The Battle of Gettysburg


Gettysburg 150th Anniversary
[Editor’s note: today is the 150th anniversary of the dedication of the Gettysburg National Cemetery.]

Part one-Gettysburg: Day one

In the first week of July, tens of thousands of visitors descended on a small town in southwestern Pennsylvania known as Gettysburg. It was there 150 years ago that the most momentous battle in United States history was fought. Drawing well over one million visitors a year, Gettysburg is obviously familiar to many, but on the sesquicentennial of the battle, it is appropriate for all Americans to examine this event more deeply.

Perhaps the essential ability of a historian is imagination, for the greatest obstacle of understanding the past is being trapped in the present. In other words, we know that the South lost the battle and the war, that Gettysburg was the largest battle, that it was the last time Lee would invade the North, and that Lincoln would give the most important speech in the country’s history at the dedication of its cemetery. For over a century, textbooks have labeled it the turning point of the Civil War. Not surprisingly then, it is the most visited Civil War battleground. But, none of this was known to the participants at the time. To understand the battle from their perspective, one must imagine oneself back into their shoes. So, over the course of three columns, I invite you to visit the battlefield in your mind where 1863 is almost as accessible as 2013.

The summer of 1863 was a desperate time for the Union. Though two generals in the west, Ulysses S. Grant and William Tecumseh Sherman, were enjoying hard bought success by bottling up Vicksburg, Mississippi, they were still more famous for personal problems than military victories and sieges didn’t make for exciting headlines. Besides, “everyone” knew the war would be decided in the east and, in the east, things could hardly seem worse. A series of disastrous military defeats forced President Lincoln for the fourth time in seven months to appoint a new army commander. This time it went to George Meade whose own men derisively described as “a damned old goggle-eyed snapping turtle.”

In contrast, the South basked in the glory that was Robert E. Lee. Described as the best soldier and most handsome man in the entire United States Army before the war, Lee’s string of audacious military victories convinced many that Southern victory was at hand. In May of 1863, though Union Commander “Fighting Joe” Hooker had boasted that God would have to have mercy on General Lee for he would have none, Lee crushed Hooker’s army at Chancellorsville, Virginia, and then turned north seeking to end the war.

Nevertheless, clouds did loom for the South as well. Chancellorsville may have been Lee’s greatest victory, but it was undoubtedly his costliest. In the midst of victory, friendly fire slew the inestimable Stonewall Jackson, Lee’s “right hand.” But, marching with a seemingly invincible army and knowing Northern support of the war was waning fast, Lee hoped, and perhaps could expect, that one successful foray into the North would secure Southern independence.

Having crossed into Pennsylvania, the decisive battle ultimately came where no one expected or planned. Beginning as incidental contact from a Confederate search for shoes, even the battle’s geographical facts seem odd as the Union troops marched north and the Confederates south.

On the first official day of the battle, July 1, 1863, the typical pattern of Southern success and Northern frustration struck again. In the morning, the Union held the ground north and west of Gettysburg but by the end of the day, two Union corps had been shattered and driven back into defensive positions south and east of town. A rising star of the North, Major General John F. Reynolds lay dead on the field and the Union’s famed Iron Brigade had lost two-thirds of its men.

In contrast, though his personal health was failing, Lee had many reasons to feel confident regarding his victorious army. However, frustration undoubtedly marred his thoughts for “the eyes of the Confederacy” J.E.B. Stuart had failed to apprise him of the Union army’s strength and position. Furthermore, Lee missed Stonewall. His orders to Jackson’s replacements, Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill, had not been followed the way Jackson had always done. Ordering Ewell to take the high ground south of town if practicable, Ewell along with Hill decided it wasn’t.

And, all through the night, Northern troops prepared the ground to make the Rebels pay for that decision.

Part 2-Gettysburg: Day two

When dawn broke on July 2, 1863, the Union Army was dug-in south of Gettysburg over several miles in a large fishhook formation. The eye of the hook was on two stony hills known as Big and Little Round Top. The spine of the hook ran along the ominously named Cemetery Ridge while the curve was just south of town on Cemetery Hill. Finally, the hook turned east with the “point” on Culp’s Hill. Reinforcements had poured in through the night and while the Union had lost the first day, their defensive position was now fortified. They enjoyed interior lines and their numbers swelled past the Confederates.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was spread thin all along the Union’s hook in the north and west and on lower ground. Though also reinforced, Lee’s army was still left blind by J.E.B. Stuart, his celebrated cavalry commander. Lee’s “old warhorse” James Longstreet had arrived but was not raring to fight. While Lee devised aggressive plans of attack, Longstreet, who preferred defensive tactics, suggested disengagement. Seeing an opportunity to end the war, Lee instead ordered assaults all along the Federal line. The crux of the plan focused on enveloping the Union’s southern end – the eye of the hook – in order to flank the Union and roll up the entire army.

