Why was the Gettysburg Battle so important?

Why was the Gettysburg Battle so important?

Battle of Gettysburg – Day 1

July 1, 1863

“The devil’s to pay!”

Brigadier General John Buford, after being asked by Major General John Reynolds about the situation at Gettysburg.

All throughout the month of May, Confederate General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, had been pushing for an offensive campaign against the Northern States in order to disrupt any future campaign plans of the Union Army, collect supplies from the resource rich states of the north, and threaten crucial Union cities. Ravaged by war, the state of Virginia had paid a heavy price for the Confederacy.

Although they had been the site of many Confederate victories, the countless numbers of battles, as well as the movement of large armies, have taken a toll on the state, as it was slowly being depleted of supplies and resources. Wanting to relieve the pressure from his home state, as well as bring a possible end to the war, Lee hoped to march north where he can move the fighting away from their territory and display a show of force that would stir up support for those in the Union who wanted to begin peace negotiations to end the raging civil war.

Confederate high command had mixed feelings with this planned operation, especially with the various offensive happening all around the Confederacy. Some wanted to keep the army’s focus on the defensive, so that they could counter any assault struck against them. To them, an offensive would only take up men and resources that could be used to defend their territory.

However, despite those who did not like the plan, Lee’s offensive operation had the approval of Confederate President Jefferson Davis. Because of this, on June 3, 1863, Lee gathered his forces and began secretly marching them away from Fredericksburg. Evading detection from the Union’s Army of the Potomac, which had been keeping an eye on the Army of Northern Virginia and guarding against a possible offensive by them, Lee soon moved his forces towards Culpeper.

An attempt to pursue the Army of Northern Virginia was made by Union cavalry, and this chase resulted in the Battle of Brandy Station, where the famous Confederate Cavalry General J. E. B. Stuart had his force surprised and nearly outfought by Union cavalry. However, Stuart’s cavalry managed to push back Union forces, and despite the embarrassment, the movements of the Army of Northern Virginia were kept secret.

With a force of seventy-five thousand men, the Army of Northern Virginia soon began a series of marches that would sneak them up north to the Shenandoah Valley, then to Maryland, and then into Pennsylvania. The first major movement began on June 10, when Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps began moving forward.

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Doing their best to pursue the Confederate forces, the ninety-four thousand man strong Army of the Potomac, which was still commanded by Major General Joseph Hooker, began their movement on June 13.

However, despite the Army of the Potomac’s pursuit, the Army of Northern Virginia met light resistance in their march north. Overwhelming the Union forces that stood in their way, they soon managed to reach the bountiful Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania.

Throughout the last week of June Confederate forces found themselves marching and foraging in Pennsylvania with virtually no resistance. Meanwhile, as Ewell’s Second Corps held Pennsylvania, the army’s First Corps, as well as Stuart’s Cavalry Corps, stayed east of the Blue Ridge Mountains in order to slow down the movement of the Army of the Potomac. Facing off with Union cavalry, Stuart’s forces engaged the Union’s advance scouts from June 17 to 23. Because of these actions, the Confederate cavalry were able to prevent their Union counterparts from spotting the main force of Lee’s army.

By June 23, however, new orders were given for him to screen the right flank of Ewell’s Second Corps in Pennsylvania. To do this, he would have to harass Union forces, in order to further slow down their march and prevent them from scouting out the Confederate forces.

Making the decision to move upon Wade Hampton, instead of taking a straight route towards the Second Corps, Stuart’s cavalry moved on a northerly route. In this movement, he hoped to have his force in-between the Army of the Potomac and Ewell’s Second Corps. However, he was surprised to learn that the Union Army had moved faster than expected, and instead of being in-between the Second Corps and the Army of the Potomac, Stuart now found himself on the opposite end, with the Army of the Potomac being between him and the Second Corps.

Because of this situation, Stuart and his cavalry were forced to move east in order to link up with the Second Corps. This movement would take a lot of time to conduct, and as he captured various supplies, his force slowly began burdened by their prizes, which resulted in further slowing down their movement.

With Stuart’s Cavalry Corps cut-off from the main army, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia suddenly found themselves deprived of a cavalry screen, as well as the vital scouts they needed to reconnoiter unfamiliar and hostile territory.

Gettysburg Campaign (through July 3); cavalry movements shown with dashed lines   

As the various corps of the Army of Northern Virginia began heading north in order to converge in Pennsylvania, the Union’s Army of the Potomac did their best to catch up and counter the invasion. However, despite their surprisingly fast movement, their commander, General Hooker, was becoming increasingly complacent and demanding for more reinforcements against an enemy who he believed outnumbered him. Wanting additional men for the campaign, Hooker made request for various garrisons that were charged to protect vital areas such as Baltimore, Washington, Alexandria and Harper’s Ferry to join his command These request, however, were not granted, and in a furious reaction to this, Hooker asked to be given reinforcements or else have him replaced.

On June 28, at dawn, General Hooker was replaced by Major General George Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Despite still not having a clear picture to where the Army of Northern Virginia was concentrating, Meade kept the army moving forward in hopes of catching up with them.

On June 29, upon hearing of his opposing foe’s change of command, Lee ordered that his forces should concentrate on Cashtown in anticipation of a possible fight. Wanting to engage the Union forces only when his army was fully concentrated, he gave orders for his generals not to get into a major engagement until all the units of the army were together.

During this time, most of the Army of Northern Virginia was still spread out, but were in close proximity with each other. The Second Corps were at Carlisle, the First Corps was west of Blue Ridge, while a good portion of the Third Corps was at or near Cashtown already.

A day after Lee’s orders, on June 30, a force from Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps moved towards the town of Gettysburg. Composed of one brigade led by Brigadier General James Pettigrew, the unit was ordered by their division commander, Major General Henry Heth, to move towards the town and scout out the nearby area. Located just south-east of Cashtown, Gettysburg had a series of roads converging at the town, making it a vital junction point for future movements.

Upon reaching the town, Pettigrew reported to have seen cavalry heading towards Gettysburg from the south. However, when he reported this to his commanders, they doubted the possibility of cavalry this far and assumed that it was only militia. But despite their assumption that it was merely militia in front of them, the commanders wanted to be sure. To fully confirm this, it was decided that a reconnaissance in force should be conducted the next day, in order to figure out how strong their enemy was in the area.

