The Battle of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (July 1–July 3, 1863), was the largest battle of the American Civil War as well as the largest battle ever fought in North America, involving around 85,000 men in the Union’s Army of the Potomac under Major General George Gordon Meade and approximately 75,000 in the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, commanded by General Robert Edward Lee. Casualties at Gettysburg totaled 23,049 for the Union (3,155 dead, 14,529 wounded, 5,365 missing). Confederate casualties were 28,063 (3,903 dead, 18,735 injured, and 5,425 missing), more than a third of Lee’s army.
These largely irreplaceable losses to the South’s largest army, combined with the Confederate surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4, marked what is widely regarded as a turning point—perhaps the turning point—in the Civil War, although the conflict would continue for nearly two more years and witness several more major battles, including Chickamauga, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Mononacy, Nashville, etc.
The Gettysburg Campaign
In the wake of Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia (May 1–4, 1863), Robert E. Lee decided to attempt a second invasion of the North. This would take pressure off Virginia’s farms during the growing season, especially in the “breadbasket of the Confederacy,” the Shenandoah Valley. Additionally, any victories won on Northern soil would put political pressure on Abraham Lincoln’s administration to negotiate a settlement to the war, or might lead to the South’s long hoped-for military alliance with England and France.
The campaign began under a dark shadow: Lee’s creative and aggressive corps commander, Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, had been mortally wounded by his own men at Chancellorsville. The Army of Northern Virginia reorganized from two corps to three, with Lt. Gen. Richard “Dick” Ewell replacing Jackson in the Second Corps and Lt. Gen. Ambrose Powell (A. P.) Hill commanding the newly formed Third Corps. Lieutenant General James Longstreet—Lee’s “Old War Horse”—retained command of the First Corps. The Army of Northern Virginia was about to invade enemy territory with two of its three corps commanders newly appointed to their positions, and the secretive, self-reliant Jackson had done little to prepare them for this level of command.
This would be Lee’s second incursion into the North. The previous one ended in the bloodiest single day in America’s history, the Battle of Antietam (called the Battle of Sharpsburg in the South) in Maryland on September 17, 1862. Total casualties from that one-day battle exceeded 23,000.
In order to mask the army’s movement up the Shenandoah Valley into western Maryland and central Pennsylvania, Lee depended upon his renowned cavalry leader J.E.B. “Jeb” Stuart. Upon crossing into Maryland, Stuart loosely interpreted Lee’s ambiguous orders and began raiding Union supply trains. Cut off by the advancing Army of the Potomac, from June 25 until the night of July 2, Stuart lost all communication with the rest of the Confederate army, leaving Lee to operate blindly deep in enemy territory.
Meanwhile, on the Union side, the Army of the Potomac was still under the command of General Joe Hooker, who had lost the Chancellorsville battle, diminishing his reputation as “Fighting Joe.” As reports arrived that the Confederates had crossed the Potomac and were on Northern soil, Hooker dispersed his army widely, trying to simultaneously protect the approaches to Washington, Philadelphia and Baltimore. He’d lost Lincoln’s confidence, and the president made the difficult choice to replace an army commander in the face of an enemy invasion. On June 28, a military engineer, Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade—who had only been promoted to corps command less than six months earlier—was placed in charge of the Union’s largest army. He immediately ordered his scattered corps to concentrate in a manner that would allow each to be quickly reinforced by another. He hoped to draw Lee into attacking him on high ground along Pipe Steam Creek.
As Meade’s corps moved closer to each other, Lee’s army was scattered, moving along multiple roads. He issued orders to his subordinates to not bring on a general engagement until the army could concentrate its forces. Fate had other plans.
Gettysburg, Day 1
Arriving in town on June 30th 1863, Union General John Buford was in command of two brigades of cavalry. These were the first Union troops to arrive at Gettysburg. Buford was never ordered to defend the town he did it on his own accord.
Dismounting his troops to fight on foot Buford set his men in a defensive position on McPherson’s Ridge. He knew his men were greatly outnumbered and could never repel a Confederate attack so his main goal was simply to be able to buy some time while waiting for the main body of the Union army to arrive.
The old story as to why the Confederates went to Gettysburg is that they went in search of shoes of all things. This story is in fact true and it was a unit of Confederate infantry dispatched into the town to look for shoes that initially noticed Buford’s cavalry. There was no fighting at this point just observation.
