Military history

CHAPTER ELEVEN


Chancellorsville and Gettysburg

UNION VICTORIES IN the Mississippi Valley in the first half of 1863 presaged the collapse of the Confederacy’s whole western position, yet left the Union still under threat in what both governments and peoples regarded as the principal theatre of operations, the borderlands of Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania. There were threats elsewhere, of course, and failings: in April a Union ironclad fleet failed to overcome the first of the forts defending Charleston harbour and suffered severe damage in the attempt. The war in Tennessee, whose Union constituency was so close to Lincoln’s heart, might go the wrong way, for Rosecrans’s army was nearly outnumbered by those of Bragg and Buckner. It was even possible that the surviving Southern armies at liberty in Louisiana might succeed in regaining New Orleans.

The real menace to Union fortunes, however, lay in the continuing presence of the Army of Northern Virginia in Fredericksburg, from which position it was poised to strike into Maryland or Pennsylvania, a move that would have panicked the residents of the great Northern cities and would certainly deeply alarm Lincoln and his government. Lee, supremely self-confident himself, also reposed strong confidence in the capacities of his soldiers, who, he believed, if properly supplied and led, could defeat any Northern army they encountered. Ironically, in view of the outcome of the approaching campaign, the recently appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, General Joseph Hooker, also believed that he could beat Lee and displayed signs of sublime certainty in his superiority and that of his army. Known as “Fighting Joe” Hooker, from an injudiciously drafted newspaper headline, he had been chosen to succeed Burnside because of the appalling casualties that had occurred at Fredericksburg under that general’s command. Hooker was actually a brave and normally competent officer. Unfortunately, he had decided to challenge Lee to a contest in manoeuvre warfare, an art of which Lee was already a master and perhaps the leading expert in the Western world. On April 12 there began those suggestive preliminaries to all great battles: clearing out the hospitals, inspecting arms, looking after ammunition, shoeing animals, issuing provisions, and making every preparation necessary to an advance.

First to move was the army’s cavalry division, which Hooker intended to send against the railroad bringing Lee supplies. That move, however, required the crossing of the Rappahannock, but because heavy rain had swollen it, George Stoneman, the cavalry commander, was unable to proceed, forcing Hooker to postpone the army’s advance. This was the first in a subsequent chapter of setbacks. Hooker hoped by cutting the railroad to starve Lee out of Fredericksburg and force him to fight a battle in the open. As a preliminary to the campaign, he divided his army, sending three corps across the Rappahannock eastward and the remaining four corps westward towards Chancellorsville, a spot on the landscape marked by a large mansion, the Chancellor House. Hooker’s total strength, including cavalry, numbered about 125,000, Lee’s under 60,000 plus cavalry. Hooker, however, was in a weakened position, since to dominate the river crossings he had divided his army and in such a way that Lee’s army lay between the two halves. Initially Hooker retained the initiative, since his position dominated several roads which led to Lee’s rear, thus allowing the possibility of cutting Lee’s communications with Richmond should the Army of the Potomac advance in that direction. In mid-afternoon on May 1, however, orders came from Hooker to his corps commanders to fall back on Chancellorsville. His subordinates protested, agreeing among themselves that the open ground they occupied and the high ground to their rear formed a position highly favourable to a successful attack. Firing had by now broken out and Darius Couch hastened to the Chancellor House intending to persuade Hooker that the advancing Confederates should be attacked. Inexplicably, something had happened to Hooker. All drive to exploit his thus far successful manoeuvre had evaporated. “It is all right, Couch,” he replied, “I have got Lee just where I want him. He must fight me on my own ground.” Couch’s inner thought was that “fighting a defensive battle in that nest of thickets was too much.” He made his exit with the private notion that “my commanding general was a whipped man.”1

Events would swiftly reveal the correctness of that conclusion. Hooker had succumbed to self-doubt, not a quality he had previously displayed, though his behaviour did not surprise his West Point contemporaries. It was about to be exploited by Lee and Jackson, neither of whom was afflicted by lack of confidence in any way. Indeed, during the next two days, May 2-3, Lee was to violate two inflexible rules of war—not to divide an army in the face of the enemy and not to march an army across the face of the enemy army deployed for battle—and to avoid the consequences, largely thanks to Jackson’s iron grip on his nerves. The two generals met on the evening of May 1 in woodland a mile southeast of the Chancellor House. Jackson sat on a tree stump, Lee on an empty hardtack box, a small fire glowing between them, to discuss the situation and their prospects. Lee had been bewildered by Hooker’s retreat, thinking at first it had come about because of the enemy’s recognition of a weakness in their position. A personal reconnaissance revealed, however, that the Federal forces were deployed in “a position of great natural strength, surrounded on all sides by a dense forest filled with tangled undergrowth, in the midst of which breastworks of logs had been constructed.” The description was of the locality known as the Wilderness, abandoned farmland which had gone back to secondary forest, forming one of the least passable regions in the whole Virginia theatre, though it had counterparts elsewhere. Ill fortune decreed that the armies would have to fight not once but twice in these fatal groves.

