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Battle of Gettysburg

History -- Military history -- List of battles -- History of United States

The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863), which took place near the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was the largest battle ever conducted in the western hemisphere, and is generally considered to be the turning point of the American Civil War.

Shortly after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia won a smashing victory over the Federal Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North. Such a move would upset Federal plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly relieve the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, and it would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much needed rest. Also, Lee's 75,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington and give voice to the growing peace movement in the North.

Thus, on June 3 Lee's army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg, Virginia. In order to attain more efficiency in his commands, Lee had pared down his two large corps into three new corps. James Longstreet retained command of his First Corps; and Lee selected two good division commanders to head the remaining corps: Richard S. Ewell was given the Second Corps, replacing "Stonewall" Jackson, who had received a mortal wound at Chancellorsville; and Ambrose Powell Hill commanded the new Third Corps. The Gettysburg Confederate Order of Battle lists the units and commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Federal Army of the Potomac, under the colorful Joseph Hooker, soon to be replaced by George Meade, consisted of seven corps of infantry and artillery, a cavalry corps under Alfred Pleasonton, and an artillery reserve, for a combined strength of more than 90,000 men. The Gettysburg Union Order of Battle lists the units and commanders of the Army of the Potomac after Meade assumed command.

The first major action of the campaign took place on June 9 between the opposing cavalry forces at Brandy Station, near Culpeper, Virginia. The Confederate cavalry under "J.E.B." Stuart was nearly bested by the Federal horsemen, but Stuart eventually prevailed. However, this battle, the largest cavalry engagement of the war, proved that for the first time, the Union horse soldier was equal to his Southern counterpart.

By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was poised to cross the Potomac River and enter Maryland. After gobbling up the Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, Ewell's Second Corps began crossing the river on June 15. Hill's and Longstreet's corps followed on June 24-25. Hooker's army pursued, keeping between the U.S. Capital and Lee's army. The Federals crossed the Potomac on June 25-27.

Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army's cavalry and ride around the Union army. However, Lee's orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals are to blame for the long absence of Stuart's cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. By June 29, Lee's army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, twenty-eight miles NW of Gettysburg, to Carlisle, thirty miles north of Gettysburg, to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.

In a dispute over the use of the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Abraham Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to shelve Hooker, immediately accepted the resignation. They replaced him on June 27-28 with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the Fifth Corps.

When, on June 29, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles west of Gettysburg.

On June 30, while part of Hill's Third Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill's brigades, North Carolinians under J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg to look for supplies, including shoes. And thus the myth of the Battle of Gettysburg being caused by shoe-hunting Confederates stumbling upon the Yankees was created. This myth is in fact not true. There was no shoe factory in town; there was no large supply of shoes. Pettigrew and his superiors should have known that, four days earlier, part of Jubal A. Early's division of the Second Corps had marched through Gettysburg on its way to York and Wrightsville. Any valuable supplies, including shoes, would have been taken by these troops. Even had Early's passage through town on the 26th not been common knowledge, Hill's troops would have no reason to believe that there was a large supply of shoes in Gettysburg. In his memoirs, Henry Heth, whose division started the battle on July 1, claimed that he heard of a large supply of shoes in town. From whom could he have heard this? Likely Heth used the shoe excuse to absolve himself of the blame for prematurely instigating a battle that General Lee wanted to fight only when the army was concentrated.

When Pettigrew's troops approached Gettysburg on June 30, they noticed Federal cavalry under John Buford west of town, and Pettigrew wisely returned to Cashtown. When Pettigrew told Hill and Henry Heth, his division commander, about what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Federal force in or near the town. In fact, Hill reportedly said that he hoped the Federal army was there, because that's where he wanted it to be. Hill determined to mount a reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Thus, around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, July 1, Hill's troops advanced to Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Pike looking for a fight, not for shoes.

The terrain of Gettysburg and vicinity is described in Gettysburg Battlefield.

Table of contents
1 First Day of Battle
2 Second Day of Battle
3 Third Day of Battle

First Day of Battle

Three miles west of town on the Chambersburg Pike, about 7:30 a.m. on July 1, Heth's division met resistance by cavalry vedettes and, eventually, dismounted troopers from Gamble's brigade, Buford's division of cavalry. Within two and a half hours, the Confederates had pushed the Yankee cavalrymen east along a series of ridges, when the Federal First Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, arrived from south of town. By 10:20, the Federal infantry had entered the fight. North of the pike, the Confederates gained a temporary success, while south of the road everything went the Federals' way. The famed Iron Brigade decimated Brig. Gen. James J. Archer's Southerners, capturing several hundred men of Archer's brigade, including Archer himself. However, early in the fighting, General Reynolds fell from his horse, killed instantly by rifle fire. Another myth states that Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter, but the lack of supportive evidence suggests that he was killed by a volley of rifle fire directed at the 2nd Wisconsin, which regiment Reynolds was guiding into McPherson's (Herbst) Woods.