The next morning on July 1, 1863 Confederate General Heth ordered his infantry division to attack the Union cavalry that was defending the town. The Confederates advanced with two brigades led by James Archer and Joseph Davis (nephew of Jefferson Davis). The rebels thought the Union troops would be easily defeated but that was not the case, they fought very bravely and held the rebels off for two hours before Union General John Reynolds arrived with his veteran infantry corps.
No sooner than Reynolds had arrived at the battle of Gettysburg he was shot in the back of the head and killed instantly. There is debate as to who actually killed Reynolds. Was it a Confederate sharpshooter, regular infantry or even friendly fire? No one knows for sure, however the most widely accepted theory is a Confederate sharpshooter.
Despite his death Reynolds’ men fought hard and eventually drove the rebels from McPherson’s ridge inflicting heavy casualties on the rebels. Davis’s troops were trapped in an unfinished railway cut. They were essentially in a deep hole, which was not a good defensive position. They took many casualties before retreating.
As for Archer he led an attack against the famous Union Iron Brigade. His men suffered heavy casualties in this assault and many were taken prisoner including Archer himself who was found hiding in some bushes.
At around two o’clock in the afternoon Ewell’s corps suddenly without orders attacked the Union line in their right flank. This proved to be a great opportunity for the Confederates and Lee immediately seized it and ordered a general attack all along the line.
The Union troops were outmatched. They broke from battle fleeing through the town of Gettysburg from the pursuing rebels. Union forces were being defeated all along their line prompting General Howard to order a general retreat to higher ground on Cemetery ridge. Lee realized very quickly that if the Union could establish itself on this ridge it would be in an excellent defensive position, which would be very difficult to dislodge.
Lee suggested to Ewell that Cemetery ridge be taken if it was “practicable” Ewell decided it was not and did not even attempt to take it. Despite the urging of his subordinates Ewell refused. Thus passed one of the greatest opportunities the Confederates had to decide the battle very early on.
Over on the Union side General Hancock had arrived and taken command from General Howard. He was able to calm everybody down and it was he who determined that they were in an excellent defensive position. They would stay right where they were and fight this battle.
Gettysburg, Day 2
On the second day of the Battle Of Gettysburg, July 2, 1863, General Robert E. Lee devised a plan for his Confederates to attack both flanks of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. The result would be three hours of carnage that won nothing of tactical significance for his Army of Northern Virginia. Confederate killed, wounded and missing during the fighting on July 2 total some 6,500. The Union total was approximately 8,750—an unusual case of the defender suffering more casualties than the attacker. The battles fought that day are some of the most famous in military history.
At 11:00 Lee made his move. He ordered Longstreet to attack south up the Emmitsburg road toward Little and Big Round Tops which appeared to be empty of Union troops. An attack here would strike the Union in its left flank. Since General Meade would be focused on the Confederates at Culp’s Hill which he could clearly see, this maneuver against his left flank would come as a bit of a surprise. This is what Lee had assumed would be the case.
The man in charge of leading the attack, General Longstreet was not at all convinced this was a good idea. He thought it would be better if he and his men snuck around the Union lines and came up behind them, thus forcing the Yankees to attack them. Longstreet was hoping that Lee would change his mind about this attack and cancel it. He therefore took his time getting to the attack positions ordered by Lee. It took him and his troops several hours in fact to march south to where the attack would begin.
When the southern troops finally reached their attack position they quickly discovered that an entire Union corps was standing in their way. General Daniel Sickles led this corps. Sickles had on his own without orders moved his men well ahead of the rest of the Union line setting up along the Emmitsburg road which offered slightly higher elevation. By doing this he had separated himself from his own army and was in a very exposed position that could easily be attacked and outflanked. Seeing this the Confederates had no choice but to attack this bulge in the Union line.
It wasn’t until around 4:00 in the afternoon that the Confederates finally launched their attack. General John Bell Hood and Lafayette Mclaws led the two Confederate divisions taking place in this attack. The Confederate attack would be en echelon, which would start on their right flank and swing left to hopefully outflank and roll up the Federal lines.