Although they did not know it at the time, Pettigrew’s report of cavalry was indeed true. On June 30, at around eleven o’clock in the morning, the 3rd Indiana Cavalry Regiment entered the town of Gettysburg. Behind the cavalry regiment was Brigadier General John Buford’s First Cavalry Division, which was a part of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps.

This 1863 oval-shaped map depicts Gettysburg Battlefield during July 1–3, 1863, showing troop and artillery positions and movements, relief hachures, drainage, roads, railroads, and houses with the names of residents at the time of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Theodore Ditterline – Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, Washington, D.C. 20540-4650

Composed of two brigades of two thousand nine hundred horse troopers, the First Cavalry Division, like the rest of the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps, had been looking for the invading Confederate forces. The day before, the unit had been at the passes at South Mountain, trying to locate their enemy. After a failed search, the division camped for the night and noticed campfires heading towards the direction of Gettysburg. Deciding to follow this lead when morning came, they soon reached the town of Gettysburg and spotted Pettigrew’s brigade. Further scouting efforts soon told them that A.P. Hill’s Third Corps was only nine miles west from the town.

Assessing Gettysburg, Buford saw no major significance with the small town itself. However, he did notice the various roads running through the town and quickly realized that a lot of vital routes went through it. If someone wanted to go from one part of Pennsylvania to another, then they would have to pass through the vital road junction at Gettysburg. This made the town an important place for the Confederates if they wanted to attack the industrial eastern part of the state. Aside from that, the town’s roads would also prove vital for the Union forces, as any passing Union army that wanted to counter Lee’s invasion force would need a vital road junction like Gettsburg in order to direct their forces.

Seeing the value of the town, and pleased with the various ridges that could be used as strong defensive positions, Buford decided to keep his division in the town and use Gettysburg as an outpost for the coming Army of the Potomac.

But as he positioned his brigades west on McPherson’s Ridge, with the 1st Brigade south of the Chambersburg Pike and the 2nd Brigade on the north, Buford soon realized that the earlier presence of enemy infantry meant that the Confederates might come back the next day. This would be a problem, as there was an estimated number of fourteen thousand Confederate soldiers nearby, a significantly large force, especially when compared to Buford’s two thousand nine hundred cavalrymen. Nonetheless, the cavalry general was determined to hold his ground, knowing how important the roads and surrounding ridges were. Knowing that Union Major General John Reynolds and his I Corps, which was camped five miles south of town, was heading his way, Buford hoped to hold the line against any possible attack until the infantry arrived to relieve him.

On July 1, Buford’s fears were proven true, as his forward pickets on the Chambersburg Pike began encountering Brigadier General James Archer’s brigade of Tennessee and Alabama men. Marching out of camp at around five o’clock in the morning, the brigade headed east along the Chambersburg Pike until their screening skirmish force encountered one of the outposts set up by the 8th Illinois Cavalry Regiment along the road. Seeing the approaching infantry, the cavalrymen opened up with their carbines at around five thirty in the morning, before pulling back as the enemy brigade pushed forward.

Conducting a fighting retreat, the troopers of the 1st Brigade managed to delay Archer’s advance. As they cautiously fought an enemy whose composition and numbers they did not know. With their horses held at the rear, while their skirmishers took cover in whatever piece of land or vegetation they could find, Buford’s men gave no impression to the Confederates that they were dismounted cavalry troopers. Because of this Archer’s advance east towards Gettysburg was slow, as cavalrymen skirmishes against infantry before mounting their horses to fall back to another defensive line and repeating the process.

However, by eight o’clock in the morning, Archer’s brigade managed to reach the base of Herr’s Ridge, two miles west from Gettysburg. Here, some of the cavalry units of the 1st Brigade made one last stand against the advancing Confederates, before falling back to the main defensive line at McPherson’s Ridge, one mile west from the town.

By now General Heth had arrived at the scene and after assessing the situation he soon realized that they were facing Union cavalry. Deciding to regroup his force, he assigned Archer to move south of the Chambersburg Pike and attack McPherson’s Ridge, while Brigadier General Joseph Davis’ brigade was to deploy and march north of the road and attack Buford’s northern forces. At around ten fifteen in the morning these forces began their attack and placed heavy pressure along Buford’s lines. Sensing trouble, and knowing that his forces couldn’t hold long, he desperately needed the infantry of Reynold’s I Corps to move and occupy the line.

Luckily for him, Reynolds had received the various pleas for reinforcements, which encouraged him to hasten his march towards Gettysburg. Because of this quickened pace, the first elements of I Corps began nearing the town just past ten o’clock that morning. Reynolds himself was in the lead with his staff, where he met up with Buford and discussed the current situation.

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Seeing the intensity of the fight, as Buford’s brigades began to slowly buckle, and realizing the importance of the town and the good ground around it, Reynolds sent out couriers to order his corps to move faster, while another messenger went to XI Corps, ordering them quickly get to Gettysburg. Lastly, another courier was sent out to General Meade, with a message informing him of the current situation and his intention to fight at the town.

As all of this was happening, Buford’s cavalrymen were fighting for their lives. Fighting against well-organized and determined men, the cavalry brigades began to fall back, with their units unable to stand against fierce infantry attacks. However, just as the cavalry force’s line was about to collapse, the men of the 1st Division, I Corps started to arrive.

Moving up to replace Buford’s 2nd Brigade, the 1st Division’s own 2nd Brigade began deploying north of the Chambersburg Pike, just as Davis’ brigade started his attack. This caused mayhem along the Union line, as regiments started retreat after being outflanked, while the 147th New York Volunteer Infantry Regiment was nearly massacred after failing to receive orders to fall back.

Meanwhile, rushing in from the south, the 1st Brigade, 1st Division, I Corps, more commonly known as the “Iron Brigade”, started to relieve Buford’s 1st Brigade. With their famous black campaign hats, the brigade was easily distinguished by both sides. Seeing the brigade come into line, it is said that some Confederate soldiers commented: “Here are those damned black-hat fellers again…’Tain’t no militia – that’s the Army of the Potomac!”

Moving into action, they rushed into Herbst woods, where they fought against Archer’s advancing brigade. Encouraged by Reynolds, who rode just behind their lines, they went into the woods and began pushing back the Confederate forces there. Sadly, during this moment, Reynolds was shot and killed by a bullet that struck him at the back of his head.