The two generals were at first dubious of the possibility of successfully engaging the enemy in such conditions. Then they received a report from J. E. B. Stuart, commanding the cavalry, which told them that Hooker’s right flank lay outside the Wilderness, unprotected by natural obstacles, and was vulnerable to surprise attack. Lee ordered Jackson, who enthusiastically consented, to take his corps and march it along a woodland track twelve miles through the thickets and brush to take the Federals in the rear. It was a dangerous thing practically as well as doctrinally to undertake, since the advance would be protected from view only by screens of vegetation. Jackson nevertheless set out confidently next morning at 7:30 a.m. His rearguard was found and attacked by two Union divisions commanded by General Daniel Sickles, but Sickles failed to understand the reason for Jackson’s presence in the area. At five o’clock, as dusk fell, Jackson’s men had reached the encampment of the regiments of Howard’s Eleventh Corps. Most of its soldiers were Germans, recent immigrants who had stacked their rifles and were preparing supper. In the years before the great Prussian victories in Europe of 1864-71, the Germans were not thought of as a military people, certainly not in the United States, where they enjoyed a poor reputation as soldiers. These unfortunates were about to fulfil it. Their ranks were first disturbed by the flight of a herd of deer, running ahead of Jackson’s men, followed by a flock of rabbits and squirrels. Before they could divine the reason for the wildlife sauve qui peut, they heard the nerve-shattering rebel yell and were set upon by Jackson’s ranks. The rebels’ blood was up and they tossed the Union regiments into frenzied disorder, driving them out onto the nearby Plank Road, where other Union units were caught up in the frenzy. General Oliver Howard, whose corps suffered most, described with remarkable frankness the effect of the rebel attack: “More quickly than it can be told, with all the fury of the wildest hailstorm, everything, every sort of organisation that lay in the path of the mad current of panic-stricken men, had to give way and be broken into fragments.”2

Riding just behind the advancing Confederate front line was Stonewall Jackson. One of his subordinates called out as the broken Union troops dispersed into the woods, “They are running too fast for us. We cannot keep up with them.” Jackson shouted back, “They never run too fast for me. Press them. Press them.” The Union troops opposite began to make a stand and, as their line solidified, Jackson rode forward of his own troops to make a reconnaissance. Returning in the gathering dusk he and his party were seen by men of A. P. Hill’s division, who mistook them for the enemy. At a distance of about four hundred yards, fire was opened. A sergeant and a captain riding with Stonewall were killed. Then a regiment of North Carolina troops fired another volley and hit General Jackson three times. One ball lodged in his right hand, a second went through his left wrist. Then a third hit his left arm between elbow and shoulder and shattered the bone. He fell from his horse and when reached was bleeding heavily. Captain James Power Smith, a staff officer, helped General Hill with first aid. Stonewall’s sleeve was cut open and a handkerchief tightened around the wound to staunch the blood. A carrying party of nearby troops was brought, with a litter, on which the wounded man was placed and carried off shoulder-high. Union artillery fire wounded one of the litter bearers and Stonewall almost fell but was steadied at the last moment. The carrying party was forced to take cover and the general was laid on the road. When the fire lifted, Captain Smith put his arms round Stonewall and helped him to walk into the woods, where the litter bearers got him onto their shoulders once more. Another bearer was hit and Jackson fell to the ground with a cry of pain but was helped to his feet and returned to a litter, on which he was eventually brought to a field hospital established near the Wilderness Tavern. There about midnight surgeons amputated his left arm near the shoulder and extracted a rifle bullet from his right hand.

His doctors and comrades were optimistic. No vital organ had been touched and he had been spared a serious loss of blood. He received a stream of messages from elsewhere in the army, expressing the belief that he would recover. He survived for a week, attended by his wife with her newborn daughter, but pneumonia and perhaps pleurisy as well set in and on the afternoon of Sunday, May 10, 1863, he died. His last words were “Let us cross over the river and rest under the shade of the trees,” later adapted by Ernest Hemingway as the title of one of his novels of war, Across the River and into the Trees. Lee regretted the loss of Jackson ever afterwards, while the leadership of the Army of Northern Virginia never recovered; in Lee’s words, “the daring, skill and energy of this great and good man” were now lost to the Confederacy and could not be replaced.

During May 3, while Jackson was gradually succumbing to his wounds, Lee renewed the attack on Hooker. Both armies were now divided, Hooker having sent a corps under General John Sedgwick to capture Fredericksburg. Lee ordered J. E. B. Stuart, who had assumed command of Jackson’s corps, to unite the two halves of the Army of Northern Virginia. As Hooker’s army outnumbered Lee’s, he should have retained the advantage; however, his nerve had been affected by Lee’s dashing attack and his own misreading of the battle. His only purpose now was to hold his position, to which end he ordered the abandonment of an important position at Hazel Grove, as a means of shortening his line. After occupying Hazel Grove, the Confederates pressed on to another hilltop called Fair View. The Union troops opposed their advance and a bitter fight broke out in the thickets of the Wilderness, described by General Howard as comprising “scraggy oaks, bushy firs, cedars and junipers, all entangled with a thick, almost impenetrable undergrowth and criss-crossed with an abundance of wild vines.” It appeared impassable, and the skirmishers could only work their way through with extreme difficulty. Nevertheless, fighting reached a level of murderous intensity, lasting half an hour and forcing the Union to abandon their position at Fair View. The Confederate artillery was now drenching the battlefield with fire, some of which fell on the Chancellor House, where Hooker had set up his headquarters. A shot hit one of the pillars of the house, against which Hooker was leaning, split it and threw Hooker unconscious to the ground. He remained in a dazed condition. On May 5 he gave orders for his army to cross to the north side of the Rappahannock. It was an admission of defeat, and Hooker had indeed been defeated comprehensively.

