Gettysburg, Battle of

views updated May 23 2018

Gettysburg, Battle of (1863).One of the most decisive battles of the Civil War raged from July 1–3 1863 at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. General Robert E. Lee decided to invade Pennsylvania and threaten Harrisburg, Baltimore, and Washington, not only to carry the war to the enemy but also to relieve the pressure on the siege of Vicksburg. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000 strong, crossed the Potomac in June and the Union Army of the Potomac, 88,000 strong, moved to stay between the Rebels and Washington. Command of the Union army had been given to Gen. George Gordon Meade on June 28 and he determined to find and fight Lee.

Union and Confederate troops met each other near Gettysburg. Rebels were looking for shoes and other supplies; Yanks were looking for Rebs. Fighting erupted near Gettysburg early on 1 July as outnumbered Union cavalry under John Buford skirmished with Rebel infantry. Reinforcements came to both sides, but by afternoon, Union Maj. Gen. John Reynolds had been killed and Federal troops retired southeastward from the town to Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge. Lee arrived and vainly urged Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to attack Cemetery Hill. This wasted chance gave Meade time to get his army set in a fish‐hook line, with his right anchored on Culp's Hill, the center on Cemetery Ridge and the left on a hill later called Little Round Top. Lee's men deployed during the night along the lower Seminary Ridge to the west. The first day went to the Rebels, but at high human cost.

Daylight on 2 July showed the two armies formed, with open country yawning between the lines. The initiative was with Lee, who ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet's Corps to attack the Union left while Ewell's corps struck the Union right at Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge.

Lee's orders were delayed and compliance lagged (the source of much controversy later); Longstreet, Lee's “Warhorse,” opposed the plan (he thought the Confederate army should move south, get between Meade and Washington, pick a good defensive spot and receive attack); troops were shifted, time passed.

While the Confederates were shuffling their plans, Union III Corps commander Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles, worried about being flanked, initiated an advance into the Peace Orchard, Devil's Den, almost to the Emmitsburg Road between the two forces—and, hence, offered a weak salient to the enemy.

The whole Union line depended on the left flank position at Little Round Top—a fact noticed by Meade's chief engineer, Maj. Gen. G. K. Warren, who was horrified to see that hill unoccupied. Warren saved the day by pulling in brigades and batteries just as Longstreet's men charged Little and Big Round Top and nearly took the high ground. The Twentieth Maine, under Col. Joshua Chamberlain, held out against furious Confederate attacks and saved the flank. Longstreet's efforts against the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den, the lower slopes of the Round Tops and on to the Emmitsburg road were successful and Sickles finally retreated to Cemetery Ridge.

About dusk, too late to help Longstreet, Maj. Gen. Jubal A. Early, of Ewell's corps, fiercely attacked the Union right at East Cemetery Hill and nearly took the crest. No help came to Early and he abandoned the hill at about 10 P.M. A similar fate, at roughly the same time, met Maj. Gen. Edward Johnson's energetic divisional drive against Yankee positions on Culp's Hill.

Fighting on 2 July went to neither side but casualties were high and controversies were brewing: Longstreet's efforts were slow, Lee's attacks uncoordinated; Sickles had blundered and the Union high command had nearly missed the importance of Little Round Top.

Meade, steady in crisis, suffered uncertainty as night fell on 2 July. His left and right had held. Would Lee try them again or switch to the center? Or would the wily Rebel leader simply slip away and appear somewhere closer to Harrisburg or Washington? Calling his corps commanders together after midnight, Meade discussed possibilities. Unlike his predecessors, Meade did not urge retreat; instead he decided to wait for Lee's next move. He expected a strong Rebel attack on his center and ordered men and artillery there from the flanks. Union morale remained high.

Lee was not well. Stomach trouble plagued him and he had chest problems. Illness, and Gen. J.E.B. ( “Jeb”) Stuart's absence on a wagon hunting raid with most of the cavalry, edged Lee's temper and subordinates noted him unusually touchy that night. By morning his temper was shorter. He had decided to test the Union center, since the flanks were strong. This decision irked Longstreet, who felt the center would be tougher than the rest of the line. Why hit the one untouched Union position on the field? Why a frontal attack against so many visible enemy guns? Unmoved, Lee ordered Maj. Gen. George Pickett's division of Longstreet's corps, with some of Gen. A. P. Hill's units, to attack on 3 July.

