No fewer than ten separate roads lead into the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg; though in the summer of 1863, all roads seemed to lead there. What was once a thriving hamlet devoted to agriculture trading would be transformed into the locus of the Civil War effort, and the true turning point of the war. A battle that the Confederacy had to win, and the Union had to simply not lose, over a span of three days the two armies fought relentlessly in the blazing summer heat. Over 50,000 soldiers from both sides would fall either dead or wounded from the intense fighting that gripped the idyllic Pennsylvania hills and farmland, and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia would be forced back south to reevaluate its strategy for victory.
General Robert E. Lee was riding a wave of momentum through the late spring of 1863 in the Eastern Theater. In the wake of his victories over Hooker’s Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, Lee was prepared to take a huge strategic gamble by shifting his focus north. By doing so, he would hopefully pull the Union forces out of Virginia while at the same time threatening Washington and breaking the Union will. Further, Lee knew to overcome the dire situation in besieged Vicksburg he would have to divide the north, weaken their army and their resolve, and capitalize on the rising peace movement that was taking hold. Lee had repeatedly tasted victory despite at times overwhelming odds and, much like the Athenians of old, he was “grasping for more.”
After Chancellorsville, Lee determined that “remaining quietly on the defensive” was the worst course of action he could take, and began to set the conditions for his advance north. The Army of Northern Virginia started its movement north through the Shenandoah Valley on the western edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains, using the terrain to mask their movement from Union cavalry scouts. On June 9, 1863, Union troops under the command of Alfred Pleasonton and John Buford intercepted J.E.B. Stuart’s famed cavalry forces along the Rappahannock River at Brandy Station. While Pleasonton was supposed to “disperse and destroy” Stuart’s cavalry, he came nowhere close to this result, and failed to even produce any actionable idea of Lee’s plan to invade Pennsylvania. Conversely, Buford’s Union cavalry placed enough of a beating on Stuart’s troops that it slowed their momentum for a time, but it was just enough to rile Stuart’s ego and leave him ready to prove his mettle yet again.
Through the final days of June, Lee’s army moved north, foraging the Pennsylvania countryside in search of the Army of the Potomac.
After Brandy Station, Lee’s army continued to march north, with Richard S. Ewell’s Second Corps leading the movement followed by James Longstreet, with A.P. Hill remaining at Fredericksburg for the time being. As the Union sensed the South’s plans, General-in-Chief Henry Halleck made his own preparations. President Lincoln dispatched “Fighting Joe” Hooker’s Army of the Potomac to begin sending forces to intercept the pending Confederate invasion, with Lincoln demanding that Hooker keep his army in a position to protect Washington. At the same time, Stuart was screening the Confederate movement along the mountain range, a decision that ultimately led to a lack of Rebel cavalry in place on the first day of the battle. Through the final days of June, Lee’s army moved north, foraging the Pennsylvania countryside in search of the Army of the Potomac. On July 1, 1863, they would find them.
Just three days before the two armies would clash in Gettysburg however, the Army of the Potomac would undergo a change of leadership. On June 28, Hooker submitted his resignation to President Lincoln, which was accepted. Had he not resigned, there is little doubt he would have been relieved, as his recalcitrance over the numerical disparity between the sides was wearing on Lincoln’s patience. Furthermore, Lincoln certainly knew that he had to have the right man leading the Army of the Potomac for this engagement, as Lee’s resolve to end the war in Union territory was steeled. The general swore to “throw an overwhelming force at their [the Union] advance, crush it, follow up the success, drive one corps back on another, and by successive repulses and surprises create a panic and virtually destroy the enemy. [Then] the war will be over and we shall achieve the recognition of our independence.” Fortunately for Lincoln, he found the commander he needed in Major General George Gordon Meade. The short-tempered Meade had made his name as a division commander, and was an astute tactician, leading from the front. Dubbed a “goddamned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle” by one of his men, he nonetheless commanded the respect of his soldiers and fellow generals alike. Meade however, would not be in Pennsylvania on the day the first shots were fired.
