The American Civil War Overview

CHAPTER IX
THE EASTERN THEATER: THE GETTYSBURG CAMPAIGN

       At the same time Pemberton was considering surrender terms, a far superior Confederate general was also experiencing defeat. General Robert E. Lee had just failed to break the center of the Federal line with Pickett's charge at Gettysburg.
       Although the location and timing of the Battle of Gettysburg was almost an accident, the fact that a huge battle took place in Pennsylvania in July 1863 was certainly no accident. General Robert E. Lee, the commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia, had chosen a course that meant a major battle was almost unavoidable.
       Two months earlier, General Lee found himself in a dilemma. He had recently defeated the Federal Army of the Potomac in a daring example of superior generalship at the Battle of Chancellorsville. However, although Chancellorsville had been a decisive victory for the Confederacy, Lee himself knew that all he had really accomplished was bought a little more time. The battle had succeeded in repelling the Federals from much of Virginia, containing the all-important capital of the Confederacy at Richmond. However, Lee knew it would only be a matter of time before the powerful Federal host moved south again.
       Lee was really only left with two viable choices, either to dig in and prepare to fight another defensive battle for Richmond, or to assume the initiative and attack. The second option was obviously dangerous, since the Confederates were significantly outnumbered, but it did have certain advantages. And Robert E. Lee was fast becoming known for his ability to pull off a victory against long odds.
       Besides the advantage of retaining the initiative, the Confederate army was short of supplies, including food, clothing, and -- shoes. A thrust into Pennsylvania would provide an opportunity to correct those deficiencies. An additional potential benefit was the possibility of gaining foreign recognition for the Confederacy, and strengthening the Northern Democrats, who were in favor of making peace with the South. Probably most decisive in Lee's mind however, was that his instinct told him to attack; relinquishing the military initiative and enduring a siege were simply not his style.
       Despite some objections from within the Confederate Cabinet, and misgivings on the part of the Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, Lee eventually was granted permission to undertake his Northern invasion. His first task was that of army reorganization. At Chancellorsville, Lee had lost his "right arm", General Stonewall Jackson, due to an accidental shooting by his own troops. Jackson seemed to have the uncanny knack of almost being able to read Lee's mind, and Lee was careful not to issue Jackson overly specific orders in executing his battle plans. But Lee had other very good commanders. Prior to the Gettysburg Campaign, the Army of Northern Virginia was divided into two large corps, or "wings", one under the command of Jackson, and the second by Lieutenant General James Longstreet, to whom Lee referred as his "Old Warhorse".
       The reorganization divided the army into three corps, keeping Longstreet in command of the First Corps, and promotions of Lieutenant Generals Richard S. Ewell and Ambrose Powell Hill to the command of the Second and Third Corps, respectively. Though both these commanders had been successful, and would go on to further successes, neither had quite that "gift" of Jackson's.
       Lee also had an outstanding cavalry commander, James Ewell Brown (JEB) Stuart, who had literally "run rings" around his Federal counterparts. Now however, Stuart's highly inflated ego may have become responsible for his letting Lee down very badly in the upcoming campaign. Despite the shortcomings of the command structure of the Army of Northern Virginia, there can be no doubt that it was one of the most able and least afflicted by personal differences in the history of warfare. The same cannot be said for their Federal counterpart, the powerful but much misused, Army of the Potomac.
       Major General George Gordon Meade's problems were considerable. The Army of the Potomac's latest commander, appointed only June 28, Meade would not have time to cope with his new responsibilities, yet this decisive struggle had been thrust upon him without warning. His army was large, well-clothed and well-armed, but was a "long-suffering" organization. In two years these Northern veterans had fought six battles, incurring five defeats and a draw that could only be called a bitter failure. During this period, they had served under as many commanders, each which had demonstrated command inferiority to his Southern counterpart. Yet in spite of these circumstances, the men in the ranks displayed no air of being a defeated army. Somehow they had forged a pride and cohesion which had been a trademark of the Southern forces from the beginning. The credit for this can be attributed to the army's corps and division commanders--men like Sedgwick, Sickles, Hancock, Reynolds, and Slocum. These subordinates would prove critical in the upcoming campaign.
