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Gettysburg : Day 2

Gettysburg : Day 2

US Civil War
Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide, Time-Life Books, 1985, ISBN 0-8094-4758-4 for this painting says “At the tip of the Peach Orchard salient, Union Gen. Daniel Sickles spurs ahead of his staff to inspect the front lines of his threatened III Corps on the afternoon of July 2. Confederates can be seen massing for an attack by the fringe of trees in the distance.

Battle of Gettysburg – Day 2 : July 2, 1863

“Mounting a large rock, I was able to see a considerable body of the enemy moving by the flank in rear of their line engaged, and passing from the direction of the foot of Great Round Top through the valley towards the front of my left.”

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment

As the sun rose on the fields south of the town of Gettysburg, the Union and Confederate forces found themselves in a stalemate. With formidable defensive positions, the Army of the Potomac did not want to leave their good ground, while the Army of Northern Virginia saw that their enemy’s lines were imposing.

Wanting to break the stalemate and capture the strong Union positions, General Robert Lee of the Army of Northern Virginia made plans to attack the Union line’s flank and turn it against them.

During this time, Lee had two corps in the field facing the enemy, with Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps to the north of the Union positions at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill and Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps positioned west of Cemetery Hill. Lee’s third corps, which was the First Corps under Lieutenant General James Longstreet, had just arrived, with its various units just entering the field of battle that morning.

Union breastworks on Culp’s Hill

Also arriving that day was Major General J. E. B. Stuart, who finally met up with Lee after his long absence. Forced to circle around the Army of the Potomac, and further delayed by the raids he conducted, Stuart had been unable to support Lee’s movements during the past few days. However, all throughout July 2, 1863, the Cavalry Corps finally began to arrive.

With his army’s force at Gettysburg now growing, it was now time to pick a place to bear his force’s attack.

As soon as the sun’s light shone on the field, Captain Samuel Johnston, of Lee’s staff, was sent out to reconnoiter the Union’s left flank. Going along the line and making his observations, Johnston reported to Lee that the Union left flank ran from Cemetery Hill, followed the south-west direction of the Emmitsburg road, and ended at Codori farm. Based on this description, it seemed to Lee that his enemy’s left flank was exposed and vulnerable to attack.

However, in reality, the Union lines were not in the position described by Johnston. The real Union flank was anchored from Cemetery Hill and headed straight south down towards the Round Top Hills. The real line was firmly secured by the Round Top Hills and was two hundred fifty yards east of the Emmitsburg road, making Johnston’s report inaccurate.

Because of this false information provided to him, Lee formulated a plan that would not have worked, given the true position of the enemy. In his plan, Lee wanted to move the First Corps down south, before having them follow the Emmitsburg road up and towards the open Union flank. As this was happening, the Second Corps would make an attack up north against the Union’s right flank. This attack would initially be a diversion to keep the enemy’s forces pinned down, however, if given the opportunity, he wanted the Second Corps to capture the positions in this area if an opportunity occurred. Meanwhile, as these assaults were happening, the Third Corps would conduct actions that would threaten the Union line’s center, in order to prevent the enemy from sending reinforcements to either the left or right flanks.

Robert E. Lee’s plan for July 2, 1863

By nine o’clock that morning the plan had been made and Longstreet informed of his role to play. However, the First Corps’ commander was not too pleased at what he had been told. Already objecting to the idea that they stay at Gettysburg and fight, he once more gave objections to Lee’s plans, this time in regards to the flank attack assigned to him. With his corps just getting into line, Longstreet only had two divisions available to him. His third division, under Major General George Pickett, was still on its way to Gettysburg. Longstreet would have preferred to attack with a complete force, but Lee knew that there was no time to wait. Because of this, he ordered Longstreet to begin his movement south once Major General Hood’s division, who still had units arriving at the field, was complete.

