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade prepared his Federal Army of the Potomac to attack, but General Robert E. Lee prepared his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to withdraw.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Lee’s Confederates continued trying to cross the Potomac River and return to Virginia, while Meade’s Federals cautiously pursued them. By the 12th, Meade had finally placed his army in attack positions on the ridges opposite Lee near Williamsport. Major General Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps held the right at Funkstown, while Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps held the left a few miles south. The Federal signal corps relayed information throughout the day on the strength of the enemy defenses.

Meade prepared to issue orders to attack, but a heavy thunderstorm postponed his plans. He telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck late that afternoon, “It is my intention to attack them tomorrow, unless something intervenes to prevent it.” When President Abraham Lincoln saw the message, he remarked, “They will be ready to fight a magnificent battle when there is no enemy there to fight.”

That night, Meade held a council of war with his seven corps commanders, where he announced that he intended to attack the next day. He held a vote on the matter, but just two of the seven supported his plan. The other five favored attack, but only after taking more time to regroup their units and assess the strength of Lee’s defenses. Meade became even more wary when a Confederate pretending to be a deserter came into the Federal lines and claimed that Lee was ready for a Federal assault.

Lee’s men dug in behind their earthworks and trenches a few miles east of Williamsport, where they had waited five days for either a Federal attack or a lowering of the Potomac. Their defenses on the ridges near the river were very strong; Colonel E. Porter Alexander, top Confederate artillerist, wrote:

“Oh! how we all did wish that the enemy would come out in the open and attack us, as we had done them at Gettysburg. But they had had their lesson, in that sort of game, at Fredericksburg and did not care for another.”

Lee notified President Jefferson Davis that the army would cross the next day if the river was low enough. Before the 12th, the rains had stopped and the river had fallen 18 inches. Engineers led by Major J.A. Harman continued building makeshift pontoon bridges out of nearby warehouses and barns at Williamsport and farther downriver at Falling Waters. Lieutenant General James Longstreet, overseeing the work being done at Falling Waters, recalled, “The rain fell in showers, sometimes in blinding sheets, during the entire night.” The falling Potomac threatened to rise again.

The bridges were finally laid, and the Confederate wagons and artillery began crossing through the night and into the 13th. A place was found near Williamsport where the infantry could ford the river, and Lee issued orders for Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps, holding the army’s left, to cross there with Major General Jeb Stuart’s cavalry covering while Longstreet on the right and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps in the center crossed at Falling Waters.

Meade studied the Confederate dispositions throughout the 13th, sending his cavalry on various reconnaissance missions. At 5 p.m., he notified Halleck of the war council’s results and stated, “I shall continue these reconnaissances with the expectation of finding some weak point upon which, if I succeed, I shall hazard an attack.” Halleck quickly replied:

“You are strong enough to attack and defeat the enemy before he can effect a crossing. Act upon your own judgment and make your generals execute their orders. Call no council of war. It is proverbial that councils of war never fight. Reinforcements are pushed on as rapidly as possible. Do not let the enemy escape.”

Heavy rain continued throughout the day, but the Confederate troops began skillfully evacuating their defenses nonetheless, with each division leaving behind one regiment to serve as a rear guard. Campfires remained lit all along the line to hide the movement from the Federals. The Confederates also put “Quaker guns,” or logs painted black to resemble cannon, on the line facing the enemy.

Ewell’s men had to wade across the Potomac. One of his division commanders, Major General Robert Rodes, recalled:

“The water was cold, deep and rising, the light on either side of the river were dim, just affording enough light to mark the places of entrance and exit; the cartridge-boxes of the men had to be placed around their necks; some small men had to be carried over on the shoulders of their comrades; the water was up to the armpits of the full-sized men.”

Alexander later wrote:

“But, oh, it was another awful night. I was now back with my battalion, and we were marching all night in the awful roads, in mud and dark, and hard rain, and though we had only three miles to go, we were still some distance from the bridge at sunrise… The whole night had been spent groping and pulling through the mud, a few feet at a time, and then waiting for the vehicle in front of you to move again. And men would go to sleep on their horses, or leaning in the fence corners, or standing in the mud… But the mule (Meade) had not yet caught up with the bear (Lee).”

Troops under Longstreet and Hill crossed on the bridges, but they still had to trudge through deep mud. Lee followed the men across at Falling Waters, and by dawn on the 14th, only a portion of Hill’s corps remained in the trenches to oppose the Federals.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 308; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 591, 626; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 328-29; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6292-303; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 383-85; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 666; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

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The Gettysburg Aftermath: Lee Prepares for Battle

July 8, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia prepared for a battle while still stranded on the Maryland side of the Potomac River.

Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikispaces.com

The Confederates remained delayed at Williamsport as engineers and troops scrambled to build makeshift bridges to cross the Potomac. From Hagerstown that night, Lee assured President Jefferson Davis that army morale was still high, and a battle may need to be fought if the Federals attacked before the Confederates crossed the river. Lee also urged Davis to send General P.G.T. Beauregard’s “army in effigy” from Charleston to feign an attack on Washington, which would draw Federal attention away from Lee’s retreat. Lee wrote:

“I hope Your Excellency will understand that I am not in the least discouraged, or that my faith in the protection of an all-merciful Providence, or in the fortitude of this army, is at all shaken. But, though conscious that the enemy has been much shattered in the recent battle, I am aware that he can be easily reinforced, while no addition can be made to our numbers. The measure, therefore, that I have recommended is altogether one of a prudential nature.”

Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, wrote his wife from his headquarters at Frederick: “From the time I took command till today, now over 10 days, I have not changed my clothes, have not had a regular night’s rest and many nights not a wink of sleep, and for several days did not even wash my face and hands, no regular food, and all the time in a great state of mental anxiety.” Meade then informed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck:

“My army is assembling slowly. The rains of yesterday and last night have made all roads but pikes almost impassable. Artillery and wagons are stalled; it will take time to collect them together… I wish in advance to moderate the expectations of those who, in ignorance of the difficulties to be encountered, may expect too much. All that I can do under the circumstances I pledge this army to do.”

Halleck, prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, expressed impatience with Meade’s seeming reluctance to pursue Lee more vigorously. He wrote, “There is reliable information that the enemy is crossing at Williamsport. The opportunity to attack his divided forces should not be lost. Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac. The President is urgent and anxious that your army should move against him by forced marches.”

Meade responded, “My army is and has been making forced marches,” with troops reporting that they were “short of rations and barefooted.” This did not satisfy the administration because the army had such an overabundance of supplies that some were being returned to Washington.

Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln appreciated his great victory at Gettysburg, but, “If Lee’s army is so divided by the river, the importance of attacking the part on this side is incalculable. Such an opportunity may never occur again… You will have forces sufficient to render your victory certain. My only fear now is that the enemy may escape.”

By the 9th, a large part of the Federal army had crossed South Mountain to Boonsboro, eight miles southeast of Williamsport. Meade arrived at Middletown and wrote Halleck:

“This army is moving in three columns, the right column having in it three corps… I think the decisive battle of the war will be fought in a few days. In view of the momentous consequences, I desire to adopt such measures as in my judgment will tend to insure success, even though these may be deemed tardy.”

Halleck responded, “Do not be influenced by any dispatch from here against your own judgment. Regard them as suggestions only. Our information here is not always correct.” He then wrote Meade the next day, “I think it will be-best for you to postpone a general battle till you can concentrate all your forces and get up your reserves and reinforcements… Beware of partial combats. Bring up and hurl upon the enemy all your forces, good and bad.”

Meanwhile, Confederate troops and wagons conveying their wounded still remained on the banks of the Potomac, unable to cross due to the high water. That night, a Confederate officer who had escaped Federal captivity at Gettysburg reached Lee’s army and reported that Meade was advancing toward Hagerstown. Lee began preparing for what he expected to be a Federal attack.

The Federals inched closer to the Confederate positions, carefully probing to assess their strength. Meade reported on the 10th, “These positions, they are said to be intrenching.” Moving down the Hagerstown Pike, Meade informed his superiors that he would “advance cautiously” to “develop more fully the enemy’s force and position.”

Lee concentrated his army at Williamsport that day and wrote Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, “We must prepare for a vigorous battle and trust in the mercy of God and the valor of our troops.” He then wrote Davis, “With the blessing of Heaven, I trust that the courage and fortitude of the army will be found sufficient to relieve us from the embarrassment caused by the unlooked-for natural difficulties of our situation, if not to secure more valuable and substantial results.”

Skirmishing erupted between Federals and the Confederate rear guard, with Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal horsemen nearly running out of ammunition before Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps arrived to drive the Confederates off. This delaying action gave Lee more time to prepare for what could have been his last stand.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 152-53, 156; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 305-07; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 585-86, 589-90, 641; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 326; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6292; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-83; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Lee Reaches the Potomac

July 7, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia reached the Potomac River, but Major General George G. Meade was reluctant to pursue.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Confederates continued retreating after their defeat at Gettysburg, hoping to get back to Virginia before the Federal Army of the Potomac attacked them. Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, split his force between escorting the wagon train and fending off Federal advances.

Meanwhile, Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s Confederate cavalry brigade struggled to get the wagon trains across the Potomac. The bridges had been destroyed, but he found flat boats that could carry 30 wounded men at a time to the other side. Each trip took 15 minutes, and 10,000 wounded men needed to be sent across the river.

