TYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C //DTD XHTML 1.0 Transitional//EN” http://www.w3.org/TR/xhtml1/DTD/xhtml1-transitional.dtd>
This was the largest battle of the Civil War with more than 51,000 casualties occurring in three days of fighting, July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. On the second day of the battle, there were more than 15,000 soldiers killed or wounded in just six hours. That is more than three times the number of American casualties in the D-Day invasion of Normandy, June 6, 1944. This terrible toll would insure it's status in American history, but the battle's greater importance results from fact that it was won by the Union Army -- the first major victory in the eastern theater of the war for the North. This was the turning point in the American Civil War.
Everything was different after Gettysburg.
The battle was fought between the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (75,000 soldiers), led by General Robert E. Lee, and the Union Army of the Potomac (95,000 soldiers), led by General George G. Meade.
The great battle was fought at Gettysburg because the southern Army of Northern Virginia had invaded Pennsylvania. General Lee was not trying to "liberate" this loyal Union State. Rather, he believed that by invading the North, he could draw the large Union Army of the Potomac away from their defenses and force them to come after him. On the move, he believed he could out-manueuver the Yankees and engage them in a grand battle -- a final battle he hoped -- on ground of his choosing. Highly confident in his Confederate forces that had not lost a battle under his command, Lee believed that he could destroy the Union Army. His men had won several stunning victories over the Yankees in the preceding 12 months. After each defeat the Union army was always able to recover it's strength, but the Northern people were losing hope that the war could ever be won.
Lee believed the people of the North would be so demoralized if the Union were to lose another major battle -- especially if it was fought on Northern soil -- that President Abraham Lincoln would be forced to negotiate a settlement of the Civil War.
The Confederate Army began to move north in early June of 1863. They had just achieved a spectacular victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, 60 miles southwest of Washington, in early May. Leaving troops strategically placed to cover his movements, Lee moved his army westward through the Blue Ridge Mountains and into the Shenandoah Valley. There he turned north and headed for the Potomac River, crossing into Maryland 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C. He was headed for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, the state capital and also an important rail center. He knew that the Union Army would certainly come after him when they came to understand that his army was headed in that direction. And indeed they did, but the Confederates had a few days headstart.
As Lee was moving his army northward on the west side of the Blue Ridge, the Union Army of the Potomac, then under the command of General Joseph Hooker, was in pursuit. The Union army remained on the eastern side of the mountains, being careful to stay between Lee's army and Washington, D.C. On the 26th of June, the first elements of the Southern army turned east and crossed through the mountain passes into Central Pennsylvania. Several thousand Confederates passed through the town of Gettysburg that day and continued east toward the Susquehanna River. Others headed northeast directly toward Harrisburg. Still others were just coming up and through the Cumberland Valley toward the mountain pass. Nearly 75,000 Rebels in total. There were no Union troops to be seen and the Rebels moved freely through the Pennsylania countryside, gathering up supplies as they went.
June 28th was a key date in the fate of both armies. On that day, President Abraham Lincoln fired General Hooker as the Union Commander and replaced him with General Meade. When Meade was informed of this, he had little knowledge of the whereabouts of most of the Union Army, yet just three days later he would lead it to the greatest victory of the war. On the same day, June 28, General Lee learned from a spy that the pursuing Yankees were closer to him than he thought they were. With this knowledge, Lee could no longer afford to allow his army to remain scattered across the countryside, spread out for more than sixty miles. He had to gather them together in preparation for a battle which he knew begin in the next few days. He looked a map and decided that the place where his army could be concentrated most quickly was the little crossroads town of Gettysburg, just ten miles east of the pass that the Confederates had used to cross through the mountains. On that day, orders went out to all the scattered elements of the Confederate Army and they began to converge on Gettysburg.
When George Meade took command of the Union army, he ordered it to move forward with all possible speed to catch up with the invading Confederates. Out in front of the main body of the army was the cavalry, the scouts -- the eyes and ears of the army -- and it was their job to find out where the Confederates were and where they were heading. Union General John Buford was in command of a cavalry division of nearly 2,500 troopers that was racing north to find Lee's army. He was as tough as they come and he kept his troopers in their saddles for nearly 36 straight hours on June 29 and 30 crossing through Maryland and into Pennsylvania on Lee's trail.