At this same time Lee ordered General Ewell to make a “demonstration” against Culp’s Hill to tie up as many Union troops as possible and even make a full fledged attack toward Culp’s Hill if the opportunity presented itself. This “demonstration” would prevent the Union from shifting troops to the south to reinforce their lines.
Meanwhile the main attack in the south began starting with an artillery bombardment of the Union lines. General Hood and his men began the attack. The Confederates entered Devil’s Den, which saw very bloody fighting often hand to hand. The Confederates fought their way through Devil’s Den and on to Little Round Top. It was here that they met the men of the 20th Maine under the command of Joshua Chamberlain.
The Confederates charged the 20th Maine three times but were beaten back each time. After the third attempt they had enough and began moving off of Little Round Top. Seeing the rebels withdraw Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and swept the rebels from the hill. Chamberlain would go on to great fame for his actions during the battle of Gettysburg. Retreating back to Devil’s Den the Confederates continued to return fire with the 20th Maine though now they were simply trying to hold their ground.
Around 5:00 pm Mclaws began his attack into the peach orchard easily overwhelming the Union troops defending the area. The rebels pushed the Union troops into a wheat field where the fighting turned into a hand-to-hand melee which was extremely bloody on both sides.
Around 6:00pm Anderson began his attack toward the Union lines. General Hancock was the commander of the Union center at Gettysburg. He had weakened his own lines in order to support other areas of the battle lines that were receiving heavy attacks by the Confederates. Weakening his lines General Hancock took a big risk because it was at this weakened spot that the Confederates attacked. The rebels had initial success even reaching the top of Cemetery Ridge, if only briefly staying there. Hancock out of sheer desperation after seeing this ordered the 1st Minnesota regiment who had just arrived in the area to attack the rebels. They of course did what they were ordered to do and in doing so suffered over 80% casualties. Their bravery was not in vain however because it bought Hancock enough time to reform his defensive position and drive the Confederates back to where they came from.
Around 7:00pm Confederate forces began their attack against the Union right flank. The attack began with some success. The Confederates took some ground and inflicted many casualties on the Federal troops however the Union was able to reinforce their lines and the rebel attackers received no additional support so their attacks eventually petered out and failed. This last attacked ended the brutal second days fighting at Gettysburg. Lee came very close to breaking the Union lines. Fortunately for the Union he failed.
Casualties were very high on both sides, each losing roughly 10,000 men each. A bit shaken up by this Meade called a meeting that night to take a vote with his corps commanders as to whether they should remain at Gettysburg and fight, or if they should withdraw. It was a unanimous decision. They would stay and fight.
Gettysburg, Day 3
July 3, 1863 was the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. It was Lee’s last chance to break the Union lines. His plan was to charge right through the center of the Union line and split them in two.
During the night both sides were continually reinforced bringing both of their troop strengths back up to where they had been at the beginning of the battle of Gettysburg.
Lee’s Battle Plan & Pickett’s Charge.
General Pickett’s division had just arrived on the night of July 2nd, followed by the arrival of Jeb Stuart and his cavalry. Longstreet would command Pickett’s division. Pickett would command his three brigades and would also be in command of two brigades from Anderson’s division. On the left would be four brigades under the command of Pettigrew, followed up by Pender’s brigades under the command of Trimble. This was a combined force of 12,500 men.
Longstreet was very distressed with this attack at Gettysburg. He did not think it could possibly be successful. He even tried to convince Lee to call off this attack. His effort fell on deaf ears. Lee was determined to make this attack; he believed it had a good chance of success. Despite the fact that the attacks of the previous day had all failed and many more troops were used in those attacks. Lee reasoned that those attacks were at different points on the battlefield and were not done at the same time therefore they failed. Essentially the attacks of July 2nd were many small attacks where Pickett’s Charge would be one massive attack aimed at one point in the Union line preceded with a massive artillery bombardment.
Jeb Stuart and his cavalry would also play a critical role in the attack. Stuart was to circle around the Union lines at Gettysburg and while the infantry was attacking the center of the Union forces Stuart and his cavalry would attack the Union center from the rear thus joining with their comrades and splitting the Federal forces in two. If this attack were to succeed the Confederates would undoubtedly win the battle of Gettysburg.
