The Battle of Gettysburg

'Jeb' Stuart's Southern cavalry again occupied center stage as the armies sidled northward and crossed the Potomac - or, more accurately, Stuart's cavalry exited stage right and became conspicuous by their absence. While Lee pushed north, into and through the Shenandoah valley, Stuart embraced the chance to ride a raid entirely around the Union army. He had done just that twice before, in June and October 1862. This time the dashing maneuver backfired in deadly fashion. The cavalry detachment accompanying the main force in Stuart's absence had neither the men nor the leadership necessary to perform the essential function of screening Lee from enemy view, while simultaneously finding the enemy and tracking his progress and intentions. When Stuart finally rejoined Lee very tardily at Gettysburg, the commanding general said quietly, but in clear rebuke, 'Well ... you are here at last,' and 'I had hoped to see you before this.' Stuart's ride became one of the most-disputed subjects among postwar

Battels Gettysburg Remanings

Above. General George Gordon Meade took command of the Federal Army of the Potomac scant hours before the Battle of Gettysburg, but still won a great victory there. He has never received the credit he deserves for his achievement, largely because he scorned journalists and belonged to the wrong political party. (Public domain)

Left. Confederate General James Longstreet's behavior on 2 July remains the most controversial aspect of the Battle of Gettysburg. (Public domain)

Right. The war's largest battle engulfed the farms and hillsides around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, on the first three days of July 1863. The Confederate army won a tremendous victory northwest of town on 1 July and swept through the streets in triumph. The Federals made a stand on a fishhook-shaped line south of Gettysburg, taking advantage of the slopes of Cemetery Ridge and anchored on the formidable heights of Culp's Hill and Little Round Top. Lee's efforts against the Federal right on 2-3 July met with very little success, but near the Round Tops the Confederates came close to a major success. On 3 July, with his options dwindling, and loath to return to Virginia. Lee flung his center across open fields toward Cemetery Ridge. This attack, usually known as 'Pickett's Charge,' unfolded with immense drama and elicited tremendous courage from its participants, but yielded nothing for Lee but daunting casualties. He now had no choice but to retreat south toward Virginia.

The Battle of Gettysburg, 1-3 July 1863

Remains Controversial

Confederates, and remains controversial to this day.

While Stuart galloped fecklessly across northern Virginia and Maryland and Pennsylvania, Lee's infantry achieved notable success at Winchester, Virginia, on 14-15 June. Ewell's energy and success there prompted Southerners to hope that he would emerge as a sort of reincarnation of Stonewall Jackson. On through Maryland and deep into Pennsylvania the Confederate columns pressed. Some of them reached Carlisle and York and the outskirts of the state's capital city, Harrisburg. Fighting

Battle Mine Creek

at the crossroads town of Gettysburg that began on 1 July would draw all of them back south into the maw of the war's greatest battle. The long columns of blue-clad Union troops marching north through an arc surrounding Washington also wound up adjusting their route of march for that place. Gettysburg was a 'meeting engagement' in every sense. No one picked the battle site. Roads drew small contending

A nineteenth-century view looking northwest from the crest of Little Round Top across the scenes of the heaviest fighting in the history of North America. (Public domain)

A nineteenth-century view looking northwest from the crest of Little Round Top across the scenes of the heaviest fighting in the history of North America. (Public domain)

Gettysburg Battle Scenes

formations together and soon everyone else pitched in.

The battle of 1 July 1863, considered alone, must be adjudged one of the Army of Northern Virginia's greatest victories. Fighting opened that morning west of Gettysburg, a farming community of about 2,400 souls.

Confederate skirmishers ran into Northern cavalry commanded by salty, unflappable General John Buford. A brigade of Southern infantry under President Jefferson Davis's nephew, General Joseph Davis, drove forward with marked success, but then the green brigadier clumsily allowed his men to be

trapped in a deep cut of an unfinished railroad and lost most of them.