On the third day, Confederates who participated in “Pickett's Charge” and lived to tell about it, recalled that 143 Southern guns bristled in the lines and that the sun etched things sharply. It was a strange kind of day, one fragmented by small memories. Men noted the flights of birds, some listened to a band, many lay on soft ground and waited as Federal shells probed the trees on Seminary Ridge, and many of them died. One, a sergeant in Company A, 14th Tennessee, could hear, years later, the things he said to himself. June Kimble was his name, his was a center regiment, and he was curious. In a lull after a morning shelling he walked to the fringe of the woods and looked at the place his men would go. Guns crowning the Federal hills, the little clump of trees that fixed so many an eye that day, the low stone wall thronging with bluecoats—the whole position lay shimmering far away across almost a mile of open, rolling land. There, up there, into that line of black guns behind the low stone wall, there his men would go. Kimble was scared, almost sick at the sight, and began mumbling to himself: “June Kimble, are you going to do your duty today?” And he answered, “I’ll do it, so help me God.”

Confederate artillery started a thunderous and wasteful artillery duel in the early afternoon that lasted almost two hours. Union fire slacked off—both to conserve shells and to fool the Rebels into thinking that the Southern guns commanded the field. During a lull in the bombardment a grandly mounted General Pickett scratched a brief note to his fiancee, talked briefly to Longstreet, then rode to one of gallantry's last great gestures.

Confederates came out of the woods at about 3:15 P.M. Yankees counted many battle flags; and noted the formation was trim as the enemy march began slowly, to allow for distance and rising ground. Some direction changes were accomplished by the 12,000 to 15,000 Southerners marching. Silence. Union gunners waited. Steadily the “Johnny Rebs” marched, lines dressed and closing. Across a small stream they went, through a fence, then straight up the hill toward the trees, the guns, the infantry. Men remembered how it was on the way; to some the silence crowned the world, then broke in a clap so awful it was more than sound, in a roar so angry it was tangible, in an endless crack of doom. Union shells raked lines, cut gaps in ranks; the gaps closed, the lines moved on, faster; men leaned forward against some great wind that winnowed them, bunching as Yankee batteries ate away the flanks. Then they ran, crouched, flags waving as they began their “Rebel yell.” Some stopped to fire near the wall at the little clump of trees, took a withering volley right in the face, recoiled, went on and carried the wall. Then the charge faded in carnage. “Men fire into each other's faces,” a witness wrote. “There are bayonet‐thrusts, sabre‐strokes, pistol shots; … men … spinning around like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling, legless, armless, headless … ghastly heaps of dead men…” A handful, maybe 300, rode the Southern tide to its height; most of them died in an angle by the clump of trees, including Confederate Gen. Lewis A. Armistead.

Back down the slope scarcely 5,000 survivors fled, razed and raked and maimed again. Many heard Lee greet them. “All this is my fault. Too bad! Too bad! Oh, TOO BAD!”

Meade wasted a chance to counterattack, and two days later on a rainy night, Lee began a woeful journey back to Virginia with a wounded column seven miles long.

An incredulous President Abraham Lincoln fumed that Lee's army had escaped. “We had them within our grasp,” he lamented. “We had only to stretch forth our hands and they were ours.” He blamed Meade's excessive caution. Although Meade had a fresh corps available for pursuit, his caution came from his own casualties as well as appreciation of local conditions. More than 3,155 bluecoats were dead, 14,529 wounded and 5,365 missing—a total of 23,049, about a quarter of Meade's force. More than 2,500 Rebels were dead, nearly 13,000 wounded and almost 5,500 missing—some 21,000, or nearly a third of Lee's army, along with 25,000 weapons. Lee's men reached Virginia on 13 July.

Lincoln's anguish was understandable. Vicksburg, the main Rebel bastion on the Mississippi, fell on 4 July, and had Meade destroyed Lee's army, the twin victories might have ended the war.

Gettysburg nonetheless stands as America's greatest battle; it stopped further Confederate invasions, and the South could never make up the losses in men and equipment. The tide of the war had changed.
[See also Civil War: Military and Diplomatic Course; Gettysburg National Military Park.]