Everything from the start had promised a different outcome. Hooker had outnumbered Lee two to one; Lee had several times weakened himself by dividing his army in the face of the enemy. Hooker, though, simply by loss of nerve and failure to understand Lee’s movements, had thrown away any advantage. Even at the very end, when he had announced his failure by withdrawing his army across the Rappahannock, he enabled Lee to achieve one more victory, by allowing Sedgwick, whom he had sent to Fredericksburg, to fight unsupported at Salem Church on May 3-4. Sedgwick then followed the rest of the army in retreat across the Rappahannock. Hooker’s judgement on his lamentable performance proclaimed the self-justification of a weak incompetent. “My army was not beaten. Only a part of it had been engaged. My First Corps … was fresh and ready and eager to be brought into action, as was my whole army. But I had been fully convinced of the futility of attacking fortified positions and I was determined not to sacrifice my men needlessly, though it should be at the expense of my reputation as a fighting officer.”3 This was disingenuous. The Chancellorsville position was not fortified, except by the difficulty of the Wilderness itself and by hasty entrenchments and obstacles. In any case, Hooker sacrificed what reputation he enjoyed by declining to fight at times and places where he might have succeeded. Like McClellan, he had thrown away all his advantages for no good reason other than his own timidity.

Hooker’s loss of nerve at Chancellorsville disturbed Lincoln, who spent the first two weeks of May 1863 trying to put backbone into him, when he was not simply trying to establish what the general was doing and intended to do. By May 6 Lincoln had at last learned that a major battle had taken place, resulting in “no success to us” and that the Army of the Potomac had withdrawn to the north bank of the Rappahannock. Holding this telegram communicating the news and showing a face gray with anxiety, he paced about the White House, repeating the words, “My God, my God. What will the country say? What will the country say?” That afternoon, in his distraction, he decided that he must meet and question Hooker, and left at once. When he arrived at the headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, he held a conference of senior officers, whom he disappointed by referring not at all to the battle of Chancellorsville. Nor did he give them an opportunity to recommend Hooker’s removal, though several of the corps commanders wished it. Nevertheless, some of Hooker’s critics discussed making a visit to Washington to put the matter directly to Lincoln, out of sight of their superior, and to suggest his replacement by George Meade, one of the corps commanders. In the event, they desisted, since Meade declined to be nominated.

Lincoln also interviewed Hooker alone, at which time, following his established habit, he gave the general a letter, in which he set out his views and asked the questions to which he needed answers. What he really wanted to know was what Hooker intended next, since the Confederates were clearly still in a dominant position in the theatre of campaign. Hooker wrote to Lincoln at Washington in reply, strangely evasively. He said that he had formed a plan, which he would reveal if Lincoln desired. A week later, May 13, he wrote again, announcing that he intended to attack across the Rappahannock immediately, even though he was now outnumbered, a familiar cry from the McClellan days. Also McClellan-like, he requested reinforcements. Lincoln asked to see him in Washington. Dropping his plan to attack Lee, Hooker left at once. On arrival he was given another letter by the president and told that it would be quite satisfactory for Hooker to hold his positions in Virginia and merely to keep Lee under observation. He was also told that Lincoln was receiving expressions of dissatisfaction at his conduct of operations from Hooker’s immediate subordinates, which was perfectly true. Some generals had written to the president or been to visit him in Washington. Boldly, Hooker demanded names, which were refused, and then challenged the president to question every general who came to Washington.

Hooker must have sensed that the shades were drawing in. He had been involved in a whispering campaign against his predecessor, Burnside, and knew how confidence was undermined. The crisis of command, moreover, was quickening, for Lee had now begun on his plan to carry the war into the North. This was the opening of what would become the Gettysburg campaign. Lee had been to Richmond to persuade Davis that only a dramatic initiative could rescue the Confederacy from the military drift, which left the interior of the rebel state under deadly threat from Grant’s army in the Mississippi Valley, where Vicksburg was now threatened with capture, and which also, despite a succession of limited victories in northern Virginia, failed to deliver decisive results against the Union’s principal army. Lee argued, and persuaded Davis and the cabinet, and Secretary of War Seddon, that the correct strategy was to strike into the North, through Pennsylvania, strengthening the Army of Northern Virginia if necessary by withdrawals from the defensive forces in the Carolinas. He outlined a cluster of desirable outcomes from such a departure: relieving Virginia of the burdens of supporting its own troops and curtailing its exposure to Northern depredations; forcing the Army of the Potomac out of its strong positions along the Rappahannock onto more open ground to the north, where it might be brought to battle in favourable circumstances; spreading alarm into the North by menacing the great Atlantic cities, Baltimore, Philadelphia, perhaps even New York, as well, of course, as Washington; and, given a propitious outcome, reawakening the prospect of diplomatic recognition by the European monarchies.

The response was favourable, and on June 3 the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia broke camp near Fredericksburg and began its march into Pennsylvania. It remained unclear to the Union forces whither Lee was headed, partly because through a recent reorganisation, the dispositions of the Army of Northern Virginia were unfamiliar to their opponents. Following the death of Jackson, his Second Corps had been given to Richard Ewell and the rest of the army had been reorganised into a First and Third Corps under Generals James Longstreet and Ambrose P. Hill, each with three divisions. The cavalry, under J. E. B. Stuart, consisted of seven brigades. It was this formation which was first into action. Lee’s scheme of advance was not directly to his front, northward from Fredericksburg, but entailed a flank march into the Shenandoah Valley and then a change of direction northward towards Winchester, Harpers Ferry, and Harrisburg. The Blue Ridge Mountains at first masked his movements, but by June 8 it was clear to the Union that the Confederates were using the valley as their axis of advance and Union cavalry moved westward to intercept. On June 9, the Union troopers met Stuart’s men at Brandy Station, on the Rappahannock, and fighting broke out which was to swell into the largest cavalry engagement of the Civil War. The Union took the initiative and generally outfought the Confederates, to Stuart’s disgust. He was accustomed to getting the better of the opposing cavalry. Unusually, for the Civil War, the cavalry indeed fought as cavalry, from the saddle and with drawn sabres, rather than as dismounted infantry. Alfred Pleasanton, the Union commander, called off the action after he was satisfied that he had established superiority, though Union casualties were 866 and Confederate 523.

