This week in history: The Battle of Gettysburg a turning point in Civil War
When Lee heard from one of his division commanders that enemy cavalry had been spotted near a town south of the Confederate position, Lee ordered the infantry to make a reconnaissance in force but avoid a general engagement. The town was Gettysburg.
Gettysburg was largely unremarkable by mid-19th-century standards. It contained a Lutheran seminary, as well as several farmhouses and assorted shops. It did have one important geographical characteristic, however. It was the spot where all of the nearby roads and railroads converged. From above, the city looked like the center of a spider web with road networks fanning out in all directions. By July 1, those roads were all packed with soldiers.
Union cavalry officer John Buford had arrived there the day before and had been spotted by Lee's infantry. Buford was reluctant to give up the ground, however, realizing that just to the south of the city a system of hills and ridges could provide whichever army occupied them a great advantage. Indeed, it was just the sort of defensive ground Lee had been looking for.
Buford sent word back to his superiors to make for Gettysburg as quickly as they could, and then he hunkered down to fight the Confederates as they approached from the north and the west.
On July 1, the Confederate infantry engaged Buford's men. When word of the fighting got back to Lee, he made a bold decision that would have heavy consequences. Rather than break off and search for favorable ground behind him, he would send what units he had into Gettysburg to take the ground beyond it and crush what Union units were there.
Abandoning his idea of the tactical defense, Lee began to throw his men into the (then) relatively small engagement, believing he could destroy Union units piecemeal as they arrived.
The first day saw Buford's men (fighting as infantry) holding out and buying time for the rest of the Union Army to arrive. Gradually pulling back to the high ground south of the city, Buford was eventually met with reinforcements, including Reynolds, who was killed not long after his arrival.
By evening, the Army of the Potomac's line south of the city looked like a fishhook, extending from Culp's Hill in the northeast through Cemetery Ridge on the west down to a hill known as Little Round Top in the southwest. Lee's forces spread out as they arrived to cover the length of their opponents' line.
July 2 saw repeated Confederate attacks upon the Union flanks, particularly at Culp's Hill and Little Round Top, where understrength Union regiments possessing little ammunition held out successfully all afternoon.
The exploits of the 20th Maine regiment under commander Joshua L. Chamberlain would later be detailed in Michael Shaara's 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “The Killer Angels.” Thirty years later Chamberlain received the Congressional Medal of Honor for his staunch resistance that day.
Unable to turn the Union flanks, Lee devised a new strategy for July 3. Believing the Union Army weak at its center, Lee ordered Gen. George Pickett to assemble his division, which had not as yet participated in the battle, together with two others, for a grand march to hit the Union center. The assault meant that the Confederate troops would be walking nearly one full mile under enemy fire.
Lee's corps commander, Gen. James Longstreet, later claimed in his memoirs that he pleaded with Lee not to order this attack, fearing that the enemy would have the advantage that Lee had originally planned for his own army — favorable ground and prepared positions.
The three divisions set out and crossed the field between the armies, carrying all the hope of Confederate independence with them. Indeed, many consider this assault the high-water mark of the Confederacy. As the troops advanced, however, they were met with Union artillery and musket fire that cut them down with lethal efficiency.
Longstreet's fears had been realized, and the whole attack played out like a Fredericksburg in reverse. Indeed, after the Confederate jab had been blunted, Union soldiers called out the name of that Union defeat in revenge.
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