The morning's victory belonged to the Army of the Potomac. Meanwhile, two divisions of Ewell's Second Corps, marching west toward Cashtown in accordance with Lee's order for the army to concentrate in that vicinity, turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads toward Gettysburg, and the Union Eleventh Corps raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the Federal line ran in a semi-circle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg. However, Hill threw in William Dorsey Pender's division to bolster Heth's afternoon attacks, and Robert E. Rodes's and Jubal Early's Second Corps divisions smashed and out-flanked the Federal First and Eleventh Corps positions north and northeast of town. At 4:10 p.m., Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, Eleventh Corps commander and acting commander on the field, ordered a Federal retreat to the high ground south of town, Cemetery Hill. Lee understood the defense potential to the Union of holding this high ground. He sent orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken "if practicable." Ewell chose not to attempt the assault. One reason posited was the battle fatigue of his men in the late afternoon, although Johnson's division had just arrived and was essentially fresh. Another was the difficulty of assaulting the hill through the narrow corridors afforded by the streets of Gettysburg, immediately to the north. Lee's order has been criticized because it left too much discretion to Ewell. It is interesting to speculate how the more aggressive Jackson would have acted on this order if he had lived to command this wing of Lee's army, and how differently the second day of battle would have proceeded with Confederate artillery on Cemetery Hill, commanding the length of Cemetery Ridge. The battle of July 1 had pitted over 25,000 Confederates against 18,000 Federals, and ranks in itself as the twenty-third largest battle of the war.

Second Day of Battle

Throughout the evening of July 1 and morning of July 2, most of the remaining infantry of both armies arrived on the field. The Union Sixth Corps was enroute from Manchester, Maryland, and Longstreet's third division, commanded by George Pickett, had begun the march from Chambersburg early in the morning. It would not arrive until late on July 2.

The Union line as established ran from Culp's Hill southeast of the town, northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles along Cemetery Ridge, terminating just north of Little Round Top. The Confederate line paralleled the Union line about a mile to the west on Seminary Ridge, ran east through the town, then curved southeast to a point opposite Culp's Hill. Thus, the Federal army had interior lines, while the Confederate line was nearly five miles in length.

Lee's battle plan for July 2 called for Longstreet's First Corps to attack beyond the Union left flank, face north, and roll up the Federal line. Richard H. Anderson's division of Hill's Third Corps was to assist Longstreet and prevent Meade from shifting troops from his center to bolster his left. At the same time, "Allegheny" Edward Johnson's and Jubal A. Early's Second Corps divisions were to make a "demonstration" against Culp's and Cemetery Hills (again, to prevent the shifting of Federal troops), and to turn the demonstration into a full-scale attack if a favorable opportunity presented itself.

Lee's plan, however, was based on faulty intelligence. Instead of moving beyond the Federals' left, Longstreet's divisions would face opposition in the form of Gen. Daniel Sickles's Third Corps.

Longstreet's attack was to be made as early as practicable; however, Longstreet got permission from Lee to await the arrival of one of his brigades, and, while marching to the assigned position, his men came within sight of a Union signal station on Little Round Top. The controversial countermarch that ensued took much time, and Hood's and McLaws's divisions did not launch their attack until just after 4 p.m.

In the meantime, Sickles, dissatisfied with the position assigned him on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, and seeing higher ground more favorable to artillery positions a half mile (0.8 km) to the west, advanced his corps--without orders--to the high ground along the Emmitsburg Road. The new line ran from Devil's Den, northwest to the Peach Orchard, then northeast along the Emmitsburg Road to south of the Codori farm.

Longstreet's divisions slammed into the Third Corps, and Meade had to send reinforcements in the form of the entire Fifth Corps, Caldwell's division of the Second Corps, most of the Twelfth Corps, and portions of the newly-arrived Sixth Corps. Hard fighting took place in the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, and Cemetery Ridge. However, the Confederates failed to achieve concert of action, and the Federal position held.

