July 1, 1863, Lee’s second northern campaign brings the war to the North once again. Lee planned to end the war once and for all with a decisive strike at Philadelphia to cut off Washington D.C. and force. The Confederates were short on supplies and so many detachments were sent out to gather supplies, confusing the Federals about Lee’s actual whereabouts. J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry on a raid to get around the Union army, no doubt helping the supply issue immensely, but Lee could not afford to be deprived of his best reconnaissance asset.
A brigade under James Pettigrew was sent to Gettysburg to forage shoes, a desperately needed commodity in the Army of Northern Virginia on June 30, but fell back after seeing John Buford’s cavalry. Two brigades of Henry Heth’s division approached the town the next day. At around five a.m. they advanced and encountered Buford’s cavalry who had been equipped with repeating rifles. Buford managed to hold McPherson’s Ridge long enough to receive reinforcements from the Union 1st Corps. Reinforcements came for the Confederates as well with James Archer’s brigade arriving and attacking McPherson’s Wood’s, only to be flanked by the Union Iron Brigade and suffer many of it’s men captured. The battle for McPherson’s and Seminary ridges were harsh, but eventually the Confederates broke through thanks to an attack on Oak Ridge to the north by Richard Ewell’s Corps.
As the Union defenses were broken on Seminary and Oak Ridge, the Union army fell back through the town of Gettysburg. It is at this time that many Union soldiers were captured. The remnants reformed on Cemetery Hill just south of Gettysburg. Lee, having just arrived, gave Ewell orders to take the hill if practicable. Ewell did not take this chance, being outnumbered with little to no support from the rest of the army, and so the Battle of Gettysburg would resume the next day. Throughout the night the Federals dug in, virtually turning Cemetery Hill into a bristling fortress overnight. The front line grew into a fish-hook-like front with the Union stretching their lines east from Cemetery Hill to Culp’s Hill and south from Cemetery Hill to the rugged Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. This arrangement stretched out the Confederate army, depriving them of the ability to resupply separate ends of their army easily like the Union could. However, Lee was set on destroying the Union army and since he had the initiative and Meade had a fantastic position, a major battle was sure to follow.
July 2, 1863. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Army of the Potomac face off on the heights south of Gettysburg, preparing for a second day of battle. Union Major-General Daniel Sickles acted first; Sickles, reacting to the movement in front of him, moved his Corps miles ahead of the defensive line he was ordered to hold, potentially compromising the entire Union army. He occupied a peach orchard and Emmitsburg Road, exposing himself. The Confederates organized an attack on the left under Longstreet with a diversion at Culp’s Hill by Ewell’s Corps. Longstreet initially wanted to perform a flanking maneuver like Jackson had done at Chancellorsville which would have cut off the Union escape route, but Lee refused this idea and Longstreet would have to settle for a frontal assault. Sickles moved just as Longstreet executed his attacks, catching the Confederates off guard. The Confederate attacks at the Peach Orcharcd succeed in breaking Sickles’ line and forcing him back. Sickles’ movement forward caused a gap to form in the Union line, opening an opportunity for the Union army to be cut in two, but troops from Culp’s Hill reinforced Sickles’ flank. At about 4:30 p.m., John Bell Hood’s division assaulted Devil’s Den and Little Round Top. Devil’s Den is a ridge filled with large boulders. Fighting there was particularly harsh and favored the defenders, causing the Confederates to suffer twice the number of casualties that the Union sustained, but the position was taken. On the far left of the Union flank at Little Round Top, the 20th Maine held off several Confederate assaults before finally charging downhill and breaking the reforming Confederates.
At dusk of the second day, Ewell’s Corps makes their assault on Culp’s Hill. Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s division took the lead, clashing with Gen. George Sears’ 1,600 New Yorkers. George Steuart’s brigade highlighted the struggle, flanking the Federals and forcing them to retreat to a second defensive line. At 7:30 p.m., two brigades from Jubal Early’s division attacked East Cemetery Hill with great success. The cover of darkness helped the Confederates in their assault. The Louisiana Tigers pushed the 25th Ohio away from their stonewall and put pressure on the 75th Ohio as well. Elsewhere on the hill, the Confederates captured 9 cannons. East Cemetery Hill was taken but the Confederates would have to hold it throughout the night. Union reinforcements from the 11th Corps poured onto the hill and forced the Confederates off the hill. It is said that at one point a flag of the Louisiana Tigers fell and was ripped to shreds in the melee that ensued. The attack from Rodes’ division was of little help and the hill and the cannons were recaptured by the Union.