On June 30th, General Buford led his exhausted troopers into the town of Gettysburg. As they approached the town they were met by local farmers who told them that Confederates had passed through a few days earlier heading east but that a large force of Rebels was headed toward the town at that very moment from the west. Buford spurred his force quickly toward the ridge just west of Gettysburg and arrived there in time to see a column of Confederate troops marching away from the town and back toward the mountains. They had been on their way toward Gettysburg when they saw dust clouds rising up from the south. The Rebels correctly surmised that the dust was being stirred up by Union cavalry and these Confederates wanted no fight that day. They turned about face and headed back toward their camps to report what they had seen. But Buford had seen them. And this highly efficient cavalry commander began to send out reconnaissance patrols in all directions. It didn't take him long to discover that huge elements of Lee's army were converging on Gettysburg.
He had found the Confederate army.
The cavalry was the "radar" of the army at the time of the Civil War. It was their job to know everything about what was out in front of the army (and also what was to the left, the right and behind). As John Buford's patrols were reporting back to him about the whereabouts of the various elements of the Confederate army, they were also taking note of the road network and the "lay of the land" in the area surrounding Gettysburg. They were especially interested in learning about elevated positions like hills and ridges that would be advantageous ground in battle, but also rivers, creeks, swamps and any other terrain features that could be useful as barriers. The are no rivers or swamps and only a few small creeks running through the area, but there are some very well defined hills and ridges and Buford immediately zeroed in on these important places.
Most important are a series of hills just south of the town that dominate the landscape for miles in each direction. At the northern end of these is a broad flat elevation known then and now as Cemetery Hill. Just east and somewhat south of this is a slightly higher elevation known as Culp's Hill and then further south are two elevations that today are known as Little Round Top and Big Round Top. These hills would make excellent artillery positions. And, in addition, three roads passing directly over or between the hills were essential routes of march and supply for the approaching Union army. Buford decides that the Confederates must not be allowed to gain possession of the hills. The key to all these positions is Cemetery Hill. .
The General knows that there is a large body of Union infantry, 12,000 men of the First Corps, headed toward him and that they will reach Gettysburg by mid-morning the next day. But that might be too late. He decides on a bold plan. Buford will set a thin line of look-outs extending in a semi-circle west-to-north-to-east around Gettysburg. If any of the converging Confederates come toward the town, he will advance his troopers to the threat and try to hold them back long enough (he hopes) for the infantry of the First Corps to hurry forward the next morning. He has 2,500 cavalry troopers equipped only with short-range carbines. He believes there may be 40,000 or more battle-hardened Confederates coming straight at him. He has drawn a line in the sand. He has committed his troopers, and possibly the entire Union army, to a battle.
Now, it's all up now to Robert E. Lee.
Three miles west of Gettysburg on the road leading to the mountains, a small cavalry patrol is standing watch. They know that several thousand Confederates were camped eight miles further west and may move toward Gettysburg at any time. The cavalrymen are anxious but quiet. They are listening for any sounds of an approaching force. At about 7:30 am, they hear the sounds of marching feet and look down the road to see the head of long gray line coming straight at them. The Rebels are coming.
The Confederates are not in any hurry and make no attempt to hide their advance or conceal any of their movements. It's as if they don't have any concern about what might await them ahead. In point of fact, the Confederates were not aware that any sizable Union force was in front of them. Why? It's because their cavalry -- their "radar" -- was not keeping them informed.
Through a combination of bad decisions and bad luck, the Confederate cavalry and it's famous leader, General JEB Stuart, was not on the scene and was not providing reports to General Lee and his lieutenants about the whereabouts of the Union army. Several days earlier as the Confederate Army was crossing over the Potomac River from Virginia into Maryland, Stuart took most of the cavalry on a series of raids behind Union lines to harass the Yankees, capture supplies, and enhance his reputation as a dashing cavalier (which he was). But, as luck would have it, the Union army began a rapid northward movment and Stuart found himself cut off from his own army. To re-connect with his own force, he had to ride the whole way around the Union army . This took him out of the picture for two days and denied his reconnaissance services to General Lee at the most critical time in the entire campaign.
