Tag Archives: Gettysburg Campaign

From Spencer G. Welch, 13th South Carolina

Letter from Dr. Spencer Glasgow Welch, a surgeon with the 13th South Carolina Volunteer Infantry

Camp near Orange Court House, Virginia

August 2, 1863

The South Carolina Flag | Image Credit: Wikipedia.org


In a recent letter I promised to write you more about our campaign in Pennsylvania.

On the night of the 29th of June, we camped on the west side of the Blue Ridge Mountains, where they extend into Pennsylvania. On the morning of the next day (30th), we renewed our march. Shortly after starting, it began raining, but the road was hard and well macadamized and the rain made the march rather agreeable than otherwise.

On this same morning, we passed where a splendid iron factory had been burned by General Early, of Ewell’s Corps. It belonged to a very celebrated lawyer and politician of Pennsylvania by the name of Thaddeus Stevens, who is noted for his extreme abolition views and his intense hatred for slave-holders. The works are said to have been worth more than $100,000. The burning had thrown a great many operatives out of employment, and they seemed to be much distressed.

During the day we wended our way up the mountains… In the afternoon about one or two o’clock we halted and bivouacked among the mountains. Our stopping-place was in a basin of the mountains which was very fertile and contained a few very excellent and highly cultivated farms. A while after we stopped, I started off to one of these farmhouses for the purpose of getting my dinner, as I was quite hungry and wanted something different from what I had been accustomed…

Upon returning to camp, I found that an order had been received during my absence to cook one day’s rations and have it in haversacks and be ready to march at five o’clock next morning. This at once aroused our suspicions, for we concluded that we were about to meet the enemy. Next morning about five o’clock we began moving. We had not gone more than a mile and a half before our suspicions of the evening previous were fully verified and our expectations realized by the booming of cannon ahead of us in the direction of Gettysburg. Upon looking around, I at once noticed in the countenance of all an expression of intense seriousness and solemnity, which I have always perceived in the faces of men who are about to face death and the awful shock of battle…

It was really a magnificent sight. The country was almost destitute of forest and was so open that it was easy to see all that was going on. Our division (Pender’s) continued to keep within about half a mile of Heth’s. McGowan’s Brigade was at the right of the division and the 13th Regiment was at the right of the brigade. This being the case, I could see from one end of the division to the other as it moved forward in line of battle. It was nearly a mile in length…

Officers who have been in all the fights tell me that they never saw our brigade act so gallantly before. When the order was given to charge upon the enemy, who were lying behind stone fences and other places of concealment, our men rushed forward with a perfect fury, yelling and driving them, though with great slaughter to themselves as well as to the Yankees. Most of the casualties of our brigade occurred this day (July 1). As the enemy were concealed, they killed a great many of our men before we could get at them.

There were a good many dwellings in our path, to which the Yankees would also resort for protection, and they would shoot from the doors and windows. As soon as our troops would drive them out, they would rush in, turn out the families and set the houses on fire. I think this was wrong, because the families could not prevent the Yankees seeking shelter in their houses. I saw some of the poor women who had been thus treated. They were greatly distressed, and it excited my sympathy very much. These people would have left their houses, but the battle came on so unexpectedly to them, as is often the case, that they had not time…

The fighting on the first day ceased about night, and when our brigade was relieved by Lane’s North Carolina Brigade, it was nearly dark… When they drove the Yankees to the long high range of hills, which the Yankees held throughout the fight, they should have been immediately reinforced by Anderson with his fresh troops. Then the strong position last occupied by the enemy could have been taken, and the next day, when Ewell and Longstreet came up, the victory completely won. If “Old Stonewall” had been alive and there, it no doubt would have been done. Hill was a good division commander, but he is not a superior corps commander. He lacks the mind and sagacity of Jackson…

On the second day of the battle, the fighting did not begin until about twelve or one o’clock, from which time until night it raged with great fury. The reason it began so late in the day was because it required some time for Ewell and Longstreet to get their forces in position.

On the third day, the fighting began early in the morning and continued with the greatest imaginable fury all day; at one time, about three o’clock in the afternoon, with such a cannonading I never heard before. About 150 pieces of cannon on our side and as many or more on the side of the enemy kept up for several hours. It was truly terrifying and was like heavy skirmishing in the rapidity with which the volleys succeeded one another. The roar of the artillery, the rattle of the musketry and the wild terrific scream of the shells as they whizzed through the air was really the most appalling situation that could possibly be produced. Our troops (Pickett’s Division) charged the enemy’s strong position, which they had now entrenched, but with no avail, although we slaughtered thousands of them.

