Tag Archives: A.P. Hill

Engagement at Bristoe Station

October 14, 1863 – Parts of General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac clashed as Lee tried flanking Meade in northern Virginia.

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

Early on the 14th, Major General Jeb Stuart and two of his Confederate cavalry brigades remained hidden near Auburn, as they were cut off from Lee’s army by Federals. Stuart, expecting the Confederate infantry to rescue him, began firing his seven cannon but received no support as the Federal troops advanced and nearly overwhelmed him. The Confederate horsemen fought their way out, but they had to take a long detour to rejoin Lee’s army.

Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps of Lee’s army marched to the sound of Stuart’s guns and approached Federal Major General Gouverneur K. Warren’s II Corps as it tried crossing Cedar Run. Warren reported, “To halt was to await annihilation, and to move as prescribed carried me along routes in a valley commanded by the heights on each side.” To Warren’s good fortune, Ewell’s attack was delayed, enabling him to withdraw the Federals to safety along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad.

The rest of Meade’s army continued pulling back north toward Centreville and Manassas Junction, while Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Confederate Third Corps moved east. Hill’s advance had been delayed, giving Meade time to avoid being flanked. As the Confederates approached Broad Run near Bristoe Station, Hill saw Federal Major General George Sykes’s V Corps falling back to the north and east. Thinking this was the Federal rear guard, Hill deployed two brigades from Major General Henry Heth’s division to attack. They did not reconnoiter the area beforehand.

As the Confederates advanced, Warren’s II Corps approached their right flank from the south, following Sykes on the northward retreat. Hill’s men traded shots with Sykes’s Federals, and then turned south to assault Warren, who placed his men behind the railroad embankment near Bristoe Station. Two Confederate brigades were ordered to charge Warren’s defenses.

The Confederate charge was easily repulsed, as the brigades were no match for an entire Federal corps. Both brigade commanders–Generals William W. Kirkland and John R. Cooke–were badly wounded, and both brigades were decimated (Kirkland lost 602 men and Cooke lost 700). A second Confederate attack, this time with Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division, was also repelled.

This 40-minute engagement cost the Confederates nearly 1,900 men (1,400 killed or wounded and 450 captured), while the Federals lost just 580. The Army of Northern Virginia had not sustained such a sharp defeat since the Battle of Mechanicsville during the Seven Days Battles of June 1862. Warren kept withdrawing north following this clash, avoiding Ewell advancing toward his left flank to reinforce Hill.

This campaign of maneuver had been a Confederate success, but it ended with a sharp Federal repulse that gave Meade time to prepare defenses around Centreville. Lee’s opportunity to move around Meade’s right and rear was lost. When Hill informed Lee of the Bristoe Station engagement, Lee said, “Well, well, General, bury these poor men and let us say no more about it.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19145; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p.  793; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 360; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6440-52; Jaynes, Gregory, The Killing Ground: Wilderness to Cold Harbor (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 26-28; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 422

Northern Virginia: Another Flanking Maneuver

October 12, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia attempted another flanking maneuver after Major General George G. Meade’s Federals fell back.

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

By the morning of the 11th, Meade had correctly identified that Lee intended to move his Confederates around the Federal right flank and rear to either give battle or drive Meade back toward the Potomac River. President Abraham Lincoln, anxious for updates, asked Meade, “How is it now?” Meade replied, “I am falling back to the Rappahannock (River). The enemy are either moving to my right and rear or moving down on my flank, I can not tell which, as their movements are not developed. I am prepared for either emergency.”

Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry clashed with Major General Fitzhugh Lee’s troopers who had stayed behind to screen the Confederates’ northern advance. Buford received Meade’s order to fall back around 9 a.m., and as he did so, Fitz Lee pursued. Buford made a stand, trying to keep the enemy from interfering with the Federals’ withdrawal across the Rappahannock.