Despite the loss of Reynolds, the Iron Brigade managed to achieve great success, as they forced Archer to retreat, while also capturing the general himself. But victory was far from their hands, as the collapsing line of the 2nd Brigade exposed their right flank to attack from Davis’ brigade. Quickly reacting to this new threat, the Iron Brigade shifted their regiments northward towards Davis’ Brigade, who at the time were taking position on an unfinished railroad cut. Because of the suddenness of the charge, and the bad position of the Confederate forces, the 6th Wisconsin Volunteer Infantry Regiment managed to capture many of the brigade’s men, while the rest retreated.

By twelve noon, most of the morning fighting had ended, with both sides having suffered heavy casualties. Heth’s Division was badly mauled by the fighting, with two of his brigades having lost many men. The I Corps, now under the command of Major General Abner Doubleday, also suffered badly. Because of this a brief halt in the fighting occurred, as the two sides rested, reorganized, and awaited reinforcements. During this respite, Heth began deploying artillery and infantry for another attack, while Doubleday moved up I Corps’ other divisions in order to further reinforce McPherson’s Ridge.

Arriving at the field during the respite was Pender’s Division for the Confederates, and XI Corps for the Union. Moving up and across the town, XI Corps deployed north and merged with I Corps at Mummasburg Road. Commanding XI Corps was Major General Oliver Howard, who now assumed command of Union forces at Gettysburg.

At two o’clock in the afternoon, just as General Lee arrived at the scene, the fighting began once more, with Heth’s remaining fresh brigades advancing against the positions of the Iron Brigade, south of the Chambersburg Pike. Intense fighting would occur here, as the Iron Brigade desperately tried to hold the line against intense Confederate attacks.

Meanwhile, as fighting occurred at McPherson’s Ridge, General Ewell’s Second Corps began to arrive north of the town. Moving south, they struck the position where I Corps and XI Corps met. Heavy pressure was pressed along this section of the line, but the worst was yet to come for XI Corps. Coming in from the north-east, Major General Jubal Early’s Division, which was part of Ewell’s Second Corps, began arriving. Heading south-west along the Harrisburg Road, they were in a direct path towards XI Corps’ open right flank. Doing their best to shift their forces to meet this new force, XI Corps’ 1st Division fought hard to defend their sector. But the tenacity of the Early’s attacked forced them back with heavy casualties.

The 1st Division, under the command of Brigadier General Francis Barlow, positioned themselves on a piece of elevation at the northern side of the Harrisburg Road. Fighting against Early’s division, Union forces managed to hold the line in an intense exchange of fire. Focusing their fire to their front, they battled to hold the line. However, with their front focused on Early, they failed to notice Brigadier General George Dole’s brigade, from Major General Robert Rode’s division, swing to their left and turn their flank.

Despite receiving support from additional Union regiments, Barlow’s division was unable to hold up against the pressure against them and soon forced them to pull back. Barlow, who tried to rally his command, was shot and killed.

With Early succeeding in pushing back the Union line’s right flank, Lee gave an order for all forces to advance. Although he did not want to fight here, he realized that he held the advantage and could not stop the fighting now. The attack occurred at four o’clock in the afternoon, with Confederate forces hitting the Union lines hard on all fronts. With only two depleted corps facing the two larger Confederate corps, the Union fought a desperate battle. The first to falter was XI Corps, who’s exposed right flank was being overwhelmed by Early’s Division. With their flank fallen, the corps began to fall back from the north and race down to Gettysburg. Most units routing headed towards Cemetery Hill, about a mile south of the town, where the corps reserves had been placed.

With XI Corps retreating, I Corps was left exposed on their right flank. Already, heavy attacks were hitting their front, and the loss of XI Corps just added to their problems. One of the units in this flank was 1st Brigade of the 2nd Division. Ordered to hold the line, they fought on as long as they could until their men were either dead, retreating, or captured.

On Seminary ridge, a similar situation was occurring, as the Iron Brigade fell back from McPherson’s ridge and reformed near Schmucker Hall at Seminary. They were supported by the corps’ artillery and met the strong attack made by Pender’s Division. Resisting as much as they could, they gave the advancing Confederates heavy casualties.

All along the line I Corps fought a bloody battle. However, the constant attack by large numbers of Confederates, and the fact that their rear was now exposed to Ewell’s Second Corps, made it impossible for them to permanently hold the line, and they too soon were forced to fall back towards Cemetery Hill. On that hill, various tattered Union units were gathering, as a steady stream of retreating forces moved south and away from the town.

Arriving in the scene and ordered by Meade to assume command of the field, Major General Winfield Hancock, commander of II Corps, began rallying the remnants of I Corps and XI Corps on Cemetery Hill. Reforming the line there, Hancock realized that their position there had good ground. Because of this, he sent a message informing Meade that the high ground south of Gettysburg was a good place to defend.

Meanwhile, chasing after the retreating Union forces, Lee noticed that their enemy was retreating towards Cemetery Hill. Because of this, he sent orders to Ewell, informing him that he should assault the position “if practicable”.

Assessing the situation, Ewell realized that his Second Corps was tired from the marching and fighting, and that the Union were heavily fortifying the hill south of the town. Unable to bring up artillery to support any attack, and thinking that his corps needed rest, Ewell believed that it was not practicable to attack Cemetery Hill at the time and decided to rest his men instead.

This decision allowed the remains of the Union army to reorganize, as XI was deployed at Cemetery Hill, while I Corps was ordered to defend Culp’s Hill, which was to the east of the former. Both corps had suffered badly in the fighting, with both corps barely able to muster five thousand men at the time. With such few numbers, the Union forces were seriously outnumbered by the Confederates. However, the sudden cessation of the enemy’s pursuit allowed them to rest and wait for reinforcements.

As night fell, it became clear to both sides that the Confederates had won the day’s fighting. Holding their positions and setting up camp, the men of both sides waited as their commanders planned out what was to happen next.

On the Confederates side, General Lee was joined by his most trusted and capable commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Arriving at around nine o’clock that evening, Longstreet met up with Lee to discuss the future operations of the army. To Longstreet’s surprise, Lee wanted to continue the battle on the next day. Giving his advice, Longstreet reminded him that the original plan was to be on the defensive when they encountered the enemy army, and that they should fight only on the ground of their choosing. Because of this, Longstreet wanted to shift away from Gettysburg and find a position better suited for them.