July 1st, 1863 — The Fight For the Ridge Lines
The manner in which fighting in Gettysburg began has found itself shrouded in folklore and historical legend. Major General Henry Heth’s division of A.P. Hill’s corps was marching southward toward Gettysburg, but what they were heading there for is debatable among historians. Many contend that Heth’s soldiers were in search of supplies, namely shoes, when they encountered the first lines of Buford’s scouts for the opening skirmish. What Heth encountered were the advance troops of Brigadier General John Buford’s cavalry division, who had arrived to Gettysburg a day earlier and scouted the terrain along which they would carry the fight to the Confederates. Soon after, the first shots of the Battle of Gettysburg were fired, and three days of hell would follow. As Buford’s cavalrymen engaged the Rebel advance on the morning of July 1st, Major General John Reynolds’s First Corps was closing in on Gettysburg. Upon hearing that the cavalry was fully engaged, Reynolds “went to the town on a fast gallop…”
“Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods!”
As the fight along McPherson Ridge escalated, Heth continued to send more power to support his forces. Buford had taken an observation post in the cupola of the nearby Lutheran Theological Seminary, situated on the aptly named Seminary Ridge, to monitor the battle as it intensified. Buford watched as his skirmishers were reinforced by two of Reynolds’ brigades, one of which was the famed Iron Brigade, known as one of the fiercest fighting outfits in the Union army. Reynolds was at the lead of this charge, shouting, “Forward men, forward for God’s sake and drive those fellows out of those woods!” He pressed his men into position along the edge of McPherson Ridge, and as he turned to face the remaining men moving along the ridge, he was felled by a Confederate bullet which struck him in the head. The highest ranking casualty of the battle would fall in the first hour of fighting.
Reynolds’ division would now be commanded by Abner Doubleday, the general often referred to as the inventor of baseball, though this is yet another myth from Gettysburg lore. Doubleday’s priority was to secure the flank of the Iron Brigade along Seminary Ridge, and prevent the collapse of the line along this piece of ground. Unfortunately, on the other end of the Union line the Confederates were finding much more success. By the afternoon of the 1st, Heth was preparing for a second attack along McPherson’s Ridge. Around the same time, Ewell was moving troops into position to the north to support Jubal Early’s division that was heavily engaged against elements of the Union Eleventh Corps. Known as the “Dutch Corps,” the Eleventh was caught off-guard by Early’s flank attack, and collapsed under the weight of the Confederate assault. This was an opportunity to exploit a shift in momentum, but instead became what many regard as the key lapse in judgment of the battle.
Lee’s guidance to Ewell was to attack Cemetery Ridge “if practicable,” and according to Ewell’s assessment, it was not. The usually pugnacious, one-legged general chose not to press the attack on the Union positions before nightfall, giving the Army of the Potomac a chance to recover and receive reinforcements overnight.
July 2nd, 1863 — Little Round Top
On July 2nd, Robert E. Lee felt the best option would be to focus his attack on the leftmost portion of the Union line, and consulted his trusted adviser James Longstreet for ideas of how to do so. Longstreet was not particularly impressed with any of the prospects available, and made these feelings abundantly clear to Lee. Unfortunately, Lee was not in any mood to deal with obstinate subordinates. Given J.E.B. Stuart’s absence and the fact that Heth became engaged in a fight Lee wasn’t particularly looking for, Lee had to look for ways to capitalize on the situation and maintain momentum. To do this, however, Lee had to get ahead of reinforcements enroute from the rest of the Army of the Potomac, and he was forced to accomplish this without the eyes and ears of Stuart’s cavalry. Lee directed Longstreet to take his divisions to the Union left, and prepare to assault the Union lines.
Longstreet, worn down by the march and the course of events of the day, was increasingly frustrated with the way things were unfolding.
What followed Lee’s directions to Longstreet provides yet another layer of complexity and drama to the story of Gettysburg. Many students of Civil War history argue that “Old Pete” shares a significant portion of the blame for the result of the battle. Whether it was the lack of cavalry scouts to reconnoiter an attack point, or the lack of zeal for Lee’s plan, not only did he petition to wait for additional divisions to arrive to begin movement, Longstreet also took a significant detour to his assault position. This decision delayed the attack by several hours after the original plan.