Confederate fortunes were abetted when a bullet killed Union General John F. Reynolds, a soldierly and much-admired officer commanding everything Federal on the field at that early hour. They benefited even more

Confederate General Lewis A. Armistead leads the desperate 'Pickett's Charge' at the forefront, just before being mortally wounded. (Painting by Don Troiani,

from the superb timing - the result of luck, not prescience - with which the fresh Southern division of General Robert E. Rodes dropped squarely onto the north flank of the Federal position. Intense fighting ensued on both sides of the road leading from Chambersburg to Gettysburg, with success perching first upon one banner then another, but the arrival of Rodes's division and other associated troops at a fortuitous point doomed Federal resistance. Eventually the whole Union line west of town collapsed and the Confederates enjoyed a field day chasing their fleeing foe into Gettysburg. Alexander Schimmelfennig, a Prussian-born general, eluded capture by hiding in a pigsty. Thousands of other men in blue became prisoners of war.

One of the battle's most-discussed turning points came as Confederates converged on Gettysburg from the north and west, and contemplated riding the crest of the tidal wave of momentum they had created. Lee characteristically left to the discretion of his new corps commander, General Ewell, the responsibility for continuing the advance. Possession of the crest of a long ridge that curled around Gettysburg and ran east to East Cemetery Hill and Gulp's Hill would guarantee control of the military terrain for a considerable distance. Ewell equivocated, consulted, temporized - and never attacked. For the next two days, his troops would suffer mightily against the same two hills, by then strongly occupied, attacking again and again where he had not chosen to fight under far better terms. On the evening of 1 July, Ewell did nothing. His inaction remains highly controversial today. The counter-factual question, 'What would Jackson have done had he been there?' is, of course, unanswerable. A North Carolina soldier who fought there thought he knew. 'We missed the genius of Jackson,' he wrote a few days later. 'The simplest soldier in the ranks felt it.'

Federals scrambling to get to Gettysburg to blunt Lee's burgeoning success faced far better prospects than they would have a few days earlier. A Federal turning point in the campaign, indeed in the entire war in Virginia, had come on 27 June when General Hooker submitted his resignation in a fit of pique over having his wishes ignored. President Lincoln delightedly accepted the resignation and on 28 June General George Gordon Meade reluctantly took command of the Army of the Potomac.

Three days later Meade was fighting the war's largest battle. No American officer, in any war or era, has ever had so much crucial responsibility thrust upon him with such short notice. Meade met the challenge masterfully, beyond any imaginable degree that could have been expected, and far more ably than Hooker could have done. He confronted Lee's army at the high tide of Southern success, positioned deep in Federal country, and with Confederate numerical strength at a peak. At Gettysburg, Meade reached the battlefield as Lee swept everything before him late on 1 July. Against those odds the brand-new Federal commander won a pivotal battle.

Meade's challenge early on 2 July was to restore confidence in his army and place it carefully on the powerful position available to him. The Federal line around Gettysburg resembled a fishhook. The shank of the fishhook ran straight south from town along Cemetery Ridge and ended on the massive anchor of two commanding hills, Big Round Top and Little Round Top. The hook curled around Gettysburg, turning east to another superb anchor at Culp's Hill. Meade's line enjoyed the obvious tactical advantage of high ground. Its hook also ensured the ability to exploit interior lines, with the invaluable privilege of reinforcing from one point to another directly and under cover. The sole tactical defect of the line was its vulnerability to artillery rounds pouring in from across a wide arc - the 'converging fire' that is an artillerist's ideal. That defect never came into play. Confederate artillery, out-gunned and

As a member of the US Congress before the war, Daniel E. Sickles had murdered his wife's lover and got away with the crime. At Gettysburg, he aggressively advanced his division on 2 July and became the target of a savage Confederate attack. (Public domain)

tacitly commanded by an ineffectual preacher-general, never levied converging fire against Meade's fishhook.

