Overview

In 1863 the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, was roughly 2,400 residents and was primarily a farming community. By July 1863, the quiet little town of Gettysburg was the epicenter of one of the most brutal battles in Civil War history.

Following the Battle of Chancellorsville, in May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee was ignited with pride and confidence in his troops after a decisive Confederate victory. Lee’s decision to split his army in the presence of a much greater enemy force was questioned, but the result was a significant success that illustrated Lee’s audacity against the enemy. After the battle, Lee was quoted, “I believe my men are invincible.” Lee’s next objective was to move north and capture a town north of Washington D.C. to further prove the strength of his Army of Northern Virginia; he set his sights on Harrisburg the state capitol of Pennsylvania. Lee had 75,000 troops organized into three army corps commanded by Brig. Gen. Longstreet, Gen. Ewell, Brig. Gen. Hill and Calvary division led by Gen. Stuart, set to head north and concentrate at Cashtown, 12 miles northwest of Gettysburg.

At the time, the Union army was unaware of Lee’s plan to press north. Union cavalry had a run in with the three divisions of Confederate cavalry that had moved north, near Brandy Station and the result was the largest cavalry battle of the war. The Union army was now aware of the movement of Confederate troops. Union Gen. Hooker commander of the Army of the Potomac drew his troops back across the Rappahannock River and ordered them to head north. Brig. Gen. Buford’s cavalry division rode north on a reconnaissance mission, and on June 30 his men occupied the town of Gettysburg for the Union army. When Lee learned that the town of Gettysburg was being held by Union troops, he sent two divisions down Chambersburg Road straight into Gettysburg to drive out the Union cavalry and occupy the town.

The Battle of Gettysburg was broken up into three different days of fighting. The first shots were fired at 5:30 a.m. on July 1, 1863. With no word from Stuart, Lee did not want to engage in battle without knowing the strength of the enemy or the area. The terrain was being utilized by Union troops who held the high ground after retreating from Confederate fire around 4 p.m. Union losses for the day totaled over 9,000 while Confederate losses totaled 6,500 resulting in a Confederate victory. Both Union and Confederate troops were strengthened by reinforcements throughout the night.

High on victory and reinforced by almost 20,000 men, Lee renewed the battle on July 2. Confederate troops stormed Union positions at Little Round Top, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. The Confederate troops were unsuccessful, although they gained ground; they failed to remove Union troops from their vantage points. The casualties of day 2 reached nearly 9,000 for both the Union and the Confederate troops. During the night of July 2, Maj. Gen. Pickett and Gen. Stuart reinforced Confederate forces.

On day 3, under Lee’s orders, Confederate troops once again attacked Union strongholds. Longstreet was ordered to attack the Union left flank, Ewell was to attack the Union right flank on Culp’s Hill simultaneously and Pickett was to lead an attack and crush the Union center line. Miscommunication between Lee and Longstreet foiled the plan of a coordinated. The newly formed plan consisted of bombing the Union center on Cemetery Ridge with 140 cannons followed Pickett and his men charging. Although Longstreet disagreed with this plan of attack he followed through. At 1:00 p.m. on July 3, the final battle had begun. Longstreet opened cannon fire, and the Union troops retaliated with a bombardment from their 80 cannons.  Cannon fire lasted for almost two hours, once it subsided, Pickett’s infantry charged forward. What is known as “Pickett’s Charge” ended in sheer devastation to the Confederate forces that underwent Union artillery and gunfire while charging across an open field resulting in 5,600 Confederate casualties. Confederate forces retreated, and the battle was over.

The Battle of Gettysburg was a major turning point in the Civil War. Both the Union and Confederate forces suffered devastating losses with a total casualty count upwards of 55,000

References:

Foote, Shelby. Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign June-July 1863. New York: Random House, 1994.

Hess, Earl J. Pickett’s Charge: The Last Day at Gettysburg. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

Jennifer Murray PhD. “This Republic of Suffering.” HIST 304 Civil War and Reconstruction. University of Mary Washington, March 22, 2012.

___. “Gettysburg: The High Water Mark.” HIST 304 Civil War and Reconstruction. University of Mary Washington, March 29, 2012.

Pfanz, Harry W. Gettysburg: The First Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.

___.Gettysburg: The Second Day. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1987.

 

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