Battle of Gettysburg

Template:Battlebox The Battle of Gettysburg (July 13, 1863), fought in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign, was the largest battle ever fought in North America, and is generally considered to be the turning point of the American Civil War.


Background and movement to battle

Main article: Gettysburg Campaign

Shortly after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia won a decisive victory over the Federal Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 13, 1863), Lee decided upon a second invasion of the North. Such a move would upset Federal plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly relieve the besieged Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, and it would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich northern farms while giving war-ravaged Virginia a much needed rest. Also Lee's 75,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington and give voice to the growing peace movement in the North.

Thus, on June 3 Lee's army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg, Virginia. In order to attain more efficiency in his commands, Lee had pared down his two large corps into three new corps. James Longstreet retained command of his First Corps. However, the old corps of General "Stonewall" Jackson was divided into two, with the Second Corps going to Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell and the new Third Corps commanded by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. The Gettysburg Confederate Order of Battle lists the units and commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia.

The Federal Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, consisted of seven corps of infantry and artillery, a cavalry corps, and an Artillery Reserve, for a combined strength of more than 90,000 men. However, Abraham Lincoln would soon replace Hooker with Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, due to Hooker's defeat at the Battle of Chancellorsville and his timid response to Lee's second invasion north of the Potomac. The Gettysburg Union Order of Battle lists the units and commanders of the Army of the Potomac after Meade assumed command.

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

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

Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army's cavalry and ride around the Union army. However, Lee's orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals are to blame for the long absence of Stuart's cavalry, as well as for the failure to assign a more active role to the cavalry left with the army. Also, Confederate raider John S. Mosby was partly to blame; he stated that Stuart would face very little opposition when, in fact, he was forced to take an extremely circuitous route to avoid the Union infantry. By June 29, Lee's army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, 28 miles (45 km) NW of Gettysburg, to Carlisle, 30 miles (48 km) north of Gettysburg, to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna River.

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

When, on June 29, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, located at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles (13 km) west of Gettysburg.

On June 30, while part of Hill's Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill's brigades, North Carolinians under J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg. The memoirs of Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, Pettigrew's division commander, claimed that Pettigrew was in search of a large supply of shoes in town, but this explanation has been largely discounted by historians.

When Pettigrew's troops approached Gettysburg on June 30, they noticed Federal cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford west of town, and Pettigrew returned to Cashtown without engaging them. When Pettigrew told Hill and Henry Heth about what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Federal force in or near the town, suspecting that it had been only Pennsylvania militia. Despite General Lee's order to avoid a general engagement until his entire army was concentrated, Hill decided to mount a significant reconnaissance in force the following morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Around 5 a.m. on Wednesday, July 1, Heth's division advanced to Gettysburg.

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

First day of battle

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Map of Battle, July 1st.

General Buford realized the importance of the high ground directly to the south of Gettysburg. He knew that if the Confederates could gain control of the heights, Meade's army would have a hard time dislodging them. He decided to utilize three ridges west of Gettysburg: Herr's Ridge, McPherson's Ridge, and Seminary Ridge (proceeding west to east toward the town). These were appropriate terrain for a delaying action by his small division against superior Confederate forces, meant to buy time awaiting the arrival of troops (initially Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds's I Corps) who could occupy the superior defensive positions south of town, Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge, and Culp's Hill.

Heth's division advanced with two brigades forward, commanded by Brig. Gens. James Archer and Joseph R. Davis. They proceeded easterly in columns along the Chambersburg Pike. Three miles (5 km) west of town, about 7:30 a.m. on July 1, Heth's two brigades met light resistance from cavalry vedettes and deployed into line. Eventually, they reached dismounted troopers from Col. William Gamble's cavalry brigade, who mounted determined resistance and delaying tactics from behind fence posts with rapid fire from their Sharps carbines. By 10:20 a.m., the Confederates had pushed the Yankee cavalrymen east to McPherson's Ridge, when the vanguard of the I Corps finally arrived.

North of the pike, Davis gained a temporary success against Brig. Gen. Lysander Cutler's brigade, but was repulsed with heavy losses in an action around an unfinished railroad bed cut in the ridge. South of the pike, Archer's brigade assaulted through Herbst's (McPherson's) Woods. The federal Iron Brigade under Brig. Gen. Solomon Meredith enjoyed initial success against Archer, capturing several hundred men, including Archer himself.

