This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. From July 1 – July 3, 1863 the bloodiest battle in the entire American Civil War waged around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between Union Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This is Day 1 of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 2
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 3
On June 3, 1863, Gen. Robert E. Lee led his Army of Northern Virginia north. Encouraged by his astounding victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville in Virginia, Lee decided to attempt a second invasion north. In part, he hoped to take some pressure off of war-ridden Virginia by taking the battle elsewhere. He had invaded the North nine months before. That time he marched into Maryland and the fighting culminated with the Battle of Antietam – the bloodiest single-day battle of the American Civil War. His second attempt would prove just as futile and just as deadly.
Lee’s decision to move north again was a tactical one. It was a chance for the South at ending the war. A Union blockade had cut off trade with Europe, effectively halting the South’s economy. While Lee won at Chancellorsville it was to the tune of 13,000 causalities, including his right-hand man – Gen. Stonewall Jackson. The cost of the war in both monetary and human value was taking its toll. Southern support was growing thin. A Union defeat in the north could ignite a northern peace movement and draw more support. “It was a calculated decision based upon the understanding that there was only so much sand left in the Confederate hourglass. A protracted war is one the South simply can’t win,” says Peter Carmichael, a historian at Gettysburg College.
This time Lee’s objective was Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania. As the 75,000 Confederates moved (some of which were a bit scattered) through the countryside, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker stationed the nearly 100,000 Union forces parallel to Lee’s to create a “wall” between enemy forces and Washington D.C. and Baltimore.
Just three days before the Battle of Gettysburg, President Lincoln relieved Hooker of his command. Lincoln then assigned Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade as the commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade, considered a man of strategic acuteness, was surprised as his promotion. He was a respected senior officer with much experience but he had never directed an army on campaign. Meade, himself, favored Maj. Gen. John Reynolds as Hooker’s replacement. In a letter to his wife Margaret on June 28, Meade described how he was notified.
“Yesterday morning, at 3 a.m., I was aroused from my sleep by an officer from Washington entering my tent, and after waking me up, saying he had come to give me trouble. At first I thought that it was either to relieve or arrest me… He then handed me a communication to read; which I found was an order relieving Hooker from the command and assigning me to it.”Once Meade took over command of the Union Army he needed to come up with a strategy on what the Army’s next move would be. He decided that Lee would be the one to attack first since he invaded enemy territory. After looking at the options, Meade realized it would be more strategic for the Union Army to await Lee’s attack with a strong defensive position than to pursue the Confederates all around Pennsylvania. When Lee learned of Meade’s advancing forces, he began to gather his scattered troops to turn back to Cashtown.
Gettysburg was near Cashtown and an ideal town to hold since it stood at the north of an open, rolling countryside that was only sparsely wooded. Its brick and solid buildings would be comfortable. Some buildings, such as the Gettysburg College and a Lutheran seminary, had cupolas that could be used as observation posts. It became the host of the battle “more by chance than by design.”
The Battle Begins
On June 30, a Confederate brigade of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s Third Corps saw some soldiers in Gettysburg. Maj. Gen. Henry Heth believed the soldiers were part of the Pennsylvania militia and did not think there were very significant. Lee made it clear that he wanted to avoid any engagements since the Confederate Army was not yet concentrated. Heth, on the other hand, ordered two of his brigade to scout the area out in force the next morning.
The “Pennsylvania Militia” was actually two Union cavalry brigades under Brig. Gen. John Buford. They were stationed in a defensive position west of town on higher land. Buford asked for more support sensing an upcoming attack.
It all came to a head the next morning – July 1, 1863. Around 7:30 a.m. Two Confederate divisions under Heth were moving east along the Chambersburg pike to Gettysburg when they met Buford and his cavalry brigade. Buford was able to hold the Confederates until reinforcements, under the command of Maj. Gen. Reynolds, arrived two hours later. It became clear that the Confederates were advancing strongly. Reynolds feared the enemy would hold the higher ground first. He sent a report to Meade in which he promised: “I will fight him inch by inch and if driven into the town I will barricade the streets and hold him back as long as possible.” Not long after he wrote the message a bullet struck Reynolds in the head and he died. He was the highest ranking general killed at Gettysburg.
Around 2:00 p.m. Lee arrived on the battlefield. He wanted Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell to seize the high ground of Cemetery Ridge. Ewell decided to wait until reinforcements came. During this time, the Union forces created a strong defensive line on the higher ground. The Union also understood that Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top and Culps Hill were critical defensive positions and, if the Confederates took control of them, it would be extremely difficult to dislodge them.
Each side would gain and lose ground throughout the day. Finally, the Confederates moved the Union lines back though the town to Culps Hill, Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge. By 4:30 p.m. the battle was over for the day. The Confederates held the town of Gettysburg. Meade arrived on the Union side around midnight. He took stock of their situation and decided to fight from where they were instead of retreating. The Union had ended up on higher ground which would play to their advantage in the next days.
Notable State Militias
There were notable contributions by state militias on July 1. The veteran “Iron Brigade,” one of the toughest units in the army, was comprised of five regiments from Wisconsin (2nd, 6th and 7th), Michigan (24th) and Indiana (19th). The 2nd Wisconsin was the first on the scene and was commanded, rather briefly, by Maj. Gen. Reynolds before his death. Gettysburg was the Iron Brigade’s finest hour during the Civil War but also it’s deadliest. In the morning, the Iron Brigade was successful in counterattacking the Confederate brigade of Brig. Gen. James J. Archer and capturing him. However, the tide changed in the afternoon with the arrival of the 26th North Carolina. With 843 soldiers it was the largest regiment in either army at Gettysburg. It was said that the 26th North Carolina “came on with rapid strides, yelling like demons.” They faced off with the 24th Michigan, but the numbers of the 26th North Carolina overwhelmed the Michigan brigade. Their fight was the bloodiest regimental engagement of Gettysburg. Both the 24th Michigan and 26th North Carolina suffered more causalities than any other regiment. The 26th North Carolina had 687 causalities (including a colonel and lieutenant colonel) and the 24th Michigan lost 363 of their 496 soldiers. The 2nd Wisconsin also suffered heavy losses during the fighting on McPherson’s Ridge. They incurred 233 causalities out of 302 soldiers.
Statistics of Day 1
The areas of fighting during the first day included McPherson’s Ridge, Oak Hill, Oak Ridge, Seminary Ridge, Barlow’s Knoll and in and around the town of Gettysburg. It involved around 50,000 soldiers and an estimated 15,500 were killed, wounded, captured or missing. Eight Medals of Honor were awarded to Union soldiers for their actions on July 1. The first day of the Battle of Gettysburg is ranked as the 12th bloodiest battle during the Civil War. It had more causalities than Bull Run and Franklin battles combined.
As evening and night came so did the reinforcements and stragglers. The forces swelled and the stage was set for another bloody battle pitting neighbor against neighbor and brother against brother as so many of the Civil War’s battles did. The town would become battle ridden. The fields covered with the dead and dying. Churches, stores and homes would be transformed into hospitals. Even though the battle started without the knowledge or consent of either Lee or Meade the land would forever echo the deadly story of when they met.
John MacDonald, The Historical Atlas of the Civil War, New York: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2009.
John Keegan, The American Civil War: A Military History, New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2009.
Andrew Curry, “Turning the Tide,” U.S. News & World Reports: Secrets of the Civil War, 21-22, 2012.
Anthony M. Nicastro, “Why Gettysburg?: An Analysis of the Command Dicisions and Intelligence Failures That Led to Gettysburg,” Papers of the Tenth Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg National Military Park, 143-153, 2005.
Civil War Trust
National Park Service