The Confederate infantry continued their march toward the Potomac, with Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps reaching Williamsport on the 7th. Lee hoped to get his army across by the end of the day, but he soon learned what Imboden already knew–there were no suitable crossings now that the river had swelled so high from the rain. Engineers and troops began tearing apart local warehouses, barns, and other buildings to build a makeshift pontoon bridge.

Still at Hagerstown, Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “I determined to withdraw to the west side of the mountains… to protect our trains with the sick and wounded, which had been sent back to Williamsport, and which were threatened by the enemy’s cavalry.”

Lee dispatched his engineers and Colonel E. Porter Alexander, one of the army’s top artillerists, to survey the ground around the river in case the Confederates had to turn and defend against a Federal attack. Alexander later wrote, “There was no very well defined and naturally strong line, and we had to pick and choose, and string together in some places by make-shifts and some little work.” The exhausted Confederates arriving at Williamsport soon took up defensive positions and awaited a Federal advance.

Meade, commanding the Federal army, had an excellent chance of destroying Lee if he hurried from Gettysburg and attacked before the Confederates could cross the Potomac. But Meade did not. The Federals slowly moved out of their defenses south of Gettysburg, with advance elements reaching Emmitsburg on the 7th. Meade took up headquarters at the United States Hotel in Frederick. Except for Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry division, the Federals were on the east side of South Mountain, while Buford and Lee’s army were on the west.

At Washington, more celebrations erupted when the news arrived of the victory at Vicksburg. President Abraham Lincoln ecstatically wrote General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.” Halleck informed Meade, “It gives me pleasure to inform you that you have been appointed a brigadier general in the Regular Army, to rank from July 3, the date of your brilliant victory.”

Halleck sent another message: “Push forward and fight Lee before he can cross the Potomac.” And then a third: “You have given the enemy a stunning blow at Gettysburg. Follow it up, and give him another before he can reach the Potomac… There is strong evidence that he is short of artillery ammunition, and if vigorously pressed he must suffer.”

Meade responded by listing the difficulties he faced in trying to pursue Lee. Lincoln shared this message at a cabinet meeting on the 7th. According to Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, Lincoln seemed filled with “sadness and despondency” because Meade “still lingered at Gettysburg, when he should have been at Hagerstown or near the Potomac, in an effort to cut off the retreating army of Lee.”

A group of serenaders visited the White House that night and called for Lincoln to come out and speak. Lincoln appeared on a balcony and addressed the crowd: “How long ago is it?–80 odd years–since on the Fourth of July for the first time in the history of the world a nation by its representatives, assembled and declared as a self-evident truth that ‘all men are created equal.’”

Lincoln declared that the “gigantic Rebellion” was making “an effort to overthrow the principle that all men were created equal,” and now it seemed finally on the brink of defeat. He indirectly referred to Meade’s slow pursuit of Lee: “These are trying occasions, not only in success, but also for want of success.” Lincoln ended by saying, “Gentlemen, this is a glorious theme, and the occasion for a speech, but I am not prepared to make one worthy of the occasion.”

In the Confederacy, news of the defeats at Gettysburg and Vicksburg traveled slowly. On the 7th, an article appeared in the Richmond Examiner stating:

“From the very beginning the true policy of the South has been invasion. The present movement of General Lee… will be of infinite value as disclosing the… easy susceptibility of the North to invasion… Not even the Chinese are less prepared by previous habits of life and education for martial resistance than the Yankees… We can… carry our armies far into the enemy’s country, exacting peace by blows leveled at his vitals.”

The following day, the Charleston Mercury reported that at Gettysburg, “A brilliant and crushing victory has been achieved.” On the 10th, the Examiner reported that Lee’s army had taken 30,000 prisoners and was advancing on Baltimore.

It was not until that day that the Davis administration received official word that Vicksburg had fallen. They also received a report from Lee stating that his army was unable to cross the Potomac, and from General P.G.T. Beauregard stating that the Federals had gained a foothold on Morris Island below Charleston Harbor. The end of the Confederacy never seemed so near before.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 151-52; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 304; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9760; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 586, 589, 623-24, 626, 641, 643; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 325; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 381-83; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 648, 663, 666; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253; White, Howard Ray, Bloodstains, An Epic History of the Politics that Produced and Sustained the American Civil War and the Political Reconstruction that Followed (Southernbooks, Kindle Edition, 2012), Q363

The Gettysburg Aftermath

July 4, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia began retreating from Gettysburg, but the swelling Potomac River threatened to trap Lee in hostile territory.

Federal Maj Gen G.G. Meade and Confederate Gen R.E. Lee | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

The Battle of Gettysburg decimated the Confederate army. Lee lost a third of his men, including 19 of his 52 generals (five killed, 12 wounded, and two captured). Eight of his 37 brigades were virtually destroyed. As such, the army could no longer sustain itself in enemy territory, so late on the 3rd, Lee began arranging for the long withdrawal back to Virginia.

