Monday, October 24, 2011

Wrapping it up: A final Gettysburg overview

A summary and comments on the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a famous battle of the American Civil war. It took place over July 1-3, 1863 at a small town in southeastern Pennsylvania.

The American Civil War was fought between the northern "Union" states and the 11 secessionist southern states. The secession of those 11 states was not recognized by President Abraham Lincoln or the rest of the American government. The Confederate States of America was never recognized as an independent nation by any country.

Both sides had several armies. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought between the Army of the Potomac (north) and the Army of Northern Virginia.

Both armies were organized into several large groups called corps. In turn, corps were made up of divisions. Divisions were made up of brigades. Brigades consisted of regiments and regiments were made up of companies, the smallest unit of organization. Corps were usually simply assigned Roman numerals, and were also known by the name of their commander. Divisions and brigades were usually simply referred to (by Civil War historians) by the name of their commanding officer. Regiments were named after the states that raised them, preceded by a number; companies were almost always simply known by letters. Some had unofficial or official nicknames.

At Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia was commanded by Robert E. Lee. The Army of the Potomac was commanded by George G. Meade.

The invasion of the North by the Army of Northern Virginia began in early June, 1863, when that army crossed the Rapidan river and began their march north toward Pennsylvania. Coincidentally, the new state of West Virginia was admitted to the Union effective June 20 while the Confederates were marching north across part of it.

The Army of the Potomac crossed the Rappahannock shortly thereafter and also began marching north, shadowing the Army of Northern Virginia, staying generally between Lee's army and Washington City. The armies continued north, paralleling each other. Lee's cavalry also proceeded northward, but (with Lee's permission) moved, on June 26, to the east of the Army of the Potomac, then resumed northward between the Union Army and Washington. Those three brigades of Lee's cavalry (Stuart) left the main army on June 26 and rejoined it on July 2.

The march northward took most of the month of June. There were some major encounters between the two armies as they proceeded northward.

With relation to the town of Gettysburg, Lee's army columns ended up marching to the west of the town, and the Union army to the east of the town. One corps of Lee's army was sent further north past Gettysburg. Lee's cavalry, still farther to the east, also proceeded farther north than Gettysburg. The original plan was for II Corps (Ewell) and Lee's Cavalry (Stuart) to link up and perhaps take Harrisburg, the Pennsylvania state capital, but both were recalled south to Gettysburg when it became obvious to Lee that a major battle would be fought at Gettysburg.

On the last day of June, elements of the two armies sighted each other when a forward unit of Lee's army, intending to enter the town of Gettysburg, encountered a group of Union recon cavalry. The Confederate party returned to their main body after this brief encounter.

The next morning, on July 1, a larger force of two confederate divisions (Heth, Pender) were sent into Gettysburg with the intent of driving out the Union cavalry. The Union cavalry resisted the Confederate advance into Gettysburg, and held the forward units of the Confederates long enough for the Union I Corps (Reynolds) to begin arriving from the south. Lee immediately ordered concentration of his entire army at Gettysburg. The morning battle at Gettysburg intensified as more and more units from both sides began to arrive and engage.

Meade did not receive word of the large engagement taking place at Gettysburg until later in the morning, at which time he, too, sent out orders to all his corps commanders to come to Gettysburg, and notified the War Department in Washington. He also dispatched General Hancock, the commander of the Union II Corps, ahead to organize and align the Union troops as they arrived at Gettysburg, until Mead himself could come up. The furthest distant, the Union VI Corps (Sedgewick) in Maryland, did not receive Meade's orders until near midnight, but the large 16,000-man corps was mobilized immediately and was force-marching to Gettysburg by 3 a.m.

After initial Union success in the morning of day one, more and more of the Confederate army began arriving and made fine progress before the bulk of the Union arrived on site and got in line. The Union I Corps (Reynolds/Doubleday) units were driven back and back until they were routed, pursued through the streets of Gettysburg, to Culp's hill, up Culp's hill and Cemetery Hill. Many Union prisoners were taken.

The above describes the state of the battlefield as of late afternoon on day one. There was plenty of light left, as it was July 1.

Confederate II Corps (Ewell) declined to pursue.

End of day one.