On the night of the 3rd, General Lee withdrew the army nearly to its original position, hoping, I suppose, that the enemy would attack him; but they didn’t come out of their strongholds, for well they knew what their fate would be if they met the Confederate Army of Virginia upon equal grounds. On the 4th, our army remained in line of battle, earnestly desiring the advance of the Yankees, but they did not come. During this day the rain fell in torrents, completely drenching the troops…

On July 5, we recrossed the Blue Ridge Mountains. Climbing the mountains was very tedious after so much toil, excitement and loss of sleep, but we met with no obstacle until we came to Hagerstown, Md., where we stopped on account of the Potomac’s being too high to ford. While here, the Yankees came up. Our army was placed in line to meet them, but they did not dare to attack. In this situation we remained for several days with them in sight of us.

After a pontoon bridge was finished at Falling Waters and the river was sufficiently down to ford at Williamsport, we left the vicinity of Hagerstown. It was just after dark when we began leaving. It was a desperately dark night and such a rain I thought I never knew to fall… It appeared to me that at least half of the road was a quagmire, coming in places nearly to the knees…

Being very tired, we all lay down and nearly everyone fell asleep. Suddenly the Yankee cavalry rushed upon us, firing and yelling at a furious rate. None of our guns were loaded and they were also in a bad fix from the wet of the previous night. They attacked General Pettigrew’s North Carolina Brigade first. Our brigade was lying down 50 yards behind his. I was lying down between the two brigades near a spring. General Pettigrew was killed here. I was close to him when he was killed. It was a serious loss to the service. We fought them for some time. Then General Hill sent an order to fall back across the river, and it was done in good order.

The attack was a complete surprise, and is disgraceful either to General Hill or General Heth. One is certainly to blame. The Yankees threw shells at the bridge and came very near hitting it just as I was about to cross; but, after we were close enough to the river not to be hurt by our own shells, our cannon on this side opened upon them, which soon made them “skedaddle” away.


Source: Tapert, Annette, The Brothers’ War: Civil War Letters to Their Loved Ones from the Blue and Gray (New York: Vintage Books, 1988), p. 169-75


The Gettysburg Aftermath: The Armies Settle Back in Virginia

July 28, 1863 – Both the Federal Army of the Potomac and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia settled into position, as Major General George G. Meade was dissuaded from attacking and General Robert E. Lee submitted his official report on the Battle of Gettysburg.

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

By the 28th, Lee had evaded all Federal efforts to trap and destroy his army, skirting around Meade’s southern flank and moving east to safety near Culpeper Court House. Meade, having missed opportunities to destroy Lee’s army in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and now Virginia, moved his army to Warrenton. He reported that he had 105,623 officers and men, including about 13,500 cavalrymen, present for duty. Lee had about 59,178 officers and men, including some 9,000 horsemen.

Confederate scouts correctly located each of Meade’s seven corps in the Warrenton area, but they could not determine their sizes. Lee reported to President Jefferson Davis, “Although our loss has been so heavy, which is a source of constant grief to me, I believe the damage to the enemy has been as great in proportion. This has shown by the feeble operations since.”

He forwarded intelligence to Davis that Meade was being reinforced, adding that “their means are greater than ours, and I fear when they move again, they will much outnumber us.” Lee proposed possibly withdrawing behind the Rapidan River, which was where Meade believed he already was. Lee wrote, “The enemy now seems to be content to remain quiescent,” while “prepared to oppose any offensive movement on our part.”

Lee was wrong. Washington continued prodding Meade into launching another offensive, with General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck reminding Meade that “Lee’s army is the objective point.” Meade replied on the 28th, “I am making every effort to prepare this army for an advance.” He continued, “I am in hopes to commence the movement tomorrow, when I shall first throw over (the Rappahannock River) a cavalry force to feel for the enemy, and cross the infantry as fast as possible.”

However, Meade added, “No reliable intelligence of the position of the enemy has been obtained,” and the Confederate “pickets” along the railroad to Fredericksburg “seem to be mere ‘look-outs’ to warn him of my approach.” Various reports placed Lee’s army at Gordonsville, Culpeper, Cedar Mountain, Staunton, and even beyond the Rapidan on its way to Richmond.

Meade told Halleck, “My plan is to advance on the railroad to Culpeper and as far beyond as the enemy’s position will permit.” He sought to cut the Orange & Alexandria Railroad, Lee’s supposed supply line to Richmond, to determine “the practicability of maintaining open such a long line of communication.”

