Battle of Gettysburg
Backstory and Context
On July 1, 1863, General John Buford, and his cavalry spotted Confederate troops marching down the Chambersburg Pike. He dismounted his soldiers, taking position behind fenceworks; they opened the Battle of Gettysburg. There were more skirmishes during the first day than actual strategic battles. However, during the fighting, Major General John Reynolds was shot in the neck and died shortly afterwards. The Union took the high ground and dug in, and continued to attack the Confederates throughout the day. By the end of the day, the Northern troops were forced to retreat back through the town. The army regrouped and was resupplied to get ready themselves for a long battle the next day.
The 2nd day brought more fighting. Possible opportunities gained and lost by the Confederates. By this time the Union was dug in, around the town and the Confederates began launching attacks on the flanks of the Union line. General Richard Ewell’s brigade was to attack the Union flank on Culp’s Hill. General Lee told him he was to continue attacking the hill all-day and if necessary, even into the night: to “Take the hill if practicable”. This line “if Practical” in the communication from Lee, gave Ewell more latitude in the orders than Lee had intended. Furthermore, General Lee ordered General Longstreet to storm and take Little Round Top. If it weren’t for Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine, Longstreet’s attack on Little Round Top would have succeeded. Little round top was crucial to the Union. It was the end of the Union line and if they failed the rest of the line was doomed. The Confederates attacked uphill in waves, hitting the 20th Maine the whole day. Colonel Chamberlain’s troops were running low on ammo and without an end in sight; Colonel Chamberlain pulled one of the most drastic moves of battle. He led a ‘swinging door’ charge downhill, pushing the Confederates off Little Round Top. Because of the Confederate mishaps, the Union ended up taking the victory that day, and sent the Confederates back to regroup and prepare for the next day. The 3rd day of battle would become the most controversial battle of all.
The night of July 2, General Robert E. Lee drew up a plan that he thought would break through the Union line. The plan was a three-prong assault on the Union line, called a ‘fishhook, because of the shape of the defensive position. The first part was to send 15,000 men from Longstreet’s Corps, over a mile of open ground to break through the center of the Union line. Lee planned to focus an infantry attack, historically referred to as Pickett’s Charge, on the center of the Meade’s line, because he knew the middle would be the weakest point, given the fact they fought the day before. The middle of the line consisted of two regiments that were on the flank of the line because they had been severely beaten up. According to many military historians three things that were supposed to happen on the third day of the battle. The plan was to open the battle early in the day with an artillery barrage intended to weaken the Union line, followed by the infantry attack, (but the attack was delayed until 1 in the afternoon). At the same time, on the eastern part of the battlefield, General J.E.B. Stuart, and his cavalry, was assigned to go to the rear of the Union line and hit Meade from behind. Simultaneously, with the infantry attack, Gen. Ewell's Corps, reinforced with three brigades, was to continue the assault on the Federal right at Culp's Hill, which would fail miserably with heavy losses.
On July 3, 1863, approximately 15,000 men, 9 brigades, from three different Confederate commands, were poised to attack the Union line at Cemetery Ridge. The defending Union army numbered around 6500 well-positioned Federal soldiers, supported by cannon. “Lieutenant General James Longstreet thought the plan futile and only reluctantly agreed to it, telling Lee "no 15,000 men who ever lived could take that position." (1) The assault was preceded by an artillery bombardment of 150 Confederate guns, possibly the largest artillery battery ever assembled on the North American continent. 75 Union cannon returned fire. The majority of the Confederate explosions overshot the targets and did little, if any, damage. Confederate infantry moved out of their cover in a one-and-a-half miles long line and began their advance across a mile of open ground. The field was lined with broken fences that stalled their attack. The Confederate artillery was supposed start up again to support the infantry advance but the canon crews had run out of ammunition.
Longstreet’s orders to Pickett were to head toward a ‘copse of trees’ on the Union line. The lines of attacking Confederate soldiers were told to use the trees to guide their movement across the field. They would shift the their ‘march’ in unison, closing ranks, and filling in gaps in their lines. Canon, minie ball, and rifle shot took a deadly toll on the Rebel forces. Confederate dead and wounded lay scattered on the field, but forces under the command of General Lewis Armistead, breeched the Union line, but they were too few to do any damage. Armistead was mortally wounded. The remnants of the original 15,000 Confederates retreated in in disorder, falling back to the trees from which they came.
Longstreet prepared the reserves and every able-bodied soldier for the expected counterattack by the Federal army, but Meade, fearing a trap did not push his advantage. Unaware that the Confederate artillery had no ammunition, and Longstreet had loss all 15 of his regimental commanders and 3000 men, and Brig. General James Pettigrew had lost half of his command. Another missed opportunity for the North was lost.
Several historians believe that Lee might have been planning a tremendous coup; something that could have ended the war that day. Unfortunately, what did occur that day, was the slaughter of thousands of Confederate soldiers. General Lee’s plan to was penetrate the Union line with a frontal attack; draw Union attention away by striking the Union right with Ewell, and Stuart’s cavalry would trap the Union from behind. In essence, the plan was brilliant; in execution, it was filled with flaws. General Stuart was to fire off two cannon shots to let the Lee know he was in position. When those two shots rang off, General David Gregg the commanding General of the Union Calvary sent General George Custer to investigate the cannon shots. Custer’s Michigan Cavalry Brigade was great outnumbered by the General Stuart’s cavalry. Custer immediately engaged Stuart. The battle lines between the two combatants exploded and Custer was relentless with his attack against Stuart, leading his men from the front, Custer was able to turn General Stuart back. The union cavalry lost 219 men during the battle. Had General Custer lost the battle Stuart would have rolled through the Union defense, causing the Union Army to break and run, as they did at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Pickett’s Charge would have worked.
The Confederates lost the day, the battle and changed the tide of the war. General Lee retreated back down south. General Meade followed for a little but didn’t make a huge effort because he wanted to let his soldiers be able to rest after three days of battle. General Custer and his Cavalry ended up perusing General Lee to the Potomac River, and then he was ordered to cease and go back.