Battle of Gettysburg
Return to www.BattlefieldPortraits.com


Location: Gettysburg, PA
Dates: July 1, 1863 - July 3, 1863
Union Commander:  G. Gordon Meade, Major General
Confederate Commander:  Robert E. Lee, General

Battle Summary:
After a monumental victory, at Chancellorsville, VA, Robert E. Lee determined to take the war to his enemy.  As in the Maryland Campaign, terminating at Antietam, the strategy for moving north was simple - win a war on northern soil, destroying the north's will-to-fight, and relieve the pressure on Virginia, which had fed her troops for the better part of 2 1/2 years.  It was Lee's hope to feed and cloth his men, in the north, sweep into Harrisburg, and possibly on to Baltimore and Washington D.C.

In early June, Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, with the Shenandoah Valley as a screen, crossed the Potomac and entered Maryland.  Lee continue north, crossing into Pennsylvania, stopping at Chambersburg, PA.  He had split his army, sending Lieutenant General, Richard S. Ewell's 2nd Corps towards Carlisle and Harrisburg.

Prior to leaving Virginia, Lee had sent his cavalry, under the command of Major General, J.E.B. Stewart, on a circuitous, information gathering ride, east of his army.  This would prove a serious gaff on the part of Lee.

With G. Gordon Meade's Army of the Potomac, moving north on a parallel route to Lee, a major battle was inevitable.  On July 1, Federal Cavalry under Brigadier General John Buford, entered the crossroads village of Gettysburg - home to the Lutheran Seminary.  As Buford's mounted troopers headed west, out of Gettysburg, on the Chambersburg Pike, they ran headlong into Major General Henry Heth's Confederate 3rd Corps division.  Heth's division had been sent to Gettysburg, to scout the area and search for an alleged stash of shoes for the footsore rebels.  Lieutenant General Ambrose Powell (A.P.) Hill had instructed Heth not to bring on a general engagement if he were to run into any Federal scouts.

When Buford's cavalry had determined the troops entering Gettysburg were in fact rebels, they were convinced that it was only a brigade, and dismounted just west of the Lutheran Seminary, facing west on the Chambersburg Pike.  Heth's division ran into Buford's troopers and the battle of Gettysburg, America's most famous, started in earnest.

Buford quickly determined that he had run into a division and that he would not be able to hold long against them.  Sending to the rear, for reinforcements, Major General John Reynold's 1st Corps quickly marched into position.  As he was deploying his corps, John Reynold's was struck in the head by a well aimed musket ball, instantly killing him.  He would be the first general killed at Gettysburg, and one of the highest ranking Union generals killed in the Civil War.  Upon Reynold's death, command of the 1st Corps fell to Major General Abner Doubleday.

Doubleday's 1st Corps held A.P. Hill's corps for a couple of hours, but they slowly fell back southeast, through Gettysburg.  During the retreat, street fighting erupted in Gettysburg.  As they exited the south side of Gettysburg, the Union troops invested the area of Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge.

As the afternoon wore on, the Confederate division of Jubal Early, of Ewell's corps, arrived on the north side of Gettysburg.  With Hill's Corp's and Early's division, pushing the federal troops, an opportunity was missed.  Ewell was urged by Lee to try to push the federal troops from Culp's Hill, but the written order offered Ewell discretion.  After scouting the federal position, Ewell determined to make no general engagement to take the hill.  This proved costly for Lee, as repeated attempts to take the prominence, during the next two days, would fail.  If Ewell had instructed Early's troops to take the hill on July 1, before the rest of the Yankee army had arrived, there may have been a different outcome.  As the battle closed, on day one, the Yankee's held a strong position, south of town on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Ridge.

Day 2, dawned with the Union troops sitting across the valley from the Confederate troops arrayed along Seminary Ridge, due west of town.  James Longstreet's 1st Corps had the far right position, with A.P. Hill's 3rd Corps in the center, and Richard Ewell's 2nd Corps in a semicircle around the north side of the Union position.  The Federals were aligned, south to north, by Daniel Sickles's III Corps, Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps, Abner Doubleday's I Corps, now commanded by Major General John Newton, O.O. Howard's XI Corps and Henry Slocum's XII Corps.  The Union lines were shaped like a fish hook, with the hook end on the north.  The key to the position, was that G. Gordon Meade could reinforce his troops using a shorter line.  He could easily send troops from one side of the "fish hook" to the other side, over a much shorter line than Lee could with his troops.  This would prove to be a decisive advantage during the second day's battle.