In the early stage of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania, Lincoln was more agitated by the failure of Hooker to take adequate and confident steps to oppose the Confederate advance than by the actions of the enemy. Hooker, during mid-June 1863, gave a very lifelike representation of McClellan at his most indecisive. He was now north of the Rappahannock. His first proposal to Lincoln was that he should recross the Rappahannock and attack the rear of Lee’s army at Fredericksburg. The president forbade him to do so, though he denied that he was giving orders, and said he wanted to be guided by Hooker and by Halleck, as general in chief. That was an ill-chosen thought. Hooker had conceived an animus against Halleck, whom he believed to be his enemy. Their differences could have been sorted out had Hooker visited Washington in a conciliatory frame of mind. He did not. Soon after proposing to fight at Fredericksburg, he made things worse by proposing to abandon the northern Virginia theatre altogether and march on Richmond, leaving Lee to be opposed by a force collected from the garrison of Washington. Had Hooker deliberately tried to arouse all Lincoln’s worst fears simultaneously, he could not have succeeded better. The scheme awoke visions of McClellan’s futile gesturing at the Confederate capital, while demanding reinforcements that could be found only by stripping the Union capital of its defenders. Lincoln answered Hooker’s proposal on June 10, within ninety minutes of its receipt. His reply was succinct and exact, one of his very best pieces of strategic judgement written during the war. “I think Lee’s army, and not Richmond, is your true objective point. If he comes toward the upper Potomac, follow on his flank, and on the inside track, shortening your lines whilst he lengthens his … If he stays where he is, fret him, and fret him.”4

Lee did not stay where he was. His army was now in violent motion, tearing up the Shenandoah Valley and threatening the Federal garrisons at Winchester and Martinsburg, northwest of Washington, though not close enough to threaten the capital—yet. Lincoln was now urging Hooker to attack, which he was at last in a position to do, as he had eventually put his army into motion on the “inside track” that Lincoln had identified. His path took him closer to Washington and shortened the transmission time for messages, which now flew back and forth. Incautiously, Hooker telegraphed Lincoln to complain that he did not enjoy Halleck’s confidence. He was preparing the ground for transferring the blame for any failure onto his superiors. Lincoln outsmarted him by writing instructions that placed him explicitly under Halleck’s command while in the field and not simply for administrative purposes. “To remove all misunderstanding,” he wrote, “I now place you in the strict military relation to General Halleck, of a commander of one of the armies, to the General-in-Chief of all the armies. I have not intended differently; but as it seems differently understood, I shall direct him to give you orders, and you to obey them.”5

This letter did not improve the situation. Halleck was not operating as chief Union strategist; Lincoln was. On the other hand, acute though his military judgement had become, Lincoln could not directly conduct operations in the face of the enemy. Only Hooker was in a position to do so, though he was manifesting less and less capacity to carry that duty out. In the hope of easing his mind, which was now clearly oppressed by every sort of fear, Lincoln wrote Hooker a personal letter, urging him to make his peace with Halleck and to strike at Lee’s extended line of communications, which he was now in a position to dominate. The situation did not improve. Hooker came to Washington, saw Lincoln and Halleck, and obeyed Lincoln as far as moving troops to protect Harpers Ferry, now under imminent threat. He persisted in his failure, however, to bring Lee to action, simply following the Confederates on a parallel track at some distance to their east. Lincoln was nevertheless encouraged by his meeting with Hooker and remarked to Gideon Welles, secretary of the navy, that “we cannot help beating them, if we have the man. How much depends in military matters on one master mind. Hooker may make the same mistake as McClellan and lose his chance. We shall soon see, but it seems to me he can’t help but win.”6 This was a last gasp of Lincoln’s wishful thinking about Hooker, who almost immediately repeated McClellan’s display of timidity during the Peninsula Campaign. He had now convinced himself that he was outnumbered and could do nothing unless he received reinforcements. He repeated his demand for troops from the Washington garrison, Lincoln’s weakest spot. When he was refused, he asked permission to abandon Harpers Ferry, a place of real strategic importance, so as to transfer its defenders to his field army. When he was refused—by Halleck—he asked to be relieved of his command. His reply to Halleck alleged that he had been given too many missions, to defend both Washington and Harpers Ferry and to fight a stronger enemy army. His nerve had finally and completely gone. That became clear in telegrams written on June 26 and 27. On June 27 Lincoln told the cabinet that he was relieving Hooker of command. In his place he appointed George Meade, commanding the Army of the Potomac’s Fifth Corps.