The Confederates heading toward Gettysburg on that early July morning thought there might be some Yankee cavalry up ahead, but , in their minds, that wasn't much to worry about. A small cavalry force would be no match for 7,000 infantrymen with their rifled muskets, not to mention the artillery that was right behind them. So on they came. Maybe some of them were even whistling Dixie.
As the head of the gray column began to cross the small bridge over Marsh Creek, Captain Marcellus Jones, of the 8th Illinois Cavalry, reached over and took a carbine from one of his men in the small group of Yankee scouts. The Rebels had no idea the scouts were there. Jones probably took careful aim, but it didn't matter.
He was too far away from the Rebels for his little carbine to do any damage. But he fired a shot anyway. Maybe he understood what was coming and wanted to say that he had fired "The First Shot in Battle of Gettysburg". We don't know. But he did fire, and it was the first shot. Today, you can go see the spot where he was standing and see the little monument that he put up to himself many years later, "The First Shot Marker".
On June 28, when Robert E. Lee gave orders for the scattered elements of his command to converge at Gettysburg, he also made certain that all his subordinates were informed that he did not want any battle to be brought on until he was able to gather and concentrate the army. In other words, he didn't want any of his Division Commanders (a division was comprised of about 7,000 men) to commit his troops to any kind of a significant encounter with the Yankees all by himself even if the Yankees provoked a fight. And General Henry Heth, who was in command of the 7,000 Confederates marching toward Gettysburg that morning, would certainly have understood the reasoning behind Lee's orders. But he was not concerned that the shot that was fired that morning posed any significant threat of battle. After all, this was Northern territory, and farmers had been taking pot shots at the Confederates from time to time ever since they entered into Pennsylvania. Heth was sure that this was nothing to worry about. And then a few more shots were heard and someone may have seen a few horsemen in blue uniforms up ahead on the road. Nothing to worry about. Just a small cavalry patrol.
The Confederates kept marching.
Captain Jones and his small patrol of cavalry scouts did not linger, however. They raced quickly back to Gettysburg and informed Genral Buford that a large body of Confederate infantry was headed straight toward them. Buford ordered that his troopers move out from Gettysburg and begin to deploy, dismounted, along the ridges west and north of town -- farthest out, a thin skirmish line, behind them a battle line with the men spaced widely apart as Buford wanted to cover as much ground as possible.
As the cavalry skirmishers began to deploy and fire toward the Confederates, it became clear that this shooting was not coming from a few disgruntled farmers. Confederate General Heth ordered his own skirmish line to deploy and probe toward the shooting to "feel" out the force in front of him. At some point during this period, the General apparently concluded that the firing was probably coming from some local militia, a kind of "home guard" that would not have been much to be concerned about. But the shooting continued. In response, Heth ordered that two brigades (nearly 3,000 men) move off the road of march and deploy into battle lines. This is time-consuming.
All the while, John Buford must have been smiling to himself (he rarely smiled to anyone else), because the Confederates were playing right into his hands. They had stopped their advance and taken an hour or more to deploy into battle line. This meant that the Union infantry that was heading toward Gettysburg was an hour closer and might just get there before Buford's cavalry was overpowered and compelled to withdraw. His delaying action was working. For the moment.
The Confederates were delayed, but they now had no intention of being denied. Once their battle lines were formed, on they came -- some of the toughest and most experienced fighters in the Rebel army. The gray lines began to roll over the meadows and ridges heading for Gettysburg. The Yankee skirmishers fell back first, then the main dismounted cavalry line began to give in the face of the long, powerful gray lines that were coming at them. Among the troops in the front rank of the Confederate line were two regiments from Alabama, and The Tide was Rolling on this morning in Pennsylania.
By this time, General Heth realized that this was not some group of local home guardsmen that he was pushing backward but was, in fact, Union cavalry, and a considerable amount of cavalry at that. Exactly when he came to understand that he was involved in a "significant" battle will never be known. But there can be little doubt that he had that understanding soon after 10:45 or so on that morning when the situation in front of him changed dramatically.
