Copyright © 2009 by Ralph Couey
Between July 1 and July 3, 1863, the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania was the scene of what many historians call the pivotal battle, and the turning point of the Civil War. On this ground, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under the command of the legendary Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac, under the command of General George Meade, met in a bloody fight, the result of which changed history. After three days of unremitting bloodshed, the two armies quit the field, having lost some 57,000 of their comrades dead, wounded, and missing. It was a battle characterized by bad strategy and stubborn leadership at the top, indescribable heroism in the ranks, and unbelievable luck and timing.
The battle was framed by events in the spring of that year. In May, Union and Confederate forces clashed at Chancellorsville, Virginia. The Confederates, as always, were outnumbered. Nevertheless, Lee divided his smaller force, sending Stonewall Jackson against the Union right flank. The Union 11th Corps under General Oliver Howard had been poorly deployed and were unprepared to meet an attack. The shocking appearance of the large Rebel force resulted in shock that quickly turned to widespread panic. They broke and ran. This attack sealed the victory for Lee. Unfortunately, even though they won the battle, the South lost General Jackson to friendly fire, as he was returning to his lines after reconnoitering the Union position. His eventual death from those wounds deprived Lee of a brilliantly aggressive battlefield commander, a loss that would prove pivotal at Gettysburg two months later. In a surprising move, Lee appointed J.E.B. Stuart, his brilliant and colorful cavalry commander to take command of Jackson's troops. Stuart proved his abilities as a professional soldier, performing brilliantly.
In June, Lee embarked on an invasion of the North. The Army of Northern Virginia marched through the Shenandoah Valley, using the Blue Ridge Mountains and Stuart's cavalry to shield their movements. Up to that point, the Union Army had proven to be slow to react and even slower to move. Lee counted on that temporary paralysis to allow him to advance unchallenged. By June 28, Lee’s forces were stretched out on a 55-mile arc from Chambersburg, PA to the outskirts of Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital, a line that roughly follows the modern route of I-81. On that day, however, Lee and his “Old Warhorse” James Longstreet, received information that not only was the Union Army on the move, but were perilously close. Considering his options, Lee looks at a map, and seeing a farm town with a large network of roads, issues orders for his Army to concentrate there. The town was Gettysburg.
On June 30, a Union cavalry force of 2,500 under General John Buford entered Gettysburg from the south. Buford’s scouts found signs of a strong force of 20,000 Confederate Infantry under Henry Heth, as well as other similarly strong units approaching the crossroads. Buford correctly surmised that Lee was concentrating his forces at Gettysburg.
Buford was a tremendous judge of the ground. Looking at the land, he realized that the ridge trailing south from the town itself, anchored by two round hills at one end and two smaller hills at the other represented the best place from which to fight the battle that was obviously imminent. He knew that if he kept the Confederates off that ridge, the Union could win. He sent immediate word to General John Reynolds, commanding the 1st Corps, the famous “Black Hats,” apprising him of the situation and urging that Reynolds advance on Gettysburg as soon as possible.
For a force of 2,500 to stand off an army of 20,000 on the surface would seem to be an impossible task. However, Buford had several things in his favor. He could place his small force on Herr’s Ridge, northwest of the town, and fall back to McPherson’s ridge, giving him two relatively defensible positions. He also knew that Heth would be advancing along a narrow road and would have to shift his forces from line of march into line of battle, a maneuver that would take time. Because of the nature of the road, Heth could not meet Buford on a wide front until he deployed. Buford also had the advantage of weaponry. The Union Brigadier had disposed of sabers, the traditional cavalry weapon, and replaced them with breech-loading carbines. He knew that the rate of fire of a musket, the standard weapon of the infantry was maybe two rounds per minute. His carbines could fire at a substantially higher rate, for some as high as 10 rounds per minute, effectively multiplying his small force. He also knew the quality of his men. Cavalry were considered the elite of the Army, and when led by intelligent and capable commanders, they fought like elite troops. With confidence, and hope, and told that Reynolds was on his way, Buford deployed his troopers and waited for Heth.
Meanwhile, flashy Jeb Stuart had embarked on what Longstreet disgustedly referred to as a “joy ride.” Once before, Stuart had taken his troopers on a wild ride, circling the entire Union Army and causing widespread panic. Stuart, always a lover of the spotlight, had now embarked on another such ride, acting on a very liberal interpretation of Lee’s orders. At one point, He captured a 120-wagon train of Union supplies, and always aware of the delicate nature of Rebel logistics, attempted to take the supplies back to Lee. But this event greatly slowed Stuart's movement. Cavalry are supposed to be fast, mobile, and a tool for gathering intelligence on enemy movements. With Stuart chained to this booty of supplies, he was unavailable for his primary role of scouting the Union movements. Thus, Lee approached this pivotal battle with no knowledge of the terrain over which he would have to fight, or the size and disposition of the force his soldiers would face.
