1–3 July 1863

The battle that raged for three July days in 1863 around the junction town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, provoked extraordinary stories of courage and endurance on both sides in America’s Civil War. On the third day a young Union cavalryman, George Armstrong Custer, at twenty-three the youngest brigadier in the Army of the Potomac, led his 7th Michigan troopers in a charge against the approaching Confederate cavalry. ‘Come on you Wolverines!’ he called, and was at once caught up in the mêlée, thrusting with his sabre at the whirling Confederate horses.

He lost two horses under him but found a third, riderless mount, and carried on battling from the front. His brigade accounted for 86 per cent of the Union losses in the brief engagement that drove away the Confederate troopers. His men followed him willingly into the teeth of a ferocious battle, as did thousands of others at Gettysburg.

A painting entitled Hancock at Gettysburg, by the Swedish-American artist Thure de Thulstrup (1848–1930), depicts the charge of Major General George Pickett’s Confederate troops on the last day of the Battle of Gettysburg. Major General Winfield Hancock (1824–86) was a corps commander on Cemetery Hill when the Confederate troops charged. They were decimated by Union artillery and rifle fire.

The battle at Gettysburg, famous though it has become, was an unexpected confrontation. After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, in May 1863, General Robert E. Lee, the commander-in-chief, decided to risk an advance north into Union territory in Pennsylvania. His aim was to capture the state capital, cut Union communications and even, it was hoped, force the Union to seek peace.

His army of Northern Virginia was reorganized into three infantry corps and six cavalry brigades of 75,000 men. Living off the land, the army moved northwest, sending south into slavery any free blacks it captured. Lee was uncertain where Joseph Hooker’s Union Army of the Potomac was; after Chancellorsville, the Union still had 90,000 men in the field.

Hooker trailed behind Lee, pressed by an anxious President Lincoln to act. His hesitation brought his dismissal and the Union army that crossed the Potomac into Pennsylvania was led from 28 June by General George Meade. Only now did Lee’s army learn that the enemy was moving north towards it.

The two armies nevertheless met by chance. On 1 July Lee sent Lieutenant General Ambrose Hill to secure a large supply of shoes said to be found in the small town of Gettysburg. When the Confederate force arrived it found two Union cavalry brigades already in occupation of high ground to the northwest of Gettysburg.

The outnumbered Union troopers bravely held off the enemy for two hours; the tough ‘Iron Brigade’ of Midwestern recruits in their distinctive black hats lost two-thirds of their number. As reinforcements arrived for both sides, the 24,000 Confederate forces drove back the 19,000 Union soldiers through Gettysburg to a defensive line of high ground south of the town, running from Little Round Top, across Cemetery Ridge to Culp’s Hill further north.

A painting by the American artist Jean Gerome Ferris (1863–1930) shows President Abraham Lincoln’s historic address at the Gettysburg cemetery on 19 November 1863, in which he talked of ‘government of the people, by the people, for the people’ made possible by Union victory. This was one of a famous series of paintings titled The Pageant of a Nation.

Lee could see that this was an ideal position for the Union to occupy and urged Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s 2nd Corps to seize it before dusk fell and so secure yet another Confederate victory. Ewell hesitated, and by the evening the Union had a firm line running across the high ground, reinforced during the night by three more corps hurriedly led there by Meade himself.

Lee was confident that his men, fresh from a string of victories, were capable of a frontal assault, and he ignored the advice of General James Longstreet that he should make a strong flanking attack instead, bringing the southern army between Meade and Washington and rolling up the Union line. Longstreet was instead given the task of attacking the Union left wing at Little Round Top while Ewell would pin down the Union right until it was weakened enough to assault. Longstreet delayed until 4 p.m. on 2 July, giving the Union plenty of time to prepare the line of defence.

When he attacked he found that the Union left, commanded by Major General Dan Sickles, had moved to high ground away from the main line, creating an exposed salient and leaving Little Round Top undefended. Here both sides engaged in fierce firefights, with neither willing to give way. The 15,000 Confederate soldiers, with their fearsome war cry, drove back Sickles’ two divisions step-by-step through ground that was littered with the dead and dying.

Meade hastily sent reinforcements to try to plug the opening gaps. When it seemed that the Confederates were about to capture Little Round Top, a regiment was sent to stop them. The 20th Maine, commanded by a former professor of rhetoric, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, held off the uphill attacks for two hot, smoke-filled, gruelling hours. Finally, out of ammunition, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge.

The approaching Alabama soldiers were taken by surprise and hundreds surrendered. More Alabamians were held up in the centre of the Union line by another brave charge, this time by the remaining 262 men of the 1st Minnesota regiment. Only forty-seven came back, but the front was saved. As dusk fell the exhausted Confederate forces once again fell back; the line from Little Round Top to Culp’s Hill was still intact.

The following day proved decisive. Lee was determined to have his crushing victory and felt that the gains of the first two days justified him. He planned for Ewell to pressure the Union right at Culp’s Hill and perhaps turn a position that had been subjected to fierce attack in the evening and night of 2 July; the Confederate cavalry under Major General James ‘Jeb’ Stuart to outflank the Union left; and Longstreet to attack the Union centre, commanded by Major General Winfield Hancock, with three fresh divisions.

The final battle plan went wrong from the opening hours of 3 July. Ewell’s offensive, led by Major General Jubal Early, became bogged down at Culp’s Hill where a Union counter-attack regained ground lost the previous evening.

Nevertheless Lee ordered Longstreet to bombard the centre and then launch a charge across 1,100 metres (3,600 feet) of open ground. At 1.07 p.m. 150 guns opened up the heaviest Confederate bombardment of the war, made more confusing and deafening by the Union reply from more than 100 artillery pieces on Cemetery Ridge.

Dug into position, the Union troops suffered much less than expected from the cannonade. When the 14,000 men led by the division of Major General George Pickett finally charged, the Union defenders were able to smash the advance with artillery and musket fire from front and flanks.

A few hundred of the doomed Confederate soldiers reached the Union line but the rest were mown down as they advanced across the open with a display of remarkable courage. They broke and turned, leaving half the men behind on the ground. Pickett’s charge cost him two-thirds of his division, including all his senior officers.

Meade still had 20,000 men to throw into the conflict but he hesitated, aware of how skilful his enemy had been on earlier occasions. A decisive victory might have been gained, but Meade did not counter-attack, and the Confederate army, moving south in disarray, was allowed to cross the Potomac at Williamsport back to comparative safety without engaging in another major battle.

The turning point promised by Gettysburg failed to materialize and the war dragged on for two more years. The exceptional courage displayed in the three-day battle was evident from the total of more than 45,000 casualties suffered by the two sides in three days of bitter fighting.

The Army of the Potomac had 22,813 casualties, including 3,149 dead; the Army of Northern Virginia suffered 22,625 casualties of whom 4,536 were killed. This was close to a quarter of the forces involved. On 19 November President Lincoln arrived at Gettysburg to inaugurate a national cemetery on the aptly named Cemetery Hill, where he announced that the dead had not died in vain but had ushered in a ‘new birth of freedom’ with their sacrifice.

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