Meade was a respected senior officer with considerable experience in command—subordinate command. He had never directed an army on campaign. His selection was by elimination. None of the other corps commanders equalled him in experience or ability, though General John Reynolds, commanding the First Corps, was considered as a replacement and was favoured by Meade himself. The circumstances of Meade’s appointment were inappropriately jocose. Major James Hardie, of the adjutant general’s office, who hurried from Washington to bring the news, found Meade asleep in a camp bed, and began by informing him that he brought bad news: Meade was to be relieved of command of his corps. Meade replied defensively that he had expected it. Hardie then answered that he was to assume command of the whole army, which Meade protested he was unfitted to exercise. Hardie said that the government would not accept refusal. Meade therefore submitted, though claiming he did not know where the different formations of the army were located. His attitude was entirely genuine. Though temperamentally peppery and given to outbursts of bad temper with subordinates, he was a man of personal modesty and, as events would show, of admirable firmness of character.

The date of his appointment was June 28. Both Union and Confederates had been manoeuvring about Pennsylvania for the better part of a month. The Union’s best information placed Longstreet, commanding the Confederate First Corps, at Chambersburg; A. P. Hill, commanding the Second Corps, between Chambersburg and Cashtown; and Ewell, with the Third Corps, at Carlisle, threatening Harrisburg, the state capital. Stuart, with the cavalry, was moving round the Union positions past Centreville into Maryland. The Union army was disposed between the Potomac and Frederick and east of South Mountain. Meade at once decided to position the army so as to prevent Lee crossing the Susquehanna River, which divides Pennsylvania east-west. Hardie had brought orders, written by Halleck but decided by Lincoln, which reminded him that he had to cover both Washington and Baltimore, but was to bring the enemy to battle, though they laid down nothing limiting his freedom of action. Meade, who had considerable strategic acuteness, came to the following conclusions about his and Lee’s respective instructions. Lee had to attack since he was an invader on enemy territory. Were he to withdraw without staging a fight, it would be a serious loss of face. Lee was dispersed, Meade relatively concentrated. If Meade concentrated further, Lee would be obliged to attack him. Meade decided his best plan was to assume a strong defensive position and await Lee’s attack. Examination of the map suggested that Pipe Creek, just south of the Pennsylvania state line, was a suitable place to give battle.

News of the advance of Meade’s forces alarmed Lee, who began hastily to gather his scattered troops. He concentrated them first at Cashtown, between Chambersburg and Gettysburg, but when it was reported that some Union troops were at Gettysburg, he then switched his point of concentration there. The added reason for so doing was that his scouts reported that a supply of shoes, of which the Confederates were always short, was to be found at Gettysburg. On June 30 a foraging party was sent and found Union cavalry filling the town and outskirts. A second reconnaissance, on July 1, would swell into the opening of a major battle.

Gettysburg was the centre of terrain well suited for defensive operations. The town, standing at the north of a tract of open, rolling countryside, only sparsely wooded, was a comfortable, prosperous place, containing a number of brick houses as well as the large, solid buildings of Gettysburg College and a Lutheran seminary, both with cupolas which officers of the North and South were to use as points of observation in succession. South of the town the terrain formed two ridges, known as Seminary Ridge to the west and Cemetery Ridge to the east. The north end of Cemetery Ridge swelled into the two low hills of Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. To the south the ridge culminated in the prominences of Little Round Top and Round Top. In front of the Round Tops the ground was broken and boulder-strewn, with fields and fences forming what would become the killing grounds of the Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard.

At eight on the morning of July 1, the Union cavalry, two brigades in all, was met by advancing Confederate infantry. The Union cavalrymen made a spirited defence of the town, having the advantage of being armed with breech-loading carbines. At about ten o’clock, Union infantry started to come to their support, under the command of General John Reynolds. Soon after arriving he sent a report to Meade which warned that the enemy was advancing in strength and that he feared they would occupy the high ground before he could: “I will fight him inch by inch,” he promised, “and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible.” Soon after he handed his message to a courier, he was struck by a bullet in the head and fell dead.

About that moment General Lee arrived on the battlefield. His first remark on surveying the scene, which showed that there was fighting in front of Gettysburg, with Confederate units swirling about McPherson’s Ridge, fronting Seminary Ridge, was that he did not want to bring on a general engagement that day. The situation was fluid in the extreme, however, and almost as he spoke, the Union line which was stretched across the Carlisle and Harrisburg roads leading into the town from the north gave way, the fugitives streaming south towards Cemetery Hill. The Union force on McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge was shortly driven off and Lee now changed his attitude, deciding to fight as hard as necessary to hold as much critical ground as he could while the day lasted. Prisoners taken revealed that Meade’s arrival, with the bulk of the Union army, was imminent. Lee therefore gave orders “to press” the Union units southward with the object of seizing Cemetery Hill before it could be entrenched. He ordered General Ewell, commanding the Confederate Second Corps, to take Cemetery Hill. Ewell’s men, of whom 8,000 had become casualties since morning, were too disorganised to carry out the action and Ewell, riding forward to set his corps in motion, was hit as he did so. The bullet struck the leg he had lost at the second battle of Manassas, causing him to remark to the horseman next to him, “It don’t hurt at all to be shot in a wooden leg.”

General Meade was back at Taneytown when Reynolds’s message reached him. He sent his best corps commander, Winfield S. Hancock, to the spot. Hancock opened a meeting with Howard, Reynolds’s successor, by saying that he had been sent to take command of the three corps then deploying at Gettysburg. Howard objected that he was senior. Hancock said he had written orders in his pocket and would endorse any orders Howard gave but pointed out that he had also been charged by Meade to confirm. Casting his eye over the terrain from Gettysburg town to the Round Tops to its south, he concluded, “I think this the strongest position by nature upon which to fight a battle that I ever saw, and if it meets your approbation I select this as the battle field.”