Lee assigned Brigadier General John D. Imboden’s cavalry brigade to guard the ambulances filled with wounded men as they moved out. After a three-hour delay due to a thunderstorm, Imboden and the 17-mile wagon train mobilized around 4 p.m. and continued through the night. The wagons had no springs, making the long journey especially agonizing for the wounded. Those who died along the way were buried on the side of the road. The rest of the army remained on Seminary Ridge, defending against a possible Federal counterattack.

Lee wrote a report for President Jefferson Davis and sent a messenger to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, under a flag of truce to request a prisoner exchange. This could have revealed the Confederate withdrawal to Meade, but Lee took that chance because he did not want to be slowed by taking nearly 4,000 Federal prisoners back to Virginia. Meade prudently declined, stating that he had no authority from his government to negotiate such a deal.

During the 4th, Federal scouts reported that the Confederate left wing had fallen back, but the main army remained behind defenses on Seminary Ridge. Meade reported having just 51,414 officers and men present for duty, unaware that some 15,000 men were not counted because they had been separated from their commands during the battle. Four of the army’s seven corps sustained almost 90 percent of the casualties: I, II, III, and XI. V and XII corps suffered minimal losses, and Major General John Sedgwick’s VI Corps hardly saw any action in the three-day battle.

Nevertheless, Meade had just three strong corps left in his army to do what the Army of the Potomac had never done before: drive the Confederates out of their defenses. He briefly considered advancing near Devil’s Den and the Wheat Field, but the afternoon thunderstorm convinced him to stay put.

Meade issued an order congratulating the army on its victory and adding, “Our task is not yet accomplished, and the commanding general looks to the army for greater efforts to drive from our soil every vestige of the presence of the invader.” That night, the Federal corps commanders voted five-to-two to stay where they were until they could confirm the Confederate withdrawal.

Confederate troops began pulling out that night, with Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps withdrawing in blinding rain, followed by Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s. They slowly moved toward Williamsport, Maryland, where they would cross the Potomac and reenter Virginia. Wounded Federal prisoners were left behind. Lee sat upon his horse and looked back at Seminary Ridge as he rode off. He once again said that the defeat was “all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.”

As details of the battle reached Washington, President Abraham Lincoln recognized that the Federals had won a great victory. He happily issued a proclamation celebrating “a great success to the cause of the Union… on this day, He whose will, not ours, should ever be done, be everywhere remembered and reverenced with profoundest gratitude.” One D.C. resident noted, “I never knew such excitement in Washington.” Lincoln quickly looked to Meade to pursue and destroy Lee’s army.

News of the victory at Gettysburg soon combined with news of victory at Vicksburg to spark mass celebrations in the North. Church bells tolled in most major cities, with six authorizing 100-gun salutes in honor of the success. Prominent New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote in his diary:

“The results of this victory are priceless… The charm of Robert E. Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures… Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least… Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.”

Meanwhile, gloom pervaded the South, as people began realizing that their only hope for independence was either foreign intervention or a miraculous military turnaround. Captain Raphael Semmes of the commerce raider C.S.S. Alabama wrote about the defeats:

“… Vicksburg and Gettysburg mark an era in the war… We need no better evidence of the shock which had been given to public confidence in the South, by those two disasters, than the simple fact, that our currency depreciated almost immediately a thousand per cent!”

The thunderstorm continued into the 5th, with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps pulling out around 2 a.m. Ewell’s men did not arrive at Fairfield, less than nine miles away, until 4 p.m. The army continued moving through the heavy rain toward Hagerstown, Maryland.

The Confederate wagon train and Imboden’s cavalry guard passed through Cashtown, west of Gettysburg, and then turned south to Greencastle. Federal cavalry attacked the train, capturing 176 wagons, but Confederate artillery soon drove the Federals off. Residents of Greencastle used axes, saws, and other tools to destroy the spokes and wheels of 12 Confederate wagons before being dispersed. By the night of the 5th, the head of the train reached Williamsport, but the tail was still 31 miles behind.

Meade dispatched Sedgwick’s VI Corps around midday to determine whether Lee had withdrawn. The Federals cautiously probed forward, skirmishing with Confederates at Cunningham’s Crossroads. The Confederates disengaged and continued their withdrawal, camping west of Fairfield for the night. Sedgwick could not determine if Lee was retreating or just finding better ground to give battle once more.

On the morning of the 6th, heavy fog prevented Meade from learning anything about Confederate positions except that the enemy had reached Monterey Pass, southwest of Fairfield. At 8:30 a.m., Sedgwick wrongly reported that the path to the Confederates was strongly defended, and he did not wish “to dash my corps against it.”

Meade sent the Federals along three routes into Maryland, then west across the Catoctin Mountains to meet at Middletown. From there, they still needed to cross South Mountain to reach the Confederates. Meade telegraphed General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “As soon as possible, I will cross South Mountain and proceed in search of the enemy.”

