Battle of Gettysburg: Details

Setup - South

Robert E. Lee (Confederate) had established a reputation as an almost invincible general. Feeling confident, Lee decided to push north into Pennsylvania so his 72,000 man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington. A strong motivation for storming critical Union territory was to strengthen the growing peace movement amongst Northern residents. The peace movement would likely result in the secession of the South.

In mid-June a Southern Army crossed the Potomac River from Virginia (Southern Territory) into Maryland (Northern Territory) and continued through the Shenandoah Valley.

Setup - North

In an effort to intercept the Southerners moving into Harrisburg en route to Philadelphia President Lincoln had Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker move his army in pursuit and then relieved Hooker in favor of George G. Meade just three days before the battle. Hooker had suffered a stunning defeat to General Lee on May 6 at the Battle of Chancellorsville.

Battle Day 1

Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. Lee’s objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it.

Initially a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford defended low ridges to the NW of town, and was soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry.

However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the Union defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

Day 1 goes to the confederates.

Day 2

Most of both armies had assembled around Gettysburg.

In the late afternoon Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union’s left flank, and fierce fighting raged at (1) Little Round Top, (2) Wheatfield, (3) Devil’s Den, and the (4)Peach Orchard:

Little Round Top - the smaller of two rocky hills to the south (Note: not called Little Round Top at the time)

Col. Strong Vincent (Union) successfully defended Little Round Top.

The 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment, commanded by Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, fought the most famous engagement there, culminating in a dramatic downhill bayonet charge that is one of the most well-known actions at Gettysburg and in the American Civil War.

Confederate troops were ordered to take the hill. The men were exhausted, having marched more than 20 miles that day to reach this point. The day was hot and their canteens were empty; the order to move out reached them before they could refill their water.

On the final Union charge, knowing that the men were out of ammunition, that numbers were being depleted, and further knowing that another charge could not be repulsed, the Union ordered a maneuver that was considered unusual for the day: ordered his left flank, which had been pulled back, to advance with bayonets in a "right-wheel forward" maneuver. As soon as they were in line with the rest of the regiment, the remainder of the regiment charged, akin to a door swinging shut. This simultaneous frontal assault and flanking maneuver halted and captured a good portion of the Confederates.

The Wheatfield,

The fighting here, consisting of numerous confusing attacks and counterattacks over two hours by eleven brigades, earned the field the nickname "Bloody Wheatfield."

The Confederates had fought six brigades against 13 (somewhat smaller) Federal brigades, and of the 20,444 men engaged, about 30% were casualties. Some of the wounded managed to crawl to Plum Run but could not cross it. The river ran red with their blood.

A Union brigade was sent in to delay the Confederate assault, and they did this effectively in vicious hand-to-hand combat.

Devil's Den

Devil's Den was the southern end of Houck's Ridge, a modest elevation on the northwest side of Plum Run Valley, made distinctive by piles of huge boulders.

For over an hour both sides participated in a standup fight of unusual ferocity.

In the first 30 minutes, the 20th Indiana lost more than half of its men. Its colonel, John Wheeler, was killed and its lieutenant colonel wounded. The 86th New York also lost its commander. The commander of the 3rd Arkansas fell wounded, one of 182 casualties in his regiment.

Union leaders mounted their horses despite the protests of soldiers who urged them to lead more safely on foot. Maj. Cromwell said, "The men must see us today."

After a second wave assault Union General RĂ©gis de Trobriand wrote that the Confederates "converged on me like an avalanche, but we piled all the dead and wounded men in our front."

Three 10-pound Parrott rifles were lost to the Confederates, and they were used against Union troops the next day.

Confederate men spent the next 22 hours on Devil's Den, firing across the Valley of Death on Union troops massed on Little Round Top.

Assaults were classic, tough infantry fights. Of 2,423 Union troops engaged, there were 821 casualties (138 killed, 548 wounded, 135 missing); the 5,525 Confederates lost 1,814 (329, 1,107, 378).