There was, however, a delay on this movement, and by eleven o’clock the First Corps still had not moved towards the south. But after the long delay, the corps soon began its movement, as Hood’s and Major General Lafayette McLaws’ divisions began moving southeast. However, further delays would be encountered, as the corps realized that their movement would be fully exposed to Union observers on top of the Round Top Hills. Because of this, Longstreet ordered his corps to redirect their march to an area where their movement would be covered by the nearby ridges. This concealed their units, but severely slowed their pace.

As the Confederate First Corps was slowly making its way to their objective, Major General Daniel Sickles of the Union III Corps was contemplating what to do about his corps’ current position. Positioned south of the II Corps’ position at Cemetery Ridge, with his line running from there down to the base of the Round Top Hills, Sickles believed that his force lay in a vulnerable area. Ahead of him was a piece of elevated ground half a mile west from his position, known as the Peach Orchard. From there, Sickles feared that Confederate batteries could be placed to shell his position.

Because of this belief that he was in a bad position, Sickles made a request to Major General George Meade, commander of the Army of the Potomac, that his corps should advance and occupy the high ground in front of them. This request, however, was denied by Meade, who wanted to keep his army together. If Sickles’ corps moved forward, then they would overextend the line and become too exposed, thus Meade did not approve of the corps commander’s plan.

Robert E. Lee

Despite Meade’s rejection of Sickles’ plan, the commander of III Corps still feared the ground ahead of him. Although there was no visible enemy in his front during that moment, Sickles believed that if an enemy force did come to attack, then the elevation at the Peach Orchard would place his force in a great disadvantage. If the enemy decided to take that position, then Sickles could do nothing to stop them. The only troops he had in the area were some skirmishers from the 1st United States Sharpshooters whom he had positioned on the Peach Orchard the previous night. If an enemy force decided to attack there, the sharpshooters would be unable to hold their ground.

Thinking that occupying this high ground was more important than maintaining the line, Sickles ultimately decided to advance his corps to take the ground before him.

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At around two o’clock in the afternoon, Sickles gave the order to move. Colors unfurled and bands playing, the various regiments of III Corps surged forward in perfect order. Staring in awe, the rest of the Army of the Potomac watched as Sickles’ corps left their original line and moved half a mile west to occupy a new position parallel the Emmitsburg road.

In their new position well advanced from the main Union line, Sickles’ 1st Division, under Major General David Birney, was placed on the left, with his line facing south and occupying the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil’s Den, which was their far left flank. Meanwhile, the 2nd Division, under Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys, occupied a line parallel with the Emmitsburg road and facing west. The division’s left flank was anchored to the 1st Division’s right flank at the Peach orchard, while their right flank ended at Codori farm.

Although III Corps now occupied the high ground along the Peach Orchard, they had ended up exposing themselves to attack and leaving their flanks wide open. On the left, the 1st Division had a large gap between their far left regiment, at Devil’s Den, and the Round Top Hills to their east. An undefended stretch of land nearly half a mile long made their position there vulnerable. Up at the north, on the 2nd Division’s right flank, a gap nearly a mile long separated their position at Codori farm from II Corps position at Cemetery Ridge. Sickles’ decision to move them forward left III Corps’ flanks wide open.

The vulnerability of III Corps’ position would soon be shown when the Confederate First Corps finished their march and reached their planned jump off point.

By three fifteen in the afternoon, the first regiments of McLaws Division finally neared their deployment area at the Emmitsburg road. Originally, they were supposed to form up on the road and follow its north-eastern direction to strike the area where they believed the Union left flank was. However, as they got there, they were surprised to see a whole Union corps positioned on the eastern side of the road.

Adapting to the change in the situation, Longstreet decided to deploy his corps parallel to the Emmitsburg road. Here, he placed Hood’s Division on the right, while McLaws Division was positioned on the left. Scouting out the enemy line, Longstreet realized that the far left flank of the Union line, located past the Round Top Hills, was undefended.

