In July of 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Army Of Northern Virginia of 75,000 men and the 97,000 man Union Army Of The Potomac under General George G. Meade met, by chance, when a Confederate brigade sent forward for supplies observed a forward column of Meade’s cavalry.
Of the more than 2,000 land engagements of the Civil War, Gettysburg ranks supreme. Although the Battle of Gettysburg did not end the war, nor did it attain any major war aim for the North or the South, it remains the great battle of the war.
Here at Gettysburg on July 1, 2, and 3, 1863, more men actually fought and more men died than in any other battle before or since on North American soil.
In June, Robert E. Lee decided to take the war north. He planned to destroy the railroad bridge at Harrisburg, then “turn my attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Washington as may seem best for our interest.” After the long march north, Confederate troops were spreadfrom Chambersburg, through Carlisle, and into York. Towns across southern Pennsylvania were being “explored” for much needed supplies to continue the Southern offensive. While looking in Gettysburg, Pettigrew’s brigade spotted Buford’s cavalry on a ridge a mile west of town.
The Battle of Gettysburg began on July 1 with Confederate troops attacking that Union cavalry division on McPherson Ridge, west of town. Out-numbered, the Union forces managed to hold, and even drive the Confederate army back, after the addition of John Reynold’s Infantry division (and Reynold’s subsequent death on the front lines). They prevailed until afternoon, when they were overpowered by additional southern troops, and driven back through town. In the confusion, thousands of Union soldiers were captured before they could rally on Cemetery Hill, south of town. Long into the night Union troops labored over their defenses while the bulk of Meade’s army arrived and took positions.
On July 2, the battle lines were drawn up in two sweeping arcs. The main portions of both armies were nearly a mile apart on two parallel ridges; Union forces on Cemetery Ridge in the famous “fish hook”, facing Confederate forces on Seminary Ridge to the west. Lee ordered an attack against both Union flanks.
On the south, James Longstreet’s thrust on the Union left broke through D.E. Sickles’ advance lines at the Peach Orchard, left the Wheatfield and Plum Run (now known as Bloody Run) strewn with dead and wounded, and turned the rocky area called the “Devils Den”, at the base of Little Round Top, into a shambles. Only a very observant General G. K. Warren saved Little Round Top for the Union, when he saw that the strategic hill was unmanned.
To the north, R. S. Ewell’s attack ultimately proved futile against the entrenched Union right on East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill, even though they were able to take possession of the southern slope of Culp’s Hill on one occasion. The frequent lack of effective communication would prove the downfall of the Confederacy this day. If they had only known that they were only a few hundred yards away from taking the Unions supply trains…if only Rodes had moved through the streets of Gettysburg to aid in the attack on Cemetery Hill…
On July 3, Lee decided to press the attack to the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. At 1 in the afternoon, the southern artillery opened a bombardment that for a time engaged the massed guns of both sides in a thundering duel for supremacy, but did little to soften up the Union battle lines.
Then came the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg…with a salute from Longstreet, General George E. Pickett, in a desperate attempt to recapture the partial success of the preceding day, spearheaded one of the most incredible efforts in military history…a massed infantry assault of 15,000 Confederate troops across the open field toward the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. One mile they marched, while being pounded by artillery and rifle fire. Through it all, Pickett’s men reached but failed to break the Union line, and the magnificent effort ended in disaster. The tide of the Confederacy had “swept to its crest, paused, and receded.” In 50 minutes, 10,000 in the assault had become casualties, and the attack – forever to be known as Pickett’s Charge – was now history.
With the failure of Pickett’s Charge, the battle was over – the Union was saved. Lee’s retreat began on the afternoon of July 4. Behind him, this small town of only 2,400 was left with a total (from both sides) of over 51,000 casualties. Over 172,000 men and 634 cannon had been positioned in an area encompassing 25 square miles. Additionally, an estimated 569 tons of ammunition was expended and, when the battle had ended, 5,000 dead horses and the other wreckage of war presented a scene of terrible devastation.
The Confederate army that staggered back from the fight at Gettysburg was physically and spiritually exhausted. Lee would never again attempt an offensive operation of such proportions. Meade, though he was criticized for not immediately pursuing Lee’s army, had carried the day in the battle that has become known as the High Water Mark of the Confederacy.
The war was to rage for two more terrible and tormenting years but the Confederacy never recovered from the losses of Gettysburg. And through the deepening twilight of Confederate military might, all who had been to Gettysburg would remember.