Early in the fighting, while General Reynolds was directing Cutler's brigade, he fell from his horse, killed instantly by a bullet striking him behind the ear. (Some historians believe Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter, but it is more likely that he was killed by a volley of rifle fire directed at the 2nd Wisconsin Regiment.) Fighting in the Chambersburg Pike area lasted until about 12:30 p.m. It resumed around 2:30 p.m., when Heth's entire division engaged, adding the brigades of Pettigrew and Col. John M. Brockenbrough.

As Pettigrew's Brigade (the largest in the army) came on line they drove the Iron Brigade back. Flanking the 19th Indiana, the North Carolinians (11th, 26th, 47th, 52nd) drove back the hard fighting Iron Brigade (19th Indiana, 24th Michigan, 2nd, 6th, 7th Wisconsin) inch by inch. The 26th North Carolina (the largest regiment in the army with nearly 900 men) lost heavily, leaving the first day's fight with around 212 men. By the end of the three-day battle, they would have about 60 men standing, the highest casualty percentage for one battle of any other regiment, north or south. Slowly the Iron Brigade was pushed out of the woods toward Seminary Ridge. Hill added William Dorsey Pender's division to the assault and the I Corps was driven back through the grounds of the Lutheran Seminary and Gettysburg streets.

As the fighting to the west proceeded, two divisions of Ewell's Second Corps, marching west toward Cashtown in accordance with Lee's order for the army to concentrate in that vicinity, turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads toward Gettysburg, while the Union XI Corps raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the Federal line ran in a semi-circle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg.

Unfortunately, the Federals did not have enough troops; Cutler, who was deployed north of the Chambersburg Pike, had his right flank in the air. Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps leftmost division was unable to deploy in time to strengthen the line, so Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday (the late Reynolds's replacement) was forced to throw in reserve brigades to salvage his line.

Around 2:00 p.m., Robert E. Rodes's and Jubal Early's Second Corps divisions smashed and out-flanked the Federal I and XI Corps positions north and northwest of town. The brigades of Junius Daniel and Alfred Iverson suffered severe losses assaulting the I Corps division of Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson south of Oak Hill. Early's division profited from a blunder made by Brig. Gen. Francis Barlow, when he advanced his XI Corps division to Blocher's Knoll (directly north of town and now known as Barlow's Knoll); this represented a salient in the corps line, susceptible to attack from multiple sides, and Early's troops overran his division, which constituted the right flank of the Union Army's position. Barlow was wounded and captured in the attack.

As Federal positions collapsed both north and west of town, at 4:10 p.m., Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, XI Corps commander and acting commander on the field, ordered a retreat to the high ground south of town, Cemetery Hill.

Lee understood the defensive potential to the Union if they held this high ground. He sent orders to Ewell that Cemetery Hill be taken "if practicable." Ewell chose not to attempt the assault. One reason posited was the battle fatigue of his men in the late afternoon, although Edward "Alleghany" Johnson's division of Ewell's Corps had just arrived and was essentially fresh. Another was the difficulty of assaulting the hill through the narrow corridors afforded by the streets of Gettysburg, immediately to the north.

Lee's order has been criticized because it left too much discretion to Ewell. It is interesting to speculate how the more aggressive Stonewall Jackson would have acted on this order if he had lived to command this wing of Lee's army, and how differently the second day of battle would have proceeded with Confederate artillery on Cemetery Hill, commanding the length of Cemetery Ridge and the Federal lines of communications on the Baltimore Pike.

The battle of July 1 had pitted over 25,000 Confederates against 18,000 Federals, and ranks in itself as the twenty-third largest battle of the war.

Second day of battle

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Map of Battle, July 2nd.

Throughout the evening of July 1 and morning of July 2, most of the remaining infantry of both armies arrived on the field, including the Union II, III, V, VI, and XII Corps. Longstreet's third division, commanded by George Pickett, had begun the march from Chambersburg early in the morning; it would not arrive until late on July 2.

The Union line ran from Culp's Hill southeast of the town, northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles (3 km) along Cemetery Ridge, terminating just north of Little Round Top. Most of the XII Corps was on Culp's Hill, the remnants of I and XI Corps defended Cemetery Hill, II Corps covered most of the northern half of Cemetery Ridge, and III Corps was ordered to take up a position to its flank. This shape of the Union line is popularly described as a "fishhook" formation. The Confederate line paralleled the Union line about a mile (1600 m) to the west on Seminary Ridge, ran east through the town, then curved southeast to a point opposite Culp's Hill. Thus, the Federal army had interior lines, while the Confederate's exterior line was nearly five miles (8 km) in length.