Imboden repelled an attack by Brigadier General John Buford’s 3,000-man Federal cavalry division that morning, and the arrival of Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry drove the Federals off. Longstreet’s advance units reached Hagerstown around 5 p.m. Riding with them, Lee learned that the ambulance train had reached Williamsport. However, Federals had destroyed a pontoon bridge below the town, and the rains had swelled the Potomac too high to be forded. The Confederates were in danger of being trapped on the wrong side of the river.

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References

Anderson, Nancy Scott; Anderson, Dwight, The Generals: Ulysses S. Grant and Robert E. Lee (New York: Vintage Books, 1987), p. 427; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 145-50, 152; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19070; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 301-02; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9453; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 576-77, 582-83, 588; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 323-25; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6257-80; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 535-36; Korn, Jerry, War on the Mississippi: Grant’s Vicksburg Campaign (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-57; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 378-80; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 663-64, 666; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253, 307-08

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Three

July 3, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia launched a massive, desperate charge to destroy the Federal Army of the Potomac once and for all.

The Confederates had bested the Federals in two days of fighting south of Gettysburg. However, the Federals had fallen back behind their defenses, and their lines remained intact. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army, strengthened his defenses even more in preparation for another Confederate attack expected on this day.

During the night, Major General Henry W. Slocum’s XII Corps returned to Culp’s Hill on the extreme Federal right after being transferred to support the left the previous day. The Confederates had blown a gap in the Federal line there which, if penetrated, could threaten the Federal lines of supply and possible retreat. Slocum directed his men to build defenses and plug the gap.

Confederate Lieut Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

The third day of fighting began when Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps attacked Culp’s Hill at 4 a.m. Waves of Confederates surged against the Federals for over six hours before finally falling back, unable to break the strong Federal lines. The fighting ended around 10:30 a.m., and an eerie quiet fell upon the battlefield.

As Meade guessed, Lee planned to shift his focus to the center of the Federal line at Cemetery Ridge. Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, again urged Lee to move around Meade’s left flank and interpose himself between the Federals and Washington. Lee insisted that Federal morale was low, Confederate strength was at its peak, and one more assault would break the Federal army.

Under Lee’s plan, a heavy artillery bombardment would soften the Federal defenses. Then three divisions (consisting of 50 regiments in 11 brigades) totaling 15,000 men would march across the open ground from Seminary Ridge and attack. The divisions included those of:

  • Major General Isaac Trimble, replacing the mortally wounded Major General William D. Pender, of Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps
  • Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, replacing the wounded Major General Henry Heth, of Hill’s corps
  • Major General George Pickett of Longstreet’s corps

Confederate Major General James Longstreet | Image Credit: BlogSpot.com

Longstreet would be the overall commander, even though only one of the divisions belonged to him. Two of the divisions would be led by men who had never held divisional commands before. One division, Pettigrew’s, had already been decimated in the first day of fighting.

Longstreet said, “General Lee, there never was a body of 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully.” But Lee would not relent. He had initially hoped that Longstreet’s attack would be coordinated with Ewell’s on Culp’s Hill, but Ewell had already been defeated. Now Lee hoped that Major General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry could attack the Federal rear to divert attention from Longstreet’s impending attack.

Meanwhile, Federals strengthened their defenses along Cemetery Ridge, sensing that Lee would attack that sector of the line after attacking both flanks. The defenders consisted mostly of Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps, led by the divisions of Major Generals John Gibbon and Alexander Hays. They could see the Confederates unlimbering their cannon a mile west.

Longstreet worked with Colonel E. Porter Alexander, his chief artillerist, to ensure that the upcoming bombardment, according to Alexander, “was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try and cripple him–to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” Longstreet then rode off to assemble the infantry.

Alexander received a message from Longstreet around 11 a.m.: “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.” Alexander, knowing he could not accurately determine what effect his cannon would have on hidden troops, replied, “If there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire.”

Around noon, Stuart’s cavalry set out to attack the Federal rear and divert attention from Cemetery Ridge, when about 4,500 Federal horsemen under Brigadier General David Gregg rode up to oppose them. A vicious fight ensued, featuring charges and countercharges with rifles and sabers among mounted and dismounted troopers.

Federals guns came up in support, and the Confederates were driven off. They lost 181 men, while the Federals lost 254. Stuart’s planned assault on the Federal rear was aborted, making this a Federal victory. A Federal brigade under Brigadier General George A. Custer particularly distinguished itself.

At 1:07 p.m., Confederates opened 140 guns on Cemetery Ridge. This was intended to weaken the defenses before the infantry assault. However, most of the guns were aimed too high, so the shells screamed past the Federals and crashed harmlessly beyond the ridge. The Federals slowly responded with 100 guns of their own, and this soon became the largest artillery duel of the war. The booming could be heard all the way to Pittsburgh, nearly 200 miles west.