Seeing an opportunity, he consulted Lee and asked if he could swing his corps south of the Round Top Hills, before marching north to attack the exposed left flank. But Lee did not like this plan. With the assault already far behind schedule, such a movement would waste even more time. Because of this, Lee ordered Longstreet to assault the Union line between Sickles’ farthest left point and the Round Top Hills. Both Longstreet and Hood did not like this plan, as the terrain was bad and gave the enemy good defensible positions, but they obeyed the orders and executed the plan.

The operation started with an artillery barrage at around four o’clock in the afternoon. All at once, the guns of the First Corps bombarded III Corps’ lines, wrecking havoc along their position. During that moment, Meade had rode up to reprimand Sickles’ for moving without orders. The two generals were then in the middle of deliberating how to move the corps back to its original position, when the first shells from the Confederate artillery batteries began landing around them. Realizing that it was dangerous to fall back under enemy fire, and a potential enemy attack, Meade ordered Sickles to hold his position, before he himself raced off to find reinforcements that would hold the gap III Corps had created.

Overview map of the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

Meanwhile, back at the Confederate positions, Hood started to prepare his division to attack the Union left. In his plan, Hood wanted Brigadier General Evander Law’s brigade to head for the Round Top Hills and outflank the enemy by heading north and behind their lines. Following this attack, Brigadier General Jermone Robertson’s brigade would attack the left flank of III Corps at Devil’s Den. The rest of the division would support the attacks, reinforcing the push against the flank.

After thirty minutes of artillery bombardment, Hood’s attack finally began with Law’s brigade moving forward. Almost immediately, Law encountered resistance from skirmishers of the 1st United States Sharpshooters, who took shots at them as they approached. The brigade also took serious harassing fire from an artillery battery placed on Devil’s Den. Because of this serious resistance on their left, Law’s brigade ended up splitting into two, with one portion hedging towards the Round Top Hills, while another went to deal with the artillery at Devil’s Den. The rocky terrain made Devil’s Den a hard position to attack, as the 44th and 48th Alabama Volunteer Infantry Regiments attacked the artillery battery and the 4th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was the farthest left regiment of the Union line at the time.

The assault on Devil’s Den was joined by the 4th Texas Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 3rd Arkansas Volunteer Infantry Regiment from Robertson’s brigade. Like Law’s brigade, Robertson’s force also conducted a split, with two regiments attacking Devil’s Den, while the other two followed Law’s advance on the Round Top Hills.

The fighting at Devil’s Den would prove to be bloody, as regiments from both sides fought it out in the close confines of the rocky position. In the end, however, the pressure from the various attacking Confederate regiments overwhelmed the Union forces, who began to pull back, abandoning their artillery, but not before destroying the equipment used to man the cannons. Unfortunately, the capture of this position could not be further exploited, as Hood had been injured and taken out of action early in the fight. Lacking a senior commander to lead the division, the attacks of the various brigades became uncoordinated.

However, despite the chaos, the regiments pushing towards the Round Top Hills remained determined, as they kept moving forward by climbing Big Round Top and heading straight for Little Round Top. Once they passed these positions, they would be clear to attack the open Union rear and possibly route the entirety of III Corps.

Stationed atop Little Round Top, along with a section from the United States Signal Corps, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren, the chief engineer of Meade’s staff, noticed Confederate regiments moving away from III Corps’ left and heading straight towards his location. Realizing that there was nothing stopping these regiments from reaching Little Round Top and turning the Union left flank, Warren quickly got to work, trying to find any nearby unit that could stop the approaching enemy. Sending out men to search for nearby units that could assist, one of his couriers ultimately encountered Colonel Strong Vincent, who commanded the 3rd Brigade of the First Division, which belonged to V Corps. Realizing the value of the hill, Vincent immediately took action and marched his brigade towards the important position.

As Confederate and Union forces raced towards Little Round Top, the battle continued to rage on other parts of the line.