During the night, the Confederates could hear the sound of axes and picks and shovels as the Union troops labored through the night on fortifications, and, corps by corps, the rest of the Army of the Potomac, except the distant VI Corps, arrived on the field. General Meade arrived on the field at about 3 a.m., assumed personal command of the field (from Hancock), and set up headquarters. Come daylight of day two, it was a very different sight indeed which greeted Confederate eyes.

On the morning of day two, Lee ordered a simultaneous assault on both flanks of the Union line.

[Note: the Union right flank or northern end of the Union line, closest to the town of Gettysburg, would have been on a Confederate soldier's left. The Union left flank or south end of the Union line, would have been to a Confederate soldier's right.]

Lee's intent was (apparently) an enveloping action, but was not coordinated simultaneously. Because of this failure to attack both flanks simultaneously, Meade was able to use troops from the center of his line to reinforce first his left flank, then (to a lesser extent) his right simply by moving some troops back and forth. A coordinated attack by Ewell and Longstreet on both flanks at once (as Lee had apparently envisioned) would have (perhaps) denied Meade the ability to reinforce both of his flanks.

For his own reasons, Longstreet (Confederate I Corps) did not choose to begin his assault on the Union's left flank (south) until 4 p.m. or shortly thereafter (but, contrary to lore and even some history books, Lee had not ordered Longstreet to attack "at dawn" or at any other specific time; Longstreet was given the discretion to engage at will, when ready; and Ewell was to attack the other Union flank when Longstreet's artillery opened.) Nevertheless, the Federals used the extra time to continue digging in. Lee might have preferred earlier, but he was well aware of Longstreet's deliberateness. When Longstreet finally opened on the Union left flank, the attack was fierce, with some of the bloodiest fighting seen so far. American military lore is filled with odd names from that afternoon: Little Round Top. Devil's Den. The Wheatfield. The Peach Orchard. Longstreet saw some results and gained some ground, yet he was not successful in taking the high ground from the Federals, or in fully turning Mead's left flank.

Ewell did not attack exactly simultaneously (as previously pointed out) at the sound of Longstreet's guns, but did begin his own (poorly reconned) bombardment at about 5 p.m. - which the superior Union artillery answered, immediately and emphatically, pounding Ewell's guns until their position on bald and vulnerable Benner's Hill became untenable and the Confederate artillery commander requested permission to withdraw. Thus, at about 7 p.m., with only 4 guns remaining in support, Ewell attacked the Union right at Culp's Hill with Johnson and, later, near nightfall, Cemetery Hill with Early.

The Federals (though thinned by Meads taking much of his right to reinforce his south flank) held Culp's Hill, driving the Confederates back down the hill and into the trenches they themselves had recently occupied. As for Cemetery Hill, attacked even later, Early met with more success and made it to the top of the hill, where Howard's XI Corps panicky "Dutchmen" broke and ran again. However II Corps (Hancock) sent reinforcements and (along with the XI Corps "returnees") drove Early back down again and retained control of Cemetery Hill when the fighting ended at about 10:30 that night. The fighting was sure to resume at daybreak or before.

With the cessation of firing of both muskets and artillery, quiet descended over the field, the light of the full moon illuminating the corpses lying helter skelter on the hillsides and valley. Soon, the only sounds were the sobs and moaning of the wounded, begging for assistance and for water from their comrades, combined with the noises of the maimed and dying horses. Those still alive on both sides were becoming used to that sad sound, that continual wail. But attempts at aid would likely only lay them dead next to the already fallen.

At nightfall on day two, there weren't nearly as many participants of either side still standing, but the Union, thinner on the flanks, and reinforced as needed from the center, still held the high ground on the east.

And so ended day two at Gettysburg. Day two had been a blood bath, but nothing had been decided. Day three would be do or die for both sides. Day three would decide the Battle of Gettysburg, and, some say, it decided the future of the United States.