George R. Stewart , Pickett's Charge: A Microhistory of the Final Attack at Gettysburg, July 3, 1863, 1959.
Edwin B. Coddington , The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command, 1968.
Michael Shaara , The Killer Angels: A Novel, 1974.
Harry W. Pfanz , Gettysburg: The Second Day, 1987.
Alice Rains Trulock , In the Hands of Providence: Joshua L. Chamberlain and the American Civil War, 1992.
Harry W. Pfanz , Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill, 1993.
Richard Rollins, ed., Picketts Charge: Eyewitness Accounts, 1994.
Carol Reardon , Pickett's Charge in History and Memory, 1997.
Gabor S. Boritt, ed., The Gettysburg Nobody Knows, 1997.

Frank E. Vandiver

Gettysburg, Battle of

views updated Jun 27 2018


GETTYSBURG, BATTLE OF (13 July 1863), was the culmination of the Confederate invasion of Pennsylvania. The Confederate losses sustained at Gettysburg signified an end to the offensive capabilities of General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia. The battle also forecast Southern defeat in the war, though it did not necessarily guarantee it.

Lee launched an invasion of Pennsylvania in the first week of June 1863. He hoped to relieve Virginia farmers of the burden of war and allow them to harvest crops for the Confederacy without interference. He also hoped to disrupt Union operations on the coasts of Virginia and North Carolina by forcing the Union to withdraw troops from those areas to protect Pennsylvania and the capital of Washington, D. C. Lee also hoped to encourage European intervention on the Confederacy's behalf while simultaneously encouraging the growing peace movement in the North. Lee's army was cut off from its Virginia supply base for the entire invasion but fared well, carrying all the ammunition it needed and living off the land of Pennsylvania. Major General Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, slowly followed Lee into Pennsylvania but did not engage him in combat. On 28 June, President Abraham Lincoln replaced Hooker with Major General George G. Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade's force numbered 85,000, while Lee commanded 65,000.

On the morning of 1 July, Major General Henry Heath's division from Lieutenant General A. P. Hill's Confederate corps descended upon Gettysburg looking for shoes. Gettysburg was a prosperous town serviced by twelve roads from every direction. There the Confederates encountered the Union cavalry division of Brigadier General John Buford. Armed with breech-loading carbines, Buford's division held off Hill's superior numbers until Major General John Reynolds's I Corps arrived to drive back the Confederate assault. Lieutenant General Richard Ewell's Confederate corps arrived to push Major General Oliver O. Howard's XI Corps back to a weakened position on Cemetery Hill. Lee advised Ewell to take the high ground of Cemetery Hill "if practicable." Ewell, new to corps command and unused to the discretionary orders given by Lee, felt the position too strong to attack. Union reinforcements quickly arrived to secure a formidable position upon the high ground for the Army of the Potomac.

Eastward and parallel to Cemetery Hill ran Cemetery Ridge, about 1,300 yards across the Emmitsburg Road. The ridge turned eastward at Cemetery Hill toward another summit, Culp's Hill. The Union laid out a defensive line around Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill and extending two miles south along Cemetery Ridge to a point known as Little Round Top. The Union line was not complete by the evening of 1 July, and Lee wanted to attack it on the morning of 2 July. He assigned the assault to the corps of his senior commander, Lieutenant General James Longstreet. Longstreet believed the Union position was too formidable and argued that the Confederates should turn Meade's south flank and assume a defensive position. This would force Meade to attack the Army of Northern Virginia on ground of Confederate choosing. Lee insisted on attacking the Union left holding the southern end of Cemetery Ridge.

Longstreet did not get his troops into position until 4: 00 p. m. on the afternoon of 2 July, though Lee planned

the assault for the early morning. Longstreet had good reason for the delay. His men had marched all night to reach Gettysburg, then they were forced to take a roundabout way to their attack position because Lee's guide originally led them to a road within sight of a Union signal post on Little Round Top. Historians have also speculated that Lee chafed Longstreet by rejecting his flanking plan, and the corps commander did not approach the attack with the necessary enthusiasm. Whatever the real reason behind Longstreet's delay, the general became a postwar scapegoat for the Confederate failure at Gettysburg. Southerners accused Longstreet of disobeying the infallible Lee and thus losing not only the battle but also the entire war.

