Photo of a typical embalming shack. Families who couldn’t afford to pay for the embalming had their loved ones shipped home in metal caskets to preserve the bodies.
The American Civil War was the bloodiest war in US history. There were more casualties than all the other US wars since, combined. The Battle of Gettysburg which took place June 1 -3 1863 was the turning point of the war. It marked the last time General Robert E. Lee would invade the North. The first invasion was stopped at Antietam. To read about Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg, click here.
The first day of battle was a skirmish at McPherson’s Ridge. The second day was brutal and took place on rolling hills and orchards.
By the end of the third day, between tens of thousands of Americans would be dead on the farms, hills, and orchards of the small town of Gettysburg. Fifteen hundred horses would also be dead. One report estimated 28,000 dead on the Confederate side and 25,000 on the Union. Other accounts have the numbers as high as 61,000.
Black men, referred to as negroes, who ran from slave owners and went behind the Union lines
Map of the Battle of Gettysburg
Cemetery Hill (Little Round Top), Culp’s Hill, Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, Peach Orchard
On the second day of battle, most of both armies – the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia – were assembled. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard.
The Union launched full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. The Union held their lines despite all odds.
The armies had gathered through the evening of July 1- 2. By morning, there were 65,000 Confederates and 85,000 federal troops. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook along Cemetery Ridge which ran south toward Big and Little Round Tops, a slightly more elevated position than the Confederate position along Seminary Ridge.
Photo of the Gatehouse at Cemetery Hills
Hills overlooked the Union positions at either end: Culp’s and Cemetery Hills on the right and Big and Little Round Tops on the left.
Lee wanted the heights taken. The opportunity Ewell had to take the hills the previous evening had passed.
Meade, in command of the Army of the Potomac for less than a week, was determined to hold his ground. He told his officers: “Corps and other commanders are authorized to order the instant death of any soldier who fails in his duty at this hour.”
Lee planned to assault from the left or southernmost end of the Union line. He planned to have Ewell assault Culp’s Hill while Longstreet went after the Round Tops.
Longstreet took all morning and most of the afternoon to get into position.
Jeb Stuart belatedly arrived with 125 wagons and teams, raising the ire of Lee who wanted to know where he was for days when he was supposed to be “the eyes and ears” of Lee’s army. Lee let it go when he saw Stuart’s anguish and told him to join him in fighting “these people.”
The Union’s 3rd Corp under General Sickels was assigned to defend against Longstreet. He spent the morning disobeying orders, shifting his men from lower Cemetery Ridge to the Peach Orchard, leaving the Round Tops and the Union’s left flank entirely unprotected. Meade was infuriated and ordered him to fall back but by this time, the slow-moving Longstreet was finally ready to launch his assault. It was 4:30 in the afternoon.
Sickels was an ex-Tammany Hall politician who killed his wife’s lover but got off on a plea of temporary insanity. Before the day was out, Sickels would lose his right leg.
The Confederates charged with the 15th Alabama scrambling up Big Round Top. The Confederate’s Colonel Oates was at the top and realized that if he could haul guns to the summit of Little Round Top, he could blow the Federal lines apart.
Photo of “the slaughter pen” at the foot of Big Round Top
Sickels was pinned down in the Peach Orchard where he was not supposed to be. General Meade sent his engineers to the summit of Little Round Top to find out what was happening.
It was being held by a handful of signalmen. The Confederates – Hood’s Texans – were moving up the ravine separating Little and Big Round Top. Engineer Washington Roebling rushed down to tell General Warren that immediate action was needed.
Warren rushed reinforcements to Little Round Top. Loss of the hill could have cost the battle.
The last of the reinforcements to Little Round Top was the 20th Maine under Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. As he rode quickly alongside his two brothers, Tom and John, a Confederate shell barely missed them. The Colonel said, “Boys, another such shot might make it hard for mother. Tom, go to the rear of the regiment and see that it is well closed up! John pass up ahead and look out a place for our wounded.”
Chamberlain’s orders were to hold Little Round Top “at all hazards.” With 350 men he rode up the south slope, ducking behind boulders for cover. He sent the men of Company B to a hollow when Oates opened fire on them. Chamberlain believed they were all annihilated as Oates and his men rushed at them with the air filling with smoke from the constant rapid fire of the rifles.
The Maine men came back firing on the Alabamians who came at them a second time. Chamberlain fell back and reordered, firing all the while.
Private Gerrish of the Maine men said, “Imagine if you can, nine small companies of infantry, numbering perhaps three hundred men, in the form of a right angle, on the extreme flank of an army of eighty thousand men, put there to hold the key of the entire position against a force at least ten times their number…Stand firm, ye boys from Maine.”
The fighting was fierce and in an hour-and-a-half, forty thousand rounds were fired, young trees were cut in half. Chamberlain said that at times he saw around him “more of the enemy than of my own men…”
Chamberlain lost 130 out of 386 of his men. They were running out of ammunition. It was time to retreat or advance.
Chamberlain decided to advance. He ordered his men to fix bayonets, the right held straight and the left plunged down the hillside. The Confederates were so shocked, they retreated. Chamberlain said it all happened so quickly that one man shot at his head with one hand while handing him his sword with the other.
The Union fighters ran like a herd of cattle. One man was seen running with his throat cut by a bullet from right and rear.
The Union captured the 15th Alabama who said they were never whipped before and never wanted to meet the 20th Maine again.
Chamberlain was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor.
Sickels was in desparate shape in the Orchard, where he didn’t belong. Sickels leg was blown up at the knee during the fighting and, with his leg dangling loose, he was taken off the field smoking a cigar.
General Alexander, serving under Longstreet, drove Sickel’s retreating troops back only to be met with reinforcements who counterattacked. Confederates were driven back to the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, and the Valley of Death.
The air was thick with cannon balls and the sounds of struggle were horrifying. The sound of battle still came back to haunt one private fifty years later: screaming, bursting of shells, shrapnel tearing through the masses, death screams of wounded animals, groans of the people, wounded, dying, trampled under the feet of rapidly moving lines and riderless horses.
When Union reinforcements rushed to the Wheat Field, they left a gap on Cemetery Ridge. An Alabama brigade rushed through. Hancock saw the problem and ordered one small regiment, the 1st Minnesota, to countercharge to gain a few minutes advantage at the cost of their lives. Though they knew it to be a suicide mission, the 262 men attacked the oncoming 1600 Confederates.
The Confederates were shocked.
Only 47 of the men were unharmed with 82% of them falling in five minutes, the highest percentage of casualties taken by any Union regiment in the war.
By evening, the Union held the left and the right. Perhaps Lee would attack up the center on Day 3.
Lee declared a victory but no one really knew who won or felt like they won.