In front of the 1st Division’s 3rd Brigade, Confederates from McLaws’ Division moved forward to support Hood’s attack. Bearing down on the Union lines, they met heavy resistance and took in casualties, as they tried to close the distance against the Union forces ahead of them.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the Union line, at its far right flank at Culp’s Hill, Ewell’s Second Corps was bombarding Union positions in preparation for a full out assault against their enemy. Although the defensive positions in this section of the line were formidable, with makeshift breastworks made out of logs and rock protecting the Union forces, the important right flank was actually very vulnerable, as there was only the 3rd Brigade of XII Corps’ Second Division defending the eastern face of the hill. The rest of the corps had left in order to reinforce the exposed left flank, thus leaving the right flank weak and outnumbered.

All over the line, it seemed that Union forces were in a terrible disposition. It was now up to the various officers and men on the scene to fight against the odds and hold the line.

At Little Round Top, the men of Vincent’s brigade started to deploy on the military crest of the hill. In his positioning, he had the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, on the far left of the brigade, making this the extreme left of the whole Union line. The brigade arrived not a moment too soon, as the mixed brigade under Law began ascending the hill.

Tired and exhausted after a whole day of marching, the Alabama and Texan regiments still found the strength to surge forward and assault the line. Meeting heavy and hot volleys of rifle fire from Vincent’s regiments, they exchanged shots and fought their way up. Fighting uphill was a difficult task, and the difficult terrain on Little Round Top made the task even harder, but despite the heavy resistance, they slowly managed to close the distance.

Moving towards the right of the line, where his 16th Michigan Volunteer Infantry Regiment was receiving heavy attacks, Vincent stood high and encouraged his men as they did their best to hold the line. However, during the fighting, a bullet struck him, mortally wounding the man. With Vincent down, Colonel James Rice, of the 44th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment, took command of the brigade.

On the extreme left, the 20th Maine faced off with Colonel William Oates’ 15th Alabama Volunteer Infantry Regiment. Heading straight for the 20th Maine, the 15th Alabama fought an intense firefight against the defenders. However, after finding it impossible to take the line directly, the 15th Alabama began shifting their forces on the right, hoping to turn the defender’s flanks.

Seeing this redeployment, Chamberlain ordered his regiment to refuse the line, bending the formation at the center so that the companies on the left wing would form a right angle that faced directly to the left. Because of this reforming, the 20th Maine was able to meet the flank attack of the 15th Alabama, once more repulsing them.

More attacks followed, with each assault becoming fiercer and fiercer. At some points, men of the 15th Alabama managed to push back the soldiers of the 20th Maine, who retreated as far as the summit of the hill. However, they soon managed to rally and counter-attack, retaking their positions.

George G. Meade

After each attack, brief lulls in the fighting occurred, giving Chamberlain time to consolidate and strengthen his position. Gathering as much rocks as they could, the men of the 20th Maine did their best to create makeshift walls that could shield them from enemy fire. Although the walls were very low, they at least gave some protection for anyone lying on the ground. During the brief respites in the fighting, Chamberlain started to realize that his line was becoming thin. As more and more men fell, his officers had to spread out their commands in order to cover their front. The situation was starting to become dangerous, but as the 15th Alabama continued their attack, he could not do much about it.

Despite their success in holding the line, the fighting had taken a toll on the regiment, as casualties began to pile up. To make things worse, as volley after volley was fired, the 20th Maine started to run out of ammunition. Unable to find supplies, and lacking bullets to repulse another major attack, it seemed that the regiment would be forced to fall back, which would result in the flank caving in.

With orders to hold his position at all hazards, Chamberlain was hesitant at the idea of retreating. Because of this, he decided to take a risk. Recalling the books he learned on military warfare and tactics, one lime must have repeated itself in his mind during the time: “The best thing for an army standing on the defensive is to know how to take the offensive at a proper time, and to take it.” It was during this desperate moment that Chamberlain gave the order to fix bayonets.

Ordering his men to charge, the left wing of the regiment swung forward to realign with the rest of the regiment, before the whole unit began sweeping the charging Alabamians in a bayonet charge. Shocked by such a sudden attack, many of the exhausted men of the 15th Alabama began to surrender. Only moments before, Oates had ordered a retreat back to Big Round Top. Now this retreat was caught by the charging 20th Maine. Capturing prisoners and forcing the Confederates in their front to retreat, the 20th Maine chased after their enemy until they vacated their front. Following the repulse of the 15th Alabama, the rest of Law’s brigade retreated. Little Round Top had been defended and the Union left had been saved.

Although the threat to the left had been defeated, trouble was still brewing along the exposed line held by III Corps.

Moving forward against the Union positions of the 3rd Brigade, 1st Division, III Corps, Confederates forces from McLaws’ Division attacked their positions at the Wheatfield, forcing them to pull back across the open ground onto the other side of the field. However, despite pushing back Union forces, the Confederate success did not last, as the 1st Division of II Corps moved in to reinforce Sickles’ overstretched lines. Forming up on the opposite end of the Wheatfield, they soon began to assault the Confederate positions, fighting them in heavy and intense battles.

Various brigades on both sides slugged it out on the exposed piece of land, as they exchanged deadly vollets upon each other. Brigades such as the famous Irish Brigade for the Union and Brigadier General Joseph Kershaw’s South Carolina Brigade for the Confederates would be thrown into the slaughter of the wheatfield, with many men dying and falling flat on this bloodied ground.

The battle in this portion of the battlefield was fluid, with each side pushing each other back and forth. At one point, the two Regular Infantry brigades of the 2nd Division, V Corps, were sent in to help stabilize the line. However, their assault was pushed back, leaving the field to the Confederates in possession of the field. In the end, Confederate forces fell back to hold the western portion of the field, while a newly arrived Pennsylvania brigade occupied the east, leaving the Wheatfield itself as a no man’s land.

North-west from the Wheatfield, and along the positions of the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, III Corps, the men placed on the elevated ground of the Peach Orchard were enduring heavy attacks from two brigades. Unable to hold their vulnerable and exposed position against constant attacks, the men of the brigade soon began to retreat. Once the Confederate forces captured the ground on the Peach Orchard, they soon brought up their artillery on the position and began bombarding retreating Union forces. One shell from an artillery piece landed near Sickles himself, ripping off a good portion of his leg, which needed to be amputated later on.

Peach Orchard

As the Peach Orchard fell, the line of III Corps’ 2nd Division became exposed on the left. To make things worse, at around six o’clock in the afternoon, brigades from the Confederate Third Corps began moving against the 2nd Division’s front. Under constant pressure from two sides, the 2nd Division’s line along the Emmitsburg began to collapse, as retreating units started to route and fall back towards their original position near Cemetery Ridge.

With this sudden break of the III Corp’s right wing, the Union II Corps at Cemetery Ridge suddenly found itself exposed on the left, with its flank undefended. Seeing this and taking the initiative, the brigades from the Confederate Third Corps began advancing towards this vulnerable position, hoping to attack Cemetery Ridge and oreverun its defenders.

Moving to this area and realizing how vulnerable his corp’s position was, General Winfield Hancock sent desperate orders to bring in reinforcements to cover the open flank. However, he knew that such reinforcements would take a while to get there, so he needed to buy time. Spotting the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment, he rode up to it and spoke to its commander, Colonel William Colvill Jr. Pointing towards the rushing Confederate brigades, he told Colvill to: “Charge those lines!”

It was a suicidal task, but the men of the 1st Minnesota kept up their courage and formed up to advance against the three enemy brigades. With bayonets fixed they went straight for the first Confederate brigade, as Colvill ordered a charge. Caught in the middle of crossing a dry brook, the men of the brigade were slightly disorganized and were unable to let out a concentrated fire on the charging two hundred sixty-two men of the 1st Minnesota. Because of this, the first line broke, allowing the 1st Minnesota to keep up their momentum and head for the second brigade lined up ahead of them.

This time, however, heavy volleys of rifle fire met their advance, and the regiment began to take on casualties. Despite this, the 1st Minnesota managed to delay the Confederate advance long enough for Union reserves to arrive and support their position. The regiment ended up losing eighty percent of its numbers because of its charge, severely crippling its ranks. However, with their bloody advance, the 1st Minnesota managed to help save II Corps’ left flank.