Lee, however, believed that it was too dangerous to withdraw in front of the enemy, especially when he was lacking a proper cavalry screen to protect him. It was also said that he may have been emboldened by the day’s success, and believed that they could defeat the enemy before them with another day’s battle. Whichever the specific reason was, it was clear that Lee wanted to stay and fight, and because of that he made plans for the next day’s fighting.

On the Union side, Meade arrived on the field at around midnight. Meeting with his general officers, it was decided that despite the defeat and casualties inflicted on them, the Army of the Potomac would stay and fight. Positioning his forces, Meade moved I Corps to the ground between Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, while positioning the newly arrived XII on Culp’s Hill. XI would stay in its position at Cemetery Hill, with its flank protected by II Corps, which would occupy the high ground south of Cemetery Hill, known as Cemetery Ridge,. He also made plans to extend the left flank of II Corps with additional corps once they arrived. It would be III Corps that would be assigned here, and their line would extend south until they reached the Round Top hills. All in all, the Army of the Potomac’s line resembled a giant fishhook.

By the end of the first day victory was on the side of the Confederates. Throughout the first day’s fighting, Union forces suffered nine thousand casualties, while the Confederates suffered seven thousand casualties. However, with the advantage of having good ground, and reinforcements constantly arriving, the Union forces were determined to make a stand and fight. Once the next day arrived, Lee was going to give them the fight they wanted.

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.

Battle of Gettysburg – Day 3
July 3, 1863

“There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”

Major General Winfield Hancock, after being told by an aide to take cover during the artillery barrage on the positions of II Corps.
Hancock

At twelve o’clock midnight, on July 3, 1863, the Army of the Potomac’s commander, Major General George Meade, met with his generals and consulted them on what the army should do next. The previous day’s fighting had been rough on the army and they had taken heavy casualties, severely weakening many of their infantry corps.

Not only that, their position on Culp’s Hill, on the far right flank of the Union line, was compromised after brigades from Confederate Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s Second Corps occupied the abandoned Union breastworks in the area.

Because of the Confederate presence in this position, the Army of the Potomac’s nearby supply base, as well as its line of communication along the Baltimore Pike, would be threatened if any powerful strike was made to push back their forces.


Yesterday had been a close fight, and they were lucky to have survived and hold the line, despite the disastrous events that had occurred. The question now was, could they survive another day?


Having felt the effects of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s heavy attacks, and finding that their positions were starting to become difficult to hold, Meade asked his generals if they should stay in their positions south of Gettysburg or if they should withdraw the army and find another place to fight at.

To his generals, there was no doubt what they should do; they wanted to stay and fight. In the ensuing meeting, it was agreed that they would hold their positions and wait for the Confederates to attack them. However, if the enemy chose not to attack, then the army would contemplate the possibility of being the one to strike the enemy.


Meade, however, felt that the Confederates would attack, yet he was unsure where it would be. Reviewing his positions, he sensed that a possible assault may occur on the Union center, along Cemetery Ridge where II Corps was placed. But he also remembered the intense fighting that occurred near the Round Top hills, and worried that a breakthrough there would result in the capture of his other line of communication along the Taneytown road. This meant that the loss of the left would not only result in the collapse of the Union line, but would also leave the army trapped, as the southern line of retreat would be blocked.


They had been lucky in the area yesterday, but today he wasn’t going to take any chances. Reinforcing the line, he sent additional brigades and artillery to support Union troops in the area. He also sent additional reinforcements to Culp’s Hill, in order to help XII Corps defend their positions on the Union right.


On the other side of the field, General Robert Lee, commander of the Army of Northern Virginia, also contemplated what to do next.

The attacks yesterday had been powerful enough to make the Union lines bleed, but they lacked the time and coordination needed to fully succeed.

The fighting had started late in the afternoon, and this resulted in nightfall saving some Union forces, as the Confederates were unable to further push their advantages. This is most especially true for the battle at Culp’s Hill, where brigades under the Second Corps had their enemy on the ropes, but were unable to push further because of the dimming light.


Because of these factors, Lee decided to make a morning attack against the Union forces. His corps would strike at the same places, but now there would be more time and better coordination.

While the predawn darkness still reigned at around four thirty, the morning was greeted by the powerful sounds of artillery firing. However, this artillery did not come from any Confederate battery, but instead from the Union guns of XII Corps. The previous day, Confederate forces had captured some of the breastworks of the corps’ troops, after the men manning them had to be sent to reinforce the left flank. Now, however, the men were back, and the full strength of XII Corps was ready to retake their lost positions.


Bombarding the Confederate occupied breastworks, the guns of XII Corps gave their enemies a hard time. Feeling the effects of Union guns, and already knowing that they had a morning attack scheduled, the men of the Second Corps started to rush out of their positions and attack the Union line in front of them.


Once more a deadly fight occurred, as Confederate soldiers raced up the wooded hill and took in the hot volleys of the Union defenders. This time, however, the Second Corps had a harder time, as the full strength of XII Corps was now against them. This resulted in a bloody affair, as both sides poured out volley after volley onto one another. The Second Corps made determined charges up the hill, but were repulsed by the well-entrenched forces of XII Corps, who had been reinforced with some units from VI Corps.


Nearly several hours of fighting would occur at Culp’s Hill, and it battered the forces on both sides. At one point, a mistaken order inadvertently led the 2nd Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment and the 27th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment to think that they were being ordered to assault the enemy positions at Spangler’s Spring, on the eastern base of the hill. Not realizing that they were really only being ordered to send skirmishers to scout the area, the two regiments formed up and charged down into awaiting Confederate infantry.


Their charge led to a massacre, as the two units were repulsed and returned to their lines with massive casualties.
However, despite the disaster with the 2nd Massachusetts and 27th Indiana, the overall situation for the Union was good.

Wave after wave of assaults were continuously repulsed by the defenders, and after some time, they were even able to push back Confederates forces from the hill.

With the Union line pushed forward, and enemy forces tired and beaten, the fighting in the area soon started to slow down, before finally ending.


Lee, who had anxiously listened to the battle from a position on Seminary Ridge, was also constantly waiting for sounds of fighting to occur on the south, where Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps should be attacking the Union left. However, as the battle raged and then softened at Culp’s Hill, no sign of fighting ever occurred along the First Corps positions.