Lee's battle plan for July 2 called for Longstreet's First Corps to position itself stealthily to attack the Union left flank, facing northeast astraddle the Emmitsburg Road, and rolling up the Federal line. The attack sequence was to begin with John Bell Hood's and Lafayette McLaw's divisions, followed by Richard H. Anderson's division of Hill's Third Corps. The progressive en echelon sequence of this attack would prevent Meade from shifting troops from his center to bolster his left. At the same time, Edward "Alleghany" Johnson's and Jubal Early's Second Corps divisions were to make a "demonstration" against Culp's and Cemetery Hills (again, to prevent the shifting of Federal troops), and to turn the demonstration into a full-scale attack if a favorable opportunity presented itself.

Lee's plan, however, was based on faulty intelligence, exacerbated by Stuart's continued absence from the battlefield. Instead of moving beyond the Federals' left and attacking their flank, Longstreet's left division, under Major General Lafayette McLaws, would face Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles's III Corps directly in their path. Sickles, dissatisfied with the position assigned him on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge, and seeing higher ground more favorable to artillery positions a half mile (800 m) to the west, had advanced his corps—without orders—to the slightly higher ground along the Emmitsburg Road. The new line ran from Devil's Den, northwest to the Sherfy farm's Peach Orchard, then northeast along the Emmitsburg Road to south of the Codori farm. This created an untenable salient at the Peach Orchard; Brig. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys's division (in position along the Emmitsburg Road) and Maj. Gen. David B. Birney's division (to the south) were subject to attacks from two sides and were spread out over a longer front than a corps could defend effectively. Winfield Scott Hancock's II Corps was unable to support, due to the distance between their flanks.

Longstreet's attack was to be made as early as practicable; however, Longstreet got permission from Lee to await the arrival of one of his brigades, and, while marching to the assigned position, his men came within sight of a Union signal station on Little Round Top. Countermarching to avoid detection wasted much time, and Hood's and McLaws's divisions did not launch their attacks until just after 4 p.m. and 5 p.m., respectively.

As Longstreet's divisions slammed into the Union III Corps, Meade had to send reinforcements in the form of the entire V Corps, Caldwell's division of the II Corps, most of the XII Corps (futilely, as it turned out, because Brig. Gen. John W. Geary's division took a wrong turn and did not reach the action in time), and small portions of the newly arrived VI Corps. Hard fighting took place in the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, Little Round Top, and the Wheatfield. The III Corps was virtually destroyed as a combat unit in this battle and Sickles leg was amputated after it was shattered by a cannonball. Caldwell's division was devoured piecemeal in the Wheatfield. Anderson's division assault starting around 6 p.m. reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge, but they could not hold the position in the face of counterattacks from the II Corps.

Meanwhile, Colonel Strong Vincent of V Corps was holding, with his small brigade, one of the most important hills in the Union position: Little Round Top. In an engagement called the Battle of Little Round Top he was able to hold off repeated assaults by a Confederate brigade of Hood's division with his five relatively small regiments. Meade's chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, had realized the importance of this position, and dispatched Vincent's brigade to occupy Little Round Top mere minutes before Hood's troops arrived. Warren was also able to convince an artillery battery to take position at the hill's summit, and in a stroke of luck, he met a regiment (the 140th New York) whose commander he knew; this regiment supported Vincent and held his right flank after it collapsed. (See Battle of Little Round Top for more details on this.)

About 7:30 p.m., the Second Corps' attack by Johnson's division on Culp's Hill got off to a late start. Most of the hill's defenders, the Union XII Corps, had been sent to the left to defend against Longstreet's attacks, and the only portion of the corps remaining on the hill was a brigade of New Yorkers under Brig. Gen. George S. Greene. Due to Greene's insistence on constructing strong defensive works, and with reinforcements from the I and XI Corps, Greene's men held off the Confederate attackers, although the Southerners did capture a portion of the abandoned Federal works on the lower part of Culp's Hill.

Just at dark, two of Jubal Early's brigades attacked the Union XI Corps positions on East Cemetery Hill where Col. Andrew L. Harris of the 2nd Brigade, 1st Division, came under a withering attack, losing half his men; however, Early failed to support his brigades in their attack on the Union defenders, and Ewell's remaining division, that of Maj. Gen. Robert E. Rodes, failed to aid Early's attack by moving against Cemetery Hill from the west. The Union army's interior lines enabled its commanders to shift troops quickly to critical areas, and with reinforcements from II Corps, the Federal troops retained possession of East Cemetery Hill, and Early's brigades were forced to withdraw.

