Following his previous foray at Antietam, in the autumn of 1862, Confederate General Robert E Lee planned for a second campaign in the North of America. . He mounted a successful battle in the Campaign of Chancellorsville in May of 1863, where he made the daring tactical decision to split his forces in half against the much bigger Union Army, leaving one half to defend positions at Fredericksburg, In the closing days of June 1863, Lee began to mobilise his army to converge on the town of Gettysburg, in Pennsylvania.
Knowing the Union forces were preoccupied by guarding Washington, Lee’s second campaign in the North was started in the hope that the already battle-weary Union supporting states would urge their President to negotiate for peace and concede a legitimate Confederacy in the USA. When learning the enemy forces were heading towards Gettysburg, General Hooker of the Union army started reluctantly in pursuit, however he was stopped a few days short by President Lincoln who was losing faith in his general after his reluctance to engage Lee in previous battle, and replaced with Major General George Meade.
Meade led the Union Army of the Potomac, towards Gettysburg, keeping themselves between Washington and the Confederate forces, where an initial clash took place on July 1st. Although this clash is played down by Historians, for the most part when looking back, it was in fact quite a substantial engagement involving a large number of troops under A P Hill, when they went into the town searching for supplies and were met by two Union Cavalry brigades. The Confederate forces were able to push the outnumbered Unionists back towards Cemetery Hill, half a mile out of town. In total 45,000 troops from both sides were engaged, in a skirmish that lasted for the best part of the day with both sides suffering heavy casualties.
Lee gave a discretionary order to Ewell, replacement for Stonewall Jackson, to commence an attack on Cemetery Hill, however Ewell took the decision instead to consolidate the position his troops held. His feeling being that the Union troops held too strong a position. Earning himself a reputation not unlike that of his predecessor, Ewell was to later regret his decision as by dusk, a full corps of Union reinforcements arrived led by W S Hancock, followed by a further three corps by the next morning, complete with artillery cannon. The small defence at Cemetery Hill had spread into a reinforced line stretching along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, from Cemetery Hill to one side, and Culps Hill, on the right flank.
The night before, General Lee met with his senior commanders, who believed that the Union position was too strong and they should move east and set up their own defensive position between the enemy and Washington and force the Federal Army to come to them. Lee, ever convinced of his own strength dismissed this idea, believing his own forces strength to be far superior to that of Meade’s and instead decided to start an attack on the right flank the next morning where he felt Meade’s defences was weakest. Lee was of course not to realise that under cover of darkness many tens of thousands of Union reinforcements would arrive and his own strength would be further weakened when his eyes and ears, in the form of his cavalry under Stuart would disappear on a fruitless quest to harry the opposition, leaving Lee in a blind and vulnerable state for the best part of the next day.
At 10am on the 2nd July, General Lee gave Major General Longstreet the order to attack as early as possible. But Longstreet dragged his feet somewhat, getting his troops organised until it was almost 4pm that the advance actually began, by which time the Union had further consolidated their position, with more reinforcements. Longstreet led his troops into battle at several points along the ridge, Little Round Top, The Wheat Field, The Peach Orchard and Devil’s Den being now famous target points in the area surrounding Gettysburg. At 6.30pm, General Ewell joined the fray to the North and east of the ridge at Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Moderate success was achieved with the capture of a number of trenches at Culp’s Hill but the rebel forces were driven back at Cemetery Hill.
As darkness fell, the fighting slowed to end, with the Union forces being the more successful on the day. Despite conceding the Peach Orchard, and the area on Culps Hill, the Union forces for the most part repelled the attack. The Confederates drew back. The day cost both sides around 9000 casualties, many of whom lay on the hillsides and in the positions in which they fell, to moan and cry all through that night, many of them silent as dawn broke the next morning. General Lee, under the misguided allusion that his forces had come close to success the previous day, during the previous night’s council had decided to press the advantage he didn’t actually have, by ordering a mass frontal attack on a part of the ridge in the centre of the Union defences. 15,000 men, led by George Pickett. Ewell would renew his previous day’s attack on Culp’s Hill. At 4.30 the next morning, as the sun rose, his line in the captured trenches were awoken to the heavy pounding of artillery from Meade’s forces along the ridge, as the Union guns attempted to force the rebels to retreat and cede the captured land. The Confederates held their position and at 8am retaliated. The struggle for control of Culps Hill lasted until 11am when a sudden silence, described by some as eerie, settled over the battlefield.
Longstreet once again tried to dissuade Lee from sending his proposed charge to the centre of the Union line. It meant a march at fast pace across a field for three quarters of a mile in full view of the Union forces armed with artillery on the ridge above, before having to scale the hill and fight. Lee was convinced the attack would work, and spent all morning amassing his troops in the woods opposite the point of charge. Meade, for the Unionists had actually predicted Lee would risk all on a frontal attack, and then changed his mind, believing that no general could make such a risky move, and had accordingly reshuffled his troops to other areas of the line where he felt an attack was more likely, particularly to the North. He was left with less 6000 men at the point of attack.
Following a preliminary bombardment by his forces artillery onto Union lines, Major General Pickett led his 15,000 strong charge in 90 degree heat at 3pm on the 3rd July 1863. Union guns retaliated by training their central guns directly onto the attacking force, with supporting fire from both flanks. Infantry rifles assisted and very quickly the attack faltered without reaching the objective. Over half of the charge were decimated, and the survivors struggled to fall back to their starting position. As the rain started to fall on the battlefield, Lee realised his dreams were dashed. There would be no victory in the North, there would be no Confederate legitimacy. As he withdrew, leaving thousands of dead, Lee sent his resignation as commander to Confederate President, Jefferson Davis, who refused to accept it.
The following day, the Confederate Cause was dealt another blow when the Army of the Tennessee under Major General Ulysses S Grant, future President, obtained victory at the end of the 6 week long Siege of Vicksburg, gaining the surrender of thousands of Confederate troops who were cut off from their main army, and taking strong positions covering a large area including Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas. Although the war was to last a further two years, including several more victories for the Confederates under the command of General Lee, these two victories marked the turning point in the Civil war, to the favour of the Union force.