The battle was joined around 7:30 the morning of July 1st, fought pretty much how John Buford expected. The Union troopers fought stubbornly, giving ground slowly. Heth, who commanded part of the forces that had belonged to Jackson, proved to be hesitant and unsure. Despite heavy casualties, Buford continued to hold the line, now along McPherson’s ridge until Reynolds’ 1st corps began to arrive around 10:30. Unfortunately, as Reynolds was directing the last of his troops into battle, he was shot and killed by a Confederate sniper. Abner Doubleday took command of 1st Corps.
Troops of both armies continued to stream towards the battlefield. About 11 a.m., General Howard’s maligned 11th Corps arrived and took up position on Doubleday’s right, due north of the town. About two o’clock, General Richard Ewell, who commanded the other half of Jackson’s old Corps, attacked from due north. About 3, General Robert Rhodes, commanding the largest force on either side that day, attacked. A little while later, General Jubal Early hit the 11th Corps from the northeast, coming in almost behind Howard’s line. Assailed on three sides, the 11th Corps as they did at Chancellorsville, broke and ran, falling back through Gettysburg. This collapse left Doubleday naked on his right flank, forcing him to fall back as well. These troops passed through town and anchored themselves on two hills, Cemetary Hill and Culp’s Hill.
At this point in the battle came one of those make-or-break moments that occur in every fight. The Confederates were at the closest they would ever be to winning this battle. General Ewell stopped at the base of Cemetary Hill. Lee, ever the gentleman, ordered Ewell to take the hill…if practicable. Ewell was a good commander, but he was no Stonewall Jackson. Jackson, or even Stuart would have ordered those troops up and over the hill without hesitation, knowing that if he occupied that hill and brought up artillery, the Union would find no sanctuary along the ridge. They would have to pull out of Gettysburg altogether. But Ewell, knowing his troops had fought hard all day, declined the option. And that night, Union troops dug in, reinforced, and held. Ewell's decision, and apparent paralysis, frustrated General Trimble to the point where he threw his sword on the ground at the feet of General Ewell.
Late in the afternoon, General Winfield Hancock arrived, sent by Meade to take command of the battle after hearing of Reynolds’ death. There was some conflict, however. Howard, already on the field, was senior to Hancock and at one point refused to surrender his command, despite the orders of his superior, Meade. The orders were confirmed by Meade when he arrived late that night, leaving Howard angry and insulted.
Troops continued to arrive. On the Union side, three more Corps arrived and on the Confederate, the entire strength of the Army of Northern Virginia was gathered, save the divisions of George Pickett and Evander Law, who were still on the road. By morning, the Union Army was dug in, in a position resembling a giant fishhook. They held both hills in the north, and the entire ridge down to the two Roundtops in the south. There, they should have been unassailable. But the commander of the Union 3rd Corps, a highly ambitious New York City politician named Sickles, felt that his assigned position along the ridge was not good enough. So without notifying Meade, he took his entire force down off the ridge to a smaller ridge that terminated in a field of boulders called Devil’s Den. This meant that the left flank, which should have been anchored by two steep hills, was in the air.
Lee ordered two flanking attacks, on the two hills in the north, and on the southern end of the Union line. Longstreet, commanding the southern effort, took his force on a roundabout path, which although long, was out of sight of Union lookouts. Late in the afternoon, he commenced his attack, realizing almost immediately that Sickles’s position was vulnerable. About this time, Meade found out about his subordinate’s shift and angrily ordered Sickles back on the ridge. By that time, however, it was too late. Longstreet had turned the flank of the 3rd Corps.
General Gouvenor Warren, Meade’s Chief Engineer, climbed up the hill called Little Roundtop and discovered two things. (1) The hill commanded the entire battlefield, and (2) there was nobody up there. He saw Longstreet’s troops on the move and sent urgent messages out to any unit that could fill that gap. This commenced the most frantic action of the battle. Union troops rushed up the hill, often times meeting Confederate soldiers head-on, as both bodies arrived at the crest simultaneously. The 1st Minnesota hit their line at the same moment as the Confederate troops, but managed after violent fighting to push the Rebels back. The Minnesotans sent 330 brave men into the fight. 220 were lost. The 44th New York shared a similar success, and fate just to their south.
