July 1, 1863 – Union Cavalry engaged a force of Confederate soldiers at the small Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg, thus beginning three days of insane fighting and bloodshed now known as the Battle of Gettysburg.
The Civil War, which had raged since the early summer of 1861, showed no signs of slowing down in 1863. In May of 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee scored a tremendous victory over Union General Joseph Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorsville, despite being outnumbered more and two to one. Although Lee’s army suffered over 13,000 casualties in the fighting – nearly 25% of his army – and his best battlefield commander, Stonewall Jackson (felled by friendly fire), Lee felt inspired by the victory. So inspired, in fact, that he decided to press his advantage and take the war into the North once again (his early Northern campaign, in 1862, ended with defeat at Antietam, Maryland).
Lee’s most successful qualities as a general were his willingness to take risks and go on the offensive whenever possible. In the first years of the war his aggressiveness had rewarded him with victories against the more cautious and defensive Union generals.
Lee’s plan was to march his army into Southern Pennsylvania where his troops would be able to feed off of Northern farms for a change, thereby giving Virginia farmers a break from supplying his huge army. Both he and Confederate President Jefferson Davis also hoped that the presence of a large Confederate army, threatening Philadelphia and perhaps even Washington, D.C., would throw the Northern public into a panic and force Lincoln to agree to a peace deal with the Confederacy. If not that, Davis hoped, it might at least bring the Confederacy desperately needed aid from England and France.
In late June, Lee marched his 70,000 man army into southern Pennsylvania (along the way his soldiers took the time to forcibly seize 40 free black Northern civilians and send them back south to be sold as slaves). Lincoln, ever impatient with his generals, replaced General Hooker with a native Pennsylvanian, George Meade, with the idea that a local officer might have more success against Lee (“he would fight well on his own dunghill,” Lincoln is purported to have said). Meade, with the 90,000 man Army of the Potomac, quickly moved to intercept Lee.
On June 30, Lee’s forces were concentrated about 15 miles outside of the tiny southern Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. That day, a number of Confederate soldiers marched into Gettysburg looking for supplies, particularly shoes. While there, they caught sight of some Union Cavalry on the town’s outskirts, and returned to the main Confederate army to report what they had seen. Confederate General AP Hill decided to send a larger force into town to determine the size of the Union force the next day. Although Hill believed that what his men had seen was only a small force of Pennsylvania militia, what they had in fact seen was Meade’s advance Cavalry, under the command of General John Buford.
On July 1, Hill, along with thousands of Confederate soldiers, marched into Gettysburg from the north. There, they ran smack into Buford’s Cavalry. Fierce fighting raged throughout the day. Although outnumbered, Buford’s men were able to make an effective fighting retreat to the aptly named Cemetery Hill south of the town, which provided them a superior defensive position from which to hold off Confederate assaults until the main Union Army could arrive. Particularly crucial to the Union soldiers’ survival was the fact that they had new breech loading carbines, which allowed them to fire far more shots per minute than the Confederate muzzle loading muskets. By the end of the day, the Confederates controlled the town, but the Union forces were safely dug in on the high ground just to the south.
That night and into the next morning, the bulk of both armies arrived at the battlefield for another day of fighting. Lee intended to attack Meade from several sides and surround him, but he was at a severe disadvantage: his own cavalry, under the command of General JEB Stuart, was nowhere to be found, and so Lee had no reconnaissance telling him how Meade’s army was arrayed (Stuart, it turns out, had gone off on a wild-goose chase).
Lee’s forces attempted repeated assaults on the Union defenses along a several mile front, but Meade’s soldiers, holding the high ground, were able to fend off each attack. The fighting – fierce, bloody, and often confusing – raged into the evening. Union soldiers fought desperately against relentless Confederate charges. One typical scene was that of the Union soldiers defending a critical hill called Little Round Top. After repelling one Confederate attack after another they had run out of ammunition. Rather than retreat, they simply ran down the hill in a bayonet charge at the Confederates amassed at the bottom, screaming at the top of their lungs; the ruse scattered the surprised and terrified rebels, allowing the Union to hold the hill.
By the end of the second day of fighting, nothing had changed except the sizes of the two armies: in two days of fighting, Meade’s army had suffered about 20,000 casualties, while Lee had lost about 13,000 men. There was worse to come.
On July 3, Lee once again went on the offensive, determined to crush Meade’s army. He ordered three of his divisions, totaling over 12,000 men, to charge the center of the Union position on Cemetery Ridge, where he believed that the Union line was at its weakest. These soldiers would have to run across three-quarters of a mile of open ground, unprotected from the Union rifle and cannon fire that was sure to rain down upon them, before even reaching the Union defenses.
Although Lee gave command of the assault to General James Longstreet, the actual charge was named after one of Longstreet’s commanders, General George Pickett. Longstreet himself knew that the charge was suicide and argued bitterly with Lee that it would be a mistake. Nevertheless, Lee insisted, and Longstreet had to reluctantly follow his orders. Lee should have listened to Longstreet. The Union forces were dug in behind a stone wall and well protected by cannon.
Before the charge, Confederate cannon opened a barrage towards the Union artillery positions, hoping to knock them out. Meade, low on cannonballs and canister shot (basically a bag of musket balls that, when fired out of a cannon, are devastating to approaching soldiers), ordered his cannon to hold fire. This gave the impression to the southerners that the Union cannon had been destroyed. They were not.
Pickett’s 12,500 men began their march expecting to face only musket fire; instead, as they closed in on the Union lines, they were met with a sudden barrage of cannon and rifle fire. The exposed Confederate soldiers were blasted apart. Through sheer bravery and force of will some of the Confederate soldiers were actually able to reach the Union lines, where there was some fierce hand-to-hand combat. Soon enough, however, they were driven back, and the few survivors had to retreat back across the field past their dead and dying comrades. While the Union defenders suffered about 1,500 casualties, over 6,000 Confederates lay dead or wounded – a casualty rate of 50%.
The nightmare of Pickett’s Charge effectively ended the battle. Admitting defeat, Lee retreated with his battered army back to Virginia, later acknowledging that the disaster was “all my fault.” After three days of fighting, and critically low on ammunition, Meade did not pursue Lee. The three-day Battle of Gettysburg was finally over, as was Meade’s brief command of the Army of the Potomac; Lincoln, angry that Meade did not chase Lee and finish him off, sacked him.
When the bodies were finally counted, the results were beyond belief, even for a nation that had suffered through Antietam, Shiloh and Chancellorsville. The two sides had suffered nearly 50,000 casualties combined over the course of the three-day battle, or about a third of their armies. More than 8,000 men had been killed – not including those who would later die from their wounds. One civilian also was killed: a 20 year-old Gettysburg woman who died when a stray bullet hit her while she was in her kitchen baking bread. Meanwhile, the town of Gettysburg had to deal with thousands of dead soldiers who needed to be buried quickly in the hot July summer heat.
The battle marked the turning point in the war. Lee was no longer viewed as invincible by the Northern public or press. Lee’s army, moreover, had suffered so many casualties that Lee no longer had enough soldiers to fight offensively any more. Never again would a Confederate army threaten the North. Davis’s hope for English or French help was dashed for good. In the end, all the South could do was sit back and wait for the inevitable Northern invasion and hope to hold on. Spoiler alert – they could not.