Monday, February 05, 2007
Battle of Gettysburg
Battle of Gettysburg
Emboldened by the victory at Chancellorsville, General Robert E. Lee thought the time was right to take the conflict onto Northern soil where his army could threaten Harrisburg, Philadelphia or Washington.
Although, for the most part, in the east, the Civil War was fought in Virginia, the Northern states were always under threat of attack from General Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. On March 30, the Army of Northern Virginia crossed the Potomac River and marched into Pennsylvania. The people of the cities, towns and villages in Pennsylvania were in a panic. Many citizens of Harrisburg began to pack their belongings onto wagons to flee the oncoming rebel troops. Emergency Militia units were raised in a matter of hours, rather than days, all across the state to meet the enemy and to protect their home lands. As it turned out, all of the Emergency Melita units were held in defensive positions and none saw any action. For the most part, all of the volunteers that populated these emergency units were back home within twelve days.
Confederate forces heading north
General Joe Hooker, the Federal Commander, received regular reports of the movements of the Confederate Army and had at least two days notice that Lee's Army was moving northward, but he was slow to react. At the time, Hooker was bickering with his superiors in Washington and in a heated discussion, offered his resignation, which, much to his surprise, was accepted. On June 28th, Gen. George G. Meade was awakened in his tent and informed that he had been appointed the Commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade accepted the new post reluctantly. Unlike Hooker, Meade was generally mild mannered, although occasional outburst earned him the nickname "Old Snapping Turtle." Meade immediately ordered his army to proceed in the general north-westerly direction. The armies would invariably meet at the highway hub called Gettysburg.
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over three hot summer days to the south of the small market town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. It began as a skirmish but by its end involved 160,000 Americans.
General George Meade
The Union Army of the Potomac under its very new and untried commander, General George G. Meade, marched to intercept Lee. On Tuesday morning, June 30, an infantry brigade of Confederate soldiers searching for shoes headed toward Gettysburg (population 2,400). The Confederate commander looked through his field glasses and spotted a long column of Federal cavalry heading toward the town. He withdrew his brigade and informed his superior, Gen. Henry Heth.
Wednesday morning, July 1, two divisions of Confederate troops headed back toward Gettysburg. They ran into Federal cavalry west of the town at Willoughby Run and the skirmish began. Events would quickly escalate. Lee rushed 25,000 men to the scene. The Union Army, at this time, had less than 20,000 seasoned troops on hand.
The fighting was fierce with heavy casualties on both sides. The Federal Army was pushed back through the town of Gettysburg and regrouped south of the town along the high ground near the cemetery. Lee ordered Confederate General R.S. Ewell to seize the high ground from the battle weary Federals, "if practicable." Gen. Ewell hesitated to attack thereby giving the Union troops a chance to dig in along Cemetery Ridge and bring in reinforcements with artillery. By the time Lee realized Ewell had failed to initiate an attacked, the opportunity had vanished.
Meade arrived at the scene and determined that this could be an ideal place to do battle with Lee's Army. Meade anticipated reinforcements of upwards of 100,000 men to arrive and strengthen his defensive position. Meade redeployed his army along a strongly fortified line backed by well-placed field artillery. The Federal line was laid out on a stretch of high ground known as Cemetery Ridge, which extended southward for more than a mile from a cemetery at the edge of town to a high wooded hill called Little Round Top. The Union troops piled up stones and fence rails for breastworks and waited for the inevitable Confederate attack.
Confederate General James Longstreet saw the Union position as nearly impregnable and told Lee it should be left alone. He argued that Lee's Army should instead move east between the Union Army and Washington and build a defensive position thus forcing the Federals to attack them instead.
General Lee and his staff
However, Lee believed his own army was invincible and he was also without his much needed cavalry which served as his eyes and ears during troop movements. Cavalry leader Jeb Stuart had gone off with his troops to harass the Federals. Stuart's expedition would turn out to be, for the most part, a wild goose chase which left Lee at a disadvantage until he returned.
Lee determined that an attack on the Union Army's defensive position at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge would be his best hope as he thought it was less well defended.
