Overview of the Gettysburg Campaign
In preparation for the campaign—as well as in response to the death of the much-celebratedin May—Lee reorganized his army, from two army into three. James Longstreet, known as “Old Pete,” was stubborn and opinionated and now Lee’s most trusted lieutenant. He would keep the First Corps. One-legged , “Old Bald Head,” would take Jackson’s old Second Corps. And , known for his headlong charges, sudden bouts with illness, and notorious fights with Longstreet and Jackson, would lead the Third Corps. On June 3, the army, numbering approximately 75,000 confident, veteran soldiers, slowly began to shift west from positions around Fredericksburg.
The dashing and glory-hungry, meanwhile, massed his Confederate cavalry near Culpeper, even staging a review and battle reenactment for local women, some of whom were reported to have fainted from excitement. Suspecting that Confederates were preparing to raid his communications and supply lines, the Potomac army’s commander, , ordered Alfred Pleasonton to cross the Rappahannock River with his cavalry on June 9 and attack. Stuart was thoroughly surprised and humiliated at Brandy Station, the largest cavalry engagement of the war. He was not, however, beaten, and by day’s end he had pushed the Union troopers back. Casualties totaled 907 for the Union and 523 for the Confederates. And while Hooker managed to learn nothing of Lee’s intentions, the battle did wonders for the morale of Union horsemen.
Lee continued west, marching through the Blue Ridge Mountains into the. Ewell’s Second Corps led the advance and, on June 12, approached , Virginia, garrisoned by 6,900 Union troops under Robert H. Milroy. By June 14, Ewell had nearly surrounded Milroy. The Union general attempted a nighttime escape only to be smashed by Ewell’s forces on June 15 at the cost of 4,443 casualties, most of whom were prisoners, and the capture of twenty-three pieces of artillery.
Ewell’s flashy victory in the Shenandoah Valley, where Stonewall Jackson had made newspaper headlines and become something of a legend just a year earlier, eased many people’s fears that he was not ready to fill his predecessor’s boots. The way was now open to Pennsylvania, and the first elements of Lee’s army reached the supply-rich Cumberland Valley town of Chambersburg on June 15. From there, Lee dispatched Ewell east of South Mountain, troops undermade it as far into Pennsylvania as York and Wrightsville, and Ewell himself led columns north to Carlisle and to the outskirts of the capital at Harrisburg. Longstreet and Hill, meanwhile, brought up the rear in Cashtown, about thirty miles west of Gettysburg.
Little did Lee know that Hooker was in hot pursuit. The Union general moved his army north so quickly that Stuart’s cavalry—seeking, perhaps, to redeem itself after Brandy Station by riding around the Army of the Potomac—was cut off from Lee and unable to warn him. By June 28, Union forces were massed around Frederick, Maryland. That same day, after losing a long battle of wills with Lincoln and Union general-in-chief Henry W. Halleck, Hooker was replaced by George G. Meade. Irascible and uncharismatic, Meade resolved to take the fight to Lee. The Confederate commander, meanwhile, only learned of Meade’s location from one of Longstreet’s spies and immediately ordered his dangerously scattered army to concentrate near Cashtown.
On June 30, Confederates indivision set off for Gettysburg and other supplies, only to discover Union cavalry instead. Unsure whether these were home guard troops or more seasoned Union army regulars, A. P. Hill sent two divisions into Gettysburg on July 1 to investigate. What they found, just west of town, was the stiff back of Union general John Buford, whose horsemen were determined to hold the town until the nearby First Corps could arrive.
Buford’s men, armed with quick-firing carbines, fought dismounted and, from the cover of Herr’s Ridge and McPherson’s Ridge, slowed the Confederate advance until the First Corps arrived. Realizing now that they were facing the Army of the Potomac, Hill’s men reorganized and prepared to renew the battle as Rodes’s and Early’s divisions of Ewell’s corps approached serendipitously from the north. Lee reached the field around noon and attempted to prevent the action from escalating into a full-scale battle. His standing orders, in fact, had been not to fight a battle until the entire army was concentrated. After all, he was unfamiliar with the terrain and with the enemy’s strength. By early in the afternoon, however, events had taken on a life of their own.
The Union First Corps commander, John F. Reynolds, was killed, and when the Eleventh Corps arrived, Oliver O. Howard took command of the field. His force, which contained a large number of Germans, had infamously run from Jackson’s men at Chancellorsville, and here they did the same again. Hill from the west and Early from the north set Howard’s men to flight through the streets of Gettysburg with a loss of nearly 3,500 prisoners. They rallied to the south on Cemetery Hill, an eminence commanding the town and its road network; as darkness fell, Lee decided against further attack. The battle’s first day had cost approximately 6,800 Confederate and 9,000 Union casualties.