Finding no success on the right, and seeing Longstreet hesitate in attacking the bad terrain of the left, Lee decided to formulate a new plan against his enemy. Studying the situation carefully, he soon realized that his enemy could not defend all his fronts, and must have been taking men from some parts of the line in order to strengthen his flanks. The battle on Culp’s Hill would have most likely occupied some of the Union reserves, while the previous day’s fighting on the left would have made their enemy reinforce that area too. Believing that most of the Union’s men concentrated on their flanks, Lee assumed that the Union center would be undermanned and without reserves to support it.

Behind the breastworks on Culps Hill, morning of July 3rd 1863, painting by Edwin Forbes.


Because of this belief, Lee turned his attention towards Cemetery RIdge, which was the Union fishhook’s center line. Studying the terrain, and probably remembering how one of the brigades of the Third Corps managed to reach the ridge’s crest and temporarily capture some Union guns the previous day, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia began formulating his plan to deal a deadly blow against, what he assumed, was the Union weak point.


Consulting with Longstreet, Lee elaborated his battle plan to his most trusted and capable senior commander. The plan was to have the newly arrived and fresh division of Major General George Pickett, of First Corps, combine with a reinforced division from the Third Corps and attack Cemetery Ridge.

The division joining Pickett was the one under Brigadier General James Pettigrew, who took temporary command of the division after Major General Henry Heth was wounded. To bolster the ranks of Pettigrew’s force, Major General Issac Trimble and two brigades, detached from Major General William Pender’s division, were temporarily attached. All in all, this gave the attacking force around thirteen thousand men to take the ridge.


Lee hoped that by keeping the rest of First Corps on the left, and having Second Corps continue to threaten the right, then the Union would be unable to send reserves and reinforcements to assist their center. It was a big gamble, and he was willing to take it.

Supporting the attack would have been a preliminary artillery barrage, which was to destroy any resistance and clear the way for the infantry assault. Also supporting the attack was the Cavalry Corps, under Major General J. E. B. Stuart, who had orders to not only defend the Confederate left flank from Union cavalry, but also attack the Union far right and envelop them from the rear. With three thousand five hundred cavalrymen, Lee hoped that Stuart could capture the Baltimore Pike from behind the Union lines, preventing the enemy from using their main retreat route, while also cutting off the enemy’s line of supply.


If both the infantry and cavalry assaults went according to plan and succeeded, then the Army of the Potomac would be crushed.


However, after hearing the plans Lee had, Longstreet saw the flaws of the whole operation. He made it clear to Lee that he had doubts that the infantry assault would work, and he pointed out that the two divisions would be crossing a mile long piece of open ground. Such terrain would leave the assaulting force exposed to enemy artillery from all directions, and he feared that guns stretching from Cemetery Ridge to the Round Top Hills would pummel the infantry lines to dust.


Even if the infantry managed to reach the ridge relatively intact, the Union line at the center held a strong position. It would be difficult to dislodge the enemy infantry from the ridge, amnd Longstreet saw that the only thing the attack would achieve was heavy casualties for their side.


As Longstreet famously says: “General, I have been a soldier all my life. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men arranged for battle can take that position.”


Despite his trusted commander’s negative views, Lee remained unphased and determined to execute the attack. Wanting the assault to succeed as much as possible, Lee also assigned command of the whole operation to Longstreet, who was hesitant at accepting it. Longstreet wanted Major General A. P. Hill to command, since most of the units involved were from his Third Corps. But Lee trusted Longstreet to lead, and his mind would not be changed. Being the good soldier he was, Longstreet obeyed his orders and began preparing his command for the upcoming battle.


Positioning his artillery for the preliminary bombardment, Longstreet assigned Lieutenant Colonel Edward Alexander, the First Corps artillery chief, as the officer in charge of coordinating the artillery bombardment. At his disposal were dozens of artillery batteries, whose fire was to concentrate on the copse of trees at the center of Cemetery Ridge.

The estimated number of guns deployed vary, with numbers going as high as one hundred sixty-three, and as low as one hundred forty-three. Whichever number is true, it was clear that a large number of artillery pieces, more than a hundred in number, were available and pointed at the Union center.


Once his artillery was deployed, Longstreet then focused on his infantry, which he deployed along the reverse slope of Seminary Ridge, and along the buildings of Spangler farm, both positions being a mile or more west of Cemetery Ridge. Forming his left was Pettigrew’s Division and Trimble’s brigades, which were waiting behind Seminary Ridge. Meanwhile, Pickett’s Division formed his right, and they waited on the southern end of the line at Spangler’s Farm.
With preparations done, the attack was ready to commence.


At around one o’clock in the afternoon, the first Confederate guns began to fire, their shells landing all over Cemetery Ridge. Soon, all of the batteries under Alexander’s control began raining a torrent of shell and shot on the Union center, as gun after gun fired in a seemingly endless orchestra. It was an amazing and menacing site, one that impressed both sides due to its power.


Feeling the intensity of the bombardment, the men of the Union II Corps began taking cover as best they could, with some men lying down on the ground in order to protect themselves from the exploding shells that came after them. Taken by surprise by the sudden barrage, a good number were killed where they stood or sat, with food still in their hands after enjoying an afternoon meal. Those who survived the first few shells began running back to their regiments, as men rushed out of their tents and began forming up behind the crest of Cemetery Ridge.


Surprisingly, the number of shells falling on Cemetery Ridge was not as many as expected. It soon became clear to the Union men of the line that the shells were overshooting their position and were landing to their rear. This meant that the shell flew past Cemetery Ridge and landed on the rear, where the Union supplies and auxiliary forces were. Some shells even landed on the Leister House, which was being used by Meade as his army headquarters. After having a shell burst inside the house, killing and wounding some of his staff, the commanding general of the Army of the Potomac decided to temporarily vacate the house and wait out the bombardment.

Confederate pickets on Culp’s Hill (engraving from The Century Magazine)


Some shells went as far as Culp’s Hill, which would have been east of Cemetery Ridge. As the bombardment continued, many of the shells bypassed the main line and struck the rear. Although these overshooting shells and shots brought destruction all over the Union rear, they nonetheless failed to achieve their main objective, which was to weaken the Union center.


Not long after the start of the bombardment, Union counter-battery fire began, adding to the noise of the afternoon. With an estimated number of one hundred three to one hundred thirty three guns assigned to batteries stretching from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, with around eighty guns on or near Cemetery Ridge itself, the Union counter-fire was equally impressive.


Soon, the area between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge shook from the force of Union and Confederate artillery fire, as the two sides dueled for superiority.