That morning, Federal infantry evacuated Culpeper Court House, heading north to block Lee’s supposed attempt to attack either their flank or their rear. Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick’s Federal cavalry skirmished with Major General Jeb Stuart’s horsemen northwest of Culpeper, as Kilpatrick tried screening the withdrawal.

Lee’s infantry marched north to the Sperryville pike, then turned east toward Culpeper, where Lee hoped Meade would be. However, most of Meade’s army had already crossed the Rappahannock by that time. As Buford held off Fitz Lee and Kilpatrick held off Stuart, the remaining Federals got across. By the time the Confederate infantry met up with the cavalry, the Federals were gone.

The Confederates held positions northeast of Culpeper, but Lee missed his opportunity to attack Meade’s right and rear. He wrote President Jefferson Davis that he was “determined to make another effort to reach him.” Lee began planning to conduct another flanking maneuver, this time moving the army to Warrenton, and then to Manassas Junction.

The Confederates moved out of Culpeper on the 12th and headed for Warrenton, behind the Federal army. Lee relied on the strategy he had used in the Second Bull Run Campaign of August 1862 by sending Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps on a wide, westward swing around the Federals while Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps moved northward along the Orange & Alexandria Railroad. Lee informed Davis, “I am still moving with the view of throwing him (Meade) further back toward Washington.”

Lincoln wrote Meade, “What news this morning?” Meade, unaware that Lee was trying another flanking maneuver, sent three corps, along with Buford’s cavalry, to Brandy Station to identify Lee’s positions. Thus, his army was divided as he was in danger of being outflanked.

As Meade learned from nearby residents that Lee was moving toward Manassas Gap, he awaited word from Brigadier General David Gregg, whose cavalry division was on the Federal right. Meade reported to Washington:

“I hope during the night to get some information from him (Gregg) to confirm or disprove this report, now derived only from soldiers’ talk with citizens. In the meantime, it is proper you should be advised of this report, because, if true, Lee may get between me and Washington, and you may be annoyed then.”

That night, Gregg informed Meade that Lee was trying to turn the Federal right once more. Meade reported “that the enemy have forced the passage of the river at Sulphur Springs… There is no doubt the whole of Lee’s army is crossing on my immediate right. If I am not attacked tomorrow, I shall move toward him and attack him.” Meade issued orders for his army to concentrate at Fayetteville and east of Warrenton during the night.

The Confederates continued moving toward Manassas Junction and Washington on the 13th, with Hill’s corps in the lead. Lee accompanied Ewell on the march, where he received word that Federals were burning supplies at Warrenton Junction. Lee saw this as an opportunity to cut the Federals off at Bristoe Station, farther up the railroad line.

Stuart scouted ahead of the Confederate infantry and reported to Lee, “I believe you can reach the (Federal) rear if Hill is up.” Stuart and two of his brigades got trapped between the Federals at Auburn and Warrenton Junction. Stuart later reported, “In this predicament, I was not long in deciding to conceal my whereabouts, if possible, from the enemy.” Stuart and his men hid for the night in a small valley, while couriers slipped between the Federal lines to report the Federals’ whereabouts to Lee.

At day’s end, Lee’s army was just nine miles from the Federal rear.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 333; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 787, 789; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 359-60; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6405-17; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 420-21; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 80, 87-88

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Lee Escapes Again

July 23, 1863 – Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac missed another opportunity to destroy General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.

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

Meade hoped to trap two-thirds of Lee’s army west of the Blue Ridge in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Confederate First Corps had pushed east through Chester Gap, and Meade was unaware that by the morning of the 23rd, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps did the same. Hill left a brigade at Manassas Gap to defend against a possible Federal attack on Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps, which was following Hill.

Meade dispatched three corps to Manassas Gap, with III Corps in the lead. The corps had been led by Major General Daniel Sickles, but Sickles lost a leg at Gettysburg and was replaced by Major General William French. On the 23rd, French sent skirmishers through the gap to determine Confederate strength. All of French’s divisions arrived later that day, and they began moving through the gap. Captain C.H. Andrews, commanding the Confederate brigade assigned to hold them off, later wrote:

“They threw forward two regiments of cavalry and six of infantry as skirmishers. A line of battle of three brigades was formed in rear of these skirmishers. To each of these brigades was attached a battery of artillery. In rear of their line of battle, 15 regiments of infantry in column of regiments were formed in support and reserve.”