Although the great Confederate charge of 3 July garners the most attention, Gettysburg came to its decisive juncture on 2 July as Lee tried to exploit the advantages gained on the 1st. Meade resisted stoutly and to good effect, aided to some degree by Confederate failings. On the Federal right, Southern assaults against Culp's Hill faltered after much desperate bravery on both sides. The attack never came close to substantial success. At dusk, two brigades of Rebels pressed determinedly up the steep face of East Cemetery Hill - precisely where Ewell had feared to go the previous day under far more advantageous circumstances. Despite canister flung into their flanks, and Federal musketry in front, the Confederates reached the crest and held there for some time before Northern reinforcements flocked to the site in enough numbers to expel them. Meanwhile, the most portentous Confederate initiative during the Battle of Gettysburg had faltered far down on the Federal left, near the Round Tops.

At Chancellorsville, Lee had won a great victory by deploying to the point of decision a flanking column led by his most trusted subordinate, Stonewall Jackson. With Jackson dead, James Longstreet was clearly Lee's primary military asset. Longstreet did not want to fight on the offensive, however, and apparently spent 1-3 July sulking over Lee's variant view of things. Such defensive triumphs as the Battle of Fredericksburg appealed to Longstreet (and every other Confederate), but how often would one find a pliant Ambrose Burnside willing to slaughter his own army? Longstreet did not wish to take the initiative at all, so only grudgingly - and very tardily - moved away with Lee's maneuver element. The army commander remained near his other corps commanders, both of them brand new. After a sluggish march, marked by confusion and backtracking, Longstreet's column arrived opposite the Federal left in front of the two Round Tops.

The nature of the violent combat that swept across the fields and hills south of Gettysburg on 2 July was affected in a fundamental way by the impulsive actions of Federal General Daniel E. Sickles. The General came not from a military background but from the political realm, having been a powerful Congressman from New York. Sickles' legacy includes not just his Civil War service, but also a series of bumptious endeavors: he killed his wife's lover before the war, and escaped on a plea of temporary insanity; as postwar US ambassador to Spain, he had an affair with that country's queen; and he played the central role in preserving Gettysburg battlefield early in the twentieth century. In July 1863, Sickles always insisted, he had saved the battle itself for the Union, by pushing forward in front of the main line

General George E. Pickett, a foppish fellow of starkly limited capacity, became one of the most famous names in American military history because of the mighty charge on 3 July 1863. He and his division did little else during the war (Public domain)

without Meade's permission. As Longstreet slowly approached action, Sickles moved forward into his path.

The assault by Longstreet's Confederates drove Sickles off his new position, and cost the Federal general his leg (after the war, a Congressman once again, Sickles took visiting constituents to the medical museum in Washington to show them his leg bones, donated as an exhibit). General William Barksdale of Mississippi, as fiery an ante bellum politician as Sickles had been, led a dramatic charge into Sickles' line. Southerners swept east and northeast in a wide arc that resulted in bitter fighting across a landscape that became forever famous: The Peach Orchard; The Wheatfield; Devil's Den; Little Round Top. The latter position held the key to that sector of the battlefield, looking down on the others and also commanding Cemetery Ridge to the north. After a desperate struggle, Confederates from Texas and Alabama receded from the crest of the hill, leaving a ghastly harvest of prostrate comrades behind them. As darkness fell, the Federals held the

Battle Mine Creek

Depiction of one segment of the fighting on July 3, from the immense 19th-century cyclorama painting by Philippoleaux, the largest piece of Gettysburg art and probably the most famous. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

key ground and Lee's great opportunity had passed. Controversy still rages over the efficacy of Sickles' relocation, and about Longstreet's lassitude in moving to battle.

