July 2, 1863 – The Federal and Confederate armies gathered south of Gettysburg, where General Robert E. Lee launched ferocious attacks on both Federal flanks.
The Confederates had won the previous day’s fight, having pushed the Federals southeast through Gettysburg. But the Federals were now firmly entrenched on high ground anchored by Culp’s and Cemetery hills. Major General George G. Meade, commanding the Federal Army of the Potomac, arrived on Cemetery Hill just after midnight, where he set up headquarters in the house of the graveyard’s caretaker.
Major General Oliver O. Howard, commanding XI Corps, spoke for most of his fellow corps commanders when he told Meade, “I am confident we can hold this position.” Meade replied, “I am glad to hear you say so, gentlemen. I have already ordered the other corps to concentrate here–and it is too late to change.”
By morning, Meade had adeptly employed his engineering skills by positioning his forces on a strong defensive line. It started at Culp’s Hill on the right (northeast) flank and curled around Cemetery Hill to the west before turning south down Cemetery Ridge. The line ended with the left (south) flank anchored at the base of two hills called the Round Tops.
Around 1 a.m., Major General Jeb Stuart, commanding the Confederate cavalry, put his troopers in motion to join the main army at Gettysburg. It had been one week since Stuart set off on his fateful ride around the Federal army that deprived Lee of vital intelligence. The men and horses were exhausted, having conducted five night marches during the raid.
Stuart and his cavalry finally arrived that afternoon, too late to provide any useful information to Lee regarding the Federal army. Lee greeted his tardy cavalry chief, “Well, General Stuart, you are here at last.” Stuart proudly presented Lee with the captured Federal wagon train, but Lee called it an “impediment to me now.” He ordered Stuart to block Meade’s possible line of retreat to the east.
Lee’s army concentrated around Seminary Ridge, about a mile and a half west of the Federals. The Confederates held exterior lines that stretched north through Gettysburg and then southeast to oppose the Federals on Culp’s and Cemetery hills south of town. Lee had been victorious the previous day, but he had not won a complete victory. He hoped to do so on this day.
Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, inspected the enemy positions that morning. He again urged Lee to move around the Federal left, get between Meade and Washington, and take up strong positions to repel a Federal attack in a manner like the Confederate victory at Fredericksburg last December. Lee refused, insisting, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet replied, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.”
Lee would not relent. He directed two of Longstreet’s divisions under Major Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws, as well as Major General Richard Anderson’s fresh division from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps, to assault the enemy left. Meanwhile, Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps would resume attacking the enemy right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills.
Longstreet’s men did not start arriving until late morning, and Longstreet spent most of the day getting them into attack positions. The Confederates opened an artillery barrage at 4 p.m. to precede their infantry assault. Hood and McLaws did not get into position until after 4.
Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the Federal left on Cemetery Ridge. Sickles believed his position was weak and so he, contrary to Meade’s orders, moved his men a mile forward to slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg road. The Federals occupied Sherfy’s Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, and a mass of boulders at the foot of a hill called Devil’s Den. This created a vulnerable salient in the Federal line. When Hood’s Confederates advanced, they immediately exploited the error.
Hood swept around Sickles’s left, knocking the Federals out of Devil’s Den and past Plum Run, which separated Devil’s Den from the Round Tops. Hood’s scouts reported that Big Round Top was unoccupied, and Little Round Top had just signalmen on its peak. Hood directed his Confederates to sidle around Sickles and focus on taking Little Round Top.
Longstreet was informed of the lack of Federal troops on the Round Tops and was urged to go to Lee and again argue his point for moving around Meade’s left. But Lee had already rejected that twice, insisting that Longstreet attack the Federals in his front. Longstreet would not risk a third rejection.
When Meade learned of Sickles’s unauthorized advance, he furiously demanded that Sickles return to his original position. But the Confederate attack began before Sickles could move. He asked Meade if he should still try pulling back, but Meade replied, “I wish to God you could, but the enemy won’t let you.”
Meade quickly ordered V Corps, his former command now led by Major General George Sykes, to reinforce Sickles. Meade also directed his chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, to reconnoiter the Round Tops. Warren scaled Little Round Top, a rocky, wooded eminence rising 650 feet. He saw Confederates massing below and quickly realized they could place artillery on this hill and enfilade the Federal army all the way north to Cemetery Hill.
