by Andy Mateja

After Robert E Lee’s crushing triumph at Chancellorsville, he felt the momentum was with his gallant Army of Northern Virginia and proposed to Jefferson Davis a renewed attempt of invading Northern soil.
Lees reasoning was not only strategic, but economic in nature. He wanted to gather desperately needed supplies, provide Virginia with a respite of the ravages of the war and allow the farmers in the Shenandoah Valley sufficient time to harvest their crops.
Jefferson Davis had other ideas however and wanted to detach part of Lee’s forces to relieve the Union army pressure in Mississippi (where Davis had a home). James Longstreet concurred with Davis’ suggestion, wanting to have the opportunity of joining with his friend and former commander, Joseph E Johnston.
Lee did not agree and persuasively argued that a decisive victory on Northern soil would by itself relieve the pressure in Mississippi with the added caveat of possibly ending the war
The audacity of Robert E Lee over the preceding ten months had virtually turned the war effort in the East around in favor of the Confederacy and was not overlooked by Davis and his cabinet. Davis relented and he and his cabinet approved Lee’s plan by a vote of 5- to-1.
The movement began on June 3rd with Lee concentrating his forces under I Corps commander along with newly appointed corps commanders Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill. With the untimely death of II Corps commander Stonewall Jackson after Chancellorsville, Lee had no choice but to reorganize his army – now into three corps and a larger but separate cavalry force under JEB Stuart. Lee’s forces for the coming campaign numbered around 80,000 men.
Lee began moving his columns into the Shenandoah Valley on June 10th with Ewell’s II Corps in the lead followed by Longstreet and Hill. Ewell was to chase the Union forces out of the valley to open a path into Maryland and Pennsylvania. Ewell accomplished his goal and captured 4000 prisoners before moving into Pennsylvania. Ewell’s forward progress continued until he reached the outskirts of Harrisburg
Everything was moving according to Lee’s plan except for the cavalry. On June 9th JEB Stuart received a surprise attack from the Union cavalry which embarrassed him greatly. Brandy Station as the battle was called was the largest cavalry battle American soil and the first time Union cavalry effective stood up to their Southern counterparts.
Stuart, still smarting from his embarrassment, proposed to ride around the Union forces to determine strength and location. Lee acquiesced but wanted enough cavalry left behind to effectively screen his movements. Stuart left three cavalry brigades with Lee and took his other three brigades on his “ride into destiny”. Through a series of mishaps and confused orders, Stuart became detached from Lee’s forces for several weeks and only returned to the army during the height of the Gettysburg battle. Lee was visibly agitated at Stuart’s absence and lack of information about the Union army’ whereabouts and movements.
During this period, the Union forces were not idle. Joseph Hooker was still commander of the Army of the Potomac in early June, even though Abraham Lincoln had offered the command to I Corps commander John Reynolds who turned it down. Hooker was aware that Lee was on the move northward and cautiously followed him by a parallel route through Maryland. When Hooker learned of the Confederate threat in the Shenandoah Valley at Harpers Ferry, he demanded that the Union forces there be put under his command which the War Department refused. Hooker then submitted his resignation which Lincoln gladly accepted and appointed George Meade as the new army commander on June 28th
On this same day Lee learned for the first time that the Union army was coming after him and was only 20 miles away. Lee immediately ordered a concentration of his forces, which were stretched out for over 60 miles in Pennsylvania, at either Cashtown or Gettysburg.
Circumstances brought the battle to Gettysburg as a brigade from Hill’s III Corps went into town on June 30th seeking shoes but were chased away by Union cavalry. The Confederates decided to try it again the next day – this time with a full division.
On the morning of July 1st, the 2400 inhabitants of Gettysburg were awakened by the sound of gunfire northwest of town between Heth’s Division of AP Hill’s III Corps and the two brigades of John Buford’s Union Cavalry. The cavalry was fighting a delaying action to allow the Army of the Potomac traveling north on different roads to converge on Gettysburg. Lee’s army was also moving toward Gettysburg with Ewell’s II Corp coming in from the North and East while the rest were coming in from the West on Chambersburg Pike. The day was hot and dusty and the armies were marching at the double quick to enter the fray of battle.
Buford’s cavalry delayed the Confederates long enough for Reynolds’s I Corps to arrive and engage. Howard’s XI Corp’s was not far behind. Another of Hill’s III Corps divisions entered the battle and Rode’s and Early’s divisions of Ewell’s II Corps were advancing as well.
When Lee heard sounds of the engagement he became agitated as he had ordered that no engagement take place until the Army of Northern Virginia is fully concentrated. Longstreet’s I Corps and Johnson’s division of Ewell’s II Corps were still almost 10 miles from Gettysburg and only able to march on a single road eastward. By mid-afternoon Lee had no choice but to order an attack, as four of his nine divisions were already engaged with two Union infantry corps, who were being pushed back southeast and through the town. Panic ensued with the Union forces fleeing through Gettysburg with many of them taken prisoner. Union forces under Howard tried to rally the remnants of his XI Corps and Reynolds’s I Corps (Reynolds had been killed) outside of town on Cemetery Hill. Howard’s troops already had the inglorious distinction of being routed two months earlier by Stonewall Jackson’s flank attack at Chancellorsville.
