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 2 of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 1
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 3
They say the noise was incessant as the sound
Of all wolves howling, when that attack came on.
They say, when the guns all spoke, that the solid ground
Of the rocky ridges trembled like a sick child.
– Stephen Vincent Benet
During the evening and night hours on July 1, 1863 both the Union and Confederate infantry forces had arrived. There were now around 160,000 soldiers at Gettysburg. At the end of the first day, the Union soldiers were positioned on higher, ridged ground south of the town. Their defensive position was like a “fish hook” and started at Culp’s Hill, traveled west to Cemetery Hill where it curved around and went south down Cemetery Ridge.
Unlike the previous morning, fighting did not start until the afternoon. Both armies took the morning hours to gather their troops, survey the area and shift their forces. It was humid and warm, but the men knew that the day was ripe with tension. It was understood that it “would be a day of bloodshed and that with some of us our next sleep would be the cold sleep of death.” Maj. Gen. George Gordon Meade again waited for Confederate General Robert E. Lee to make his move.
Lee shifted his forces to form a parallel line across from the Union line starting at Seminary Ridge, traveling east through the town before curved southeast and ended on a point opposite Culp’s Hill. The Confederate line was nearly five miles long while the Union had the interior lines.
Meade ordered Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles to take up defensive positions on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Sickle’s III Corps held the Union left, bottom of the fish hook, and were anchored to the north by the II Corps and to the south was the hill known as “Little Round Top.” The hill held the Union’s signal station which was vital for quick information. Stickle was unhappy with where he was stationed because he believed the land was too low. At 1 p.m. he moved his III Corps from the Little Round Top area to the “Peach Orchid” – an area with a slightly higher terrain. It was almost a mile in front of Cemetery Ridge. In doing so, Sickles weakened Meade’s concentrated defensive line, stretching it too thin. Additionally, he left his force open to attacks from multiple sides with no anchors.
Attacking the Flanks
Lee was still waiting on Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry to arrive; however, he could not wait any longer. He ordered a coordinated demonstration on both Union flanks at Culp’s and Cemetery Hills. While Meade and the Union’s soldiers were focused on defending those positions, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s I Corps would stealthily attack the Union’s left flank. Due to faulty intelligence, Lee was unaware of Sickle’s re-positioning. Sickle’s III Corps was directly in their path, forming a rough V-shaped line.
Right before the fighting began, around 3:30 p.m., Meade arrived at the Peach Orchard after learning of Sickle’s unauthorized move. Sickle, recognizing the vulnerability of the position and Longstreet’s incoming batteries, he acquiesced, stating “I will withdraw to my original position, if that is what you prefer, General.” Seeing the advancing Confederates, Meade responded “It is too late sir, those people won’t let you!” At about 4:00 p.m. Longstreet and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill’s divisions charge the Union left flank at Devil’s Den, the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top and the Wheatfield. Brig. Gen. Gouverneur Warren orders brigades to defend Little Round Top before the Confederates could take it. The second day of battle had begun.
Meade sent reinforcements (taken from Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill) to Sickle’s line. Despite their best efforts, the Peach Orchard position collapsed by 6:00 p.m. Confederate troops shifted their focus to Cemetery Ridge – now weakened after troops were sent to the Peach Orchard. Meade’s Cemetery Ridge line held. By 7 p.m. Lee’s main offensive attack had lessened and the Union pulled through. The night, however, was not over.
As dusk fell, Confederate Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell began his assault on the Union right against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Even though many of Culp’s Hill’s original defenders were sent elsewhere during the day, those who remained had utilized their rocky surroundings and constructed fortifications. The Confederates attacked but were slowed down when they could not breach the constructed earth barriers. The intense fighting lasted well into the night but the Union held their positions. Since they operated within concentrated, interior lines, it allowed men to move and defend weakened areas quickly and easily while the Confederate line was stretched miles long.
Notable State Militias
As with the first day of battle, state militias again contributed greatly. Some of the bloodiest fighting took place in the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard and north to Cemetery Ridge. It is at Cemetery Ridge where the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Infantry, outnumber 4-to-1, made their stand. The 1st Minnesota was one of the first units called into service at the start of the Civil War. Confederate infantry threatened to pour through a gap in the Union lines. If the South got a foothold on Cemetery Ridge, the North likely would have been pushed off. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock ordered the 1st Minnesota forward. Lowering their bayonets, 262 Minnesotans charged. Their actions stalled the Confederate until the III Corps took over. The 1st Minnesota’s flag fell five times and rose again every time. Of the 262 who charged, 215 became casualties in only five minutes. The 1st Minnesota’s 83.1 percent casualty rate is still the largest loss by any surviving military unit during a single day’s engagement in United States history.
In the famous battle for control of Little Round Top, the 15th Regiment Alabama Infantry faced off against the 20th Maine Volunteer Infantry. The 15th Alabama, led by Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood and commanded by Col. William C. Oates, charged the hill guarded by the 20th Maine. The Confederates were quite exhausted at the time, having marched over 20 miles prior to the assault. However, they fought anyways. After one and a half hours of intense fighting (as well as six different spirited attacks by the 15th Alabama) the 20th Maine, led by former professor Col. Joshua Chamberlain, found themselves low on ammunition and morale. Told to protect Little Round Top “at all costs,” Chamberlain knew they could not withstand another attack attempt. So the 20th Maine famously fixed their bayonets and charged downhill, surprising and scattering the Confederates. They held the hill. Oates later said of his opponent, “There never were harder fighters than the Twentieth Maine men and their gallant Colonel. His skill and persistency and the great bravery of his men saved Little Round Top and the Army of the Potomac from defeat.” In turn, Chamberlain said of the 15th Alabama: “these were manly men, whom we could befriend and by no means kill, if they came our way in peace and good will.”
Statistics of Day 2
The areas of fighting on Day 2 included the Peach Orchard, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Trostle’s Farm, Cemetery Ridge, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. While the Confederates gained some ground, the Union still held onto their strong positions. July 2, 1863 was the largest and costliest during the Battle of Gettysburg. An estimated 90,000 Union soldiers faced off against 70,000 Confederates of which around 20,000 were killed, wounded, captured or missing. The second day is ranked as the 10th bloodiest battle of the war and had more causalities than the larger Battle of Fredericksburg. With no clear victor in sight, generals planned their next steps. Civilians braced themselves for more chaos and destruction. Soldiers prepared for battle – some prepared for death.
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.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body, Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1928.
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.
James Hessler, “Dan Sickles: The Battlefield Preservationist,” Civil War Trust.
Hampton Smith, “First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment,” MNopedia, March 13, 2012.
20th Maine Volunteers
Civil War Trust
National Park Service