Warren hurriedly called on the nearest Federal units to come and defend Little Round Top. These consisted of a brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent, the 140th New York, and an artillery battery from V Corps. They arrived and took up positions just minutes before the Confederates rushed up the hill.
The Federals held desperately against repeated enemy charges, as Brigadier General Stephen H. Weed’s brigade came up to reinforce Vincent’s right. Weed directed the placement of heavy guns that tore holes into the oncoming Confederates until he was killed in action; Vincent was also killed.
Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, holding the very end of the Federal line, launched a desperate bayonet charge after running out of ammunition, which shocked Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s Confederates and sent them running. Chamberlain, a college professor before the war, was later awarded the Medal of Honor for this action.
The Confederates then shifted their focus to the north, intending to execute Lee’s plan to launch assaults en echelon. McLaws’s division attacked Sickles’s exposed salient around 5:30 p.m. Fighting surged back and forth as the Wheat Field changed hands six times before the Confederates finally made a breakthrough. However, the Federals held the enemy off with artillery until Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps came up to stabilize the left-center of the Federal line.
McLaws deployed Brigadier General William Barksdale’s brigade around 6:30 p.m., which swept through the Peach Orchard and captured a Federal battery. However, Barksdale fell mortally wounded, and a Federal counterattack virtually destroyed his brigade. The Confederates next tried breaking the Federal center to no avail. The 1st Minnesota under Colonel William Colvill was nearly annihilated in a futile counterattack.
During all this brutal fighting, Sickles was wounded in the leg and carried from the field. He inexplicably blamed Meade for the heavy losses his corps sustained, despite having advanced on his own initiative into the face of massed Confederates.
By day’s end, the Confederates had seized the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, and the base of the Round Tops. But Federal reinforcements prevented them from penetrating any further. The Federals still commanded the high ground, and their line remained unbroken. Warren received high praise for recognizing the threat to Little Round Top and rushing to stop it.
Casualties were extreme for the second straight day, with each side losing another 9,000. Barksdale was killed, Major General William D. Pender of Hill’s corps was mortally wounded, and Hood was seriously wounded. Over 500 Confederates lay dead in the Wheat Field alone. Sickles lost his leg, and the 1st Minnesota lost 215 of its 262 men, or a horrifying 82 percent. As President Abraham Lincoln anxiously awaited news of the battle in the War Department’s telegraph office, Meade wired around 8 p.m.:
“The enemy attacked me about 4 p.m. this day, and, after one of the severest contests of the war, was repulsed at all points. I shall remain in my present position tomorrow, but am not prepared to say, until better advised of the condition of the army, whether my operations will be of an offensive or defensive character.”
Just after Meade relayed the message, Ewell finally launched his attack on the Federal right at Culp’s and Cemetery hills. The Confederates had bombarded the positions since 6 p.m.; the Federal defenses had been weakened by both the artillery barrage and by pulling troops away to reinforce the Federal left.
Major General Jubal Early’s Confederates briefly seized Cemetery Hill, breaking XI Corps once more, before Federal reinforcements drove them back. Confederate Major General Robert Rodes’s failure to reconnoiter deprived Early of the support needed to hold onto his gains.
The Federals held firm on Culp’s Hill against Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division; the hill was initially defended by just one brigade under Brigadier General George S. Greene. A division of XII Corps led by Brigadier General Thomas H. Ruger eventually came up to bolster Culp’s.
That night, Meade held a council of war with at least 12 of his top commanders in his small farmhouse headquarters on the Taneytown road. Meade sought advice on whether he should stay put as he told Washington or withdraw after sustaining Ewell’s attack. The officers resolved to stay put but maintain a defensive posture.
As the meeting ended, Meade told Major General John Gibbon, commanding a division in II Corps, “If Lee attacks to-morrow, it will be in your front.” When Gibbon asked why, Meade said, “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again, it will be on our center.”
The Confederates once again could not penetrate the Federal defenses. Longstreet was later accused of moving too slowly, and Lee was criticized for not properly coordinating the attacks. Lee resolved to launch one more attack the next day. As Meade predicted, he would target the Federal center in one last effort to destroy “those people.”
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