At the absolute southern end of the Union line, Colonel Strong Vincent placed three regiments, the 140th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the 20th Maine. To the commander of the Maine regiment, Vincent had special instructions. They were the end of the Union line. They had to hold at all costs, because if they fell back, the Rebels would be able to sweep around the hills and take the Army of the Potomac from the rear. The 20th Maine’s commander, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, had been a professor at Bowdoin College in Brunswick. He had volunteered his services to the Governor, and was appointed a Lieutenant Colonel, and executive officer of the newly-raised regiment. Chamberlain had never been a soldier before, but he was highly intelligent (he spoke 5 languages fluently), disciplined, and confident of his abilities. He learned quickly, and had distinguished himself in action to the point where when the 20th’s commander Adlebert Ames was promoted to brigade command, Chamberlain was given command of the 20th Maine.
Fortunately on this day, Chamberlain had a little time to place his vastly outnumbered troops, construct breastworks, and consider his options before the Rebels attacked. Facing him were three regiments from Alabama and Texas, who had marched for 30 straight hours in the heat before arriving, and were sent into battle without even taking time to fill canteens. Nevertheless, these remarkable men made 6 separate charges up that hill, almost taking the position. The Maine troops responded with fire that the Rebel commander described as “the heaviest and most accurate of any I faced throughout the war.” The fighting was fierce, and casualties were heavy on both sides. Sometimes, as Chamberlain later recalled, the troops of both sides were intermingled so completely that he could not tell where on line ended and the other began.
As he saw the Rebels continuing to move to the left, Chamberlain thinned out his remaining force and refused his line, bending it back 90 degrees. As the Rebels continued to storm the flank, that L bent back into a V. At this point, the Maine soldiers reported that they were out of ammunition. Knowing that his troops could not withstand another attack, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge down the hill, catching the exhausted southerners as they were starting up the hill yet again. The charge broke the rebel line and not only cleared Chamberlain’s front, but the attackers all along that part of the line. After hours of vicious fighting, the Confederate attack had been beaten back. At the end of the day, the Union still held Cemetary Ridge.
That night, the two exhausted Armies rested, except in the north where the action around Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill continued.
The next day, Lee decided to alter his tactics. Instead of hitting the flanks, he would concentrate his remaining force, reinforced now by the arrival of Pickett’s and Law’s divisions, and attack the Union center, the target being a “clump of trees” that stood along Cemetery Ridge. The attack was preceded by a massive bombardment by Confederate artillery, the aim of which was to blast a hole in the center of the Union line and also drive off or destroy the Union artillery. Unfortunately, Rebel gunners almost always overshot their targets, and instead of hitting the dug-in Union infantry, the shells fell mostly in the Union rear, unfortunately in some cases among the wounded. Yankee guns replied in kind and after two hours, they had accomplished little other than producing a roar that some say was heard as far away as Pittsburgh and Harrisburg.
Longstreet, painfully aware of the slaughter that was sure to follow, could only nod when Pickett asked permission to move forward. Soon after, 12,000 Rebel troops in a line a mile long, stepped out from the trees and marched up the hill.
By any reasonable expectation, this action, known as Pickett’s Charge, was doomed from the start. The Union was dug in securely all along the ridge, some soldiers behind a stone wall. Artillery was lined up in front of the Rebels and on either flank. The Rebels would have to march across a mile of open field into a blizzard of shot and shell, with no cover in sight.
The Rebel line was momentarily stalled while climbing the fences on either side of the Emmitsburg Road, but once moving again, was ripped by canister fire from the Union artillery. Hundreds of Southern troopers fell just crossing the mile of open field. Union soldiers watching from the ridge were awestruck by the Southerner’s discipline as they continued to march forward, despite the hail of lead.
In defiance of expectation and logic, Pickett’s men reached and stormed the Union lines, and for a few moments, almost carried the day. But Union reserves, intelligently fed into the lines by General Hancock, stopped the charge and sent the Rebels back across the field. This was the key to the action on that third day. Hancock had reserves. Lee had committed everything he had. Even though the Confederates had momentarily breached the Union defenses, there were no reserves to send to exploit that breach. Worn out by the charge, their ranks decimated by the Union fire, the attack ran out of steam, and the Confederate forces fell back.
As part of the attack, Stuart’s cavalry, having finally arrived, was sent around to the rear of the Union line to execute a pincer attack, coordinated with Pickett's Charge. But they were met head-on by Union cavalry led by, among others, one George Armstrong Custer. The Union force, although badly outnumbered, hit the Confederates hard, driving them back. Stuart’s attack failed.