About 10 a.m. the next morning, Thursday, July 2, Gen. Lee ordered Gen. Longstreet to attack, but Longstreet was quite slow in getting his troops into position and didn't attack until 4 p.m. that afternoon thus giving the Union Army even more time to strengthen its position.
When Longstreet did attack the Union position, some of the most bitter fighting of the Civil War erupted at places such as Little Round Top, Devil's Den, the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard. Longstreet successfully took the Peach Orchard but was driven back at Little Round Top.
The Wheat field
About 6:30 p.m. Gen. Ewell attacked the Union line from the north and east at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. The attack lasted into darkness but was finally unsuccessful at Cemetery Hill, although the Rebels seized some trenches on Culp's Hill.
The fighting came to an end about 10:30 p.m. The Union Army had lost some ground during the Confederate onslaught but still held the strong defensive position along Cemetery Ridge. Both sides regrouped and counted their causalities.
Generals from each side gathered in war councils to plan for the coming day. Union commander Meade decided his army would remain in place and wait for Lee to attack. On the Confederate side, Longstreet once again tried to talk Lee out of attacking such a strong position. But Lee thought the battered Union soldiers were nearly beaten and would collapse under one final push.
"Cemetery Hill" Art by © Mort Kunstler
Lee thought that by attacking the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge where it would be least expected that he could break the Union line. To do this he would send in the fresh troops of Gen. George Pickett. At the same time, Gen. Ewell would renew the assault on Culp's hill.
But as dawn broke on Friday, July 3, about 4:30 a.m., Lee's timetable was undermined as Union cannons pounded the Rebels on Culp's Hill to drive them from the trenches. The Rebels did not withdraw, but instead launched an attack against the Federals. Thus began a vicious three hour struggle with the Rebels charging time after time up the hill only to be beaten back. The Federals finally counter attacked and drove the Rebels off the hill and east across Rock Creek. Around 11 a.m. the fighting on Culp's Hill stopped and an eerie quiet settled over the battlefield.
Once again Lee encountered opposition to his battle plan from Longstreet. Lee estimated about 15,000 men would participate in the Rebel charge on Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet responded, "It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." But Lee was unmoved. The plan would go on as ordered.
Throughout the morning and into the afternoon amid 90° heat and stifling humidity the Rebels moved into position in the woods opposite Cemetery Ridge for the coming charge. Interestingly, some Union troops were moved away from Cemetery Ridge on Meade's orders because he thought Lee would attack again to the south. Several hours before, Meade had correctly predicted Lee would attack the center, but now thought otherwise. He left only 5,750 infantrymen stretched out along the half-mile front to initially face the 13,000 man Rebel charge.
General Lee and General Longstreet, the third day
Lee sent Jeb Stuart's recently returned cavalry to go behind the Union position in order to divert Federal forces from the main battle area. Around noon, Union and Confederate cavalry troops clashed three miles east of Gettysburg but Stuart was eventually repulsed by punishing cannon fire and the Union cavalry led in by 23 year old Gen. George Custer. The diversion attempt failed.
Back at the main battle site, just after 1 p.m. about 170 Confederate cannons opened fire on the Union position on Cemetery Ridge to pave the way for the Rebel charge. This was the heaviest artillery barrage of the war but many of the Rebel shells missed their targets and flew harmlessly overhead.
The Federals returned heavy cannon fire and soon big clouds of blinding smoke and dust hung over the battlefield. Around 2:30 p.m. the Federals slowed their rate of fire, then ceased, to conserve ammunition and to fool the Rebels into thinking the cannons were knocked out - which is exactly what the Rebels did think.
General George Pickett
Pickett went to see Longstreet and asked, "General, shall I advance?" Longstreet, now overwhelmed with emotion, did not respond, but simply bowed his head and raised his hand. Thus the order was given.
"Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia!" yelled Pickett as 13,000 Rebels formed an orderly line that stretched a mile from flank to flank. In deliberate silence and with military pageantry from days gone by, they slowly headed toward the Union Army a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. "I had often read of battles and charges; had been in a few myself," a Federal officer on Cemetery Ridge later recalled, "but until this moment I had not gazed upon so grand a sight as was presented by that beautiful mass of gray, with its small square colors, as it came on in serried array..."