       The invasion of the North proper began on June 15, with the leading divisions of Ewell's Corps crossing the Potomac river near Sheperdstown, and entering Maryland. Officially still loyal to the Union, the state had provided several excellent combat units to Lee's army. On June 19, the Maryland-Pennsylvania border was crossed, threatening the cities of Baltimore and Washington and ensuring that Meade would have to respond.
       Lee apparently had no clear idea of where exactly he wished to fight the decisive battle. Orders to Ewell were to advance on a broad front, allowing progress and directions to be determined by the "development of circumstances."
       Early in the Gettysburg Campaign, Ewell had executed a well-organized capture of three Federal garrisons near Winchester, Virginia. Thus, as a new corps commander, he had gotten off to an impressive start. Less impressive was the role played by Stuart's cavalry. Stuart had been rocked by a surprise advance of the Federal cavalry resulting in the Battle of Brandy Station on June 9, the largest cavalry fight of the war. Although the Northern horsemen had ultimately been driven back, Stuart's reputation had been tarnished. He may have been driven to perform another "glory ride" to redeem his reputation, and while off on this enterprise, left Lee's army virtually blind to Federal positions and movements.
       Gettysburg was a small, prosperous farming town. When a Southern brigade first passed through it, its commander noted that it contained a shoe factory. On June 30, a Confederate brigade had been sent to appropriate some of these shoes, but had withdrawn because of a large Federal force seen heading towards the town. The corps commander, Lieutenant General Hill, did not believe the Federals could be so near, and raised no objections when Major General Henry Heth, leading one of Hill's divisions, asked if he could use his superior force to collect some shoes. This was the spark that set off the battle.
       The following day, July 1, 1863, saw the first fighting at Gettysburg. The first encounter was between Heth's brigades and two dismounted Federal cavalry brigades under the command of John Buford. The meeting engagement quickly escalated at a rate that was beyond the comprehension of the commanders on the scene.
       The opening fight, which started around 8 a.m., was at its heaviest in the ridges to the northwest of Gettysburg, first on Herr Ridge, then in and around McPherson Woods. The Union cavalry commander, Brigadier General Buford, had correctly interpreted the Confederate intentions and had placed his dismounted breechloader-carrying troopers to delay the initial Southern advance.
       At this time, the rest of the Army of the Potomac was spread out, heading for a defensive line along a river known as Pipe Creek. On the Confederate side, Ewell's Corps was still well to the north of Gettysburg, and Longstreet's was a day's march to the west. Stuart was still nowhere to be seen.
       The Northern cavalry was quickly outnumbered and Buford urgently sent for help from the Federal commander of the left wing, Major General John Reynolds. When Reynolds arrived, he could see the dismounted cavalrymen being pushed back. He sent an urgent message to General Meade, informing him that the enemy was advancing in strong force on Gettysburg.
       General Meade, still uncertain of the location of Lee's main force or the defensive position he should occupy, was reassured at Reynolds' confidence in making a stand. The brigades of Reynolds' Corps were rapidly becoming engaged in the McPherson Woods. It was only when the Confederates recognized some of the veteran regiments of his corps that they realized for sure that they had run into the Army of the Potomac and were not engaged with Pennsylvania militia.
       Heth reported to Hill that he had encountered a strong Federal force. Hill, apparently ill but not incapacitated, sent back word that Pender's division was being sent to his support. The momentum of the meeting engagement was accelerating.
       Around noon, the Federal forces controlled McPherson Woods, Seminary Ridge, the southern end of Oak Ridge, Barlow Knoll, and the town of Gettysburg itself. Shortly thereafter, Major General Reynolds, the Federal I Corps commander, was killed. Major General Howard, commanding the XI Corps, arrived ahead of his main body and assumed command. Howard's lead units arrived just in time, reinforcing Gettysburg to stall a major Confederate drive on the town. Luckily, Hill had informed Lieutenant General Ewell, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia's Second Corps, that Heth was heavily engaged at Gettysburg. Ewell responded by sending two divisions toward the town. The lead division of Major General Rodes hit Howard's men just as they had established their defensive line. Rodes' initial attacks were thrown back by coordinated defensive fire. The fight along Oak Ridge see-sawed back and forth as both sides were alternately repulsed by massed musketry or short range artillery fire.