The Civil War was fought not by strangers, but by friends and relatives. The divisiveness of the pre-war political issues had cleaved not only a nation, but families as well. Culp’s Hill was named for the Gettysburg family who owned it. One of their sons, who had taken up with the South, returned to his home that day, only to die on the hill that bore his family’s name. Among the Generals on that field were Louis Armistead and Winfield Hancock. The two had developed a close friendship before the war. They were as close as brothers, and both feared that moment when they might meet on the battlefield. On that last pre-war night in California before the soldiers split up to join their respective sides, Armistead grasped Hancock’s shoulders and exclaimed, “If I ever raise my sword against you, may God strike me dead!” God apparently was listening. Hancock was seriously wounded during the fight, and his friend "Lo" Armistead, leading the charge that nearly broke the Union line at the top of the ridge, was mortally wounded. The two fell literally within yards of each other.
The exhausted Rebels limped back to their line on Seminary Ridge, meeting General Lee on the way. The Old Man took responsibility for the defeat, crying, “It’s all my fault!” But despite the pounding they had just endured, the troops rallied around Lee, begging to reform and hit the Union line again. It was this remarkable spirit that had sustained the Confederate Army through the previous three years, and would sustain them again in the next two. Less inspiring was Lee’s encounter with Pickett. Lee, fearing a Union counterattack, ordered Pickett to reform his division in a defensive position. Pickett, in deep shock replied, “General Lee, I have no division.” Some 60% of his command had fallen. Pickett apparently never forgave his commanding general. Years later, after a reputedly icy meeting with Lee, General John Mosby reported that Pickett stated, “That old man destroyed my division.”
Thus the Battle of Gettysburg ended. Lee’s army had suffered its first major defeat, and was forced to withdraw to Virginia. Some historians insist, as did President Lincoln at the time, that Meade missed an opportunity to end the war. Lee began his retreat towards the Potomac but despite strong entreaties from Lincoln, the Union army was sluggish to move. Some soldiers did try to engage Lee's force, but were fended off in a series of skirmishes by Stuart's cavalry. In all fairness, they had just been through the biggest and bloodiest fight of the entire war and were beyond exhaustion. Yes, they had won the battle, but had suffered huge casualties as well. In addition, the days following the battle were marked by torrential rains, which would have made movement difficult. But if Meade could have swung around and trapped Lee’s force on the north side of the river, he could have destroyed them. Such a defeat coupled with Grant’s victory at Vicksburg in Mississippi that same week, would have forced Jefferson Davis to accept defeat. But Lee got his forces back across the river intact, and thus the war continued for two more bloody years.
Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg ended any further action in the north, and irrevocably changed the path of events. A Rebel victory at Gettysburg would have left Washington essentially defenseless, and with a congress full of political cowards, it is possible that Lincoln would have been impeached and replaced by a leader anxious to arrive at an agreement that would have left the Confederacy intact. America would have been two separate countries, and history changed forever. There would have been no “arsenal of democracy” to challenge Hitler and Tojo, and no strong force to contain and eventually defeat the Soviet Union. It is frightening to contemplate the fate of the world in the hundred years after Gettysburg without the powerful presence of an intact United States.
Four months later, on a blustery November day, Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg and delivered a powerful 2-minute speech that gave context and meaning to the terrible losses. The Gettysburg Address has been memorialized as the greatest Presidential speech in American history. His words, simple, direct, and poignant, still resonate powerfully today:
“Four score and seven years ago, our fathers brought forth upon this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives so that this nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we do this.
But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate;
We cannot consecrate;
We cannot hallow this ground.
The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.
The world will little note nor long remember what we say here.
But it can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather, to be dedicated
to that great task remaining before us.
That from these honored dead, we take increased devotion
to that cause for which they gave,
The last full measure of devotion.
That we , here, highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain.
And that this government, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.
And that government, of the people, by the people, and for the people
Shall not perish from the earth.”
Today, the battlefield is a national park, preserving the memory of three costly days that decided the fate of our country, and quite possibly, the world. Countless words have been spoken and written about the battle since, but no words speak more clearly to the legacy of the battlefield, the men that fought and died, and the cause that fueled their sacrifice than these from Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain:
“Heroism is latent in every human soul, however humble or unknown.
In great deeds, something abides. On great fields, something stays.
Spirits linger to consecrate the ground.
And reverent men and women from afar;
And generations that know us not,
shall come to this field to ponder and dream;
and the power of the vision will pass into their souls."