Ewell was supposed, by Lee’s intention, to take Cemetery Ridge. He did not, instead riding about to gather his scattered units. The Union men meanwhile were digging to improve their positions, which they did during the night. On the morning of July 2, the second day of the battle, the two sides occupied parallel positions on Seminary and Cemetery ridges, separated by a shallow valley about two-thirds of a mile wide. All forces were well in place, the Confederates numbering about 64,000, the Union about 99,000, though both diminished by several thousand casualties suffered on the preceding day. Lee’s intention for July 2 was to attack the Union left and then drive the rest of the army off the high ground. General James Longstreet, Lee’s most experienced subordinate, to whom he entrusted the mission, was not enthusiastic. He preferred, as he had told Lee on the afternoon of July 1, to disengage, march the army south, and fight a defensive battle elsewhere in the Pennsylvania countryside. He now repeated his proposal. Lee would not hear of it, despite Longstreet’s reasonable objection that if the Union was awaiting attack, it was because that was so wished; he was alluding to that convention of military wisdom, that a general should not do what the enemy wanted.

Lee insisted, “They are there in position, and I am going to whip them or they are going to whip me.”7 Longstreet held his tongue but showed no urgency in carrying out Lee’s orders. It was not until 4 p.m. on July 2 that his units were in motion. When they moved, moreover, it was not northeast, as Lee wanted, up the Emmitsburg Road, so as to roll up the Union line from the south, but due east towards the Round Tops and the Devil’s Den. The Confederates were soon in frenzied action among the giant glacial boulders of the Devil’s Den and among the standing grain in the Wheatfield. John Bell Hood, one of the division commanders of Longstreet’s corps, quickly became a casualty, wounded in the arm, but his disablement did not diminish the ferocity of the Confederate attack.

As the fighting in the Devil’s Den reached its climax, the combatants were passed to the south by the 15th Alabama Regiment, which was heading for Little Round Top, via the higher Round Top. Meade’s chief engineer, General Gouverneur K. Warren, had spotted the danger just in time. Little Round Top, if taken, would have allowed the Confederates to position artillery in enfilade and drench the whole length of the Union line with fire. With minutes to spare, he sent the 20th Maine to join the Union signal party on the summit to oppose the Confederate advance. The 20th Maine was commanded by one of the outstanding regimental officers of the Union army, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, who in peacetime taught rhetoric and foreign languages at Bowdoin College. Refused permission by the college authorities to join the army, he had taken study leave and joined up anyhow. At Little Round Top, with 386 men, he took steps, under withering enemy fire, which saved the Union left flank and probably Meade’s entire army from defeat. His two brothers were officers in the regiment. Sending one ahead to seek out a place to collect the wounded and the other to the rear to keep the ranks closed up, he arrived on the summit of Little Round Top as the 15th Alabama was appearing. He deployed his B Company at an angle to the regimental line, to protect the flank, and then ordered sustained fire. His regiment also received heavy fire from the Alabamans. Very rapidly the 20th suffered 125 casualties out of its strength of 386 and was running out of ammunition. Chamberlain then ordered those still standing to fix bayonets and led a charge which swept the enemy off the hill and took 300 prisoners.

The success at Little Round Top and the preceding success in the Devil’s Den and the Wheatfield achieved the effect of blunting the whole Confederate offensive that was intended to collapse the Union line. Much of the credit belongs to General Daniel Sickles, who, in disobedience to orders, had brought his Third Corps down from Cemetery Ridge to occupy the Peach Orchard-Wheatfield salient, thus deepening the Union line precisely at the point where Lee planned to breach it—creative disobedience, since it frustrated a most dangerous stroke by the enemy. Another small regiment, the 1st Minnesota, only 262 strong, turned the tide here, losing 216 of its soldiers killed or wounded in its counter-charge to the Confederate attack. The 1st Minnesota had taken part in every major battle fought thus far in the east, which perhaps explains the effect of its action. By 7:30 p.m. the Union units had just succeeded in holding the northern end of its line on Cemetery Hill, but its line had been so weakened by the need to move units about that Meade began to fear that it could not be held the following day, July 3, when he expected Lee to attack again. As the Confederates had made their first effort at the northern end of the Union front and the second at the southern end, he expected the danger area on the morrow to be in the centre. He told General John Gibbon, commanding the division which held the ground exactly in the middle, “Gibbon, if Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Lee had no option but to attack; if he broke off action now, he would have conceded defeat and risked severe loss in retreating from the field. Meade nevertheless had his own anxieties about carrying on the action and during the evening held a council of war to seek the opinion of his corps and some of his divisional commanders.

Eighteen years after the battle, a minute of the discussion was found among General Meade’s papers. Three questions had been asked: 1. Whether to stay and fight or to retreat to a position nearer the army’s base of supplies? 2. If to stay, whether to attack or await attack? 3. If to wait, for how long? Nine replies were noted. There was general agreement to stay, though some of the generals wanted to “correct” or “rectify” the army’s deployment. Gibbon, who knew that his position was likely to be the focus of the Confederate attack, wanted to “correct the position of the army but not retreat,” and thought the Union “in no condition to attack” but that it should wait “until [Lee] moves.” Slocum, commanding Twelfth Corps, was the most succinct and resolute. He is recorded simply as answering “stay and fight it out.” Meade announced “such then is the decision.” The minute also records the remaining strength of the Army of the Potomac, after two days’ fighting. The corps had 9,000, 12,500, 9,000, 6,000, 8,500, 6,000, and 7,000 respectively, totalling 58,000. The Confederates had also suffered seriously but retained their cohesion and offensive spirit.