Landing and exploding on top of the Confederate gun line, Union batteries managed to take out and silence a couple of Alexander’s guns. Those that missed and overshot their targets also took its toll on the awaiting infantry, who were placed behind the guns, ready to move forward once the artillery barrage ended.


Union batteries also took a heavy toll from the Confederate guns, as the shells that managed to land on Cemetery Ridge were able to knock out several gun batteries. However, these batteries were quickly replaced by reserve artillery.
Meanwhile, as the artillery duel was being fought south of Gettysburg, another important event was about to occur four miles east of the town.

Stuart’s Cavalry Corps, who had swung east to get to the Union rear, found himself in an open plain area near an intersection between the Hanover Road and Low Dutch Road. Looking at the terrain and studying the maps, Stuart realized that the Low Dutch Road led to the Baltimore Pike, which in turn led to the Union rear.

Realizing the importance of this crossroads, Stuart ordered his corps to move forward and secure it.


However, a Union cavalry force blocked his advance.

The Union Cavalry Corps’ 2nd Division, under the command of Brigadier General David Gregg, took up positions along the Rummel Farm and blocked Stuart’s path.


Initially beginning as a fight between dismounted skirmishers and horse artillery, the battle soon transitioned to fights between mounted cavalry, as Stuart’s cavalry regiments drew their sabers and charged the Union skirmishers.


Seeing this charge, Brigadier General George Custer led his brigade in a charge of their own. Slamming into one another, cavalry troopers from both sides soon fought with sabers, pistols, and carbines, as they both tried to gain the upper hand.


It was an intense fight, but in the end Confederate troops began giving ground, until most of their fighting units were forced to retreat. With Stuart defeated and the path to the Baltimore Pike block the Union cavalry managed to protect the Army of the Potomac’s rear from attack.


Now, it was up to the main portion of the army to hold off against Lee’s strong assault force.


Still under heavy fire, the Union II Corps stood strong and waited for what they knew would come. It was evident that the bombardment was a prelude to an attack, and because of this the Union forces did their best to prepare their line. Union Army’s Artillery Chief, Brigadier General Henry Hunt, soon advised battery officers to conserve their fire. If an attack was indeed coming, then he wanted the guns to have plenty of ammunition to attack the on coming infantry.

On the other side of the duel, Alexander was noticing the slackening of Union fire. Believing he had eliminated the Union guns on Cemetery Ridge, and realizing his guns were running out of ammunition, he soon sent a desperate message to Longstreet, informing the general of the situation, and that it was now the moment for the infantry to begin their attack.


Longstreet, however, was hesitant. He did not want to go with the attack, and Alexander understood his commander’s feelings, as he too had thought that such an open attack was dangerous. But such things were beyond their control and they had orders to follow.


As Confederate artillery fire began to slow down, Pickett arrived to await orders. Inquiring if he should begin his advance, Longstreet hesitated. Instead of speaking, the First Corps commander remained silent and did not reply. Only a simple nod towards the question told Pickett that he may begin the attack.


Accepting the order, Pickett replied by saying: “I shall lead my division forward, sir.” With that, he left to join his men.
The Confederate assault began at around three o’clock in the afternoon, with the infantry forming up and getting ready to go. Moving out of their positions, Pickett and Pettigrew’s Division stepped forward, while Trimble’s brigades followed behind the latter. It was an impressive sight, as organized lines of regiments surged forward to attack the Union lines. Atop Cemetery Ridge, the men of II Corps watched them move forward, with many being mesmerized by the sight.

Marching in straight and well dressed battle lines, with colors waving and officers waving their sabers, the Confederates looked as if they were going to pass for review. But they were not marching to make a show. They were marching to capture the Union center.


All in all, there were nine brigades marching out, forming a long lime whose ultimate goal was to secure Cemetery Ridge. Surprisingly, little fire came from the Union line as they advanced, further convincing Confederate commanders that the enemy guns had indeed been taken out. Little did they know, most of the battery officers were just waiting for their enemy to get closer.


Moving directly east, Pettigrew and Trimble’s forces kept a straight advance for the enemy center, while Pickett’s division initially moved in a south-east direction, before turning to a north-east march when they reached the Emmitsburg Road. So far, few casualties had been received, thus keeping morale and confidence high.


However, as Pickett’s men shifted towards Cemetery Ridge, Union artillery batteries from II Corps, as well as reserve artillery batteries deployed at the southern base of the ridge, began opening up on them. Shot and shell once more erupted from Union guns, as they began chipping off pieces from Pickett’s divisions. Soon after they began their fire, batteries from Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top took long range shots at the exposed enemy. Penetrating the Confederate ranks, the artillery fire gave heavy casualties to the assaulting force. Despite this, Pickett’s men continued their determined advance and kept their movement towards Cemetery Hill.


Union artillery fire only intensified as the Confederates got closer, as the gun commanders switched to firing canister or double-canister. Made out of a small lead ball packed into a can, canister shots were like gigantic shotgun shells. When fired, the clumped balls would spread out and tear through compact lines. Letting loose their deadly hail of fire, the guns tore holes along Pickett’s division.


Meanwhile, on the left wing of the assault, Pettigrew and Trimble’s men were just now beginning to feel the heat of the Union artillery. Moving across the Bliss farmland, the men of the left wing had been somewhat protected by smoke, which obstructed the view of Union gunners. But once their brigades marched past the farmland, they became exposed and out in the open. Training their guns on Pettigrew and Trimble’s force, Union artillery soon showered them with shell and shot, causing severe casualties.


Leading ahead with his division, Pettigew’s far left soon encountered the 8th Ohio Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which soon enfiladed Colonel John Brockenbrough’s brigade. The combined volleys from the 8th Ohio, along with the constant artillery fire from Cemetery Hill, soon proved too much for the brigade, which soon fell back after such hot bombardment.

Cemetery Hill, with a statue of General Howard at the top.


Despite the loss of a brigade, Pettigrew continued his advance, as the whole assault force now converged towards Cemetery Hill.


Getting closer towards their objective, the Confederates soon encountered skirmishers to their front, which they quickly swept away. However, a new obstacle blocked them, one that proved more troubling than the skirmishers. A wooden fence ran against their line of assault, and in order to reach the ridge, they would have to climb over it. Such an action took time, and it allowed their forces to jumble, as they moved over the fence. This made the Confederates even more vulnerable to the enemy’s canister fire, as many fell trying to cross the fence.