July 3, 1863 was a disastrous day for the Confederacy. It began with the largest cannon bombardment of the war at 1 p.m. with over 135 Confederate cannons taking part. The bombardment aimed to make way for Pickett’s Charge which would come an hour later, but it was largely ineffective, failing to do knock out the Union cannons. Then came Pickett’s Charge, the 12,000 strong, three-division strong assault on Cemetery Ridge. The attack commenced with George Picket on the right, James Pettigrew on the left, and Isaac Trimble behind Pettigrew. In front of the Confederates laid three quarters of a mile of open fields with fences that only slowed them down. The Union defenses consisted of 6,500 troops from Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps all behind a series of stonewalls. As the Confederates advanced they were with met heavy cannon fire, ripping chunks out of many regiments. Once across the field, close range fire only made the cannons more deadly and coupled with infantry fire, proved fatal for many Confederates. On the left, various units were routed by the Federals, fleeing back through other regiments. The battle cry of “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” rang through the air as Union soldiers taunted the Confederates for the slaughter of Union soldiers that had occurred months earlier.
Canister fire ripped holes into the Confederate lines and most of Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s division never advanced past Emitsburg Road. One area, known as “the Angle”, where the stonewall took a sharp southward turn, came under heavy fire from Confederate infantry. With the Confederates getting dangerously close, the 71st Pennsylvania decided to fall back and the 59th New York routed, opening a gap in the Union line. The gap caused by the retreating 71st Pennsylvania enabled the Confederates to engage in melee combat with the 69th Pennsylvania. The two cannons left to defend the opening were subsequently captured for a time but were unable to be used due to no ammunition. Union reinforcements closed the gap and forced the Confederates to retreat. The Confederate assault had failed and they were forced to slink back to Seminary Ridge. From Encyclopedia Virginia: “Pickett’s casualties, including killed, wounded, and captured, numbered 2,655, or about 42 percent of his men. Pettigrew lost 2,700 men (62 percent) and Trimble 885 (52 percent).”
On the other side of the battlefield, the battle for Culp’s Hill resumed at 4:00 a.m. as the Union attacked downhill. The Confederates had spent the night huddled in the captured Federal trenches. The Confederates attacked uphill and along the Baltimore Pike but were repulsed and abandoned their foothold on the hill. Further to the east a large cavalry struggle took place as J.E.B. Stuart attempted to ride around the Union right flank but was met by George Custer and forced to withdraw. The next day, the Confederate army stayed put, anticipating a counterattack but Meade did not take the bait and on July 5, the Army of Northern Virginia began to withdraw back into Virginia. Instead, the Army of the Potomac would spend their July 4 burying the 7,000 dead that lay scattered across the battlefield. Typically the dead were not buried after battles but the sheer numbers of dead called for it.
Mass graves were dug for Confederates and Federals alike, sometimes with up to 70 soldiers in them, sometimes more. Search parties also searched for wounded and aided them however they could. It is estimated that 50-100 men died daily in the hospitals of their wounds. The next day, July 5th, the Army of Northern Virginia began to withdraw back into Virginia, ending the battle, though it had really ended on July 3rd. Lee’s decision to attempt to destroy the Union army may have been reckless, but he nearly succeeded on the second day, if only the gap caused by Sickles could have been exploited. Furthermore, Stuart’s absence and the subsequent lack of reconnaissance no doubt played a significant role in the Confederate retreat. The terrain also stacked the odds against the Confederates as many areas forced the Confederates to attack uphill which is always a disadvantage.
Whatever the case, the battle devastated both armies and ended Lee’s northern adventures for good.
-By Southern Revivalist
Oh, I'm a good old Rebel, now that's just what I am; For this "Fair Land of Freedom" I do not give a damn! I'm glad I fit against it, I only wish we'd won, And I don't want no pardon for anything I done.