On This Day

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Library of Congress

On This Day: Battle of Gettysburg Begins

July 01, 2011 05:00 AM
by findingDulcinea Staff
On July 1, 1863, Confederate troops under Gen. Robert E. Lee encountered Union troops in the town of Gettysburg, Pa., sparking a three-day battle that was the bloodiest of the Civil War.

The Battle Begins

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In 1862 and the first half of 1863, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia to numerous victories over the Union’s Army of the Potomac. In the early summer of 1863, as Union Gen. Ulysses S. Grant moved closer to capturing the critical Mississippi stronghold of Vicksburg, success in the eastern theater became critical to the Confederacy’s hopes.

Lee wanted to push north into Union territory to relieve the pressure on Virginia, gather food for his troops, and divert northern forces from Vicksburg and the Confederate capital of Richmond. He also knew that success in Union territory would put pressure on President Lincoln to end the war.

The Battle of Gettysburg began after a Confederate brigade entered the town in search of shoes and other supplies, and spotted Union forces. Early the following morning, July 1, two Confederate brigades under Maj. Gen. Henry Heth returned to Gettysburg on a reconnaissance mission. They encountered a Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and skirmishes broke out on the western edge of the town.

As the fighting intensified, Union reinforcements from the east and the majority of Lee’s army, which was stationed eight miles west, arrived at the battle scene. The Confederates had the better of the fighting, forcing the Union forces to retreat through the town and onto Cemetery Hill, a strong defensive position on located on Gettysburg’s east side.

The retreating Union soldiers were disorganized and may have been vulnerable to an assault up Cemetery Hill. Lee sent orders to Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to “take Cemetery Hill if practicable,” but the cautious Ewell decided against it; though criticized by many historians, Ewell may have made the correct decision, as the Union forces were reorganizing by the time he received the order. The Confederates’ failure to seize the hill is often blamed for their ultimate defeat at Gettysburg.

Pickett’s Charge and Union Victory

Maj. Gen. George G. Meade, the newly appointed commander of the Army of the Potomac, arrived overnight along with reinforcements. Meade decided to keep his troops in a fishhook-shaped formation along strong defensive positions on Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge, and wait for Southern attacks.

Fighting didn’t begin until 4 p.m., when Lee ordered an attack on the Union’s left flank, which was vulnerable after Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles advanced to higher ground without Meade’s permission, creating a salient. Sickles’ men would be slaughtered during the afternoon, but Meade was able to divert troops to the left flank in time to prevent it from collapsing.

On the right flank, the curved end of the “fishhook,” Ewell organized diversionary demonstrations until 7 p.m., when he launched an assault of Culp’s Hill. Though the Union defenses had been reduced to support the right flank, they managed to repel the Confederates. In the bloodiest day of the battle, the Union had managed to retain its strategic positions across its line.

Fighting resumed at Culp’s Hill before dawn of July 3; again, the Confederates failed to advance. Lee decided to attack the center of the Union’s line at Cemetery Ridge. He amassed troops under Lt. Gen. James Longstreet at Seminary Ridge, across from Cemetery Ridge.

To soften up the Union defenses, he called for an artillery barrage in the afternoon. The Union replied, but with its ammunition low, it stopped firing. Longstreet, who disagreed with Lee’s decision, reluctantly ordered the charge, which was led by Maj. Gen. George Pickett, Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble.

Over 12,000 Confederates charged into the center of the Union defenses, which resumed artillery fire onto the unprotected Southern columns. The charge, which became known as “Pickett’s Charge,” was a disaster for the Confederates; in under an hour, more than half of the participants were killed, wounded or captured.

Pickett’s Charge was the decisive moment of the Battle of Gettysburg. Lee moved his men back outside of Gettysburg, and the next day ordered a retreat back into Virginia. The Confederate Army would never again reach Union territory. The farthest advance made during Pickett’s Charge, achieved by Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead’s brigade, is known as the “High Water Mark” for the Confederacy during the war.

There were more than 51,000 casualties in the three-day battle, more than any other battle in the war. According to the U.S. Army Center of Military History, the North had 3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 captured, while the South had 3,903 were killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing or captured.

Historical Context: The Civil War

The findingDulcinea Web Guide to the Civil War links to the most comprehensive and reliable sources on the war.

Reference: Primary Source Material

The Official Records is the largest collection of primary sources on the Civil War, featuring material from the Northern and Southern militaries. Its collection for the Gettysburg Campaign, which covers June 3 to Aug. 1, is divided into three parts: Part I and Part II include battle reports from the Northern and Southern armies, while Part III includes correspondence.

Battles & Leaders of the Civil War, published between 1884 and 1887, features articles written by Confederate and Union officers who participated in the Battle of Gettysburg.

Later Developments: The Gettysburg Address

Four months after the battle, on Nov. 19, 1863, President Lincoln gave a short speech at the opening ceremony of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. His remarks, known as the Gettysburg Address, redefined the meaning of the war, transforming it from a battle between North and South into a struggle for the ideals of freedom and equality.
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