The Federal guns eventually stopped firing, leading the Confederates to believe they had run out of ammunition. But the Federals were simply trying to lure the Confederates into the open. Alexander sent a message to Pickett: “For God’s sake come quick… or I can’t support you.” Pickett rode to Longstreet and asked, “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet, sensing the futility of this attack, turned away. Pickett said, “I am going to move forward, sir.”

Longstreet met with Alexander, who explained that he could not support the infantry because his ammunition train was too far in the rear. Longstreet said, “Go and halt Pickett right where he is and replenish your ammunition.” But Alexander said that by the time it was replenished, the Federal lines would be strengthened to the point that neither artillery nor infantry could break them. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this attack. I believe it will fail. I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” Alexander said nothing.

The Confederate infantry advance began at 3 p.m. The men marched with parade ground precision as their flags waved in the breeze. General Frank Haskell of the Federal II Corps recalled:

“More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the army of 18,000 men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on the move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”

Federal artillerists waited until the troops came within range and then opened fire with deadly accuracy. As men fell, the others closed ranks and continued forward. They moved into the open ground, with Pickett’s Virginians leading, toward a copse of trees in the middle of the Federal line. The troops stopped at the Emmitsburg road to dress their line, having already sustained heavy losses.

Confederates charge Cemetery Ridge | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

As the Confederates entered rifle range, Federal infantry along Cemetery Ridge began pouring their fire into them. Men fell in heaps, but the Confederates still pushed forward. Just a small fraction of the attacking force reached the ridge. A soldier recalled:

“Men fire into each other’s faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet-thrusts, sabre-strokes, pistol-shots;… men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of dead men…”

Those Confederates who reached the ridge were enfiladed on both sides by overwhelming Federal numbers. Nevertheless, a group of 150 men led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead of Pickett’s division penetrated the Federal line at what became known as the Angle. This was the closest the Confederate army ever came to military victory on northern soil.

Armistead’s men were met by a Pennsylvania brigade of II Corps led by Brigadier General Alexander S. Webb, who surged forward to seal the gap and force the surviving Confederates to either surrender or retreat. Armistead was killed, and Webb was also wounded; he later earned the Medal of Honor for his action.

The Federals ultimately held firm, as artillery and reinforcements massed to repel the Confederate attackers. Federal troops who remembered their horrible defeat at Fredericksburg in December shouted, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” to the withdrawing Confederates. The climactic battle of the Eastern Theater ended in Confederate defeat.

Only about half the Confederate attackers returned to their lines on Seminary Ridge. As they came, Lee rode among them saying, “It’s all my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” The troops implored Lee to give them another chance, but Lee would not. He issued orders to prepare defenses against a potential Federal counterattack.

Ewell’s corps was pulled out of Gettysburg. By day’s end, Lee told a subordinate, “We must now return to Virginia.” He planned to retreat as soon as the wagon trains and ambulances filled with the wounded could be put in motion.

In the horrific three-day struggle, the Federals sustained 23,049 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing). The Confederates lost 20,451 (2,592 killed, 12,709 wounded, and 5,150 missing). The Confederate losses were especially crippling because the South lacked the manpower to replace them. Pickett’s division alone lost more than half its men, including every regimental commander, two brigadier generals, and six colonels. The 43,500 total casualties made this the costliest battle ever fought in American history.

The performance of Lee’s commanders contributed to the defeat. Ewell had been reluctant to attack, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s strategy, Hill was sick and thus not fully involved, and Stuart had deprived Lee of vital intelligence before the battle. Lee himself bore some responsibility for not properly coordinating his attacks, for issuing vague orders, and for rejecting Longstreet’s advice to move around the Federal left.

Some commanders urged Meade to use his 20,000 reserves to counterattack and finish Lee off. But Meade, having been army commander for just six days, three of which were spent fighting the largest battle of the war, was satisfied to have repelled Lee’s attacks for now. Unaware that his men had just destroyed about a third of Lee’s army, leaving him crippled in enemy territory, Meade said, “We have done well enough.”

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References

Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37, 342; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 130-32, 138, 144, 146; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 300; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320, 322-23; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6246; Jensen, Les D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 182; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-123, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 377-78; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 661-63; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 173; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 306-07, 584, 811

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Two

July 2, 1863 – The Federal and Confederate armies gathered south of Gettysburg, where General Robert E. Lee launched ferocious attacks on both Federal flanks.

The Confederates had won the previous day’s fight, having pushed the Federals southeast through Gettysburg. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he set up headquarters in the house of the graveyard’s caretaker.

Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, spoke for most of his fellow corps commanders 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.

Confederate General Jeb Stuart | Image Credit: Flickr.com

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 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 had been victorious the previous day, but he had not won a complete victory. He hoped to do so on this day.