The morning of July 3 was hot and humid. Firing at the northern end of the line began early. The Union troops were attacking to regain the trenches lost to the enemy on the first day. Elsewhere on the battlefield there was only sporadic fire, though much movement as commanders on both sides realigned their forces. Lee spent the morning riding along the crest of Seminary Ridge, keeping the Union line opposite under observation. He had decided that Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s First Corps should lead the attack, beginning in the shelter of the Seminary Ridge woods and then moving across the open and unprotected fields of the valley up the slope of Cemetery Ridge facing. Most of Pickett’s men were Virginians; the brigades assigned to support his division included Alabamans and Texans. Pickett’s men were entirely fresh, having come from guarding the army’s wagon train during the days preceding the battle. Longstreet persisted in his reluctance to attack. Riding with Lee in the last hour before the battle, he again suggested changing the front of attack to the Federal left. “No,” Lee answered, “I am going to take them where they are on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack.” He would reinforce him with six brigades from Heth’s and Pender’s divisions(under Pettigrew and Trimble, respectively) of the Third Corps. Longstreet, to what must by then have been Lee’s irritation, sustained his objection. “That will give me fifteen thousand men. I have been a soldier, I may say, from the ranks up to the position I now hold. I have been in pretty much all kinds of skirmishes, from those of two or three soldiers up to those of an army corps, and I think I can safely say there was never a body of fifteen thousand men who could make that attack successfully.” “The general,” Longstreet observed, “seemed a little impatient at my remarks, so I said nothing more. As he showed no indication of changing his plan, I went to work at once to arrange my troops for the attack.”

Longstreet positioned the army’s artillery batteries so as to silence those of the Union—there were about forty batteries or 160 guns on each side to cover the march of the infantry as they advanced. He also ordered that there was to be no firing or movement until a double signal shot was fired. He remained tense with nerves throughout the period of waiting. The signal was fired at seven minutes past one and the bombardment that began lasted for two hours. The Confederates fired at the Union battery positions. The Union artillery commander, General Henry Hunt, ordered his batteries to slacken their fire towards the end of the bombardment, in order to give the impression that they were running out of ammunition. The din and smoke were shattering during the artillery exchange, which did less harm than appeared, much of the Confederate fire going too high. The Union salvoes did little harm either, as long as the Confederate infantry remained under cover of the tree line along the crest of Seminary Ridge. Eventually, as the Union fire slackened, Pickett rode up to Longstreet to ask permission to advance. Longstreet, by his own later account, could not speak, “for fear of betraying my want of confidence.” He merely nodded.

The nod translated into an order to set out across the 1,400 yards of shallow valley that separated the two ridges. Lieutenant Colonel Edmund Rice of the 19th Massachusetts was standing near the clump of trees on Cemetery Ridge which Pickett had chosen as the objective of his attack. As the long lines of Confederate infantry appeared, one behind another, a third body of troops in battalion column in the third rank, Rice heard the Union men call out, “Here they come! Here they come! Here comes the infantry!”

They came forward with an “easy, swinging step,” a line of skirmishers in front. They exchanged fire with the Union skirmishers, who quickly reached the fence of the Emmitsburg Road running along the foot of Cemetery Ridge. Colonel Rice had

an excellent view … and could see the entire formation of the attacking column, Pickett’s separate brigade lines [his division was composed of three brigades] lost their formation as they swept across the Emmitsburg Road, carrying with them their chain of skirmishers. They pushed on toward the crest and merged into one crowding, rushing line, many ranks deep. As they crossed the road, Webb’s infantry, on the right of the trees, commenced an irregular, hesitating fire, gradually increasing … while the shrapnel and canister from the batteries tore gaps through those splendid Virginia battalions.

The men of our brigade, with their muskets at the ready, lay in waiting. One could plainly hear the orders of the officers as they commanded, “Steady, men, steady! Don’t fire!” and not a shot was fired at the advancing hostile line, now getting closer every moment. The dense line of Confederates was for a moment lost to view in a dip of the ground. An instant after they seemed to rise out of the earth, and so near that the expression on their faces was distinctly seen. Now our men knew that the time had come, and could wait no longer. Aiming low, they opened a deadly concentrated discharge upon the moving mass in their front. Nothing human could stand it. Staggered by the storm of lead, the charging line hesitated … and then all that portion of Pickett’s division which came within the zone of this terrible close musketry fire appeared to melt and drift away in the powder smoke of both sides. At this juncture, some one behind me gave the quick, impatient order, “Forward, men! Forward! Now is your chance.”

I turned and saw that it was General Hancock, who was passing the left of the regiment. He checked his horse and pointed toward the clump of trees to our right and front. I construed this into an order for both regiments to run for the trees, to prevent the enemy from breaking through … With a cheer the two regiments left their position … and made an impetuous dash, racing diagonally forward for the clump of trees … Many of Webb’s men were still lying down in their places in ranks, and firing at those who followed Pickett’s advance which, in the meantime, had passed over them.

One battle flag after another, supported by Pickett’s infantry, appeared along the edge of the trees, until the whole copse seemed literally crammed with men.

Rice’s description became one of a long confused fight, with Blue and Gray intermingled at close quarters, men falling at close intervals, and no one in charge.