J.E.B. Stuart and his four cavalry brigades arrived in Gettysburg late in the afternoon, but had no role in the second day's battle. Wade Hampton's brigade fought a minor engagement with George Armstrong Custer's Michigan cavalry near Hunterstown to the northeast of Gettysburg.

Third day of battle

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Map of Battle, July 3rd.

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

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

The day was hot, 87 F (31 C) by one account—and the Confederates suffered under the hot sun awaiting the order to advance. Around 1:00 p.m., 170 Confederate cannons began an artillery bombardment that would become the loudest noise ever heard on the continent. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew must follow, the Army of the Potomac's artillery at first did not return the enemy's fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, 80 or so Federal cannon added to the din. The Army of Northern Virginia was critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position. After more than an hour (some accounts say two hours), the cannon fire subsided, and nearly 13,000 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile (1200 m) to Cemetery Ridge. Nearly one half would not return to their own lines. Although the Federal line wavered and broke temporarily at the "Angle", just north of the copse of trees, reinforcements rushed into the breach and the Confederate attack was repulsed. Known to history as "Pickett's Charge", Pickett's Virginians actually composed only one-third of the attacking force, the remainder consisting of North Carolinians, Mississippians, and Tennesseeans, so some recent historians have used the name "Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault" to describe the attack.

There were two significant cavalry engagements on July 3rd. Stuart was sent to guard the Confederate left flank and was to be prepared to exploit any success the infantry might achieve on Cemetery Hill by flanking the Federal right and hitting their trains and lines of communications. Three miles (5 km) east of Gettysburg, in what is now called "East Cavalry Field" (not shown on the accompanying map), Stuart's forces collided with Federal cavalry: Brig. Gen. David McM. Gregg's division and George A. Custer's brigade. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Both sides claimed victory, but Stuart was blocked from achieving his objectives in the Federal rear. After Pickett's Charge, Brig. Gen. Judson Kilpatrick launched a cavalry charge against the infantry positions of Longstreet's Corps near Little Round Top. Brig. Gen. Elon Farnsworth protested against the futility of such a move, but obeyed orders; Farnsworth was killed in the attack and his brigade suffered significant losses.


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

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Dead Federal soldiers on the battlefield at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Throughout the campaign, General Lee seemed to have entertained the belief that his men were invincible; most of Lee's experiences with the army had convinced him of this, including the great victory at Chancellorsville in early May and the rout of the Federals at Gettysburg on July 1. To the detrimental effects of this blind faith were added the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia had many new and inexperienced commanders. (Neither Hill nor Ewell, for instance, though capable division commanders, had commanded a corps before.) Also, Lee's habit of giving general orders and leaving it up to his lieutenants to work out the details contributed to his defeat. Although this method may have worked with Stonewall Jackson, it proved inadequate when dealing with corps commanders unused to Lee's loose style of command. Lastly, after July 1, the Confederates were simply not able to coordinate their attacks. Lee faced a new and very dangerous opponent in Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, and the Army of the Potomac stood to the task and fought well on its home territory.

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

Today, the Gettysburg National Cemetery and Gettysburg Battlefield are maintained by the U.S. National Park Service as two of the nation's most revered historical landmarks.


Further reading

The Killer Angels, a novel by Michael Shaara, ISBN 0345348109

In music

Jon Schaffer, leader of American heavy metal band Iced Earth, composed a thirty minute epic inspired by the Battle of Gettysburg. It consists of three songs, one for each day of the battle: The Devil To Pay (12:13), Hold At All Costs (7:06), and High Water Mark (12:35). Schaffer incorporates parts of When Johnny Comes Marching Home and Dixie into the music (backed by the Prague Philiharmonic Orchestra) as the respective anthems for the Union and the Confederacy. Gettysburg (1863) appeared on Iced Earth's 2004 release The Glorious Burden and the Gettysburg DVD, released in 2005.

External links

de:Schlacht von Gettysburg fr:Bataille de Gettysburg nl:Slag bij Gettysburg pl:Bitwa pod Gettysburgiem pt:Batalha de Gettysburg sv:Slaget vid Gettysburg


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