John Reynolds was 42 years old, a former Superintendent of West Point, and perhaps the most well respected officer in the Union Army. Just days before the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln asked Reynolds to take command of the army. He declined. There would be too much politics in that job; he would rather be in the field with the men on the front lines. When Reynolds declined Lincoln's invitation, the President turned to George Meade.
So it was that John Reynolds was with his infantry corps -- 12,000 strong -- marching toward Gettysburg early on the morning of July 1, 1863. Meade had so much confidence in his friend that he put Reynolds in charge of nearly half of the army. He created the postion called "Wing Commander" and placed three army corps in a "wing" comprising nearly 40,000 soldiers. Reynolds' First Corps was in the lead as these men were all moving toward Gettysburg and as they approached the town that morning, he could hear the sound of guns in the distance. He knew that it was Buford's cavalry trying to hold back the advancing Confederates. Reynolds raced forward and into the town, accompanied by only a few aides.
They followed the sounds of battle and soon saw the grounds of the Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary on a small ridge just west of town. In the cupola atop the Seminary building was General Buford, looking out toward the advancing Confederates. As Reynolds approached, he called out to Buford: "What's the matter, John?" as if he didn't know. Buford, not quite as casually, looked down at his good friend and called back: "The devil's to pay", a phase that now lives as one of the Battle's most memorable quotes.
Reynolds then raced back to hurry the infantry columns forward. Just south of town, the Yankee footsoldiers moved off the road and began doubletiming through the fields on a shortcut route to the battle unfolding in the fields west of Gettysburg. As they did, Buford's outnumbered, outgunned cavalry troopers were being pushed back quickly now by the onrushing gray lines. The Union defenses west of town were soon to break. But, looking back toward the southwest, General Buford saw the long column of Reynolds' infantry racing through the fields in his direction. As they surged over the top of Seminary Ridge, they began to fan out into battle lines. First one brigade, then another, the lines extending across the Chambersburg Pike for nearly a quarter mile.
The Confederates had been on the verge of shattering the cavalry lines completely when they looked up and saw a tidal wave of blue uniforms rolling toward them. Any doubt General Heth may have had about this being a "significant" battle was now gone. But he had no time to dwell on that. He had some of the toughtest fighters in the Union army coming straight at him, the famous "Iron Brigade", immediately recognizable by their distinctive hats. The Yankees pounded Heth's lines with a vengence and a furious infantry battle was now underway.
The Battle of Gettysburg had begun.
John Reynolds turned down the offer of overall Army Commander because he wanted to lead men in battle. As the first elements of his troops were fanning out into their battle lines on this morning at Gettysburg, he was out in front on his horse at the beginning of a small patch of woods atop McPherson's Ridge just west of the Lutheran Seminary. Confederates were just then entering the other side of the woods and Reynolds wanted to make sure they didn't gain the protection of the woodlands. He was determined to prevent it. He raced forward, turned in his saddle to look back toward his men and shouted: "Forward men, for God's sake, forward men and drive those fellows out of those woods!". They were his last words.
A Confederate minie ball struck the back of his head just below his right ear. Reynolds was dead instantly. The brightest star in the Union Army was gone in the opening minutes of the great Battle of Gettysburg. As his body was being borne from the field, Reynolds' brigades crashed into the oncoming Rebels, stopped them in their tracks and then drove them back.
Henry Heth now knew that he was in the middle of a very "significant" battle. His boss, Corps Commander General A.P. Hill, soon knew it as well and when General Heth asked for reinforcements, General Hill sent another 7,000 men into the fray at Gettysburg from their camps at the base of the mountains. But that was just the beginning of the rapid escalation of the great battle.
Over the next two hours, another 12,000 Union infantrymen arrived, the Eleventh Corps of General Oliver Otis Howard. They took up position on the north side of Gettysburg. General Buford's cavalry had discovered that large numbers of troops from an entirely different Confederate Corps, more than 15,000 soldiers, were approaching Gettysburg from that direction. Some of these were the same men who had marched through the town several days earlier and continued east to the Susquehanna River where they then turned north toward Harrisburg. When General Lee sent orders on June 28 for his army to concentrate at Gettysburg, these men turned south and headed back for the small crossroads village they had passed through just a few days earlier. They will arrive at about 2 pm on July 1, 1863.
It was perfect timing.