Ultimately, Longstreet’s troopers did not arrive to their objective until around 3:00 pm, after many of the Confederates had marched for nearly nine hours after stepping off in the early hours of the morning of July 2nd. Longstreet, worn down by the march and the course of events of the day, was increasingly frustrated with the way things were unfolding. At the same time, Meade was having problems of his own. Meade’s line had become disjointed when Dan Sickles’ Third Corps moved into a position well forward of where Meade had instructed them to take. When Sickles asked Meade if he were to move back into position, Meade told him “You cannot hold this position, but the enemy will not let you get away without a fight…” And they did not.
Longstreet’s assault began at around 4:00 pm on July 2nd. With regiments from Alabama, Texas, and Arkansas, as well as brigades from A.P. Hill’s corps assaulted Seminary Ridge, the Peach Orchard, Rose farm, the Wheatfield, and Devil’s Den. In the midst of this fighting was when Sickles received the infamous wound that would take his leg off, only to be hauled off the battlefield with a cigar in his mouth. The intense fighting of the next several hours would litter the battlefield with the dead and wounded. Some historians note that in the Wheatfield alone, there were so many bodies one could walk across the field without touching the ground. Near Devil’s Den, there were nearly 8,000 dead after just the first three hours. Gettysburg was becoming a true Hell on earth, but the Confederates were determined to overtake the Union’s far left flank position near the summit of Little Round Top.
“Paddy, give me a regiment!”
Meade sent his chief of engineers, Brigadier General G.K. Warren to Little Round Top to survey the situation, and what Warren saw was the Confederate line moving toward their position. Looking for reinforcements, Warren called to 140th New York’s Colonel Patrick O’Rourke, “Paddy, give me a regiment!”O’Rourke scurried to grab as many men as he could, while further support was dispatched to support the flank. Many of the reinforcements that would arrive would come from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, who were ordered to hold the position “at all costs,” as their location on Little Round Top comprised the extreme left flank of the Union line. Were William Oates’s Confederates to defeat the 20th Maine, the Union defense would surely collapse.
While Chamberlain’s men were moving into position, Paddy O’Rourke was rallying his men on the opposite side of the hill when he was mortally wounded by a shot to the neck. Enraged by the fall of their commander, the 140th delivered a hail of gunfire to repel the Confederate assault along the east. To the west, Chamberlain was preparing to do all he could to hold defend the hill, telling his men: “Stand firm ye boys from Maine. For not once in a century are men permitted to bear such responsibilities for freedom and justice. For God and humanity are as now placed upon you.” With men and ammunition exhausted alike, Chamberlain gave the command to “fix bayonets.” His regiment’s charge into the Confederate line drove back the assaulters, and when the remainder of Strong Vincent’s brigade arrived, Little Round Top was saved. Chamberlain would of course receive the Medal of Honor for his gallant defense of this pivotal high ground.
July 3rd, 1863 — Pickett’s Charge
“Turn your eyes which way you will, the whole Heavens were filled with shot and shell, fire and smoke.”
The third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg would be no less dramatic than the previous two. Dawn broke that day with a Union artillery barrage on the Confederate position at Culp’s Hill, which had been reinforced overnight by Ewell’s corps. Named for a local farmer whose great-grandson would fight and die for the Confederates’ futile effort to take this piece of land, Culp’s Hill would be the focus of the fighting for the first few hours of July 3rd. By later that morning, however, Culp’s Hill would fall silent, only to be replaced soon after by a deafening exchange of artillery between the two sides. For nearly two hours, over 250 cannons from both Union and Confederate artillery exchanged fire. One Union Sergeant described the scene: “Turn your eyes which way you will, the whole Heavens were filled with shot and shell, fire and smoke.”