It was 1:00pm when the Confederate artillery began the first phase of the battle plan. Over 150 guns opened fire on the Union center. The Federals returned fire and the most massive artillery bombardment during the Civil War had begun. The sound was so loud the gunners ears actually bled. The barrage was so loud it could be heard as far away as Philadelphia and Baltimore.
For over an hour the artillery duel continued. At a little past 2:00pm the Union began to slowly stop firing. This was a trick to deceive the Confederates into believing they had knocked out all the Union guns. The trick worked and at 3:00pm the Rebels stopped firing. They were also dangerously low on ammunition and needed to conserve it as much as possible.
It was at this time the commander of the Confederate artillery pleaded with Pickett to attack now otherwise we will not be able to support you. Pickett rushed to Longstreet asking for permission to begin the attack. So despondent over the attack, which he knew would fail, Longstreet could do nothing more than simply nod his head and wave his hand to give the order to Pickett.
Now was the moment that over 12,000 rebel troops emerged from the tree line and lined up in formation for the fateful long march. Their main focus was a little clump of trees behind the Federal lines.
General Pickett was in very high spirits and truly believed his men would be able to break the Union lines. The moral of his men was also high because they also believed the Federals would break. Pickett shouted to his men that they were all Virginians and to remember what they were fighting for. With this the Confederates started forward.
The long gray line advanced toward those clump of trees in a steady walk. At first all guns were silent including the Federals. The Union troops were in awe seeing this vast force of humanity slowly but steadily approaching them.
Halfway across the field Pickett’s division (which was not personally led by Pickett because he had stayed behind and was watching the battle with the rest of the commanders) performed a left oblique to close the gap between them and the rest of the units.
This was when the Union opened up with their artillery on the advancing rebels. They fired from both Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, slamming into both flanks.
The Confederates finally reached the Emmitsburg road only to be confronted with a simple fence. This simple fence however turned out to be a very difficult obstacle. They had to jump this fence and in doing so made easy targets for Union troops, the fence also broke up the formations and slowed the advance significantly.
The Confederates still bravely pushed forward toward a low stonewall which was just in front of the little clump of trees, which was the target of the southern attack. They had finally reached the Union line. This was the moment where the battle would either be won or lost. The rebels rushed the stonewall and brutal hand-to-hand combat quickly ensued.
It was now that Confederate General Armistead famously put his hat on the tip of his sword and urged his men forward. Forward they went over the stonewall. Armistead only had about 300 men following him at this point but still they pushed on. Here was an artillery battery commanded by Colonel Alonzo Cushing and while his men were falling back Cushing ran up to one of his guns to “give them one more shot” which turned out to be his last words. He was immediately shot in the chin and killed instantly falling over his gun.
The rebels reached Cushing’s guns and Armistead now with his hat falling to the hilt of his sword urged his men to turn the guns on the Yankees. Before achieving this however Armistead was shot three times and fell to the ground. His wounds were not believed to be fatal and he was taken to a Union field hospital for treatment. He died on July 5th. The cause of death is not officially known.
The Union quickly poured in fresh troops to fix their broken line and counterattacked.
Stuart and his cavalry were suppose to meet the infantry attacking the Federals in the rear of their line. Stuart never showed up. He and his men ran into Federal cavalry commanded by George Custer and were forced to withdraw.
Because of this the southern troops were forced to retreat. The rebels fled back to their original lines. It was all over. Pickett’s charge had failed.
The attack was broken, over half of the 12,500 troops that started the attack were gone. They were dead, wounded, or missing. Pickett’s division only had 800 men left out of 5,000. Lee took full blame for this failure and greeted the troops as they returned back to the Confederate lines. He tried to encourage them to pick up rifles and prepare for a Federal counterattack, which he believed, would be forthcoming.
The next day July 4th the two armies glared at each other across the open field. Lee still thinking Meade would attack prepared a defensive line and hoped for an attack to come so he could do to the Union what the Union did to his men.
Meade however had other ideas and decided that his troops had done more than enough at Gettysburg and did not launch an attack. With that the battle ended, four months after the battle Abraham Lincoln gave one of his most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address
The fact that Meade did not finish the job at Gettysburg and attack Lee just shows how timid and unimpressive he was as a general. On the night of the 4th Lee and his army left Gettysburg forever. The Confederates suffered 23,000 casualties and the Union suffered 28,000 casualties.