Approximate army positions on the 2nd day | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

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 and Cemetery hills.

Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws did not get into position until after 4.

Maj Gen Daniel Sickles | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles believed his position was weak and so he, contrary to Meade’s orders, moved his men a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. The Federals occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. This created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line. When Hood’s Confederates advanced, they immediately exploited the error.

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.

When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But the Confederate attack began before Sickles could move. He asked Meade if he should still try pulling back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”

Meade quickly ordered V Corps, his former command now led by Major General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed his chief engineer, Brigadier General 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 V 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 to launch 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 II 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 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.

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.

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 relayed the message, Ewell finally launched his attack on the Federal right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. 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.

Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking XI Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains.

The Federals held firm on Culp’s Hill against Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division; the hill was initially defended by just one brigade under Brigadier General George S. Greene. A division of XII Corps led by Brigadier General Thomas H. Ruger eventually came up to bolster Culp’s.

That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters 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.

As the meeting ended, Meade told Major General John Gibbon, commanding a division in II Corps, “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.”

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. Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day. As Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one last effort to destroy “those people.”

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 336-37; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 67, 70-71, 73, 78, 108, 119; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19001; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 299; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 460, 523-24; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 320-21; Hoffsommer, Robert D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 640; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 688, 803; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-23, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 375-76; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 646-47; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 470; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 655-60; Smith, Dean E., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 498; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172-73, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 216, 306, 308-09, 441-42, 565, 739, 786, 811, 818

The Battle of Gettysburg: Day One

July 1, 1863 – Advance elements of the Federal and Confederate armies clashed in southern Pennsylvania, beginning what would grow into the most terrible battle in American history.

By this time, part of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had gathered north of Gettysburg, while Federal cavalry from the Army of the Potomac had arrived south of the town. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill, commanding the Confederate Third Corps, directed one of his division commanders, Major General Henry Heth, “to ascertain what force was at Gettysburg, and, if he found infantry opposed to him, to report the fact immediately, without forcing an engagement.”

Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, one of Heth’s brigade commanders, had reported seeing enemy cavalry outside the town the previous day, but both Heth and Hill believed that Federal infantry was still far behind. Part of Heth’s division moved out to reconnoiter at 5 a.m., with no cavalry or pickets leading the way.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Brigadier General John Buford’s two brigades of 3,000 Federal horsemen had arrived the day before and were conducting a reconnaissance of their own. Buford was convinced that the Confederate army would converge on this strategically important town. He intended to hold the vital roads northwest of Gettysburg until the closest Federal infantry under Major General John F. Reynolds (commanding operations for I, III, and XI corps) could come up in support.

Buford’s pickets sighted the Confederates approaching on the Chambersburg Pike about four miles west of Gettysburg and opened fire. Heth’s men fanned out in line of battle and advanced, and skirmishing began around 8 a.m. Buford ordered his troopers to dismount and engage the oncoming enemy with their rapid-fire Spencer breech-loading carbines.

The Confederates pushed the Federals back to Herr Ridge, and then back again into the low ground in front of McPherson’s Ridge. Buford watched the action from atop a Lutheran seminary, where he could see both the fight to the west and the expected approach of more Confederates from the north. As his men continued withdrawing, Buford directed them to make a stand on McPherson’s Ridge.

The Federal troopers held off an enemy three times their size for two hours. This proved that cavalry could indeed stand up to infantry if tested. Commanders on both sides sent messages summoning reinforcements. General Robert E. Lee, commanding the Confederate army, had issued orders not to provoke a general engagement, but that was exactly what had begun.

Reynolds arrived ahead of his men around 10 a.m., where Buford told him, “The devil’s to pay!” When Reynolds asked if he could hold until the infantry arrived, Buford said, “I reckon I can.” Reynolds then sent a message to Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal army and still in Maryland, that the troops would make a stand to keep the Confederates out of Gettysburg, or at least keep them off the high ground south of town.

Elements of I Corps arrived first, with Reynolds sending them northwest through Gettysburg. They began relieving Buford’s defenders on McPherson’s Ridge around 10:30 a.m. Hill countered by sending Major General William D. Pender’s division to join Heth in the Confederate attack. Neither side had wanted to fight here, but the clash soon developed into a major battle nonetheless.

Reynolds began deploying men into McPherson’s Woods as the Confederates advanced to within 60 paces. He shouted, “Forward! For God’s sake, and drive those fellows out of the woods!” A sharpshooter’s bullet struck him in the back of the head, killing him instantly. Reynolds had been one of the army’s most beloved and respected commanders. He was temporarily replaced by Major General Abner Doubleday.

