From July 1 to July 3, 1863, 150 years ago this week, the bloodiest battle of the Civil War occurred in Gettysburg, Pa. The battle proved a significant turning point in the conflict, and the Union victory assured that the Confederacy would never again take the offensive.
By spring 1863, Confederate leaders understood just how precarious their position had become. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had defeated Ambrose Burnside and the Army of the Potomac's attempt to cross the Rappahannock River at Fredericksburg the previous December.
In May, the Army of the Potomac, now commanded by Joseph Hooker, had been repelled in its crossing at the Battle of Chancellorsville. That Confederate victory had been won at great cost, however. Lee's best corps commander, Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had been wounded by friendly fire and later died.
Running low on supplies and manpower, Lee and Confederate President Jefferson Davis knew they could not keep repelling Union attacks in Virginia forever, and a potentially greater disaster was looming in Mississippi.
Union General Ulysses S. Grant was poised to take the city of Vicksburg, the last Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi River. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. A decision desperately needed to be won in the East so that wouldn't happen.
Lee and Davis decided on a second grand offensive into Union territory designed to smash the Army of the Potomac once and for all. Lee's first invasion of the North had been initially successful, though the chance discovery of Lee's battle orders by Union troops had led to defeat in the Battle of Antietam in September 1862.
The Confederates hoped the new offensive could succeed in destroying the Union army and offer an open road to capturing Washington and other northern cities. They then could hold the cities hostage in exchange for a peace treaty recognizing Confederate independence.
In early June, the Army of Northern Virginia invaded the North with roughly 72,000 men and soon engaged in a game of cat and mouse with the Army of the Potomac, now numbering roughly 90,000 troops. Though Lee's strategy was offensive, he favored a tactical defense.
Lee's hope was to locate the Army of the Potomac, position himself on favorable ground and let the Union army come to him, where he could destroy it from prepared positions. Such had been his victorious tactics at Fredericksburg. Moving through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, the two armies danced and maneuvered for position. Interestingly, by late June the Confederate army sat much farther north in Pennsylvania, while the Army of the Potomac raced to meet it from the south.
All was not well in the Union camp, however. Lincoln, having perpetual bad luck with his Potomac Army commanders and fearing Hooker was repeating the mistakes of the bumbling George McClellan, fired the general on June 28.
Lincoln's first choice for a replacement was the able corps commander John F. Reynolds, who politely declined, citing his inexperience with the politics of army-level command. Lincoln then turned to another proven corps commander, George G. Meade.
In “Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era,” historian James M. McPherson wrote about this choice: “Although Meade had worked his way up from brigade to corps command with a good combat record, he was an unknown quantity to men outside his corps. By now, though, their training in the school of hard knocks under fumbling leaders had toughened the soldiers to a flinty self-reliance that left many of them indifferent to the identity of their commander.”
While on the move, armies were generally not concentrated to give battle. Instead, they lay strung out over many miles over different roads. Before the invention of the airplane in the 20th century, cavalry was the essential reconnaissance unit. Lee's cavalry commander, J.E.B. Stuart, had foolishly lost contact with Lee's headquarters, essentially leaving it blind to the opposing army's movements.
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.
In his book “Gettysburg,” historian Stephen W. Sears wrote: “By the best estimate, better than half of the 13,000 Confederates who made Pickett's Charge were casualties — 6,600. And just over half that number, 3,350 (wounded and unwounded), became prisoners of the Yankees. The count of the dead came to some 1,190. Thus 35 percent of the men who made the charge were immediately removed from the Confederate rolls through death or capture.”
It was a loss the Army of Northern Virginia could not sustain. Seeing the devastation to his army, Lee realized that further attacks were useless and ordered his men to retreat back into Virginia. Though Meade entertained the idea of pursuit and counterattack, his forces were too spent after the hard-fought battle, and the Army of Northern Virginia was allowed to escape and fight again another day.
The Battle of Gettysburg saw each side suffer roughly 23,000 casualties (killed, captured and wounded), making it the war's most destructive battle. The next day, July 4, as Lee's army hastily retreated southward, Grant took Vicksburg on the Mississippi River. The twin victories at Gettysburg and Vicksburg ensured that the Confederacy's days were numbered. Never again would the Army of Northern Virginia invade the north, and, indeed, it spent the rest of the war on the defensive.
After the defeats that summer, the Confederate strategy shifted from one of seeking a decisive military victory (which its army could at that point no longer produce) to one of wearing down the enemy — of making the war so costly for the Union that the Northern peace party would elect a president in the fall of 1864 who would end the war and grant Confederate independence. It was not to be.
Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages, including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
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