When Longstreet launched his attack on the afternoon of 2 July, he ran into the Union III Corps of Major General Daniel Sickles, who had moved his troops into an unauthorized salient position in a peach orchard. Some of the war's bloodiest fighting occurred in the peach orchard, in an adjoining wheat field to the east, and in a network of boulders known as Devil's Den. Longstreet knocked holes in Sickles's line, but Meade rushed reinforcements to plug the gaps. Big and Little Round Top were unoccupied at the opening of the assault and would have given Confederate artillery control of the battlefield, but Meade's chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren, rushed a brigade to secure this vital high ground. The

Twentieth Maine, led by Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, valiantly repulsed a Confederate assault despite being out of ammunition. This prevented Longstreet from turning the Army of the Potomac's left. Longstreet's only gain of the day was to drive Sickles back from his salient. On the Union right, Ewell captured Culp's Hill during a diversionary attack that turned into a full-blown assault. However, the Union line was too strong for him to go any farther.

Both sides suffered the heaviest losses of the battle on the second day. Despite this, Lee believed his assaults on both of Meade's flanks on 2 July had weakened his center, and Lee resolved that an attack on the Union center at Cemetery Ridge would break their line. Lee opened 3 July with a renewed attack by Ewell's corps on the Union right that was repulsed after hard fighting. Lee ordered Longstreet to attack the Union center with the divisions of George E. Pickett, James J. Pettigrew, and Isaac Trimble. Numbering 14,000 men, these divisions were to advance three-quarters of a mile across an open field and attack entrenched infantry supported by heavy artillery. To precede the charge, Longstreet ordered 150 pieces of artillery to bombard the Union lines for two hours, the largest Confederate artillery barrage of the war. However, the Confederate artillery was aimed too high and did little damage to the Union line.

With Pickett's men in the center, the three divisions at 3: 00 p. m. began the advance to Cemetery Ridge that became known as Pickett's Charge. The Union defenders, under Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, mercilessly poured rifle and artillery fire into the hapless Confederates, who were easily repulsed. Fewer than half of the 14,000 men who made the charge returned. Pickett's division suffered the most, losing two-thirds of its men, all three brigade commanders, and all thirteen colonels to either death or wounds. A small group of soldiers under Brigadier General Lewis Armistead managed to briefly penetrate the Union line before all were killed, wounded, or captured. Armistead himself fell mortally wounded, with his hat on his sword and his hand on a Union cannon in a moment glorified in the postwar years as "the high-water mark of the Confederacy." Lee withdrew from the Gettysburg area on 4 July. A combination of heavy losses, rainstorms, and uncertainty about Lee's strength prevented Meade from counterattacking.

Abraham Lincoln and the Union government hoped Meade would attack Lee and destroy the weakened Army of Northern Virginia before it escaped Pennsylvania. After much delay, Meade prepared an attack on 13 July, but overestimates of enemy strength and false intelligence reports convinced him to hold off. Lee successfully retreated back across the Potomac to Virginia on 14 July.

The losses at Gettysburg were the greatest of any battle in the Civil War. The Union lost 23,049 men, while the Confederacy lost 28,063. The Confederate population was unable to withstand such heavy casualties, and Lee's army was never able to launch another offensive invasion of Union territory. The defeat at Gettysburg, coupled with the surrender of Vicksburg on 4 July, ended Confederate hopes of European intervention in the war. The Union victory also slowed the growth of the Copperhead peace movement in the North.


Gallagher, Gary W., ed. The First Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1992.

. The Second Day at Gettysburg: Essays on Confederate and Union Leadership. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1993.

. The Third Day at Gettysburg and Beyond. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1994.

Hattaway, Herman, and Archer Jones. How the North Won: A Military History of the Civil War. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1983.

McPherson, James M. Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

W. Scott Thomason

See also Civil War ; and picture (overleaf) .

Gettysburg, Battle of

views updated May 18 2018

Gettysburg, Battle of (1–3 July, 1863) Decisive campaign of the American Civil War, fought over three days near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Union army of George Gordon Meade checked the invasion of Pennsylvania by the Confederate forces of Robert E. Lee. The battle was a turning point. The heavy casualties (c.20,000 each side) prompted Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.