Reorganizing on the other side of the fence, the Pickett’s Division tried to maintain their momentum by moving forward. Looking at their target, they sighted the copse of trees at the center of Cemetery Ridge. Aiming for that area, they went straight for the center, leaving their right flank out in the open.


Moving nearly parallel to the Union line, as they headed up in a north-east direction, they left their right exposed to Union rifle fire. Taking the opportunity before them, the left wing of the II Corps’ 2nd Division let loose volleys onto the open flank of Brigadier General James Kemper’s brigade, which was Pickett’s right wing. Enfiladed by Union infantry, the regiments of this brigade took heavy losses, which forced some units to fall back in disarray.


Seeing this retreat, the men of the 2nd Division soon began to cheer and taunt the Confederate forces.

“Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”, they chanted, seeing how the Confederate’s assault on open ground was similar to the Union assault on Fredericksburg during the winter of the previous year.


As Pickett’s advance suffered heavily from the 2nd Division, Pettigrew’s assault was met with heavy resistance from II Corps’ 3rd Division. Occupying a rock wall, the 3rd Division’s line was connected with the 2nd Division’s position by a perpendicular rock wall, which will be dubbed as “The Angle”.


Halting before the rock wall occupied by the 3nd Division, Pettigrew’s lines soon exchanged volleys against the defenders before them. On the other part of the line, past the Angle, and along the wall occupied by the 2nd Division, Pickett’s Division finally halted and returned fire on the enemy at their front. The fight soon became intense, as hot fire from both sides killed and injured men.


Firing and advancing, Pickett’s Division soon closed the gap, moving closer and closer towards the wall occupied by the 2nd Division’s 2nd Brigade. As their enemy got nearer, they were soon supported by three guns from a severely injured Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing, of the 4th United States Artillery Regiment. Firing the canister shot at close range, Cushing’s battery managed to slow down the Confederate advance.


Bogged down by heavy Union rifle and artillery fire, it seemed like Pickett’s forces could advance no further. However, Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, whose brigade was behind Pickett’s first line, was able to return the momentum and push the remaining Confederate forces towards the wall. Leading the charge himself, his assault managed to force the 2nd Division’s brigades to retreat from the wall.


The Union line had thus been breached, and now Amistead occupied a portion of the wall at the Angle. Seeing this, the commander of the 2nd Brigade, Brigadier General Alexander Webb, rushed to his men and tried his best to reorganize them. This he did successfully, and with his regiments rallied, he tried to stabilize the line.


It now seemed that the Confederates were close to winning, as Pickett’s Division managed to penetrate two sections of II Corps’ line. Aside from Armistead’s success, another breach, this time south of the Angle and near the copse of trees, a small portion of the division had managed to capture a small portion of the wall. But this would not last long, as close-range artillery fire managed to obliterate this attacking force.


Now the only portion of the wall under Confederate control was the one occupied by Armistead, and the Union was not going to let that last.


Arriving at the scene to help plug the hole in the line, General Hancock began to order reinforcements to move in and help handle the situation. Charging the mob of Confederate soldiers, they fought them hand to hand in an intense and bloody battle. However, as Hancock sat atop his horse, commanding his men and giving orders, he made a good target for Confederate forces. Because of this, he was struck by a bullet and mortally wounded while directing regiments into the fight.

On the other side of the battle, along with his men at the captured wall, Armnistead was also struck down by a bullet. A long time close friend of Hancock before the Civil War, Armnistead would end up dying from the wound he gained after assaulting his friend’s corps.


With more and more Union regiments starting to pour into the angle, and with their commander down, Armistead’s brigade started to lose momentum and slowly fall back and retreat from the wall. Some brigades from other units attempted to assist the Confederates on the wall, but they were quickly forced to fall back due to heavy Union artillery fire. Because of this, the advantage taken at the Angle was lost, and soon the Union controlled the wall once more.
Seeing that the battle was moving towards their favor, the 3rd Brigade, from I Corps’ 3rd Division, also known as the “Vermont Brigade” rushed to the right flank of Pickett’s depleted division. This enfilading fire brought heavy casualties to the remaining Confederates, forcing them to surrender or retreat. Pickett’s Division had been defeated and was now withdrawing.

This monument on the Gettysburg Battlefield marks the approximate place where Armistead was mortally wounded. The wall behind the monument marks the Union lines.

Towards the north, with Pettigrew and Trimble, their brigades saw little success and faced heavy casualties too. Engaging the men of II Corps’ 3rd Division, they were unable to get close to the wall because of the intense rifle fire brought against them. Blocked by Union infantry and rained on by Union artillery, they too were soon forced to fall back.


Having witnessed the failed attack, Lee moved towards Seminary Ridge, where he met with the remains of Pickett’s Division. The unit had taken heavy losses in the battle, with sixty percent casualties taken during the attack. Because of the horrific losses, Lee ended up blaming himself for such a disastrous attack. He then ordered the remainder of the division to reform, in case Union forces decide to press their advantage and conduct an attack of their own.


But there would be no more major fighting in the area around Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Hill, enough blood had been spilled in that area already. Some officers in the Army of the Potomac wanted to continue the fight and assault the defeated Confederates, but Meade knew better than to foolishly charge the Army of Northern Virginia while they still held strong positions.

His army was tired and battered, and although they managed to rout the Confederate attack, Meade could tell that there were still strong units within the enemy army that could hold off any counter-attack they made. Because of that, he ordered his lines to remain where they were. His forces were just as exhausted as the enemy was, and so he chose not to start another fight.


However, the assault on the Union center would not be the last engagement of that day.
A loss at Gettysburg


Towards the south, along the Confederate left flank, the Union Cavalry Corps’ 3rd Division formed up along their enemy’s flank. Commanded by Brigadier General Judsaon Kilpatrick, the cavalry division was, during that time, not fully composed of men from his division. Kilpatrifck’s 2nd Brigade was temporarily assigned to the corps’ 2nd Division, and so he had the Reserve Brigade, under Brigadier General Wesley Meritt, attached to his division. This brigade was different from most brigades in the corps, as they were mainly composed of Regular Cavalry Regiments, instead of the usual Volunteer Cavalry Regiments.


Moving north along the Emmitsburg Road, the cavalry force stopped as they reached the Confederate right at around three o’clock in the afternoon. The forces here were under the command of Brigadier General Evander Law’s, who was commanding the division of Major General John Hood, after the latter had been injured in the fighting in the area the previous day.