Initially, Southern chances of taking this high ground on the Union’s left flank were outstanding because Dan Sickles, the Union general assigned there, had inexplicably left it. Sickles, who earned the dubious distinction before the war for being the first person in American history to successfully use a temporary insanity plea to be acquitted for murder, had ignored a direct order from General Meade and moved his troops far in front of the rest of the Union lines. His insubordinate decision proved disastrous for his men, but may actually have blunted the initial Confederate advance. For his efforts, Sickles lost his right leg to a cannonball. The two of which he ultimately donated to a museum where he visited them on an annual basis.

Despite the initial abandonment of Little Round Top, Longstreet petulantly delayed his attack, which allowed the Union Army to reinforce. Ultimately, Longstreet’s assault, which Lee had ordered for the morning, did not commence until late in the afternoon. At this point, John Bell Hood, commander of the famed Texas Brigade, pleaded with Longstreet to allow his troops to go around the occupied hills to strike the Union’s rear. Longstreet refused and thereby Hood, under protest, charged his exhausted Texans and Alabamians into the “Devil’s Den,” a grouping of gigantic boulders below Little Round Top. Hit almost immediately with an artillery shell, this attack cost Hood permanently the use of his left arm and many of his men their lives.

The 20th Maine, led by a rhetoric and language professor of Bowdoin College, Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, now guarded the extreme Union left. Though not trained for the military, Chamberlain understood that if the Confederates overran him they would turn the Union flank. So, with his brother at his side, he steeled his men for the onslaught.

Enjoying the high ground, the 20th Maine valiantly defended Little Round Top as the Confederates charged again and again up the hill, each time nearly overtaking the line. With the Union’s ammunition supply spent, Chamberlain, in desperation, had his men fix bayonets and countercharge down the hill. Pulling off a rare textbook maneuver, Chamberlain’s “right wheel forward” sweep managed to capture the final Confederates on the hill, save the Union left, and perhaps the entire Union army.

All along the lines, nightfall eventually brought a small respite as both sides exhaustedly tended their wounded and waited for what further hell dawn would bring.

Part 3-Gettysburg: Day three

Robert E. Lee, who enjoyed tremendous success on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg and witnessed his troops almost attain complete victory on the second, concluded that triumph would be his on the third.

His plan for an all-out assault on the center of the Union’s line – the famed “Pickett’s Charge” – is well remembered, but what is frequently misunderstood is that assault was only part of his plan. Lee’s orders for the third day called for coordinated attacks on each flank, an artillery barrage of the center, a cavalry raid on the back of the Union line, and finally a march against the center. No part of his strategy went according to plan.

J.E.B. Stuart, who had finally arrived on the afternoon of the second day, was sent out with his cavalry to strike at the Union rear. Nothing came of these efforts as George Armstrong Custer quickly spotted Stuart and countered him with his Michigan Wolverines. At the point of the hook on the Union right, Northern troops struck the Confederates first by shelling them from high atop Culp’s Hill. By late morning, the Union had retaken ground lost on the second day and secured their right flank. Confederate efforts on the Union left amounted to little, as poor communication and spent troops precluded coordinated attacks. Smoke, angles, and glare made the effectiveness of Lee’s artillery barrage, one of the largest in the war, impossible to measure, but the blood of his troops would shortly confirm its futility.

Lee had brought the sulking Longstreet from the Confederate right to the center in order to have his First Corps lead the final assault. With him came George Pickett and his newly arrived Virginians. On their effort, the battle and perhaps war ultimately hinged.

Pickett’s men stepped out of the tree line just past 2 p.m. and headed for a copse of trees at the center of the Union lines. The ground seemed designed for defending. The nearly mile of ground they traversed sloped gently up to the Union artillery whose guns were measured and ready. As they marched under a withering cannonade, the Confederates met two fence rows that further broke up and slowed their progress. Still they came only to be met at Cemetery Ridge by Union troops nestled three and four rows deeps behind a stone wall. Once the Confederates were within range, the Yankees opened up with deadly rifled musket fire in their enemies’ face and flanks.

Some 13,000 men made that charge, but only a few hundred reached the top of the hill that they were unable to hold. Suffering a 50 percent casualty rate, the Confederates limped back to their lines as the Union soldiers let out an avenging cry of “Fredericksburg!” Lee rode out to meet his broken men and declared, “It is all my fault.”

The highpoint of the Confederacy, the closest the South came to winning its independence, had come and gone but tragically the war did not end. Meade opted not to follow up his third day victory by attacking on the fourth. Thereby, the Confederates retreated into Virginia and the war would go on for another year and a half at the cost of tens of thousands of American lives.

Debated now for 150 years, the meaning of the war will always be contested. But, looking back on this sweltering third day of July, perhaps the most valuable lesson is frequently missed. For easily lost among the armchair generals’ second guessing of battle tactics, and the young’s prideful proclamations of cowardice when students declare that “that was stupid” or “I wouldn’t have done that,” is an appreciation for what was truly on display – the human recognition that there are things in life worth dying for.

So, think back to the men willing to give the last full measure of their devotion and ask “for what or whom would I give my life?”

Then, be truly grateful for every item on your list.

[Editor’s note: this first appeared at]


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