At the same time, a series of fierce cavalry attacks were beginning. J.E.B. Stuart was finally in Gettysburg behind Ewell’s Corps preparing to attack the Union rear, while Union cavaliers under the command of George Armstrong Custer attacked and counterattacked on what is now known as the aptly named Cavalry Field. Custer would begin a fine record of Cavalry leadership through the last two years of the Civil War this day at Gettysburg, a legacy that is forever overshadowed by his disastrous defeat at Little Bighorn.
“General, shall I advance?”
July 3rd marked yet another disagreement between Lee and Longstreet concerning the plan of attack. Longstreet proposed another flanking movement to the Union left, but Lee was having none of it. Facing the direction of the Union line held by John Gibbon’s division Lee said, “The enemy is there, and I am going to take them where they are.” With that proclamation, the stage was set for one of the most infamous infantry charges known throughout military history.
Gibbon’s troops were situated near a copse of trees at a location called “The Angle” and, despite Longstreet’s protests, this position would serve as the central point against Lee would direct all his force on the afternoon of the 3rd. Assembling nearly 12,000 men under the command of Major General George Pickett, the Confederates moved into position in a swale across the fields from The Angle. By the time Longstreet was ready to commit to the assault, his artillery was low on ammunition, and unable to further soften the union defenses. Pickett awaited his orders: “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet could not bring himself to utter the answer, though he knew it was a must for the infantry to advance. Moving back to his men, Pickett called out “Up you men and to your posts! Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!” The 12–13,000 men would cross nearly three-quarters of a mile of open field, to include Emmitsburg Road, while directing this frontal assault on an elevated Union position. If it sounds like a desperate suicide mission, it’s because it was.
Marching in “common time” in the face of shell and canister, Pickett’s men held their formation until the leftward oblique movement to direct their force against the front of Gibbon’s line. At the same time, to Pickett’s left the forces of Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew were stalling. Emmitsburg Road slowed their advance, and Pettigrew’s leaders were felled one after the other by the Union defense. Pettigrew, shot off his horse and forced to command from the ground, found few leaders available to keep the fight going beyond the road. Because as many North Carolinians under Pettigrew took part in this assault as Pickett’s Virginians, many argue that Pettigrew’s name should be added to the famed moniker of the assault, though these opinions generally fall along the lines of the home state of the historian.
In the face of Pickett’s oblique turning movement, Gibbon maintained cool and steady leadership at the mount, regulating the pace of his men’s fire and holding the line. As Pickett’s men closed, their formations began to break, and though they scraped together a semblance of a final charge, the Union line repelled their attack. As Pickett limped back to his commanders, Lee directed him to place his division in a position to stop a counterattack. “General Lee,” Pickett said with dejection, “I have no division now.” Surely he did not.
Over 7,000 casualties were sustained between the two sides during this assault alone. Meade delayed his counterattack for several days, though they pursued the Army of Northern Virginia as it made its retreat south.
To say the Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide of the Civil War does little to give tribute to the thousands who fell on that hallowed ground. Through the Slaughter Pen and Devil’s Den, these soldiers fought tirelessly in the July heat, and the Confederate invasion of the north was repulsed. Coupled with Grant’s Fourth of July victory in Vicksburg, the Union grabbed the momentum finally.Though the war would carry on for another twenty-one months, Gettysburg provided the opportunity for the Army of the Potomac to seize the initiative in the war and finally redeem its glory. For the Army of Northern Virginia, it served as the starting point of a series of campaigns during which the Union would chase Lee southward, to his final surrender at Appamatox.
Steven L. Foster is an Army Strategist currently assigned to United States Transportation Command and a Featured Writer on The Bridge. The views expressed in this article do not reflect the policy or position of any official organization.
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Header Image: Thure de Thulstrup’s Battle of Gettysburg, showing Pickett’s Charge. (Public Domain)
Luvaas, Jay, and Harold W. Nelson. The U.S. Army War College Guide to the Battle of Gettysburg. South Mountain Press, 1987.
McPherson, James M. Hallowed Ground: A Walk at Gettysburg. New York: Random House Audio, 2003.
Sears, Stephen W. Gettysburg. Houghton Mifflin, 2004.