The Battle of Gettysburg was the bloodiest of the major Civil War battles. The 3-day battle took place from July 1-3, 1863, in a small town in Pennsylvania named Gettysburg. The Union won and halted the Confederate offensive into the North.
While it raised morale, the victory was short-lived as General George Meade did not pursue General Robert E. Lee. The Confederates would be forced into a defensive strategy for the remaining two years.
Battle of Gettysburg Facts: Prelude
After a Confederate victory in Virginia at Chancellorsville in May, General Robert E. Lee decided to invade the North for the second time in the war. The Confederate Army made their way up the Shenandoah Valley north toward Pennsylvania. Lee hoped a victory in the north would put pressure on politicians in Washington to lose favor in the war, and he hoped to penetrate as far as Philadelphia or Harrisburg.
The Southern army was mirrored by Major General Joseph Hooker in charge of the Union army. President Lincoln encouraged Hooker to pursue the Southern army from Virginia, yet grew disgusted with his lack of aggression. Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade just 3 days before the battle.
Word got to Lee that the Union army was close, and after reviewing maps of Gettysburg, he decided to converge all his forces there to engage and destroy the Union army.
The Army of the Potomac, under Maj. Gen. George Meade consisted of more than 100,000 men in the following organization:
- I Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John F. Reynolds, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gen. James S. Wadsworth, Brig. Gen. John C. Robinson and Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday.
- II Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. John C. Caldwell, John Gibbon, and Alexander Hays.
- III Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles, with divisions commanded by Maj. Gen. David B. Birney and Maj. Gen. Andrew A. Humphreys.
- V Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Sykes (George G. Meade until June 28), with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. James Barnes, Romeyn B. Ayres, and Samuel W. Crawford.
- VI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gen. Horatio G. Wright, Brig. Gen. Albion P. Howe and Maj. Gen. John Newton.
- XI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver Otis Howard, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gen. Francis C. Barlow, Brig. Gen. Adolph von Steinwehr, and Maj. Gen. Carl Schurz.
- XII Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. Slocum, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. Alpheus S. Williams and John W. Geary.
- Cavalry Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton, with divisions commanded by Brig. Gens. John Buford, David McM. Gregg, and H. Judson Kilpatrick.
- Artillery Reserve, commanded by Brig. Gen. Robert O. Tyler. (The preeminent artillery officer at Gettysburg was Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery on Meade's staff.)
During the advance on Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Reynolds was in operational command of the left wing of the Army, consisting of the I, III, and XI Corps. Note that many other Union units (not part of the Army of the Potomac) were actively involved in the Gettysburg Campaign but not directly involved in the Battle of Gettysburg. These included portions of the Union IV Corps, the militia and state troops of the Department of the Susquehanna, and various garrisons, including that at Harpers Ferry.
In reaction to the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson after Chancellorsville, Lee reorganized his Army of Northern Virginia (75,000 men) from two infantry corps into three.
- First Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, with divisions commanded by Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws, George Pickett, and John Bell Hood.
- Second Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, with divisions commanded by Maj. Gens. Jubal A. Early, Edward "Allegheny" Johnson, and Robert E. Rodes.
- Third Corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill, with divisions commanded by Maj. Gens. Richard H. Anderson, Henry Heth, and W. Dorsey Pender.
- Cavalry division, commanded by Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, with brigades commanded by Brig. Gens. Wade Hampton, Fitzhugh Lee, Beverly H. Robertson, Albert G. Jenkins, William E. "Grumble" Jones, and John D. Imboden, and Col. John R. Chambliss.
Battle of Gettysburg Facts: Days 1 - 3
The Battle of Gettysburg can be broken up into three days:
- Gettysburg Day 1: A Union cavalry under General Buford reached Gettysburg before the Confederate infantry and took the position on the high ground. The Confederates realized they were in a scrap and organized quickly. They continually assaulted the dismounted cavalry and continued to push them back into town. Strong defensive stands by units like the Iron Brigade made the Confederate advance difficult, but they were eventually successful. However, they did not push the Union off the high ground near Cemetery Ridge.
- Gettysburg Day 2: The second day of the battle at Gettysburg began with a Confederate assault on the left flank of the Union defenses, which commanded the heights and resembled the shape of a fishhook. Heavy fighting ensued at Devil's Den, Little Round Top, The Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard. The 20th Maine held off a determined attack on the extreme left by the 15th Alabama that highlighted the day's fighting. Later in the day, the Confederates attacked the Union right and had minor success but couldn't break the Union lines.
- Gettysburg Day 3: General Robert E. Lee planned an attack on the Union center and, despite doubts from General James Longstreet, believed that the Union line would crumble in the center. The Union center held, and the Confederates suffered catastrophic losses that forced them into a quick retreat to preserve the remainder of the army. General Meade opted not to pursue the enemy.
The two armies combined suffered between 46,000 to 51,000 casualties in the 3-day Battle of Gettysburg, marking the bloodiest engagement of all Civil War battles.
Battle of Gettysburg Conclusion
The late Civil War Historian Shelby Foote said it best when he said that the Battle of Gettysburg was the price the South paid for Robert E. Lee.
His aggression had paid off, and his intuition on the battlefield was uncanny, but at Gettysburg, he made the wrong calculations and refused to listen to some of the other officers who advised him not to make the final charge.
The results were devastating. James Longstreet and Pickett never forgave him.
After the conclusion of the battle, Robert E. Lee took full responsibility for his mistake and offered up his resignation. Jefferson Davis refused the resignation, and Lee served throughout the rest of the war.