Impeccable hindsight shows convincingly that Lee's decision to attack the next day,

Confederate Colonel Waller T. Patton fell dreadfully wounded at the height of 'Pickett's Charge.' He died 18 days later as a prisoner of war

Depiction of one segment of the fighting on July 3, from the immense 19th-century cyclorama painting by Philippoleaux, the largest piece of Gettysburg art and probably the most famous. (Ann Ronan Picture Library)

3 July, against Meade's center, was his worst of the war. He doubtless undertook the forlorn hope because it seemed the only remaining option he had to get at his enemy. The Army of Northern Virginia had reached the end of a very long supply limb, about 120 miles (190km) from the nearest railroad-served depot back in the Shenandoah valley. Stocks of commissary, quartermaster, and ordnance stores (particularly artillery ammunition) had dwindled and could not be renewed. Overwhelming tactical success on 1 July had yielded the opportunity for an even greater triumph on 2 July, but that opportunity dissolved under frustrating circumstances. Lee's infantry had never failed to do what he asked of them. Might not a full fresh division of them, just arrived on the field, with support from other units and massed artillery, break the Federal center?

In the event, they could not. About 12,000 Confederates tried, in the most renowned attack in all of American military history. 'Pickett's Charge' actually included about as many men from other units as from General George E. Pickett's division, which prompted postwar quarrels about the event's famous name. Confederate Colonel E. Porter Alexander massed artillery for a thunderous advance barrage, which used up much of the tenuous supply of shells. The barrage also fired too high against a target obscured by smoke and dust. When the infantry stepped out, they faced a maelstrom of shell-fire, then canister at closer range, and finally musketry in sheets as they charged past the humble farmhouse of the Codori family. A Virginian in Pickett's command wrote: 'On swept the column over ground covered with dead and dying men, where the earth seemed to be on fire, the smoke dense and suffocating, the sun shut out, flames blazing on every side, friend could hardly be distinguished from foe.'

Generals Lewis A. Armistead and Richard B. Garnett suffered mortal wounds at the front of the attack. Garnett's body was never recovered from the carnage, although his sword turned up in a pawn shop years later. Fully one-half of their men went down as well (Northern losses reached perhaps 1,500). A handful of brave Confederates broke into the Federal line for a time and hand-to-hand fighting raged around a battery near an angle in a stone fence. A Northern major marveled at how 'the rebels ... stood there, against the fence, until they were nearly all shot down.' They had reached what often has been called 'the high-water mark of the Confederacy.'

When the survivors turned back in sullen retreat, they suffered as dreadfully as on the way in. Among the Southern officers mangled was Colonel Waller Tazewell Patton, one of six brothers in the army and a great-uncle of the General Patton famous during the Second World War. The Colonel had grasped a cousin's hand, said 'it is our turn next,' and leaped over the stone wall at the attack's high-water mark, then went down with his lower jaw shot away. As he lay dying in a Federal hospital, unable to talk, 'Taz' scribbled a note to his mother: 'my only regret is that there are no more brothers left to defend our country.'

Fighting continued on 3 July in lesser volume on the far Federal right at Culp's Hill, and Jeb Stuart's cavalry engaged mounted foe well behind the main Union line, but Pickett's Charge proved to be the final major engagement of the Battle of Gettysburg. Each army had lost about 25,000 men. During the night of 4-5 July, Lee's army began to retreat toward the Potomac river through a violent rainstorm. The miles-long column of wagons bearing suffering and dying men became a train of utter misery. Meade pursued with some energy. Skirmishing flared along the route each day, but by 14 July Lee had managed to cross the rain-swollen river back into Virginia across a set of precarious pontoon bridges.

General Meade came in for more calumny than praise. President Lincoln was disgusted that he had not captured the entire Confederate force, which looked far easier on a Washington map than on a muddy Maryland ridgeline. George Meade had won the war's largest battle, scant hours after taking command, and had done so against an enemy army that had been inevitably triumphant theretofore; but politicians and press, followed eventually by many historical writers, grumbled that he should have done more.

Meade commanded the Army of the Potomac for the rest of the war as by far its most successful leader. In a very real sense, he saved the Union - yet he has never received much recognition for his achievement. That is probably because General U. S. Grant subsequently came east at a convenient moment, when numbers and materiel made it possible to end the war by simply shooting down many tens of thousands of men on both sides until arithmetic held sway.

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