This was one of those periods in action which are measurable by seconds. The men near seemed to fire very slowly. Those in rear, though coming up at a run, seemed to drag their feet. Many were firing through the intervals of those in front in their eagerness to injure the enemy. This manner of firing … sometimes tells on friend instead of foe. A sergeant at my side received a ball in the back of his neck by this fire … The grove was fairly jammed with Pickett’s men, in all positions, lying and kneeling. Back from the edge were many standing and firing over those in front. By the side of several who were firing, lying down or kneeling, were others with their hands up, in token of surrender. In particular I noticed two men … one aiming so that I could look into his musket barrel, the other, lying on his back, coolly ramming home a cartridge. A little farther on was one on his knees waving something white in both hands.

A Confederate battery, near the Peach Orchard, commenced firing … A cannon shot tore a horrible passage through the dense crowd of men in blue, who were gathering outside the trees.

Rice recognised that if he could get his soldiers’ attention he could lead them quickly to a position where they would be out of the line of fire of both Confederate artillery and rifles, but, as he was stepping backward with his face to the men, he “felt a sharp blow as a shot struck me, then another; I whirled round, my sword torn from my hand … As I went down our men rushed forward past me, capturing battle flags and making prisoners.

“Pickett’s division lost nearly six-sevenths of its officers and men. Gibbon’s [Union] division, with its leader wounded, and with a loss of half its strength, still held the crest.”8

Lewis Armistead’s brigade of Pickett’s division had reached the crest, with Armistead in the front rank, waving his cap on the point of his sword, to encourage his men forward. He reached the stone wall running along the crest, stepped over, and put his hand on the muzzle of a Union gun, as if to claim its capture. Then he was hit and fell mortally wounded. Armistead had last been with Union troops at the Presidio of San Francisco in 1861, when, at secession, he had bade farewell to some fellow West Pointers, then left to go with his state. Three hundred men followed him onto Cemetery Ridge, many falling in the final confusion of the charge. Their bravery came to be remembered as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” The Confederate army was never to penetrate farther into Union territory.

As the survivors of Pickett’s charge were making their way back across the valley to Seminary Ridge, Robert E. Lee appeared on horseback. As he met the returning survivors, he called out, “All this will come right in the end. We’ll talk it over afterwards. But in the meantime, all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now!” He was joined by Pickett, who, riding up with tears streaming down his face, stumbled out, “General Lee, I have no division now.” “Come, General Pickett,” Lee answered. “Your men have done all that men can do. The fault is certainly my own.”

Later, after night fell, Lee was met by General John Imboden, who commanded an independent brigade of cavalry. He helped Lee to dismount and then said, “General, this has been a hard day on you.” Lee answered, “Yes, it has been a sad, sad day to us. I never saw troops behave more magnificently than Pickett’s division of Virginians did today … And if they had been supported … we would have held the position and the day would have been ours.” Then, after a pause, he cried out in a voice of agony: “Too bad! Too bad! OH! TOO BAD!”

How bad would be revealed as the armies took stock of their losses on the days following the battle. The Army of Northern Virginia had lost about 22,600 men, killed, wounded, and missing, the Army of the Potomac about 22,800. The worst loss in Hancock’s Second Corps was in Gibbon’s division, which had held Cemetery Ridge. Its First Brigade lost 768 altogether, of whom 147 were killed and 47 missing. One of its regiments was the 1st Minnesota, which began the battle only two hundred or so strong and was then almost extinguished by the energy of its own counter-attack. Another to lose heavily was General Reynolds’s First Corps, which suffered 6,000 total casualties, 2,000 of them captured or missing, mostly during the first day of the battle. Figures for the missing were large in most Civil War battles, partly because soldiers did not wear identity tags, making the identification of bodies haphazard. Others missing no doubt included those lost in the hospital system or lack of system and the opportunity provided by wounding to the war-weary to slip back into civilian life. General John Sedgwick’s Sixth Corps, by contrast, lost very few men, only eleven men wounded in one brigade, one killed and four wounded in another, only two wounded in a third.

Yet despite the sparing of some formations from heavy loss, Gettysburg had been a landmark, if not exactly a decisive, battle. It restored belief in the certainty of final victory to the Union, and dispirited the Confederacy, perhaps terminally. It was the largest battle of the war so far and would not be surpassed in scale. Those who had taken part, either as victors or losers, knew that they had participated in a historic event, the recollection of which they would carry within their memory for the rest of their lives.

On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln came to Gettysburg to take part in the dedication of the new national cemetery already created by extending the existing municipal cemetery. The principal speaker was to be Edward Everett, a former governor of Massachusetts and a noted orator. Lincoln had been asked merely to add a few words to the main oration.

Everett spoke for two hours, from a carefully prepared script, flowery and verbose in style. He evoked the funeral ovations of ancient Athens, subjecting his listeners to a display of laborious classical learning. When he eventually came to an end, Lincoln rose and spoke for two minutes. His words have become as remembered and as celebrated as the opening of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. He began,

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.

It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honoured dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.

Lincoln was dissatisfied with his two hundred and seventy words. “It’s a flat failure,” he said. The London Times correspondent agreed. “The ceremony,” he wrote, “was rendered ludicrous by the sallies of that poor President Lincoln.” Edward Everett, however, later wrote to Lincoln to say, “I shall be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours as you did in two minutes.” Perhaps the genius of Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address lies less in his magnificent words than in his refusing to differentiate between the sacrifice of the North and the South.

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