Lee’s decision not to attack Cemetery Hill has been a source of controversy ever since. Some historians have suggested that Ewell was not nearly as aggressive as Stonewall Jackson would have been. Others have blamed Lee for issuing orders that were vague, contradictory, and overly discretionary. Ewell was to attack Cemetery Hill, according to Lee, “if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement.” As historian Stephen W. Sears has written, “The decision was left entirely in Ewell’s hands, and he was urged to start a fight but not to start a battle.”
During the night both armies received substantial reinforcements. By the morning of July 2, Meade had six of his seven corps on hand, and he arranged them in a fishhook-shaped line that took advantage of the hilly terrain south of Gettysburg. Lee, who had eight of his nine divisions on the field, held the initiative. He planned an offensive to roll up Meade’s left flank with Longstreet’s corps and part of Hill’s, while Ewell mounted a demonstration against the Union right. Longstreet vigorously objected to the plan, however, leading to awkward moments on the battlefield and more postwar controversy. He preferred to maneuver to the south, around the Union left, arguing in his 1896 memoir that the enemy’s positions were too strong. Lee rejected the advice, and the day’s attack, scheduled to begin as early in the day as possible, did not commence until three thirty in the afternoon.
Long the villain in this drama, Longstreet was targeted by Lost Cause historians—especially Jubal Early—because of his wartime ambition, his criticisms of Lee, and his postwar defection to the. Some modern historians, including , however, also have held Longstreet partly accountable for holding up the day’s assault by more than three hours. In Lee’s Lieutenants (1942–1944), Freeman charged that the general “sulked” as much as he fought, “the dissent of Longstreet’s mind [acting as] a brake on his energies.” Freeman’s negative opinion of Longstreet, however, has been challenged by more recent scholarship that acknowledges while Longstreet was guilty of some delay he also managed his corps with considerable skill in its attack that afternoon.
And that attack was very nearly successful. Fierce fighting raged in places soon to be burned into the American lexicon: Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard, Cemetery Ridge, and Cemetery Hill. When his left risked collapse, Meade skillfully shifted reinforcements to threatened areas and by nightfall had stopped Lee’s main attack. Lee’s management of the battle, meanwhile, was curiously hands-off; as a result, Confederate attacks were piecemeal and not nearly as effective as they might have been. That evening Ewell hit Meade’s right on East Cemetery Hill and, but he, too, was stopped. Both armies suffered heavy losses, but the Army of the Potomac still held the high ground.
Sensing that victory was still within his grasp, Lee ordered the offensive renewed on July 3. The plan remained the same. Longstreet, reinforced bydivision of fresh infantry, would assail the Union left while Ewell attacked the right. Stuart had finally rejoined the army, and Lee ordered him east of Gettysburg to threaten the Union rear. By early morning, however, the plan had collapsed when the fighting on the Union right commenced earlier than anticipated and Longstreet was unready to attack on the left. When Longstreet again argued, but with more justification this time, that the positions in his front were too formidable, Lee instead ordered a massive attack against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, then occupied by Union general Winfield Scott Hancock‘s Second Corps. The plan called for a bombardment by more than 150 cannon to weaken Union defenses, followed by an assault by drawn from Pickett’s division and Hill’s corps. The battle on Ewell’s front, meanwhile, ended in defeat for the Confederates, and during the afternoon Stuart was fought to a standstill three miles east of Gettysburg by Union cavalry under David Gregg.
During the night Lee withdrew into a defensive position along Seminary Ridge, to the west of town. He remained there all day on July 4, hoping Meade might attack him. When he did not, Lee ordered a retreat to Virginia. In three days of fighting, the Army of the Potomac had lost 23,000 men, the Army of Northern Virginia upward of 28,000.
The retreat was difficult. There were thousands of wounded soldiers to evacuate and it rained heavily on several days. A small force of Union cavalry destroyed Lee’s pontoon bridge over the Potomac at Williamsport, Maryland, and when the Confederates reached the river, they found that the rains had rendered it impassable. Eyeing Lee’s vulnerable position, Meade considered a full-scale assault on July 13, but after consulting with the commanders he called it off. As a result, Lee had time to build a new bridge at Falling Water and managed to slip his men across the Potomac that night. (Some Confederates escaped with the help of the ferry upriver at Williamsport.) The next morning, the Union cavalrymen did what they could to disrupt the Confederate withdrawal, but they could not stop it. Once the last of Lee’s soldiers had splashed back ashore in Virginia, the Gettysburg Campaign was over.
Lee’s army had managed to seize massive quantities of badly needed supplies in Pennsylvania, but in all other respects, the campaign was a disaster. Nearly a third of the army was killed, wounded, or taken prisoner, while horses and equipment were worn out. Instead of damaging Union morale, it boosted it. Combined with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi, on July 4 to Union general, the outcome at Gettysburg gave Northerners hope that the war might still be won.