On day two, Lee was determined to be on the offensive.  He planned to send Longstreet's Corps, across what became known as the "Valley of Death," while Ewell's Corps would push up Culp's Hill.  If an opening were found, Lee would have A.P. Hill's Corps ready for an advance.  Longstreet was not pleased with the orders and expressed his concern to Lee.  Lee restated his orders and instructed his lieutenants to start the battle.  At 4:00 PM, rebel cannons, from Ewell's Corps signaled the start of the battle.

The Union troops facing Longstreet were not in position.  Unknown, to Meade, Dan Sickles pushed his III Corps, a mile further towards the rebels than the rest of the line on Cemetery Ridge.  This proved disastrous for his corps.  Meade had sent his chief of engineers, Brigadier General, Gouverneur K. Warren to check his troop deployments.  Warren, on the crest of a large hill, later to be known as Little Round Top, determined Sickles was out of position and went to find Meade.  Before leaving he surpassed his authority and deployed a portion of James Barnes' division of George Sykes' V Corps on Little Round Top.

Upon learning of Sickles' error, Meade rode with haste to see Sickles'.  Sickles, offering to pull his troops back to the "round tops" was rebuffed by Meade, saying it was too late for this move.  At that time, Longstreets' 1st Corps slammed into Sickles' III Corps.  Horrific fighting broke out throughout Sickles' sector.  A wheat field that would forever be known in the proper noun form: "Wheat Field," and a pile of huge boulders would host such carnage that it would be known as the Devil's Den.  And as Union troops were pushed through the Devil's Den their blood, mixed with rebel blood would christen an area to be forever known as the "Slaughter Pen."

Further east, seeing the fighting in his front, Strong Vincent, and Patrick O'Rourke deployed their brigades on Little Round Top.  Vincent's regimental commander, Lt. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, would have the unenviable task of being on the left flank of the entire Union army.  His regiment of troops, from Maine, would be immortalized as saving the Union army at Gettysburg.  As Sickles' III Corps vaporized, retreating across the "Valley of Death," and the "Slaughter Pen," Vincent and O'Rourke's brigades prepared for the onslaught.  Troops from Evander Law's Alabamans, Henry Benning's Georgians and Jerome Robertson's Texans stormed the Little Round Top.  After being repulsed, they would reform and charge again, and again.  As twilight overpowered the last of the sun's rays, Little Round Top remained in Federal control.

Further up the Union line, on Cemetery Ridge, a division from A.P. Hill's Corps, commanded by Major General Richard Anderson, suffered a similar fate as they slammed into Winfield S. Hancock's II Corps.  Hancock troops repulsed several charges by Anderson's division, leaving a significant amount of southern blood in the area between the two ridges.

Late in the afternoon, after not moving his divisions, Ewell would send two divisions, under Jubal Early and Edward Johnson, forward into the Union positions held by O.O. Howard's XI Corps and Henry Slocum's XII Corps.  This piecemeal attack, against a well entrenched opponent proved futile.  Ewell's troops would suffer severe casualties on the approaches to Evergreen Cemetery and Culp's Hill.  This would end the fighting for day 2, at Gettysburg.

Lee would meet, individually, with his corps commanders (except Ewell), during the second night.  He explained that he planned to hit "those people," where they were and would continue on the offensive on day three.  Longstreet again expressed concern for this plan, and stated that the Union commanders would be hoping for them to do this.  Instead, Longstreet advocated a move around the southern flank of the Union army, getting between them and their capitol, and forcing them into battle on ground chosen by Lee's troops.  Lee would hear nothing of this.

While Lee was meeting with Longstreet, and A.P. Hill, G. Gordon Meade called a war council at his headquarters.  He polled his generals, asking them to chose between three choices: 1) Move south, getting between the rebels and Washington D.C.; 2) Take the offensive on the ground they currently held; 3) Continue to hold the ground they had on the defensive.  Most all of his lieutenants chose the third choice.  So, at the opening of the third day's battle, the troops would hold the same ground they did at the start of the second day of battle.

Ewell's division, under Edward Johnson, started the battle, on day three, by assaulting the east slope of Culp's Hill.  He would run into a brigade of troops, commanded by Brigadier General George Greene.  George Greene, had his troops working throughout the evening, building trenches and parapet's for his big guns.  This proved very effective on the morning of day three, as John Geary's Division, of Slocum's XII Corps, held the ground around Culp's Hill.

Lee's primary movement of the day, would be a huge assault, across the valley, into the federal troops in the middle of the Union line.  Lee believed that Meade had moved troops from his center, to reinforce troops on both of his flanks.  Lee determined to have Longstreet's Corps, with a couple of A.P. Hill's brigades lead the attack - forever known as "Pickett's Charge."  The battle would be started with a huge artillery barrage by the head of Longstreet's artillery, E. Porter Alexander.

Alexander's big guns opened up during the mid to late afternoon.  The artillery continued to pound Union positions, east of Emmitsburg Road for a long period of time.  Running low on ammunition, Alexander told George Pickett that he would have to get his division moving or cancel his charge.  At this urging, Pickett's Division and the brigades of A.P. Hill's Corps started across the fields.  Union troops on the other side were awestruck by the precision and mass of the approaching Confederates.  On they came.

On the Union side, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock, had ordered his division commanders to hold fire until the assaulting troops were quite close.  The rebels steadily crossed the ground, between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge.  As they approached within 300 or so yards, Federal cannons opened with double-shot canister and grape shot.  This tore large swaths in the Confederate formation.  They continued on - with a "copse of trees" in the distance as their goal.  As they approached the federal lines, Union troops, from behind a stone wall, would stand up emptying their muskets into the ranks of the rebels.  As they were three lines deep, the Union troops fired incessantly.  This grand attack was doomed.  The Confederates charged the wall, with a few men going over.  These men, including Brigadier General Lewis Armistead, were mowed down.  Armistead, who was close friends with Hancock, was killed within yards of Hancock, who was also seriously wounded.  The Confederate troops could not maintain the attack and retreated across the open field, where they were still under Federal assault.  Upon reaching Robert E. Lee, at Seminary Ridge, George Pickett was told to reassemble his division.  George Pickett replied that he no longer had a division.

While Longstreet's troops were getting chewed up by Hancock's Corps, J.E.B. Stuart launched one of the largest cavalry assaults, east of Gettysburg, that occurred during the Civil War.  He was unlucky this day, as arrayed against him were troops under Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick - including a brigade of cavalry under Brigadier General George Custer - who later in life would become famous for being slaughtered at the Battle of Little Big Horn.  J.E.B. Stuart's troops were turned away by the Federal cavalry after dismounted attacks and much hand-to-hand combat. 

Robert E. Lee, resigned himself to having been beat, and apologized to his troops.  The next morning, Lee determined to move out and retreat back to southern soil.  He left behind thousands of Confederate dead, and wounded.  Union troops would remain in the Gettysburg area for several days, before taking off after Lee.  They had much work to do and many dead to bury.

Campaign: Gettysburg

Outcome: U.S. Victory

Troop Strengths
Union: 95,000
Confederate: 75,000

Casualties (estimated):
Union: 23,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)
Confederate: 28,000 (killed, wounded or missing/captured)

Battle Aftermath:
Gettysburg would become the most costly battle in U.S. history.  More troops died, in these three days of fighting, than have died before or after.  Gettysburg would be Lee's last venture into northern soil.  His troops would retreat back into northern Virginia, and would remain fairly quiet the rest of the year.  Meanwhile, Meade slowly pushed after Lee, but never seriously threatened him.  Besides a Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, the south learned that on July 4th, troops under Major General U.S. Grant, had received Confederate General John Pemberton's surrender at Vicksburg.  Being more strategically important, Vicksburg opened the Mississippi River to the U.S. and essentially cut the Confederacy in two.  Four months after the Gettysburg, Abraham Lincoln attended festivities for the commemoration of the national soldiers cemetery.  He was asked t say a few appropriate remarks.  His words continue to live, and breath life in the U.S. today.

"Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on 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 battle-field 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 that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate—we can not consecrate—we can not 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 here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the 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 — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth." - Abraham Lincoln, November 19, 1863.     Close Window