The Federals drove the Confederates back two miles toward Chester Gap, where the rest of Lee’s army was trying to pass east. The Federals charged a second time, and, according to Andrews, “We resisted them to the utmost of human capacity.” A third charge finally broke the thin Confederate line, sending the troops back into a skirmish line formed by arriving troops of Major General Robert Rodes’s division.

Rodes later reported that the Federal officers “acted generally with great gallantry, but the men behaved in a most cowardly manner. A few shots from Carter’s artillery and the skirmisher’s fire halted them, broke them, and put a stop to the engagement.” Rodes called the Federals’ conduct “decidedly puerile.”

French ordered his men to fall back. They secured Manassas Gap, but they could not prevent the Confederates from continuing their move farther south through Chester Gap. A single Confederate brigade had stalled an entire Federal corps for hours, enabling much of Lee’s army to pass through the Blue Ridge. Another opportunity to destroy the Confederates was lost, and Meade received harsh criticism for entrusting French, an inexperienced commander, to lead such an operation.

But Meade had not yet received word that most of Lee’s army had gotten away. At 10 p.m., he wired General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, “There are reasons for my considering it probable that but a small portion of his army has passed on. I shall attack his position covering Chester Gap tomorrow at daylight.”

By that time, Ewell had led his corps farther south, to Thornton’s Gap, and moved east through the Blue Ridge without resistance. French’s corps advanced into the Shenandoah Valley to Front Royal and discovered the Confederates were gone. A disappointed Meade reported to Washington:

“I regret to inform you that, on advancing this morning at daylight, the enemy had again disappeared, declining battle, and though an immediate advance was made and Front Royal occupied, nothing was seen of him but a rear guard of cavalry with a battery of artillery. I then ascertained that for two days he had been retreating with great celerity…”

Longstreet’s corps arrived at Culpeper Court House, south of Meade, as Meade’s Federals began assembling at Warrenton. Lee wrote to President Jefferson Davis that he had intended to move east of the Blue Ridge before the Federals crossed the Potomac, but various issues prevented that. Lee sought to heal his battered army as both he and Meade began moving back into their old camps.

This ended the fateful Gettysburg campaign. As details of the Confederate defeat began spreading throughout the South, some began doubting Lee’s leadership abilities. On Sunday the 26th, the head of the Confederate Bureau of War, R.G.H. Kean, wrote in his diary:

“Gettysburg has shaken my faith in Lee as a general. To fight an enemy superior in numbers at such terrible disadvantage of position in the heart of his own territory, when the freedom of movement gave him the advantage of selecting his own time and place for accepting battle, seems to have been a great military blunder. (Moreover) the battle was worse in execution than in plan… God help this unhappy country!”

Josiah Gorgas, Confederate ordnance chief, lamented in his diary:

“Events have succeeded one another with disastrous rapidity. One brief month ago we were apparently at the point of success. Lee was in Pennsylvania, threatening Harrisburgh, and even Philadelphia. Vicksburgh seemed to laugh all Grant’s efforts to scorn… Port Hudson had beaten off Banks’ force… Now the picture is just as sombre as it was bright then… It seems incredible that human power could effect such a change in so brief a space. Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success; today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.”

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 312; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 642; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 334; Hubbell, John T., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 472; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 390-91; 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. 665

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Meade Tries Cutting Lee Off

July 19, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia hurried to get through the Blue Ridge, and Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac hurried to cut them off.