Later that day, Meade received word that Lee’s army was at Culpeper Court House. He also forwarded a report that “Lee has been re-enforced by D.H. Hill, reported with 10,000 men, and that he intends to make a stand at Culpeper or in its vicinity.” While it was true that Lee was at Culpeper, Major General D.H. Hill had not reinforced him (Hill had instead gone to reinforce General Braxton Bragg’s Army of Tennessee). Nevertheless, Meade planned to advance on the 29th, even if his army was not ready, if only to appease his superiors’ call for immediate action.

But now that Lee had reached Culpeper, President Abraham Lincoln no longer saw the need for Meade to immediately attack. The president wrote Halleck on the morning of the 29th, stating that Meade’s plan “causes me to fear that he supposes the Government here is demanding of him to bring on a general engagement with Lee as soon as possible. I am claiming no such thing of him.”

Lincoln had pressed Meade to attack in Pennsylvania and Maryland, but now the Federals were back in Virginia, where Lee had consistently defeated the Army of the Potomac. Lincoln told Halleck, “If he (Meade) could not safely engage Lee at Williamsport, it seems absurd to suppose he can safely engage him now, when he has scarcely more than two-thirds of the force he had at Williamsport, while it must be that Lee has been re-enforced.”

Lincoln continued, “True, I desired General Meade to pursue Lee across the Potomac, hoping, as has proved true, that he would thereby clear the Baltimore and Ohio Railroad, and get some advantage by harassing him on his retreat,” despite Halleck telling Meade at the time that he had greatly dissatisfied the president. Lincoln concluded, “I am unwilling he should now get into a general engagement on the impression that we here are pressing him.”

Halleck passed this message on to Meade, who responded the next day: “The impression of the President is correct. I have been acting under the belief, from your telegrams, that it was his and your wish that I should pursue Lee and bring him to a general engagement, if practicable.” Meade clarified that he had not failed to attack at Williamsport, Lee had just retreated before the attack began; he also declared that, contrary to Lincoln’s estimation, the army was at full strength, not two-thirds the size it was at Williamsport.

Meade wrote that his army’s current position was vulnerable to flank attacks, therefore it should advance against Lee before Lee advanced first. Halleck shared Meade’s message with Lincoln, then replied that the Federals should stay north of the Rappahannock for now. More troops might be needed from the army if the northern draft riots got any worse, Halleck explained.

Meade responded, “In my judgment, if there were no other considerations than the relative strength and position of the two armies, I should favor an advance.” But Halleck and Lincoln insisted that Meade stay put for now. To do so safely, Meade needed to secure the Rappahannock crossings in his front. Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry and XII Corps cleared Confederates away from Kelly’s Ford on the 31st, and they moved upriver to clear Rappahannock Station the next day.

Confederates patrolled the region between Rappahannock Station and Fredericksburg, guessing that if a Federal attack came, it would come from that area. On the last day of July, Lee submitted his official report on the Battle of Gettysburg to Davis, reiterating that the soldiers were not responsible for the defeat:

“The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserved success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude. More may have been required of them than they were able to perform, but my admiration of their noble qualities and confidence in their ability to cope successfully with the enemy has suffered no abatement from the issue of this protracted and sanguinary conflict.”

Davis, who had been despairing over the major defeats at Gettysburg, Vicksburg, Port Hudson, Jackson, and Tullahoma this month, confided in Lee near month’s end:

“General Johnston, after evacuating Jackson, retreated to the east, to the pine woods of Mississippi, and if he has any other plan than that of watching the enemy, it has not been communicated… this war can only be successfully prosecuted while we have the cordial support of the people. In various quarters there are mutterings of discontent, and threats of alienation are said to exist, with preparation for organized opposition. I have felt more than ever before the want of your advice during the recent period of disaster. If a victim would secure the success of our cause I would freely offer myself.”



CivilWarDailyGazette.com; Foote, Shelby, The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian (Vintage Civil War Library, Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, Kindle Edition, 2011), p. 569, 647; Fredriksen, John C., Civil War Almanac (New York: Checkmark Books, 2007), p. 335; Freeman, Douglas Southall, Lee (Scribner, Kindle Edition, 2008), Loc 6327; Long, E.B. with Long, Barbara, The Civil War Day by Day (New York: Da Capo Press, Inc., 1971), p. 392

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.”



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.



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: 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.



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.



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.



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.”



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