       About 2:30 in the afternoon, General Lee arrived at the summit of Herr ridge to observe the fighting. He quickly canceled his initial orders to hold off any major Confederate attack until the army was fully concentrated. He saw Jubal Early's division come into view and concluded that much of the Federal position was vulnerable to becoming trapped between the divisions of Heth, with Pender in support, and the newly arriving division of Early. Being hit in front and flank did have a crushing effect on the defenders of XI Corps. They were routed from their positions and went streaming from Oak Ridge and Barlow Knoll back into Gettysburg. Quickly following, Pender's division pushed the I Corps troops defending Seminary Ridge back into Gettysburg and onto Cemetery Ridge, all in considerable confusion.
       Fortunately for the Federals, Major General Howard had the foresight to leave one of his divisions on Cemetery Hill to construct defenses and secondly, Meade had instructed the highly capable and inspiring Major General Hancock to assume command. Hancock arrived on the field to observe the Federal forces streaming out of Gettysburg and onto Cemetery Hill. General Howard was desperately trying to stem the flow of the Union retreat. Hancock quickly decided to form a defensive line based on Cemetery Hill, but with additional divisions deployed on Culps Hill on the right, and a left flank extending down Cemetery Ridge as far as the Round Tops.
       General Lee was anxious to take advantage of the confusion evident in the Union retreat and attack in force. General Hill successfully argued however, that his own divisions had been too bloodied and were now too fought out to continue that day. Longstreet had arrived on the scene, but his own corps was still some distance away, so a continuation of the attack could only be carried out by Ewell's Corps. Ewell, who was used to receiving unmistakable orders from Stonewall Jackson, was not yet acquainted with Lee's style of issuing orders. Therefore, the discretionary phrasing of Lee's orders, i.e., "attack if practicable", confused him. By the time Ewell finally realized that he had been ordered to take Culps Hill, the opportunity had already gone; the Federal divisions were already dug-in.
       Meade, at his headquarters in Taneytown, was still trying to decide whether to pull back to Pipe Creek or not. However, General Hancock arrived and persuaded him that Gettysburg was the place to make the fight. Now convinced, Meade ordered all remaining corps of the Army of the Potomac to concentrate there and himself started out for Cemetery Ridge.
       The fighting around the town finally died down the evening of July 1. With Lee and Meade now both on the field by early the following morning, the stage had been set, by a completely uncoordinated and uncontrolled sequence of events, for the biggest battle yet of the Civil War.
       Lee's plans for the second day were for Longstreet to launch an attack on the Federal left, around the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield. The attacks were to fall "en echelon" from right to left, with Ewell to coordinate an attack on Culps Hill if the opportunity arose. Having had his own suggestion to Lee concerning a flanking movement to the Confederate right rejected, Longstreet encountered delay upon delay in moving his divisions into place and, when they were finally in the position Lee had wanted them, the situation had changed. The once weak Federal line along the Emmitsburg Road had been reinforced to the point that the Confederate divisional commanders thought it should not be attacked, but instead should move further to the right and attack Little Round Top. In hindsight, the failure of Lee or Longstreet to order an attack on Little Round Top was probably the greatest tactical error of the second day. Its commanding height would have allowed Confederate artillery to enfilade almost the entire Union line.
       When the attack finally did get underway, a Confederate regiment under Colonel Oates did manage to capture the top of Big Round Top. Oates was convinced that the Round Tops held the key to the battlefield. However, the commanders on both sides were occupied with other concerns at the time. The Federals held onto the summit of Little Round Top in one of the better documented small unit actions of the war as the 20th Maine Infantry Regiment and 15th Alabama Infantry Regiment slugged it out on the wooded slopes. The Union left flank remained securely anchored.