About 7:30 p.m., the Second Corps's attack on Culp's Hill got off to a late start. Most of the hill's defenders, the Union Twelfth Corps, had been sent to the left to defend against Longstreet's attacks, and the only portion of the corps remaining on the hill was a brigade of New Yorkers under Brig. Gen. George S. Greene. With reinforcements from the First and Eleventh Corps, Greene's men held off the Confederate attackers, though the Southerners did capture a portion of the abandoned Federal works on the lower part of Culp's Hill.

Just at dark, two of Jubal Early's four brigades attacked the Union Eleventh Corps positions on East Cemetery Hill; however, Early failed to support his brigades in their attack, and Ewell's remaining division, that of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, failed to aid Early's attack by moving against Cemetery Hill from the west. The Union army's interior lines enabled its commanders to quickly shift troops to critical areas, and with reinforcements from the Second Corps, the Federal troops retained possession of East Cemetery Hill, and Early's brigades were forced to withdraw.

Third Day of Battle

General Lee wished to renew the attack on Friday, July 3, using the same basic plan as the previous day: Longstreet would attack the Federal left, while Ewell attacked Culp's Hill. However, before Longstreet was ready, Federal Twelfth Corps troops attacked the Confederates on Culp's Hill in an effort to regain a portion of their lost works. The fight for Culp's Hill ended around 11 a.m., after some seven hours of bitter combat.

Lee was forced to change his plans. Now Longstreet would command Pickett's Virginia division of his own First Corps, plus six brigades from Hill's Third Corps, in an attack on the Federal Second Corps position at the right center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. Prior to the attack, all the artillery the Confederacy could bring to bear on the Federal positions would bombard and weaken the enemy's line.

The day was hot--87 degrees by one account--and the Confederates suffered under the hot sun awaiting the order to advance. Around 1:00 p.m., 142 Confederate cannons began an artillery bombardment that would become the loudest noise ever heard on the continent. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew must follow, the Army of the Potomac's artillery at first did not return the enemy's fire. After waiting about fifteen minutes, eighty or so Federal cannon added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position. After more than an hour (some accounts say two hours), the cannon fire subsided, and nearly 13,000 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile to Cemetery Ridge. Nearly one half would not return to their own lines. Although the Federal line wavered and broke temporarily at the "angle," just north of the copse of trees, reinforcements again rushed into the breach and the Confederate attack was repulsed. Known to history as "Pickett's Charge," Pickett's men actually composed only one-third of the attacking force, the remainder consisting of North Carolinianss, Mississippians, and Tennesseeans.

The armies stared at one another across the bloody fields on July 4, the same day that the Vicksburg garrison surrendered to Gen. Ulysses S. Grant. On July 5, in a driving rain, the Army of Northern Virginia left Gettysburg on the Hagerstown Road; the Battle of Gettysburg was over, and the Confederates were headed back to Virginia. Meade's Army of the Potomac followed, though the pursuit was half-spirited at best. The recently rain-swollen Potomac trapped Lee's army on the north bank of the river, but by the time the Federals caught up, the Confederates were ready to cross back to Virginia. The rear-guard action at Falling Waters on July 14 ended the Gettysburg Campaign and added some more names to the long casualty lists, including General Pettigrew, mortally wounded.

Throughout the campaign, General Lee seems to have entertained the belief that his men were invincible; most of Lee's experiences with the army had convinced him of this, including the great victory at Chancellorsville in early May and the rout of the Federals at Gettysburg on July 1. To the detrimental effects of this blind faith were added the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia had many new and inexperienced commanders. (Hill and Ewell, for instance, though capable division commanders, had not commanded a corps before.) Also, Lee's habit of giving general orders and leaving it up to his lieutenants to work out the details, though this method may have worked with Stonewall Jackson, proved inadequate when dealing with corps commanders unused to Lee's loose style of command. Lastly, after July 1, the Confederates were simply not able to coordinate their attacks. Lee faced a new and very dangerous opponent in Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac stood to the task and fought well on its home territory.

The armies would move on, but Gettysburg had much cleaning up to do. The two armies had suffered 51,000 casualties--killed, missing and wounded/captured. More than 7,000 soldiers had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. 5,000 horse carcasses were burned in a pile south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench. The ravages of war would still be evident in Gettysburg more than four months later when, on November 19, the Soldiers' National Cemetery was dedicated. During this ceremony, President Abraham Lincoln with his Gettysburg Address would re-dedicate the nation to the war effort and to the ideal that no soldier at Gettysburg--North or South--had died in vain.

Federal soldiers as they fell, Gettysburg