As the vicious fighting continued, Major General Oliver O. Howard’s “Dutch” (i.e., predominantly German-speaking) XI Corps arrived around 12 p.m. Howard, noting the importance of the high ground south of town as he passed, left a division there and then moved north through Gettysburg to take positions on Doubleday’s right. Two Confederate divisions from Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, led by Major Generals Jubal Early and Robert Rodes, soon approached from the north to oppose Howard.

Approximate army positions on July 1 | Image Credit: Wikimedia.org

About 24,000 Confederates now faced some 19,000 Federals along a disjointed three-mile-line north and west of Gettysburg. Lee arrived, still without Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps and angry that Hill and Ewell had brought on such a large fight against orders. Nevertheless, he ordered them to attack in full force. At 3 p.m., the strongest assault of the day began when Early and Rodes attacked XI Corps from the north, while Pender and Heth attacked I Corps from the west.

Howard’s XI Corps fell back through town in confusion, just as they had when the Confederate Second Corps (then led by “Stonewall” Jackson) surprised them at Chancellorsville two months ago. They fled to the high ground southeast of town, consisting of Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Culp’s Hill anchored the northeastern end of the Federal line, which was the extreme Federal right. Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, commanding the Federal II Corps, recognized this position’s strength and sent a division to hold it. Howard’s fleeing men stopped when they were reinforced by Hancock’s troops on the hills.

The XI Corps retreat crumbled Doubleday’s right flank, so he too fell back, first to Seminary Ridge and then through Gettysburg to join his comrades on Cemetery Hill. The Federals also occupied the formidable Cemetery Ridge, an elevation a mile and a half east of the parallel Seminary Ridge. Buford’s cavalry and I Corps had fought stubbornly and held the Confederates off long enough for reinforcements to arrive.

Lee rode onto Seminary Ridge and saw the Federals falling back onto the heights to the east. He immediately directed Hill to seize that important position, but Hill argued that his losses were too high and his men too exhausted to take it. Lee then dispatched Major Walter Taylor to instruct Ewell that it “was only necessary to press those people in order to secure possession of the heights,” and Ewell’s men should seize them “if practicable.”

Confederate Lt Gen Richard Ewell | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Ewell, having been accustomed to rigid orders when serving under “Stonewall” Jackson, was confused by these vague instructions and ultimately decided not to launch a final assault before nightfall. Had his men taken those heights, they might have routed the exhausted and demoralized Federals instead of giving them time to regroup and strengthen their defenses.

During this time, Longstreet arrived ahead of his men and urged Lee to move around the Federal left, seize the high ground between the Federals and Washington, and defend against an attack. However, Lee still had received no intelligence from his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, therefore he could not be sure that the Federals had not reinforced that area. Lee said, “No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Both Ewell and Stuart failed Lee on this day.

Fighting died down after nightfall, as three more Federal corps began arriving and reinforcing the high ground southeast of Gettysburg. The battle had been horrible, as I Corps alone sustained 10,000 casualties. The famed Iron Brigade was virtually destroyed, losing 1,212 of its 1,883 men. The 24th Michigan, part of the Iron Brigade, lost 316 of its 496 officers and men, including seven color bearers. The 2nd Wisconsin suffered a casualty rate of 77 percent; the 19th Indiana suffered 72 percent.

Meade began arranging to execute his original plan of falling back to Pipe Creek, occupying the high ground there, and awaiting a Confederate attack. However, Hancock assured him that the high ground outside Gettysburg was where he should make his stand. The line featured convex interior lines, enabling Meade to shift reinforcements to the most threatened points quickly.

In contrast, Lee’s lines were concave, making an attack more difficult. Lee ordered his army to concentrate southwest of Gettysburg that night, where he hoped to complete his victory by taking Culp’s and Cemetery hills the next day.

During this time, Stuart’s Confederate cavalry rode to Carlisle, where they shelled the town and burned the army barracks after the Federal garrison refused to surrender. They then rode to Dover, where one of the eight messengers that Lee had dispatched finally caught up to Stuart and informed him of the engagement at Gettysburg. Stuart was ordered to rejoin Lee’s army as soon as possible.

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References

Angle, Paul M., A Pictorial History of the Civil War Years (New York: Doubleday, 1967), p. 129-33; Catton, Bruce, The American Heritage Picture History of the Civil War (New York: American Heritage Publishing Co., 1960), p. 295; CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 62-63, 65-67, 73; Crocker III, H.W., The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Civil War (Washington: Regnery Publishing, 2008), p. 69-75; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19009-17; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 298; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 319; Kallmann, John D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 727-28; Linedecker, Clifford L. (ed.), The Civil War A to Z (Ballantine Books, 2002), p. 118-123, 166-67; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 374-75; McMurry, Richard M., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 385; McPherson, James M., Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era (Oxford History of the United States Book 6, Oxford University Press, Kindle Edition, 1988), p. 653-55; Sommers, Richard J., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 172, 177-78; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 196, 305-06, 308-09, 625-26