On the 15th, President Abraham Lincoln issued a “Proclamation of Thanksgiving” for August 6. The day was to be spent expressing gratitude to God for “victories on land and on the sea so signal and so effective as to furnish reasonable grounds for augmented confidence that the Union of these States will be maintained, their Constitution preserved, and their peace and prosperity permanently restored…”

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

That same day, Lee rested his Confederates in the Bunker Hill area, north of Winchester and about 20 miles from the Potomac River. He directed his men to thresh nearby wheat, ground it up, and ration it among themselves along with the beef captured from Pennsylvania.

Lee wrote his wife that the army “has accomplished all that could be reasonably expected. It ought not to have been expected to perform impossibilities, or to have fulfilled the anticipations of the thoughtless and unreasonable.” He expressed hope that the official campaign reports would “protect the reputation of every officer,” and he would not blame subordinates for the defeat at Gettysburg. Lee instead blamed himself for expecting too much from the men.

Federal cavalry clashed with some of Lee’s troops moving through Halltown and Shepherdstown, but the rest of the Federal army could not cross the Potomac because it had risen once more. Meade directed three corps to march to Harpers Ferry, and the other four corps to go six miles downstream to Berlin. The men built bridges and finally began crossing the river on the 16th.

As Lee continued reorganizing his army, he wrote President Jefferson Davis, “The men are in good health and spirits, but want shoes and clothing badly… As soon as these necessary articles are obtained, we shall be prepared to resume operations.” Lee shared reports that Federals were about to cross the river at Harpers Ferry, and he told Davis, “Should he follow us in this direction, I shall lead him up the Valley and endeavor to attack him as far from his base as possible.”

The Federals completed their three-day crossing of the Potomac on Sunday the 19th. They quickly advanced south up Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley toward the Confederates past the Blue Ridge. Lee directed Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to cross the Shenandoah River and seize Ashby’s Gap, “should nothing occur to arrest your progress.” Lee hoped to secure as many gaps in the Blue Ridge as needed to move east and protect Richmond.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit: CivilWarDailyGazette.com

Meade hoped to block Lee’s eastward movement by seizing the gaps first. He directed a cavalry division under Brigadier General H. Judson Kilpatrick to occupy Ashby’s Gap, and two other divisions under Brigadier Generals John Buford and David Gregg to cover Manassas and Gregory’s gaps. Meade also dispatched XII Corps to hold Snicker’s Gap between Manassas and Gregory’s.

The Federals reached Ashby’s Gap before Longstreet, who resolved to move instead to Front Royal, farther south. Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps followed Longstreet on the 21st, and Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps followed Hill two days later. Meade moved south cautiously, guarding against a possible Confederate thrust northward into his rear that could cut his communication and supply lines to Washington.

Buford sent a brigade under Brigadier General Wesley Merritt to cover Manassas Gap, which arrived to secure it before the Confederates. Merritt’s Federals clashed with the 17th Virginia, Longstreet’s leading regiment, on the 21st. Merritt reported:

“The regiment is about 600 strong, which of itself in this country is enough to hold my entire brigade in check, as I cannot use my artillery to advantage. The wounds inflicted on the men of my brigade are very severe, and the arms captured from the enemy are the Springfield rifle. I will feel them again to-morrow.”

Buford’s other brigade, led by Colonel William Gamble, rode to cover Chester Gap farther south but discovered that Confederates already took it. This indicated to Meade that the main part of Lee’s army was no longer threatening his rear at Winchester, but rather trying to reach the Rappahannock River. The Confederates tried pushing through Chester Gap on the 22nd, while Gamble’s troopers held positions a mile and a half east. Gamble reported:

“When the head of the enemy’s column came within easy range, we opened fire on it with artillery and the carbines of the dismounted men so effectually that his column, with his wagon train, halted and fell back out of our range, his advance guard and skirmishers being still engaged with ours, and continued firing, we holding our position, and preventing the head of Longstreet’s corps from moving forward from the Gap from 8 a.m. till 6 p.m.”

Longstreet sent Major General George Pickett’s division south to outflank Gamble, who wrote that he was compelled to withdraw “when the enemy brought five regiments of infantry around out of sight in the woods, and, approaching my left flank, drove in our skirmishers.” This opened the gap, enabling the Confederates to pour through and cross the Blue Ridge on their way east.

