Battle of Gettysburg

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The Battle of Gettysburg (July 1-3, 1863) was generally considered to be the turning point of the American Civil War..

Shortly after Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia won a smashing victory over the Federal Army of the Potomac at the Battle of Chancellorsville (May 1-3, 1863), Lee decided upon a second invasion of the north. Such a move would upset Federal plans for the summer campaigning season and possibly relieve the beseiged garrison at Vicksburg, and it would allow the Confederates to live off the bounty of the rich northern farms while giving war-raveged Virginia a much needed rest. Also, Lee's 75,000-man army could threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington and give voice to the growing peace movement in the north.

Thus, on June 3 Lee's army began to shift northward from Fredericksburg. In order to attain more efficiency in his commands, Lee had pared down his two large corps into three new corps. James Longstreet retained command of his First Corps; and Lee selected two good division commanders to head the remaining corps: Richard S. Ewell was given the Second Corps, replacing Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, who had been slain at Chancellorsville; and Ambrose Powell Hill commanded the new Third Corps.

The Federal Army of the Potomac, under the colorful Joseph Hooker, consisted of seven corps of infantry and artillery, a cavalry corps under Alfred Pleasonton, and an artillery reserve, for a combined strength of more than 90,000 men.

The first major action of the campaign took place at Brandy Station, near Culpeper, VA, on June 9. The Confederate cavalry under James Ewell Brown "J.E.B." Stuart was nearly bested by the Federal horsemen, but Stuart eventually prevailed. However, this battle proved that the Union horse soldier was equal to his Southern counterpart.

By mid-June, the Army of Northern Virginia was poised to cross the Potomac and enter Maryland. After Gobbling up the Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, Ewell's Second corps began crossing the river on June 15. Hill's and Longstreet's corps followed on June 24-25. Hooker's army pursued, keeping between the U.S. Capital and Lee's army. The Federals crossed the Potomac on June 25-27.

Meanwhile, in a controversial move, Lee allowed J.E.B. Stuart to take a portion of the army's cavalry and ride around the Union army. However, Lee's orders gave Stuart much latitude, and both generals are to blame for the long absence of Stuart's cavalry, as well as for misusing the cavalry left with the army. By June 29, Lee's army was strung out in an arc from Chambersburg, PA, twenty-eight miles NW of Gettysburg, to Carlisle, thirty miles north of Gettysburg, to near Harrisburg and Wrightsville on the Susquehanna.

In a dispute over the use of the Harpers Ferry garrison, Hooker offered his resignation, and Lincoln and General-in-Chief Henry W. Halleck, who were looking for an excuse to shelve Hooker, immediately accepted the resignation. They replaced him on June 27-28 with Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade, commander of the 5th Corps.

When, on June 29, Lee learned that the Army of the Potomac had crossed its namesake river, he ordered a concentration of his forces around Cashtown, at the eastern base of South Mountain and eight miles west of Gettysburg.

On June 30, while part of Hill's Third Corps was in Cashtown, one of Hill's brigades, North Carolinians under J. Johnston Pettigrew, ventured toward Gettysburg to look for supplies, including shoes. And thus the myth of the Battle of Gettysburg being caused by show-hunting Confederates stumbling upon the Yankees. This is in fact not true. There was no shoe factory in town; there was no large supply of shoes. Pettigrew and his superiors must have known that, four days earlier, part of Jubal A. Early's division of the Second Corps had marched through Gettysburg on its way to York. Any valuable supplies would have been taken by these troops.

Pettigrew's troops espied Federal cavalry under John Buford west of town, and they wisely returned to Cashtown. When Pettigrew told Hill and Henry Heth, his division commander, about what he had seen, neither general believed that there was a substantial Federal force in or near the town. In fact, Hill reportedly said that he hoped the Federal army was there, because that's where he wanted it to be. Hill determined to mount a reconnaissance in force on the next morning to determine the size and strength of the enemy force in his front. Thus, around 5 a.m. on the morning of July 1, Hill's troops advanced to Gettysburg on the Chambersburg Pike looking for a fight, not for shoes.

First Day of Battle

Three miles west of town on the Chambersburg Pike, about 7:30 a.m. on July 1, Heth's division met resistance by cavalry videttes and, eventually, dismounted troopers from Gamble's brigade, Buford's division of cavalry. Within two and a half hours, the Confederates had pushed the Yankee cavalrymen east along a series of ridges, when the Federal 1st Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, arrived from south of town. By 10:20, the Federal infantry had entered the fight. North of the pike, the Confederates gained a temporary success, while south of the road everything went the Federals' way. The famed Iron Brigade decimated Archer's Southerners, capturing several hundred of Archer's men, including Archer himself. However, early in the fighting, General Reynolds fell from his horse, killed instantly by rifle fire. Another myth states that Reynolds was killed by a sharpshooter, but the lack of supportive evidence suggests that he was killed in a volley of rifle fire directed at the 2nd Wisconsin, which regiment Reynolds was guiding into McPherson's (Herbst) Woods.

The morning's victory belonged to the Army of the Potomac. Meanwhile, two divisions of Ewell's Second Corps turned south on the Carlisle and Harrisburg Roads toward Gettysburg, and the Union 11th Corps raced north on the Baltimore Pike and Taneytown Road. By early afternoon, the Federal line ran in a semi-circle west, north, and northeast of Gettysburg. However, Hill threw in William Dorsey Pender's division to bolster Heth's afternoon attacks, and Robert E. Rodes's and Jubal Early's Second Corps divisions smashed and out-flanked the Federal positions north and northeast of town. At 4:10 p.m., Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, 11th Corps commander and acting commander on the field, ordered a Federal retreat to the high ground south of town, Cemetery Hill. The battle of July 1 had pit ted over 25,000 Confederates against 18,000 Federals, and ranks in itself as the twenty-third largest battle of the war.

Second Day of Battle