Winfield Hancock’s arrived in advance of his II Corp’s to shore up the defensive positions on Cemetery Ridge and took command of the Union army awaiting the arrival of General Meade, who was still hours away. The III Corps and XII Corps arrived between 5:00PM-6:00PM and helped secure the position. Hancock’s own II Corps arrived around nightfall. The V Corps & VI Corps were still in transit.
As Lee witnessed the impending Confederate victory from Seminary Ridge, an exchange occurred between Lee and Longstreet that was to have a serious impact on the remainder of the battle. Longstreet suggested a flanking movement the next day whereas Lee firmly replied that “if the enemy is there tomorrow – I will attack him”. Longstreet sarcastically replied that “ if the enemy is there tomorrow, it will be because he wants you to attack “. Longstreet’s movements on the 2nd and 3rd day of the battle may have been influenced by his belief that Lee was wrong and HE was right.
Lee recognized the key to victory that first day was to seize Cemetery and Culp’s Hill before nightfall. He ordered Ewell to attack “if practicable”. However Ewell, a far cry from Stonewall Jackson, did not attack as he felt his men were tired and disorganized. He also believed the Union forces were preparing for an assault. His assessment was correct – by 5:30PM there were 12,000 Federals in position with 8,000 more in place by 6:00PM. Ewell had less than 8,000 that he could organize for the assault before 5:30PM
That night Lee proposed a daylight assault the next day now that Ewell’s other division (Johnson’s) was now on the field. Ewell and his commanders opposed the plan and also opposed moving the II Corps closer to the main army. Lee was not pleased with the timidity and left with the issue unresolved. He planned to attack Meade’s army in the morning nevertheless.
After Meade’s arrival later that night, he and his corps commanders agreed to stay and fight it out on the favorable ground they were able to secure. Meade had about 93,500 troops at his disposal of which 60,000 were fresh for battle in the morning. Casualties for that day were 8900 Union and 6000 Confederates. 3500 on the Union losses were captured or missing.
During the morning hours of July 2nd Lee devised a new attack plan which he shared with Longstreet, A.P. Hill, Heth and John Bell Hood, one of Longstreet’s division commanders. Lee suggested that Longstreet attack on the right flank with two of his divisions which Longstreet objected to. Lee however was adamant. Another of Longstreet’s division commanders, Lafayette McLaws arrived shortly thereafter and Lee showed him on the map where he wanted McLaws to place his division. Again Longstreet dissented but Lee overruled him. Lee wanted Hood’s and McLaws divisions to roll back the Union flank toward Cemetery Hill. AP Hill’s divisions were to support the attack once Longstreet’s troops moved forward. Lee then rode over to Ewell’s headquarters and ordered him to attack once he heard Longstreet’s guns and exploit any advantage.
When Lee returned about 11:00AM , he was surprised that Longstreet had not yet moved his troops into marching position. Longstreet said he was waiting for one of his brigades to arrive to fill out Hood’s division. Why Longstreet did not at least get McLaw’s division in motion is unknown. His morning inaction delayed Lee’s attack plans even further.
Longstreet’s two divisions finally began to move around noon. The march was halted and reversed when it was feared Union signalmen would spot their movement. When Longstreet’s artillery commander E. Porter Alexander suggested an alternate route he had taken earlier to get his batteries in position for the attack, he was ignored. Longstreet effectively doubled the marching distance by turning the column around and delayed the attack by at almost two hours. Longstreet finally got his two divisions in place and ready for the attack around 4:00PM. However Union positions on the ground changed considerable during his delay.
Daniel Sickles the III Corps commander of the Army of the Potomac, violated Meade’s orders and moved to a position that jeopardized the Union line while at the same time blunting Longstreet’s attack objective. When Hood’s men tried a flanking movement over Round Top and Little Round Top, they were also met by Union troops that only arrived minutes before the attack began. The 20th Maine, who effectively prevented Law’s brigade of Hoods division from getting behind the Union army, would not have been anywhere near little Round Top if Longstreet had attacked at 2:00PM or even 3:00PM.
When Longstreet’s men finally attacked, they fought like demons and effectively destroyed Sickles’ III Corps. It took help from the V and II Corp’s to hold the line against Hood’s and McLaws’ attacks.
Richard Anderson’s division of AP Hill’s III Corps entered the battle around 6:00PM and almost succeeded in breaking through the center of the Union line. Only the skilled command style of Winfield Hancock in shifting troops to threatened areas saved the Army of the Potomac that day. The coming of nightfall prevented further carnage in the center and on the right.
On the Confederate left Ewell finally began his attack at 6:30PM after a two-hour artillery bombardment of the Union positions on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. The Union XII corps held their ground while almost losing the crest of Cemetery Hill after nightfall. The casualties on both sides totaled about 16,500 men.