At 2 p.m. the next day, Gamble reported that “the rebel army, with strong flankers, is still passing on this road. There is no doubt that the rebel army is pushing toward Culpeper on both sides of the mountains as fast as it possibly can, and I hope our army will act accordingly.”

Sensitive to charges that he had not shown enough aggression after the Battle of Gettysburg, Meade ordered III Corps, now commanded by Major General William French (after Major General Daniel Sickles was wounded at Gettysburg), to attack the Confederates at Manassas Gap. Longstreet may have pushed through Chester Gap, but Meade hoped to trap Hill and Ewell before they could follow suit.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 309-11; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 593-94, 627; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 333; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6316, 6327; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 386-89

The Gettysburg Aftermath: Falling Waters

July 14, 1863 – General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia tried escaping to Virginia, while Major General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac finally advanced.

By dawn on the 14th, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Confederate corps was safely across the Potomac River and on Virginia soil. Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s corps had begun crossing the river at Falling Waters, leaving Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps in the center of the Confederate line alone to fend off a potential Federal attack.

Federal cavalry reported movement within the Confederate defenses at 3 a.m., but Meade ordered no general attack. He ordered a cavalry reconnaissance in force to start at 7 a.m. instead. Two cavalry divisions led by Brigadier Generals John Buford and H. Judson Kilpatrick rode to Williamsport and found the earthworks empty, with trenches guarded by “Quaker guns.”

Meanwhile, Longstreet’s men crossed the Potomac at Falling Waters, and Hill’s troops followed. Two divisions bringing up the rear were still about a mile from the bridge when the Federals slowly approached through the thick mud around 11 a.m.

Brig Gen John Buford | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org

Buford’s troopers charged from the north while Kilpatrick dispatched just two squadrons to take on Major General Henry Heth’s division from the east. Heth’s men fended off this limited attack using rifles, axes, fence rails, and anything else they could find. Kilpatrick then sent more men into the fray, and they combined with Buford’s advance to overwhelm the Confederates.

The Federals took 719 prisoners, along with two heavy guns and three battle flags. They also mortally wounded the popular Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, who lingered with a stomach wound until succumbing on the 17th. Lee lamented that “the Army has lost a brave soldier and the Confederacy an accomplished officer.”

The Federals sustained 125 casualties (40 killed and 85 wounded). They tended to exaggerate their success in this engagement, possibly to downplay the fact that they failed to prevent the rest of Lee’s army from escaping back to Virginia. The Confederates removed the bridge around 1 p.m. to delay a Federal pursuit.

Meade finally ordered his army to advance, with four corps approaching Williamsport and two corps closing on Falling Waters. But the Federals found only empty trenches and earthworks, with the enemy rear guard crossing the river into Virginia. When Meade reported that the Confederates had escaped, President Abraham Lincoln said, “Great God! What does it mean?… There is bad faith somewhere… Our Army held the war in the hollow of their hand & they would not close it.”

Lincoln vented his frustration to his secretary, John Hay, “We had them within our grasp. We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move.” Later that day, the president abruptly ended a cabinet meeting, saying he could no longer concentrate on the topics being discussed.

General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck notified Meade, “I need hardly say to you that the escape of Lee’s army without another battle had created great dissatisfaction in the mind of the President, and it will require an active and energetic pursuit on your part to remove the impression that it has not been sufficiently active heretofore.” Meade quickly responded:

“Having performed my duty conscientiously and to the best of my ability, the censure of the President conveyed in your dispatch of 1 p.m. this day, is, in my judgment, so undeserved that I feel compelled most respectfully to ask to be immediately relieved from the command of this army.”

Halleck assured Meade that Lincoln did not want to relieve him of command, and the original message “was not intended as a censure, but as a stimulus to an active pursuit.” That night, Lincoln wrote a long letter to Meade:

“I have just seen your dispatch to Gen. Halleck, asking to be relieved of your command, because of a supposed censure of mine. I am very–very–grateful to you for the magnificent success you gave the cause of the country at Gettysburg; and I am sorry now to be the author of the slightest pain to you. But I was in such deep distress myself that I could not restrain some expression of it…

“You fought and beat the enemy at Gettysburg; and, of course, to say the least, his loss was as great as yours. He retreated; and you did not, as it seemed to me, pressingly pursue him; but a flood in the river detained him, till, by slow degrees, you were again upon him. You had at least 20,000 veteran troops directly with you, and as many more raw ones within supporting distance, all in addition to those who fought with you at Gettysburg; while it was not possible that he had received a single recruit; and yet you stood and let the flood run down, bridges be built, and the enemy move away at his leisure, without attacking him…

“Again, my dear general, I do not believe you appreciate the magnitude of the misfortune involved in Lee’s escape. He was within your easy grasp, and to have closed upon him would, in connection with our other late successes, have ended the war. As it is, the war will be prolonged indefinitely. If you could not safely attack Lee last Monday, how can you possibly do so South of the river, when you can take with you very few more than two thirds of the force you then had in hand? It would be unreasonable to expect, and I do not expect you can now effect much. Your golden opportunity is gone, and I am distressed immeasurably because of it.

“I beg you will not consider this a prosecution, or persecution of yourself. As you had learned that I was dissatisfied, I have thought it best to kindly tell you why.”

Lincoln eventually realized that Meade had done his best. He had taken command of the army just four days before it fought its greatest battle, and there had been many losses and much suffering among the ranks since then. Moreover, had Meade attacked at Williamsport before the evacuation, he most likely would have suffered a terrible repulse like that at Fredericksburg last December. As such, Lincoln never signed or mailed this letter.

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References

CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Clark, Champ, Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide (Alexandria, VA: Time-Life Books, 1983), p. 156-57; 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 19096; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 309; Donald, David Herbert, Lincoln (Simon & Schuster, Kindle Edition, 2011), Loc 9476-87; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 626; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 329-30; Goodwin, Doris Kearns, Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2005), p. 535-36; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 384-85; 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. 666-67; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 253, 307-08, 579

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

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 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

Armies Converge in Southern Pennsylvania

June 30, 1863 – Cavalry from the Federal Army of the Potomac arrived at Gettysburg from the south, just as infantry from the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia left to the north.

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

The Confederate corps of Lieutenant Generals James Longstreet and A.P. Hill reached Chambersburg on the 27th. Major General Jubal Early, commanding a Confederate division in Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps, was at York, poised to destroy a railroad bridge over the Susquehanna River. The other part of Ewell’s corps was at Carlisle, poised to wreck the Pennsylvania Railroad. The Confederates seized food, clothing, livestock, and anything else useful from civilians.

Ewell’s cavalry under Brigadier General Albert G. Jenkins camped within four miles of Harrisburg on the night of the 28th. This marked the farthest north that a Confederate army had ever gone (or would go) in the war. Lee issued orders for Ewell to attack Harrisburg, Longstreet to move north to support Ewell, and Hill to cross the Susquehanna and cut the railroad line linking Harrisburg to Philadelphia.

At 10 p.m., Major John W. Fairfax reported to Lee that a Richmond actor-turned-spy named Henry T. Harrison had told Longstreet that the entire Federal army was across the Potomac and moving north from Frederick, Maryland. This shocked Lee, who had expected his cavalry commander, Major General Jeb Stuart, to notify him when the Federals started moving. He had heard nothing from Stuart for four days.

Both Longstreet and Harrison later visited Lee, with Harrison telling him that the Federals had been across the Potomac for two days and were now approaching Chambersburg. Harrison also reported that Major General George G. Meade had replaced Major General Joseph Hooker as Federal commander. Longstreet vouched for Harrison’s reliability, and Lee quickly changed his plans based on the spy’s intelligence.

