Photo of General George G. Meade’s headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg, July, 1863
“The army is the worst place in the world to learn bad habbits of all kinds, there is several men in this Regt. when they enlisted they were nice respectable men and belonged to the Church of God, but now where are they? they are ruined men.” ~ Private Delos W. Lake, 19th Michigan
The Battle of Gettysburg was fought July 1–3, 1863, in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania 150-years ago today. It resulted in the largest casualties of the US Civil War and is cited by most historians as the turning point in the war, ending General Robert E. Lee’s planned invasion of the North. It was one of the greatest battles ever fought.
General Lee had attempted an invasion of the North once before but was stopped at Antietam. General Lee’s purpose invading Pennsylvania was to draw the enemy away from the South, to break up the enemy, and to crush them if the opportunity arose. Lee also hoped to take advantage of the plentiful supply of food in the North.
Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia grew to 77,000 men and was broken down into I Corps under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, II Corps under Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and III Corps under Lt. Gen. Ambrose P. Hill.
Lee left Virginia on June 3 and marched west from their fortified lines behind Fredericksburg, turned north up the Shenandoah Valley, then crossed the Potomac River into Union territory. Meanwhile, nine days went by before Major General Joseph Hooker noticed most of Lee’s army was gone. He thought it a good opportunity to strike Richmond but Lincoln reminded him his first priority was to protect Washington.
Hooker was now directed to pursue Lee but he didn’t know where he was. He decided to head north with his 93,500 men. For his part, Lee didn’t know where Hooker was but learned he was replaced by a respected General, Major General George G. Meade.
Lee decided that he would concentrate his men at Cashtown, 35 miles to the SW of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s capital. The armies began closing in on each other until their first chance encounter on June 30.
The first battle began accidentally while an infantry officer searched for shoes.
Confederate General Heth, in a letter to the Secretary of the Southern Historical Society, explained that the choice of Gettysburg was purely accidental:
“Hearing that a supply of shoes was to be obtained in Gettysburg, eight miles distant from Cashtown, and greatly needing shoes for my men, I directed General Pettigrew to go to Gettysburg and get these supplies.
On the 30th of June General Pettigrew, with his brigade, went near Gettysburg, but did not enter the town, returning the same evening to Cashtown, reporting that he had not carried out my orders, as Gettysburg was occupied by the enemy’s cavalry, and that some of his officers reported hearing drums beating on the farther side of the town; that under these circumstances he did not deem it advisable to enter Gettysburg. About this time General Hill rode up, and this information was given him. He remarked, the only force at Gettysburg is cavalry, probably a detachment of observation. I am just from General Lee, and the information he has from his scouts corroborates that I have received from mine–that is, the enemy are still at Middleburg, and have not yet struck their tents.” I then said, if there is no objection, I will take my division to-morrow and go to Gettysburg and get those shoes! Hill replied, ‘None in the world.'”
Gettysburg was not intended to be the place of battle but a chance encounter made it so. No one wanted to fight in Gettysburg with its ten roads converging in the small town.
The rebel advance troop returning to Gettysburg the next day was seen by Lt. Marcellus E. Jones of the Illinois Cavalry at about 5:30 am on July 1. He fired on the Confederates in the first shots fired at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Union Brigadier General John Buford commanded the First Cavalry Division. In a good tactical move, he had his men dismount and deploy as Infantrymen so their carbines could be used to maximum effect. His men were able to delay the Confederates at McPherson’s Ridge, a hill used for military engagements.
Brig. Gen. John Buford defended the northwest position but the Confederates, under Major General Henry Heth, went around the hill and attacked from the northwest and north to defeat the hastily pulled together Union forces.
Union General Winfield Scott Hancock retreated to Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill where a sign by the cemetery gate reads “All persons found using firearms in these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.”
Every Confederate and Union division in the area converged on Gettysburg with the Confederates closest. The Union army was much further away. A. P. Hill’s corps was coming from the west and R.S. Ewell’s corp was coming from the north, putting tremendous pressure on the Union line.
Neither Lee nor Meade could personally control the opening battles because of their distance from the battle.
The people in the town described utter chaos with no one knowing where to run.
Lee arrived in the afternoon and realized the high ground had to be taken. He ordered Ewell to renew the attack on the high ground on Cemetery Hill before nightfall if ‘practicable.’ Lee used the expression routinely but Ewell took it literally and did not attack in a serious lost opportunity. Had it been Stonewall Jackson instead of Ewell, the results would have been a different. Jackson, one of the greatest generals in US history, died from complications of three gunshot wounds only months before.
After Chancellorsville, Stonewall was returning in the dark and was mistaken for Union Cavalry by his own forces. He was shot three times by friendly fire. He contracted pneumonia while he was recovering from his wounds and died May 23, 1863 on a Sunday – God’s day – as he wished. He was delirious at the end and started giving orders until a peacefulness passed over his face and, smiling, he said, “Let us cross over the river, and rest under the shade of the trees.”
More tomorrow on Day 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg…
Home of a rebel sharpshooter, Gettysburg, July, 1863