Day three saw the battle for Culp's Hill and the Federal right flank resume before daylight. General Lee had given Ewell instructions to resume the attack on the Union right in the morning. But while Ewell slept, the decision-making for the hour of resumption passed from Ewell to the Union Army. During the night, between the time of the cessation of fighting at 10:30 p.m. and the wee hours of the morning, while Ewell slept, Slocum (Union XII Corps) had been positioning big guns along Power's and McAlister's Hills, commanding the valley before Culp's Hill. Before Ewell stirred, at 3:45 a.m., with the Confederates still asleep in the trenches below, with the faintest hint of dawn in the sky, Union Brigadier General John W. Geary drew his service pistol and fired a single shot in the air. At the signal, the Federal guns began to belch fire and molten metal down on the Confederates still clinging to the hill and in the trenches.

Throughout the mind-numbing 7-hour battle for Culp's Hill, Ewell continued to order frontal assaults. The Union troops on the hill were veterans and poured down deadly concentrated musket shot into the attackers. Still they came. In the end, the Confederates would be calling it "Death Hill." It is hard to describe the terrible casualties inflicted on the Confederates during those unimaginable 7 hours. For example, the 3rd North Carolina started with 300 muskets and ended up with 77 men, or about a 75% loss. Finally, at about 11 a.m., both armies were utterly exhausted. The fighting died down, as if by mutual consent. What was left of the Confederates retired. The Union did not pursue. Both sides were in shock. In subsequent years of analysis, the battle of Culp's Hill would be acknowledged as the scene of some of the most determined fighting of the war.

As the Federals ventured out, Kane's brigade found 500 dead Confederates in its front. "Somewhere among them was a squat little man, Wesley Culp, a private in Company B, 2nd Virginia, of the Stonewall Brigade. He was twenty-four and because he was only five feet tall, Colonel Douglas had had a special gun made for him. Where he fell he could look at the house where he had been born. He had gone to Virginia to sell Gettysburg carriages and Southern eyes made him stay."

The carnage of day three wasn't over by far. Day three would also see a full frontal assault of the Union center by three divisions of the Confederate army. Across that open three-quarter mile area between Seminary Ridge and the long Union line, entrenched on the opposing heights, and fortified by scores, hundreds, of fire-breathing cannon, marched the men of Pickett, Pettigrew (replacing Heth) and Trimble (replacing Pender.) Truly it was the Valley of Death. The world now knows the result of that fateful charge, in which 12,500 Confederate soldiers were repulsed with over 50% casualties, but what must it have been like to be there, to feel and hear the booming and crashing and screaming, and breathe the acrid gunsmoke and be a part of that battle? I don't know. The following words come to mind:

"And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him."

After the repulse, General Lee told Pickett to regroup his division.

"General, I have no division."





  1. It was not a pretty battle. Too much death.

    No one wins a battle like that. At best, you lose less severely.

  2. Applause! Brilliant writing!
    That made the battle very clear to the ignorant.
    It also shows why WW1 generals were so afraid the 'war of movement' would cease. They knew what would happen. The same story of siege against higher ground and vast casualties. There is no doubt this was an incredible waste of life to little end. Diplomacy and politics fail and this is the result.

    You have done a great job here Max, this was well worth the effort!

  3. @Stephanie Barr - Nobody wins at war. But sometimes you get attacked and have to defend yourself. Not in this war, but sometimes. Somehow the Civil War seems less abstract than some others. Almost everyone has an ancestor who was killed in it. Mine died at Petersburg.

    @Adullamite - Thank you, sir. You have got me studying ships now, so if you see anything about the Hood and Jutland soon, you can blame yourself. I have never been much into naval warfare before, but now I already know what a battlecruiser is. Was. I was surprised to learn that in ancient past, the UK had a very large navy indeed. :)

    @Sue - Yes, it was long. And you didn't even read it, so imagine how long it must have been for those interested in that sort of thing. :) But thank you for visiting. I am REALLY trying to be shorter! I will just choose shorter subjects.

  4. Great post and I am sad this thread is over.

    Also, not that I can mention the battle by name but from what I understand there was the first hint at WWI with a trench warfare standoff right at the end of the war.

  5. @Rocketscientist - Thank you. And you are right about several instances of trench warfare being evidenced. In fact, one of Robert E. Lee's nicknames from his belabored troops was "spade" Lee. He was an engineer by education and often went to extremes in his fortification/trench works. Grant was good at besieging those fortifications. Good at killing a lot of his own men in the process, too.



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