Peach Orchard:

Someone unknown shouted a false command, and the attacking regiments turned to their right, toward the Wheatfield, which presented their left flank to the batteries. Kershaw later wrote, "Hundreds of the bravest and best men of Carolina fell, victims of this fatal blunder."

Gen. Barksdale (Confederate) led the charge on horseback, long hair flowing in the wind, sword waving in the air.

Sickles (Union General) insubordinately moved his III Corps to a position in which it was virtually destroyed, an action that continues to generate controversy.

The Union "retired by prolonge," a technique rarely used in which the cannon was dragged backwards as it fired rapidly, the movement aided by the gun's recoil.

Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood stood in his stirrups at the front of the Texas Brigade and shouted, "Fix bayonets, my brave Texans! Forward and take those heights!" Minutes later Hood was felled by an artillery shell bursting overhead, severely wounding his left arm and putting him out of action.

On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. All across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.

Battle Day 3

General Lee wished to renew the attack on Day 3 using the same basic plan as the previous day. However, before Confederates were ready, Union troops started a dawn artillery bombardment against the Confederates on Culp's Hill in an effort to regain a portion of the ground lost the day before. The Confederates attacked at 4 a.m., and the second fight for Culp's Hill ended around 11 a.m., after some seven hours of bitter combat.

On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp's Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south, but the main event was a dramatic infantry assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, known as Pickett's Charge. The charge was repulsed by Union rifle and artillery fire, at great losses to the Confederate army.

Around 1 p.m., from 150 to 170 Confederate guns began an artillery bombardment that was probably the largest of the war. In order to save valuable ammunition for the infantry attack that they knew would follow, the Union Army at first did not return the enemy's fire. After waiting about 15 minutes, about 80 Union cannons added to the noise. The Confederates were critically low on artillery ammunition, and the cannonade did not significantly affect the Union position. Around 3 p.m., the cannon fire subsided, and 12,500 Southern soldiers stepped from the ridgeline and advanced the three-quarters of a mile to Cemetery Ridge in what is known to history as "Pickett's Charge" This marked the "High-water mark of the Confederacy",

Pickett's Charge was an infantry assault ordered by Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee. Its futility was predicted by the charge's commander, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, and it was arguably an avoidable mistake from which the Southern war effort never fully recovered psychologically.

The Union opened fire on the Confederate infantry during their approach with devastating results. Nearly half of the attackers did not return to their own lines.

There were two significant cavalry engagements on Day 3.

Three miles east of Gettysburg, in what is now called "East Cavalry Field"

Confederate and Union cavalries engaged. A lengthy mounted (horseback) battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued.


Confederate Retreat

The armies stared at one another in a heavy rain across the bloody fields on July 4, the same day of the surrendered to Union Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant.

Both armies began to collect their remaining wounded and bury some of the dead. A proposal by Confederate Leader Robert E. Lee for a prisoner exchange was rejected.

Lee started his Army in motion late the evening of July 4.

Post Battle

The two armies suffered between 46,000 and 51,000 casualties. Union casualties were 23,055 (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured or missing), while Confederate casualties are more difficult to estimate. Many authors have referred to as many as 28,000 overall (Confederate) casualties, but Busey and Martin's more recent definitive 2005 work, Regimental Strengths and Losses, documents 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured or missing).

Nearly 8,000 had been killed outright; these bodies, lying in the hot summer sun, needed to be buried quickly. Over 3,000 horse carcasses were burned in a series of piles south of town; townsfolk became violently ill from the stench.

Although not seen as overwhelmingly significant at the time, particularly since the war continued for almost two years, in retrospect it has often been cited as the "turning point."

The news of the Union victory electrified the North. A headline in The Philadelphia Inquirer proclaimed "VICTORY! WATERLOOECLIPSED!" New York diarist George Templeton Strong wrote:

The results of this victory are priceless. ... The charm of Robert E. Lee's invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures. ...Copperheads are palsied and dumb for the moment at least. ... Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.

The Confederates had lost politically as well as militarily.

When the news reached London, any lingering hopes of European recognition of the Confederacy were finally abandoned.

That November, President Lincoln used the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his historic Gettysburg Address.

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