Lee canceled the drive on Harrisburg in favor of concentrating the army near either Cashtown or Gettysburg, eight miles east. Hill’s corps began heading to Cashtown on the 29th, with the lead division under Major General Henry Heth arriving that night. Longstreet’s corps followed the next day. Ewell’s corps was to move from Carlisle to Cashtown or Gettysburg, avoiding the busy Chambersburg road being used by Hill and Longstreet.

Ewell’s men were within striking distance of Harrisburg, and Ewell issued orders for Major General Robert Rodes’s division to capture the state capital the next day. But an hour later, Lee’s order to pull back arrived. So Ewell directed Rodes and Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division to start moving, along with Early at York.

Speaking to his staff, Lee said, “Tomorrow, gentlemen, we will not move to Harrisburg, as we expected, but will go over to Gettysburg and see what General Meade is after.” When someone asked him to assess Meade’s abilities, Lee said, “General Meade will commit no blunder in my front, and if I make one he will make haste to take advantage of it.”

Meanwhile, the main part of the Federal Army of the Potomac began moving out of Frederick, 40 miles south of Chambersburg, on the 29th. The leading Federal elements–I, III, and XI corps–reached Emmitsburg and Taneytown by day’s end, while the corps behind them hurried to catch up. The Federals held a 20-mile line in Maryland, from Emmitsburg to Westminster. Meade wrote his wife, “I am going straight at them, and will settle this thing one way or the other.”

Brigadier General John Buford’s Federal cavalry division rode in advance of the army, screening its northward movement. Buford’s men entered Pennsylvania on the 29th and rode within 12 miles of Gettysburg. Buford told his troopers, “Within 48 hours, the concentration of both armies will take place upon some field within view, and a great battle will be fought.” That night, Buford’s pickets briefly traded shots with Heth’s.

The Confederates continued concentrating in the Gettysburg area on the 30th. Early had told Hill about a shoe factory in Gettysburg, and Hill directed Heth to lead his men into the town on July 1 and “get those shoes.” Buford arrived at Gettysburg around 11 a.m., just as Heth’s troops were leaving. The two forces skirmished until Buford’s Federals pulled back. Heth reported Buford’s presence to Hill, who did not believe the Federals were in Pennsylvania yet.

Gettysburg had 12 roads leading in and out, making this prosperous little town strategically important. Buford immediately recognized this and posted defenses north and west of town, based on intelligence that the Confederates would come from one of those directions.

Buford was certain the Confederates would attack in the morning. One of his brigade commanders, Colonel Thomas Devin, expressed confidence that he would defeat any concentration of enemy forces coming his way. Buford said, “No you won’t. They will attack you in the morning and they will come booming–skirmishers three deep. You will have to fight like the devil to hold your own until support arrives.”

Meade ordered Major General John F. Reynolds, commanding operations for I, III, and XI corps, to seize the crossroads outside Gettysburg. Reynolds’s Federals camped within five miles of the town that night. Buford sent Reynolds a message stating that the Confederates were “massed just back of Cashtown.”

Meade sent orders for Reynolds to fall back to Emmitsburg if attacked, where strong defenses could be put up along Pipe Creek. Meade planned to let Lee do the attacking and hold him off. But by the time the orders reached Reynolds, the Battle of Gettysburg had already begun.

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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. 397-98; 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. 31-33, 35, 73; Davis, Jefferson, The Rise and Fall of the Confederate Government: All Volumes (Heraklion Press, Kindle Edition 2013, 1889), Loc 19096; Denney, Robert E., The Civil War Years: A Day-by-Day Chronicle (New York: Gramercy Books, 1992 [1998 edition]), p. 297; Faust, Patricia L., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 345; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 463-64; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 317-18; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 5878-901; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 372-73; Longacre, Edward G., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 246-47; 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. 652-53; Wert, Jeffry D., Historical Times Illustrated Encyclopedia of the Civil War (New York: Harper & Row, 1986, Patricia L. Faust ed.), p. 307-08