The Battle of Gettysburg: Confederate Against Union

The Battle of Gettysburg is viewed as one of the most important struggles of the Civil War. It was fought over three days between July 1 and 3, 1863, in a small Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg. The battle was between the Union’s Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George G. Meade, and the Confederacy’s Army of Northern Virginia, led by General Robert E. Lee. There were about 95,000 Union troops and 70,000 Confederate troops engaged in the battle.

Following the Confederate victory over the Union at Chancellorsville in May 1863, General Robert E. Lee decided on a second invasion of the North. (The first invasion occurred in 1862 and ended unsuccessfully at the Battle of Antietam). Lee’s reason for the invasion was to relieve Virginia, specifically Vicksburg, from advancing Union troops and reinforce the campaign of northern “Copperheads” who were promoting a peace settlement.

Lee began moving his Army of Northern Virginia north in June 1863. The Union’s Army of the Potomac, under the leadership of General Joseph Hooker at the time, mirrored Lee’s movement North. By mid-June Lee’s army began moving across the Potomac River and into Pennsylvania. In a dispute over troop deployment, Hooker offered his resignation to President Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln accepted the resignation and replaced Hooker with Major General George Gordon Meade on June 28.

Lee’s troops began moving west towards the town of Gettysburg, which was situated 35 miles southwest of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Union troops, anticipating the Confederate march on Gettysburg, set up defensive positions north and northwest of the town. Early on July 1, Confederate troops under the command of Lieutenant Generals A.P. Hill and Richard Ewell engaged the Union troops. The Confederates force the Union troops to retreat south through the town to Cemetery Hill.

Lee wanted to take advantage of his numerical advantage he held at the time and understood the defensive importance of the high ground of Cemetery Hill, so he sent orders to Ewell to take the position, “if practicable”. Due to the strength of the Union position, Ewell determined such an attack was not practicable and did not attack. This was a lost chance for the Confederates to gain a significant advantage.

The second day, July 2, was marked by the Union Army creating a robust defensive position from Culp’s Hill southeast of the town, swinging northwest around Cemetery Ridge. Lee ordered Lieutenant General James Longstreet to attack the Union left flank south of Cemetery Ridge, and Ewell to attack the Union’s right, close to Culp’s Hill. Lee hoped the attacks would occur early in the day, but Longstreet failed to meet that expectation and did not attack until 4 pm. The second day of the battle focused on Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard to the south of Cemetery Ridge and at Cemetery and Culp’s Hill to the north. The Confederate attacks were repulsed, and the Union lines held. Confederate troops did capture some ground around Culp’s Hill.

Early on the third day, due to Lee’s belief that his troops were close to victory from the previous day he chose to attack the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. This led to the now-famous Pickett’s Charge of about 15,000 Confederate troops under the command of Major General George Pickett. The charge occurred over one mile of open ground against heavily defended Union lines. Even though Pickett’s commander, Longstreet, protested the order, Lee remained focused, and Pickett’s Charge began in the afternoon. Although the Confederates had initial success in breaking through the Union lines, they were unable to press that gain and eventually had to fall back due to heavy losses. Pickett’s troops and other Confederate forces involved in the assault suffered casualties (killed, wounded, and missing) of over 50%.

The battered Confederate Army formed defensive lines expecting a counterattack by the Union. However, when Meade did not attack, the Confederates began retreating toward Virginia late on July 4. Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Over the three-day conflict, the Union suffered about 23,000 casualties (about the seating capacity of Madison Square Garden): The Confederate about 28,000. Lee’s army could not afford such losses. Lee had lost confidence and offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. Davis did not accept the resignation, saying it would be impossible to find a better commander.

For the Confederates, the defeat at the Gettysburg was not only a military loss but also a political loss because it dashed hopes of negotiating a peace treaty with the Union. The Union celebrated the victory but soon realized that the war was far from over. On November 19, 1863, the Soldiers’ National Cemetery was dedicated at the battlefield, during which Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg Address honoring the fallen soldiers.

07 July 2022
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