General Garrett urging the Rebels forward at Pickett's Charge
But as the Rebels got within range, Federal cannons using grapeshot and deadly accurate rifle volleys ripped into the Rebels killing many and tearing holes in the advancing line. What had been, just moments before, a majestic line of Rebel infantry, quickly became a horrible mess of dismembered bodies and dying wounded soldiers. But the Rebels continued on.
A fierce battle raged for an hour with much brutal hand to hand fighting. For a brief moment, the Rebels nearly had their chosen objective, a small clump of oak trees atop Cemetery Ridge. But Union reinforcements and regrouped infantry units swarmed in and opened fire on the Rebel ranks. The battered, outnumbered Rebels finally began to give way and this great human wave that had been Pickett's Charge began to recede as the men drifted back down the slope. The supreme effort of Lee's army had been beaten back, leaving 7,500 of his men lying on the field of battle.
Lee rode out and met the survivors, telling them, "It is all my fault." And to Pickett he said, "Upon my shoulders rests the blame."
General Lee: "It's all my fault!"
Confederate causalities in dead, wounded and missing were 28,000 out of 75,000. Union casualties were 23,000 out of 88,000.
Today Pickett's Charge is one of the most celebrated of all American military encounters, ranking with the actions of the minuteman at Lexington and Concord, the incident at Little Big Horn. It has come down to us through poetry, painting and historical studies as a riveting moment in time. Indeed, it may well be the most mythic of all American military events: the gallant soldiers of the South, the golden-haired Pickett at their head, bravely walking through shot and shell, led over the wall by the valiant Armistead, only to be beaten back by the stalwart sons of the Union.
That night and into the next day, Saturday, July 4, Confederate wounded were loaded aboard wagons that began the journey back toward the South. Lee was forced to abandon his dead and begin a long slow withdrawal of his army back to Virginia. Union commander Meade, out of fatigue and caution, did not immediately pursue Lee.
The great assault collapsed against the might of the Northern army. The wars greatest battle resulted in a staggering Confederate defeat. Lee's losses were devastating. Never again would the South come so close to winning its independence. The Battle of Gettysburg would prove to be the turning point of the American Civil War.
The Union Conquers Vicksburg
On this same day, July 4, 1863, Vicksburg, Mississippi fell to Gen. U. S. Grant. The siege of Vicksburg had begun on May 18, 1863 and ended with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, thus freeing Gen. Grant from his assignment in the west.
A little more than four months later, on November 19, President Abraham Lincoln was invited to the Gettysburg battlefield to make a few appropriate remarks at the dedication ceremonies creating the first National Cemetery. The principle speaker on that occasion was Edward Everett of Massachusetts. He delivered an eloquent two hour recitation. Then President Lincoln stood at the podium. He spoke in his high, penetrating voice and in a little over two minutes delivered his Gettysburg Address. Many in the audience were surprised by its brevity and generally, the newspapers ridiculed the presidents remarks. Edward Everett, however, commented that what had taken him two hours to portray, Lincoln had captured the spirit and the importance of the occasion in a just a few words. History and time would prove the power of Lincoln's well chosen words.
Although in his speech, Lincoln did not make a distinction between the combatants, it should be noted that only Union soldiers were disinterred from their battlefield graves to be interred in the new Gettysburg National Cemetery. Confederate combatants were left in mass graves on the field of battle.
Gettysburg National Cemetery
Arlington National Cemetery, in Arlington Virginia, buried it's first military service man, Pvt. William Henry Christman, 67th Pennsylvania Infantry, who was interred on May 13, 1864. Although Arlington National Cemetery has become the largest and best known of all National cemeteries, because of its close proximity to Washington, The new National Cemetery at Gettysburg was the first cemetery to be designated a National Cemetery.
Outside of the Gettysburg National Cemetery, the Union and West End Cemetery in Allentown, Lehigh County, has more Union Civil War Veterans buried within the grounds than any other cemetery in Pennsylvania.
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