Memorable Battles in World History
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Battle of Gettysburg

Title: Confederate casualty at Devil's Den, Gettysburg
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Following his brilliant victory at Chancellorsville in May 1863, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia General Robert E. Lee fended off suggestions that part of his army be sent west to reinforce Vicksburg. Believing Vicksburg to be lost, Lee presented Confederate president Jefferson Davis with a plan to invade Pennsylvania. Far from an effort to take pressure off Vicksburg or to support a Southern peace offensive, it was rather a spoiling attack designed to delay an expected new offensive by Major General Joseph Hooker's Army of the Potomac and secure the rich resources of Pennsylvania. The Army of the Potomac had an edge in manpower of about 85,000–90,000 to 70,000, and in artillery pieces of 372 to 274, but these numbers were closer than they had been or would be again.

On June 3 Lee's army began moving west from around Fredericksburg, Virginia. Hooker moved on a parallel route north of the Rappahannock River, keeping his own forces between Lee and Washington, D.C. Lee then headed north through the Shenandoah Valley, crossing the Potomac River through Maryland and into Pennsylvania. Lee planned to take Harrisonburg and cut Union communications to the west. He would then be in position to threaten Baltimore and Washington, and hoped thereby to force Hooker to attack him.

By the end of June Lee's three corps, under Lieutenant Generals Richard Ewell, A. P. Hill, and James Longstreet, were widely scattered in southern Pennsylvania. Because there had been no word from his cavalry commander, Major General J. E. B. Stuart, who was to screen the Confederate right flank in the march north, Lee assumed that the Federal Army was not a threat. But Stuart had become separated from the main Confederate force and circled behind the Union troops moving north. On the evening of June 28, with his own forces dangerously dispersed, Lee learned that Hooker's army was massing near Frederick, Maryland. Union forces were closer to portions of Lee's army than these were to each other. If Lee did not concentrate at once, he ran the risk of having his army destroyed in detail.

The Confederates assembled at Gettysburg, a little town of 2,400 people but a major road hub. The Army of Northern Virginia came in from the northwest; the Army of the Potomac from the south. As of June 28, the Union forces had a new commander, Major General George Gordon Meade. At Chancellorsville, in early May, Hooker had hesitated, allowing Lee, with half his own numbers, to win. Lincoln and his advisers doubted he could stand up to Lee. Meade, one of Hooker's corps commanders, was regarded as stolid and unflappable.

Preliminary contact between the two forces occurred near Gettysburg on June 29. Union cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford entered Gettysburg and sighted A. P. Hill's Confederate infantry west of the town. Buford sent word to Major General Joseph Reynolds, commander of the Union I Corps, and attempted to hold Gettysburg as both sides rushed resources forward.

The Battle of Gettysburg lasted three days. The first day, July 1, was a Confederate victory. Reynolds reached the town in mid-morning and moved his infantry forward to replace Buford's cavalry but was killed while placing his units. In early afternoon Major General Oliver O. Howard's Union XI Corps reached the field but, in the fierce fighting that followed, the Confederates drove the Union troops back through Gettysburg into strong positions on Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill.

The first day's battle had been costly for the Union; two-thirds of the 18,000 Federals engaged were casualties. Reynolds and Buford had purchased sufficient time, however, for the resultant Union defensive line, which came to be known from its shape as "the Fishhook," was Meade's greatest single advantage in the battle. The Fishhook was anchored on the right by Culp's Hill, then ran westward to Cemetery Hill and south along Cemetery Ridge to the two Round Tops. Union cavalry screened the flanks. The Confederates, meanwhile, occupied Seminary Ridge, a long, partially wooded rise to the west that paralleled Cemetery Ridge.

The second day of battle, July 2, revealed the advantage of the Fishhook, as Meade, operating from interior lines, could more easily shift about troops and supplies than could Lee. Longstreet, commanding I Corps, urged Lee to secure the Round Tops at the south of the Union defensive line and then swing around behind the Union forces, threatening Baltimore and Washington to draw Meade from his defensive positions. Lee, however, decided on a two-pronged attack on the Union flanks.

These attacks were not simultaneous though, enabling Meade to contain both. Longstreet's march to avoid Union observation posts took much of the afternoon. Nonetheless, his two-division attack against Major General Daniel Sickles's III Corps on the Union left was successful. Sickles had abandoned Cemetery Ridge and moved in advance of the rest of the Union line, forming a salient where he was completely unsupported. Locations here became famous from the fighting: the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and the Devil's Den. Meade shifted forces south and, although Sickles's men were driven back to Cemetery Ridge, they held there. The Confederates also failed to take Little Round Top, thanks to Colonel Joshua Chamberlain's badly outnumbered 20th Maine Regiment, which arrived there just in time. Had the Confederates been successful here, Longstreet could have enfiladed the entire Union line.

The fighting then shifted to the Union center. Although Hill attacked with insufficient numbers, one Confederate brigade briefly secured a foothold on Cemetery Ridge. To the north, at twilight, two Confederate brigades were pushed back from Cemetery Hill and Ewell's attack on Culp's Hill was also rebuffed. The second day ended in a draw.

Although Longstreet expressed opposition, Lee now planned a massive attack from Seminary Ridge against the center of the Union line, held by Major General Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps. At the same time, the Confederate cavalry under Stuart, which had arrived only the day before, would sweep around the Union line from the north.

At about 1 p.m. on July 3, the Confederates began a massive artillery barrage with some 160 guns from Seminary Ridge. More than 100 Union guns on Cemetery Ridge replied in a two-hour cannonade. Then the guns fell silent and the Confederates began an attack over a mile of open ground in ranks a mile wide, battle flags flying as if on parade. There were three divisions in the charge that day, with Major General George Pickett's in the center. The two other divisions faded away and streamed back toward the Confederate lines, leaving Pickett's alone and exposed to enfilading Union fire. Only a few hundred Confederates reached the Union line, and they were halted there. Out of 12,000–13,500 men, Pickett lost 8,000–10,000 that day.

Lee then shortened his line. He remained in place along Seminary Ridge the next day, hoping that Meade would attack him, but the Union commander refused to take the bait. The Confederate cavalry, meanwhile, was defeated 5 miles east of the battlefield by Union cavalry. Finally, on the night of July 4, Lee decamped, taking advantage of darkness and heavy rain to mask his withdrawal. Lee proceeded down the Cumberland Valley and back into Virginia, with captured booty and 6,000 Union prisoners.

In the battle itself, Meade lost some 23,000 men. Lee's losses might have been as high as 28,000 men. Although the South trumpeted a victory, cooler heads could see that the battle was a Confederate defeat. The Union victory at Gettysburg, coupled with the simultaneous success at Vicksburg, Mississippi, decisively tipped the military/diplomatic balance in favor of the North.

Spencer C. Tucker


Further Reading
Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1984; Hess, Earl J. Pickett's Charge: The Last Attack at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001; Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1993; Woodworth, Steven E. Beneath a Northern Sky: A Short History of the Gettysburg Campaign. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, 2003.
 

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