3 July 1863: In Adams County, Pennsylvania, the Battle of Gettysburg ended after three days with a Union victory, marking a turning point in the American Civil War.
"Gettysburg was the price the South paid for having Robert E. Lee as commander." (Shelby Foote)
|Peter F. Rothermel's (1817 – 1895) painting “Battle of Gettysburg: Pickett's Charge” (1870), illustrating the close quarter fighting with bayonets, knives and bare fists at the “Angle” of a stone wall atop of Cemetery ridge|
After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Virginia, eight weeks before, Lee decided to invade Union territory in Maryland and Pennsylvania to threaten the Northern centres of Pittsburgh, Baltimore and finally Washington, taking the Federal pressure from besieged Vicksburg and probably making up for the severe Confederate setbacks on the Western theatre of the war by finally forcing the war-weary Union into negotiations. Basically, all Lee had to do was to defeat the already rather demoralised Army of the Potomac, commanded by “Fighting Joe” Hooker, at best on a ground of Lee’s choosing, to emphasise Confederate demands.
On 1 July, with the eyes of the Army of Northern Virginia, J.E.B. Stewart’s cavalry, somewhere to the east, advance parties of Lee’s 70.000 men tried to secure Union supplies, especially badly needed shoes, at Gettysburg and stumbled across the Army of the Potomac under their new commander, the “old snapping turtle” George Meade and the battle began. By the end of the day, the Federals occupied the high ground of the place in a, under the circumstances, secure defensive position.
|James Alexander Walker (1841-1898): "First Day at Gettysburg"|
On the second day, both armies were fully deployed and the Confederates tried to dislodge the Federals around the flanks and failed. 2 July saw some of the bloodiest actions of the whole war and places like Cemetery Hill on the Union’s right flank and Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield and Little Round Top on the left went down into history with bitter fighting at close quarters and determined bayonet charges and the Union lines still holding.
On the third day of the battle, Lee tried to force a decision by attacking the Army of the Potomac frontally à la Jena-Auerstedt and Austerlitz, én masse with a determined infantry charge, introduced by an artillery barrage directed at the centre of the Union up on Cemetery Ridge. With Major General George Pickett’s 12.500 men in position, Confederate artillery began to fire at 1 o’clock, trying to shell the Federates. With inferior and far too less ammunition, the fire ceased two hours later, having done no damage to the Federal position to speak of and General Longstreet, who was opposed to the charge since Lee drew up his plan, just ordered Pickett to advance on the nod.
|Edwin Forbes (1839 - 1895): "Picketts charge from a position on the enemys line looking toward the Union lines, Zieglers grove on the left, clump of trees on right"|
The three Confederate divisions would probably have followed Lee into Hell - and that was right where they went. Most of the Union batteries held their fire until Pickett’s men were well underway on their march uphill over almost a mile on a hot and humid day with several fences to climb, slowing them even more. The Federal soldiers began to shout “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!”, where they had been ordered on a similar disastrous advance the year before. Then Union cannon, from both flanks on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, and General Hancock’s infantry with their fairly accurate rifled Springfield muskets opened fire. What was, at first glance, a perfectly sound and promising Napoleonic infantry charge turned into a carnage by modern weapons and an Army of the Potomac that had found its confidence again. The Confederates reached the Union positions on the ridge nonetheless and were finally repulsed in hand-to-hand combat.
|Thure de Thulstrup (1848-1930): ""Hancock at Gettysburg" showing Pickett's divisions advancing from the Union viewpoint on Cemetery Ridge (1887)|
Half the men of Pickett’s Division were either dead, wounded or captured, a quarter of the 23.000 Confederate casualties of Gettysburg. Allegedly, some of the men returning asked Lee to send them in again and when Lee asked Pickett to rally his division to oppose a Union counter-attack, he answered: “Lee, I have no division.” - the counter-attack, that could have finished the Army of Northern Virginia once and for all, never came, though. The Union lines had suffered 23.000 casualties as well. 8.000 men had fallen immediately on the battlefield on both sides, many of the 27.000 wounded died soon afterwards. But the high-water mark of the Confederacy had been reached. From the 4 July 1863 onwards, the Union was on the offensive.
And more on: