TIME MACHINE: The Battle of Gettysburg




July 1-3, 2013 marked the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, which was fought over three days in Gettysburg, from the entire war. Fought between the Army of the Potomoc, under the command of Major General George G. Meade; and the Army of Northern Virgina under General Robert E. Lee, the Battle of Gettysburg marked the latter’s second attempt to invade the North and is regarded as the turning point of the Civil War. 

Following the Army of Northern Virgina’s major victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee hoped to follow up his success with a invasion of the North. As he led his forces through the Shenandoah Valley, Lee hoped to center the summer campaign away from war-ravaged Virginia. He also hoped that a victorious campaign on Northern soil – preferably around Harrisburg or Philadelphia, Pennsylvania – would convince President Abraham Lincoln and other Union politicians to end their prosecution of the war. Lee had harbored similar hopes when he led his forces into Maryland in September 1862. But his failure to achieve victory at the Battle of Antietam dashed his hopes. Aware of the Army of the Potomoc’s northbound march, President Lincoln ordered Major General Joseph Hooker to lead the Army of the Potomoc in pursuit. However, three days before the two armies clashed at Gettysburg, Meade assumed command of the Union forces.

One of the first Union forces to reach Gettysburg was its Calvary Corp’s First Division under the command of Major General John Buford Jr. Realizing that a superior force of Confederates faced him, Buford created a defense against the enemy advance on low ridges northwest of town. On July 1, 1863, he and his dismounted calvary defended the ridges long enough for Major General John F. Reynolds’ I Corps to reinforce him. However, assaults from the northwest and the north by two large Confederate corps and the death of General Reynolds collapsed the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders through the streets of Gettysburg and to the hills south of town. assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of town to the hills just to the south.

By July 2, 1863; most of the Union forces had arrived in the Gettysburg area. The Army of the Potomoc had formed a defensive formation shaped like a fishhook that stretched from Culp’s Hill southeast of the town, to northwest to Cemetery Hill just south of town, then south for nearly two miles along Cemetery Ridge, which terminated just north of Little Round Top. General Lee initiated battle plans for Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s First Corps to steadily attack the Union’s left flank. This attack upon the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard and Little Round Top. Unfortunately, Lee’s plans depended upon faulty intelligence, exacerbated by the absence of Major General J.E.B. Stuart’s Calvary Corps from the battlefield. Stuart’s calvary had been missing from the rest of the Army of Northern Virginia, thanks to a difficult confrontation with Union calvary at the Battle of Brandy Station and vague orders from General Lee. Lee also launched assaults on the Union’s right flank at Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Union troops managed to hold their own against the Confederate assault upon the Union’s right flank, despite heavy losses.

The Union suffered even more losses during the assault on the left flank and found itself in danger of being overran. However, General Meade’s chief engineer, Brigadier General Gouvernur K. Warren realized that Little Round Top at the Union’s extreme left was in danger of being overran. He dispatched Colonel Strong Vincent’s brigade, an artillery battery and the 140th New York Regiment to hold Little Round Top just minutes before Brigadier General Evander M. Law’s of Hood’s division had arrived. The Union troops managed to hold their own against the Confederate troops, but found themselves in a precarious position – especially after Colonel Vincent was badly wounded. A last minute miracle for the Union materialized when Lieutenant-Colonel Joshua Chamberlain (or one his company commanders First Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher) came up with the idea to charge against the attacking 15th Alabama Regiment under Lieutenant-Colonel William C. Oates with fixed bayonets. The downhill charge swept away the Alabamians and saved Little Round Top and the rest of the left flank for the Union Army.

July 3 saw the final day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Once again, General Lee ordered an attack upon the Union’s right flank at Culp’s Hill. The third day also featured action between Union and Confederate calvary in the former’s rear. Unfortunately for General Stuart, his Confederate calvary was repulsed by Union horse troopers under the command of Brigadier General David Gregg and Brigadier General George A. Custer on the East Calvary Field. While the calvary of both armies engaged in combat, General Lee decided to launch an assault upon the Union’s center at Cementery Ridge. Lee ordered General Longstreet to command the divisions under Major General George Pickett, Major General Isaac R. Trimble, and Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew for the assault. Genaral Longstreet considered the assault futile, but carried it out. First, Longstreet ordered his artillery chief Colonel Edward Porter Alexander to bombard the Union center. But General Lee’s artillery chief, Major General William N. Pendleton, played a small role by obstructing the effective placement of artillery from the other two corps. Despite Colonel Alexander’s efforts, there was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective. The three infantry divisions finally charged (or marched) toward the Union’s center. Their efforts were marred by by the sloping ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge, fences that were never cleared and the Union artillery that rained devastating cannonade upon the assaulting troops. The Union line wavered and temporarily broke when troops under Brigadier General Lewis A. Armistead reached at a spot called the “Angle” in a low stone fence. But Union reinforcements repulsed the breach and the Confederate attack finally broke. General Pickett lost a great deal of his division and blamed Lee for the rest of his life.

Following its defeat at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia evacuated from the town. And on July 4, General Lee led his army on a torturous retreat back to Virginia. General Meade made the cautious decision to refrain from pursuing the Confederates, until it reached Virginia. His decision led to criticism from the Lincoln Administration and the public, but Meade would maintain his position as head of the Army of the Potomoc for the rest of the war. The three-day battle resulted in 46,000 to 51,000 soldiers from both armies. And on November 19, 1863; 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.

For more detailed information on the Battle of Gettysburg, I recommend the following books and novel:

“Gettysburg” (2004) by StephenW. Sears

“The Illustrated Gettysburg Reader: An Eyewitness History of the Civil War’s Greatest Battle” (2013) by Rod Gragg

“Gettysburg: The Last Invasion” (2013) by Allen C. Guelzo

“The Killer Angels: A Novel of the Civil War” (1974) by Michael Shaara