Lee was now convinced that if the Longstreet’s and Ewell are attacked had been coordinated and simultaneous, victory would have been achieved. He ordered a renewal of the offensive at daylight, stressing the need for simultaneous attacks on both flanks. Lee was still confident that ultimate victory could be achieved on the 3rd day.
Meade on the other hand was not so sure. He held a council of war that nigh with his corps commanders to determine if they should stay and fight or retreat to a defensive position. He also asked if the decision is to stay, should the army attack or remain on the defensive. The decision was unanimous to stay and remain on the defensive.
That evening JEB Stuart finally returned to Lee’s army. He was chastised by Lee and assigned a supportive role for the remainder of the battle. The personal relationship between Lee and Stuart was never quite the same after this night.
Ewell began his fighting on July 3rd with an early morning advance on Culp’s Hill. Union batteries responded. The fighting raged for almost seven hours with heavy casualties on both sides. However contrary to Lee’s requirement of simultaneous attacks on both flanks, Longstreet did not oblige and allowed Ewell to fight all morning without counter pressure on the other Union flank.
Longstreet instead was planning a flanking movement around the Union left WITHOUT Lee’s knowledge or approval. Longstreet’s third division under George Pickett division, ordered by Lee to be ready for battle in the morning, was still in place miles from the front. Lee, out of frustration , scrapped his plans and formulated a new attack plan.
Lees revised plan called for a Confederate frontal assault against the Union center focusing on a copse of trees. The attacking troops would have to march a mile across open fields in the midst of Union cannon and rifles. Confederate artillery (approx 135 cannon) would unleash a firestorm against the Union center and take out as many of their cannons as possible prior to the assault. Lee’s frustration with Longstreet and his desire to salvage victory from a disjointed series of missed opportunities may have contributed to this audacious plan.
Again Longstreet opposed the plan – however if he had followed Lee’s original plan for simultaneous attacks with Ewell, there may have not been a need for this revised frontal attack.
Lee selected Pickett’s fresh division along with Heth’s and brigades from Pender’s and Anderson’s divisions totaling about 12,000 men. He placed Longstreet in overall command of the attack.
Longstreet tried to pass off responsibility of the assault on his artillery commander E. Porter Alexander by telling him if the bombardment failed to “drive off the enemy or greatly demoralize him” he should advise Pickett not to advance. Alexander was upset by Longstreet’s comments and replied that if his commander had an alternative to the cannonade and assault, he should consider it, for the long bombardment would drain the artillery chests. Longstreet got the message – and accepted responsibility for the attack once again
The Confederate cannonade lasted for about 2 hours and was answered by approx 118 Union cannon. The noise was so loud that it was said to be heard in Pittsburgh, 150 miles away.
“Pickett’s Charge” as it was called, began at 3:00PM on a hot 87 degree Friday afternoon. When Pickett asked Longstreet for permission to advance, Longstreet did not speak – only nodded
The Confederate attack was magnificent, with flags waving on a front almost a mile wide. Confronting them were 5700 survivors of the II Corps and I Corps under the overall command of Winfield Hancock. Despite heavy casualties the Confederates continued to advance and reached the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge known as the “Bloody Angle”. That was the high water mark of their attack. While the Confederates broke through the Union line it was only temporary and were pushed back by Union reinforcements. Thousands died in this assault including two of Pickett’s brigade commanders with the third one severely wounded. Winfield Hancock was also severely wounded. Casualties amounted to 5675 Confederates and 1500 Union
As the beaten Confederates fell back from the assault, Lee tearfully proclaimed that it was “my fault”. He told a visitor that night that “it has been a sad, sad day for us” and lamented “too bad….too bad….O’too bad !” Lee did accept responsibility for this stinging defeat and did not blame any of his subordinates until the day he died.
Lee now had to prepare for a counter attack that he was sure Meade would launch. – it never came. The Army of Northern Virginia remained on the battlefield overnight and began its retreat the next day in the rain.
Casualties for the three-day battle totaled 23,049 for the Meade’s Army of the Potomac and 28,063 for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
Meade was overly cautious and allowed Lee to retreat without molestation which angered Lincoln greatly . “ We had them in our grasp . We had only to stretch out our hands and they were ours. And nothing I could say or do could make the army move” Lincoln lamented. When Meade learned of Lincoln’s reaction, he tendered his resignation which was refused. However, Lincoln never forgave Meade for allowing Lee to escape and possibly ending the war on July 3rd 1863 instead of two years later and hundreds of thousands of additional casualties
While Lee began his retreat on July 4th, Ulysses Grant telegraphed Lincoln that Vicksburg had fallen and the Mississippi was “unvexed” to the sea. These back-to-back victories turned the tide of the Civil War.
July 4th also had other significance as well – It was American Indepedence Day which might have been celebrated differently in the South had Lee won the Battle of Gettysburg……………………………………

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