       The main Southern assault against the Federal left first pushed the Union troops out of the Peach Orchard, and then the Wheatfield and a rocky hill known as the Devil's Den. Furious fighting characterized this assault, as the soldiers on both sides seemed to sense that this was the decisive encounter. Fortunately for the Union, Meade's line allowed rapid reinforcement of threatened sectors because he had the advantage of interior movement. Thus, Little Round Top was quickly reinforced by V Corps, and VI Corps moved to seal the gap between the Round Tops and the more elevated sections of Cemetery Ridge to the north. After the second day's fighting died down in the evening, the Federals strengthened their prepared defensive positions along Cemetery Ridge and the Round Tops.
       The terrible slaughter of the second day, as massive as it was, did not match what was to happen on the third. General Lee, desperate for a decisive victory, made a particularly bad decision. Some historians have suggested that Lee was suffering from the beginnings of a heart ailment that would eventually kill him, and thus clouded his military judgment that day. Whatever the reason, now Lee, having failed on both Union flanks, would decide to attack the center of the Federal line. What made matters worse was that Meade anticipated that decision on Lee's part. The attack would focus on a copse of trees, near the point now known as The Angle, in the center of Cemetery Ridge.
       The attack would be preceded by a massive artillery bombardment of Cemetery Ridge, by a Grand Battery of 170 guns massed from the Peach Orchard to Seminary Ridge. Pickett's division would then spearhead the main assault of 15,000 Southern infantry, to storm and capture the Union center. A diversionary attack on Culps Hill was to be made to prevent Meade from shifting troops to reinforce his center. Longstreet made one last entreaty to General Lee to call off the attack, but failed. He knew the attack, forever known to history as Pickett's Charge, would fail disastrously.
       The initial diversionary attacks on the Culps Hill sector began around 5 a.m. and subsided about 11 a.m., nothing of significance having been achieved. The next two hours enjoyed a lull in the fighting, until at 1 p.m. the Confederate artillery opened. The 170 guns produced a noise that was absolutely deafening, but many of the Southern shots went long, falling into and creating more damage to units being held in reserve behind the lines than to the front line troops. Although some Federal guns returned counterbattery fire, most conserved their ammunition for the imminent infantry attack. As more Union guns fell silent to conserve ammunition, the impression given to the Confederate artillery commander, Colonel Porter Alexander, was that his own fire was responsible for taking them out of action. It was during this lull that he advised Pickett that if he was going to advance, do it now because the situation would not improve any further. When Pickett asked Longstreet for permission to advance, all he could do was nod, probably overcome with emotion from knowing what would happen. Soon after the Federal guns fell silent, more than 12,000 veteran Southern infantry moved to the attack.
       About 5,700 Federals were posted in defense of the half-mile front that was the focus of the attack of the divisions of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble. With parade ground precision, the Southern ranks moved forward; calmly filling the gaps being blown in the lines by Union artillery and continuing to advance.
       The results are best told by the stark statistics of the charge. Of the 12,000 men who went forward, less than 5,000 would return. Pickett never forgave Lee for what happened. To Lee's credit, he shouldered the entire responsibility for the failure of the assault.        The bloodshed had not quite run its course however. A pointless cavalry charge, ordered by Union Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick, on the Confederate right flank was met with a bloody repulse, and so ended the third day's fighting.
       Expecting Meade to launch a counterattack, Lee ordered his army into a defensive posture. When July 4 came and went without a Union attack, Lee decided to retreat back into Virginia. The Battle of Gettysburg was over. Meade, suspecting Lee of trying to set a trap for him, was slow to pursue. By July 14, despite some clashes with the Federal cavalry in rear-guard actions, Lee was back across the rain-swollen Potomac River. Meade crossed in pursuit but Lee managed to cross both the Rappahannock and the Rapidan rivers, and by August 4, the two armies were more or less back where they had started at the beginning of the campaign.

This Page last updated 11/22/03

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CHAPTER X, The Western Theater: The Tullahoma Campaign