Deploying his forces, Kilpatrick had Meritt’s brigade positioned on the west of the road, acting as his left wing, while the 1st Brigade, under Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth, was placed on the west of the road, thus becoming his right wing.


Skirmishing with Confederate forces at their front, an order soon came from Kilpatrick for the Reserve Brigade to advance at around four thirty in the afternoon. This advance was initially met with success, with the brigade pushing Confederate forces.

However, they were soon pushed back by the men of Brigadier General George Anderson’s brigade. Being pressed on by infantry, Meritt ordered his cavalrymen to dismount. This resulted in them being picked off and taken down by the heavy volleys of infantry fire and deadly blows of artillery. Slowly, the brigade was pushed back from their captured ground, until the Confederates managed to successfully kick them out.

A few yards to the east of the Reserve Brigade’s position, the 1st Brigade of Kilpatrick’s Division charged the Confederate forces before them.

Moving up on horseback, they were met by heavy rifle and artillery fire from Confederate positions. The brigade suffered heavy casualties during this advance, which forced its units to fall back. One of those hit during the charge was Farnsworth himself, and he ended up being injured to the point that he lost his bearing and ended up riding along Confederate lines.

Yelled at by enemy troops, they asked the officer to surrender. But Farnsworth gave them a firm refusal, before falling down and dying. This made him the last general officer to be killed at Gettysburg.


The cavalry attack on the Confederate right had been a bloody and unnecessary disaster. In the end, Kilpatrick’s division gained nothing but casualties.


With this final engagement, the last major action of the battle of Gettysburg finally ended.


The result of the day’s fighting brought on heavy casualties for the Army of Northern Virginia. During the assault against the Union center, one thousand five hundred men died, while around five thousand were captured, along with twenty-seven colors. The Union, on the other hand, lost around four thousand three hundred and fifty for II Corps alone.


All in all, the three days of fighting brought twenty-eight thousand casualties for the Confederates, and twenty-three thousand casualties for the Union. Such staggering numbers took a heavy toll on the roster of both armies, with many units being either significantly reduced or completely devastated to the point that they are no longer a significant fighting force.


With his army beaten and his corps tired, demoralized, and depleted, Lee soon made the decision to disengage and retreat from Gettysburg, before making the long march back home to Virginia. The next day, July 4, United States Independence Day, the victorious Army of the Potomac spent the day cleaning their positions and burying the dead of both sides. Aside from some shots exchanged by skirmishers, no major fighting occurred on this day.


By the evening, Lee began his retreat. Moving all his corps to Seminary Ridge, then soon marched off, under the cover of the night. When morning broke on July 5, Meade and the Army of the Potomac quickly realized that their enemy was gone.


Giving chase, Meade sent out his cavalry to block Lee’s path, while the infantry followed their defeated foe’s retreat. In a series of long marches and short engagements, Meade managed to trap the Army of Northern VIrginia in a position where their back was against the Potomac river. With no way to cross, as Union cavalry had previously burnt the only pontoon bridge, the Confederates found themselves in a bad position. However, not wanting to give up, Lee ordered his army to entrench, while his engineers built a pontoon bridge across the river.


Seeing the formidable breastworks, and knowing that an assault against them would cause heavy casualties on their forces, Meade and his generals decided to entrench in front of Lee and conduct reconnaissance to find a weak point on the enemy’s lines. But before this could happen, Confederate engineers managed to finish the bridge, and by the evening of July 13 the Confederates managed to cross the Potomac river and slip away.


Although the chase continued, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia managed to escape Meade’s Army of the Potomac in the end. Returning to Virginia,Confederate forces tried their best to heal from their defeat, as they waited for what the Union would do next.


The battle of Gettysburg is often viewed as the turning point of the civil war, however, the Union victory did not mean the end was near. Although the battle resulted in Lee ending any attempts to conduct a major offensive operation against Union territory, the war would still rage and drag on for another two years.

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Why was the Gettysburg Battle so important?

Eric Foner

Battle of Gettysburg – Day 3 Written by Justin Rojo

References:

  1. Reardon, C., Vossler, T. (2013). The Gettysburg Campaign: June – July 1863. https://history.army.mil/html/books/075/75-10/CMH_Pub_75-10.pdf
  2. Drake, S. (1892). The Battle of Gettysburg: 1863.
  3. Johnson, S. (1984). Great Battles of the Civil War.
  4. Scapegoat or Scandal? J.E.B. Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg. http://www.civildiscourse-historyblog.com/blog/2015/5/20/scapegoat-or-scandal-jeb-stuart-and-the-
  5. Armstrong, M. (2014). Refighting Pickett’s Charge: Mathematical Remodeling of the Civil War Battlefield. https://history.army.mil/html/books/075/75-10/CMH_Pub_75-10.pdf
  6. The Battle of Gettysburg: July 1 – 3, 1863. https://www.sgasd.org/cms/lib/PA01001732/Centricity/Domain/125/The%20Battle%20of%20
  7. Landsman, D. Lee’s Cumbersome Cavalry: J. E. B. Stuart’s Troubled RIde to Gettysburg. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/articles/lees-cumbersome-cavalry
  8. Deppen, J. Hancock the Superb: Winfield Scott Hancock & The Battle of Gettysburg. https://warfarehistorynetwork.com/2015/11/04/hancock-the-superb-winfield-scott-hancoc
  9. Longacre, E. (1986). The Cavalry at Gettysburg.

Why was the Gettysburg Battle so important?

  1. Reardon, C., Vossler, T. (2013). The Gettysburg Campaign: June – July 1863. https://history.army.mil/html/books/075/75-10/CMH_Pub_75-10.pdf
  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. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/38/v38i06p245-257.pdf
  6. Scher, A. (2013). Long Remember: Minnesota at Gettysburg and Vicksburg. http://education.mnhs.org/sites/default/files/long-remember-minnesota-and-vicksburg.pdf
  7. Scapegoat or Scandal? J.E.B. Stuart and the Battle of Gettysburg. http://www.civildiscourse-historyblog.com/blog/2015/5/20/scapegoat-or-scandal-jeb-stuart-and-the-
  8. Forsyth, M. (2013). Who was the “Great Man” at Culp’s Hill?. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/339887099_Who_Was_the_Great_Man_at_Culp%27s_Hill

Why was the Gettysburg Battle so important?