Thursday, October 28, 2010

Gettysburg, an Overview of the High Water Mark of the Confederacy

In May 1863, Lee received approval from his government for the second major invasion of the north. Lee hoped an invasion would fuel the northern peace movement and disrupt the Union war effort—sending them to the peace table. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia, 75,000-strong, was divided into three corps under Longstreet, Ewell, and A.P. Hill, with a cavalry division under J.E.B. Stuart. On June 3, advance troops of the Confederate army left their camps near Fredericksburg VA and marched west into the Shenandoah Valley.
            By June 13, elements of Ewell's corps appeared before Winchester and on June 14-15, Ewell attacked the Federal garrison at Winchester and defeated it. After Winchester, Lee's army moved into the Cumberland Valley of Pennsylvania.
By June 28, Longstreet and Hill's corps were at Chambersburg and divisions of Ewell's corps were preparing to move against Harrisburg. However, Lee learned that the Federal army was at Frederick, and that General Meade was now in command. Lee decided to bring his entire army east and engage in a battle. At the same time, Meade moved his army north. By June 30, both armies were converging upon Gettysburg.
On June 30 the Confederates discovered that Gettysburg was occupied by Brigadier General John Buford's division of Federal cavalry and on July 1 the divisions of Major General Henry Heth and Major General William Pender of Hill's Corps, moved forward to drive Buford away and occupy Gettysburg.
            Heth approached until he reached a point about two miles west of Gettysburg then deployed two brigades in line, and moved forward. Federal General John F. Reynolds, commanding I Corps, arrived on the field at this point, and ordered I Corps and Major General Howard's XI Corps to march to Gettysburg.
       Soon after I Corps arrived and engaged Heth along McPherson's Ridge. Heth was defeated and forced to withdraw.  Reynolds was killed and Howard took command as both sides brought up reinforcements. The Federal I Corps deployed to defend the western approaches to Gettysburg, and XI Corps formed up north of the town. Buford's cavalry covered the flanks. Howard left one division in reserve on Cemetery Hill. The Federal strategy was to delay the Confederates long enough to enable the rest of the Federal army to assemble.       
 Lee arrived on the field after noon and soon after Rodes's division of Ewell's Corps attacked the right of I Corps. At 2 p.m. Heth's division joined the attack on I Corps. Later that afternoon the battle spread north of the town when Jubal Early's division of Ewell's Corps attacked down the Harrisburg Road. West of Gettysburg, Pender's division relieved Heth and assaulted I Corps' position along Seminary Ridge. By 4 p.m., both Federal corps were in retreat through Gettysburg and settled on a commanding position on Cemetery Hill.
The first day resulted in a Confederate victory, but Federal forces held onto the high ground south of Gettysburg, where their position was soon strengthened by reinforcements forming the now famous “fish-hook” defense.
On the morning of July 2 Lee directed Longstreet to take two divisions of I Corps and march south until they reached the flank of the Federal forces. They would attack from this point, supported by a division of A.P. Hill's corps. While Longstreet carried out the main offensive, Ewell was ordered to conduct a demonstration against the Federal right. He would mount a full-scale attack should the opportunity present itself.
       The Federal army was well prepared. Six of its seven corps had arrived on the battlefield overnight and Meade had deployed his army in a fish-hook-shaped formation, with the right on Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill, the center along Cemetery Ridge, and the left on Little Round Top all commanding positions overlooking the Confederate lines.
Major General Daniel Sickles’s III Corps held the left of the Federal line. Sickles was dissatisfied with his assigned position and in the early afternoon, without orders, he advanced his line nearly half a mile west in order to take advantage of the high open ground around a nearby peach orchard. Soon after Sickles took up this new position, Longstreet attacked. Third Corps was hard pressed and Meade sent V Corps and part of II Corps to reinforce Sickles in the Peach Orchard. But, after furious fighting, Longstreet's forces broke through, causing Sickles's entire line to collapse. The Confederates pursued to the base of Little Round Top, but Federal reinforcements, including elements of VI Corps, checked their advance. Farther north, elements of a division of the Confederate III Corps advanced to the slopes of Cemetery Ridge before they too were forced to retire.
       On the Federal right, Ewell did not attack until evening, after Longstreet's onslaught had subsided. The effort to storm Cemetery Hill was ultimately unsuccessful. Ewell's attacks were also repulsed at Culp's Hill, although a foothold was gained near the base of the hill.
During the second day, Lee's forces had again gained ground, but had failed to dislodge the Federal army from its strong position. Lee's confidence was unshaken by the events of July 2. On July 3rd, he determined to shift his main attack to the Federal center on Cemetery Ridge. Longstreet was placed in command of the effort. The plan was to pummel the Federal position with a heavy bombardment, then to send Pickett, Pettigrew and half of Trimble's divisions - nearly 12,000 men - forward to smash the Federal center.
           At l:00 pm, the artillery opened the great bombardment of the Federal line. The Federal army replied and a giant artillery duel shook the ground for nearly two hours. After the bombardment ended, the infantry went forward in an advance that has been known throughout history as "Pickett's Charge”. Federal artillery, firing shotgun like blasts of canister fire, followed by musketry, cut the Confederate formations to pieces and inflicted devastating losses. A small Confederate force reached the Federal line, but was quickly overwhelmed. The attack ended in disaster, with nearly 5,600 Confederate casualties. The battle was effectively over. Federal losses numbered approximately 23,000, while estimates of Confederate losses range between 20,000 and 28,000.
Lee’s army limped back into Virginia with the Federal force offering little pursuit. Although both sides had suffered great casualties, the Confederate losses had a much greater impact on the Southern cause because of the small pool of replacements. Gettysburg has been called the “high water mark of the Confederacy” because Lee’s army, while it would continue to fight would never again have the strength for a major offensive victory.