With II Corps reserves arriving to secure the left flank, they began fighting off the determined Confederate brigades moving against Cemetery Ridge. One brigade, under Brigadier General Ambrose Wright, managed to reach the ridge itself and capture some artillery batteries. However, left unsupported and with Union reserves pouring in ahead of them, Wright was forced to pull back.

As more and more reinforcements arrived from various corps within the Army of the Potomac, and with the remnants of III Corps beginning to rally at their old positions, it seemed that the Union’s line in the area was finally starting to stabilize.

However, as the fighting started to slacken and close on the left flank, on the right flank, it was a different story.

On this portion of the Union line along Culp’s Hill, the regiments of Major General Edward Johnson’s division began an assault against the remaining XII Corps defenders on the hill. Like in other portions of the line, the Union positions were formidable, not only because of their elevated line along the crest of the hill, but also because the Union forces made use of formidable breastworks in order to help them hold the line.

However, because of the fact that most of XII Corps had left to reinforce the line on the left, many of the make-shift earthwords were left abandoned and were thus captured by advancing Confederate forces. Emboldened by this success, they continued their advance until they encountered the remaining Union brigade, under Brigadier General George Greene. The brigade was only one thousand three hundred men strong, and up against them were three brigades, which had four thousand men. However, with the area being heavily wooded, Confederate forces found it difficult to move and maneuver, as a steady downpour of bullets landed all over them as they climbed the hill.

Placed on the extreme right flank of the line, the men of the 137th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment held on against the flanking attacks of Brigadier General George Steuart’s brigade. Finding Confederate units on their right, they decided to fall back to a high portion of the hill, in order to properly face the flanking force. From here, the 137th New York continued to hold the line until Confederate forces halted their attack due to nightfall. This was a close call, as this position was close to the Army of the Potomac’s supply base. Had Steuart had more time to fight in the day, or had more reinforcements, he could have turned the right and captured the vital Union supplies.

Meanwhile, farther west from Culp’s Hill, at XI Corps’ positions at Cemetery Hill, Major General Jubal Early’s Division attacked the Union lines in the area. In their assault, they managed to successfully overrun XI Corps’ right wing and were beginning to swing against the left when reinforcements from II Corps arrived and pushed them back. With the light fading, and coordination in a night attack being nearly impossible, Early’s Division fell back, leaving the Union in full possession of the hill.

The fighting on July 2, 1863 was some of the hardest and bloodiest in the battle. Union casualties are estimated to be around eight thousand seven hundred and fifty, while Confederate casualties are estimated to be around six thousand five hundred. At many points throughout the day, Confederate forces came close to turning the flanks of the Union line, but were prevented in doing so because of the determined resistance of the Army of the Potomac.

However, despite the setbacks, Lee was still sure that he could defeat the Union forces in front of him. The attacks on the Union flanks were semi-successful, and because of this slight success, Lee believed that a renewed effort on them would finally make the Union positions crack.

In order to follow up the day’s battle, Lee’s plans for the next day was to attack the Union left and right once more, with the operation beginning first thing in the morning. This meant another bloody day would be ahead of them all.

Written by Justin Rojo

Written by Justin Rojo

Gettysburg : Day 2 References:

  1. Reardon, C., Vossler, T. (2013). The Gettysburg Campaign: June – July 1863.
  2. Drake, S. (1892). The Battle of Gettysburg: 1863.
  3. Johnson, S. (1984). Great Battles of the Civil War.
  4. Nesbitt, M. (1996). Through Blood & Fire: Selected Civil War Papers of Major General Joshua Chamberlain.
  5. Hage, A. (1963). The Battle of Gettysburg: As Seen By Minnesota Soldiers.
  6. Scher, A. (2013). Long Remember: Minnesota at Gettysburg and Vicksburg.
  7. Scapegoat or Scandal? J.E.B. Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg.
  8. Forsyth, M. (2013). Who was the “Great Man” at Culp’s Hill?.

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