Battle of Gettysburg (second day)
The Second Day
The Confederate victory on July 1 was not conclusive. The Army of the Potomac was still present near Gettysburg and by early morning held a strong position on the hills and ridges south of town in a horseshoe-shaped line bristling with artillery. With its right anchored on Culp's Hill, the line stretched through Cemetery Hill and southward to a knoll on Cemetery Ridge, north of two hills that locals referred to as the Round Tops. Troops who had arrived overnight were also arrayed at the base of the smaller of the two hills, partially cleared of tree growth to reveal large boulders and hundreds of rocks, known as Little Round Top. Despite the loss of Reynolds and the majority of two army corps, Meade was satisfied with his army's position, not only for defense but for an attack as well. Union troops of the Twelfth Corps east of Culp's Hill may have an opportunity to attack Lee's flank if possible. But as the morning sun peeked through overcast, rainy skies, the commanding general decided to pull those troops into the horseshoe and wait for Lee to make the next move. The question was, from which direction would the Confederate attack come? Having sought opinions from his most trusted officers, Meade decided to bring forward the remainder of his army, repulse any Confederate attack, and if the opportunity arose, he would, in turn, strike at Lee.
Weakness on the flanks
Lee rose before dawn to formulate his plan of attack for the day. In the early morning light he surveyed the strong Union position and realized that a weakness might lay on the Union flanks. A simultaneous strike on both the right and left of Meade's position could roll up the Union line toward Cemetery Hill. The weakest flank was the Union left, which did not appear to be anchored on any high ground including the Round Tops at the southern base of Cemetery Ridge. After consultation with corps commanders A.P. Hill and James Longstreet, Lee dictated orders that Hill would remain in position at the Confederate center while General Longstreet's Corps would attack on the right and General Ewell's Corps would strike on the left. Both had to strike at the same time to throw the Union off balance, not giving Meade time to shift troops to the threatened areas.
Ewell's men were close to the field that morning, but James Longstreet's were not. Two divisions of his corps had stopped for the night several miles away from the field with a third too far away to assist that day. The two divisions under Generals John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws set out at 4 AM that morning but had not yet arrived near Gettysburg while Lee was formulating plans for an early morning assault. By the time they arrived it was after 8 o'clock, and Lee was forced to alter his timetable. Orders were finally re-issued at mid morning for General Longstreet to put his troops in motion. Not thrilled with his assignment because of the unfamiliarity of the ground and his desire to fight defensively, a disgruntled Longstreet put Hood and McLaws in motion on secondary roads south. After considerable delay, the march began filled with hope as the early morning drizzle had ended and the sky cleared. Yet misinformation and poor scouting thwarted the march. The day grew warm and the roads turned dusty under the tramping feet of 16,000 soldiers. Midway to the assigned positions, the lead scouts discovered that the road crested a ridge where signalmen on Little Round Top could easily spot the Confederate column. Somehow this critical location had not been reported by Captain Samuel R. Johnston, the officer in charge of an early morning reconnaissance to that area. Longstreet's men had to counter-march, or retrace their route back to another road that proved a more secluded route toward the southern tip of Seminary Ridge.
It was not until 3:30 PM when Hood's and McLaws' men finally reached their positions and formed battle lines having marched an exhausting 18 miles since sunrise. Very few of their troops had the opportunity to rest or fill empty canteens before the signal guns were fired to begin the assault.
Situated on the left of the Union line were troops under the command of Major General Daniel E. Sickles of New York. Despite his lack of military schooling, Sickles was brave, audacious, and had proven himself to be an adequate brigade commander. In 1863 he was given command of the Third Corps, which he led at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Virginia. Sickles's corps had fought well but were ordered into a position that had a great disadvantage in ground height. As a result, Confederate artillery had pounded his troops without mercy. On the morning of July 2, Sickles was worried that the same situation was about to occur. Arriving at Gettysburg overnight of July 1, his troops had been ordered to occupy the southern end of Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top. From his position the general worried that the ridge on which ran the Emmitsburg Road would be advantageous to the Confederates if they held it. Sickles sent several messengers to headquarters that morning requesting that General Meade visit the Third Corps line to discuss the situation. Meade declined while engaged in other duties. Certain of a Confederate threat to his front, Sickles finally sent out a strong scouting party that included a regiment of United States Sharpshooters. Entering Pitzer's Woods on Seminary Ridge, the sharpshooters encountered Confederate forces from A.P. Hill's Corps and a brisk fight ensued. Returning to the Union line, the scouts reported that the woods ahead of Sickles were full of Rebel soldiers and a dust cloud was seen, obviously caused by a strong column of Confederate troops headed his way. Believing that the Confederate attack would fall on him from the west, Sickles ordered his corps to advance from Cemetery Ridge and occupy the high ground at the Emmitsburg Road.
The Third Corps was greatly under strength. Sickles had only two divisions, instead of the customary three, under Maj. General David Birney and Brig. General A.A. Humphreys. As a precaution to cover his left flank, Birney's division was stretched from the Peach Orchard southeast to Devil's Den. Humphrey's brigades were arrayed in a battle line with supporting columns ready to march up to the Emmitsburg Road. Though this new line occupied some high ground, it was also very weak; there was not an adequate number of soldiers to man a solid line, especially on General Birney's front, and the advanced position presented the Confederates with a choice target to fire upon from two directions. Sickles had moved away from the main Union line on Cemetery Ridge losing the advantage of artillery support within a shortened front, and, perhaps most condemning, he had made the move forward in defiance of orders to stay where his corps had been posted. This opened a wide gap on both of his flanks, susceptible to being crushed by a flank attack- exactly what was about to happen courtesy of James Longstreet.
Longstreet's attack finally began at 4 o'clock when Confederate cannoneers opened fire on Union positions at Devil's Den and in the Peach Orchard. General Meade had visited Sickles' headquarters a few moments before and the two were conferring in the Peach Orchard when the Confederate guns opened fire. Despite the precarious position he was now in, Meade ordered Sickles to stay and fight along this new line and that other troops would be sent to assist.
General Hood's Division was the first sent into the attack though the lanky general was unhappy with his assignment. The open farm fields allowed Union artillery and sharpshooters to pepper his troops long before they reached the opponent's lines. Hood approached General Longstreet, expressing several objections to the assignment given him and petitioned the general for permission to withdraw his troops to move around Big Round Top. The corps commander blunted Hood's argument. Lee's orders had to be followed and Hood had to continue the attack despite his objections. "Do your best, Sam," Longstreet told the obstinate Texan as he turned his horse away. Law's Alabama Brigade stepped off from Warfield Ridge toward Devil's Den and the Round Tops, closely followed by Brig. General George Anderson's Brigade. Next to Law's men marched the famous Texas Brigade commanded by Brig. General Jerome B. Robertson. This was General Hood's old brigade and he paid special attention to them. Riding to the front of his old command, Hood addressed his soldiers: "Fix bayonets, my brave Texans; forward and take those heights!" Minutes later, General Hood was carried from the battlefield with a horrendous injury to his left arm. Brig. General Evander Law immediately took command as the troops wrestled their way around Sickles' left flank at Devil's Den. The Confederates swung eastward through plowed fields and pastures filled with boulders, past broken fences, and headlong toward Union cannon posted on the ridge above the den, supported by Union infantry. Fighting erupted on the slopes of Little Round Top, in the Wheatfield, and at the Peach Orchard.
Little Round Top
Reacting to the initial Confederate charge, General Gouverneur K. Warren, Meade's chief engineer, was able to divert Colonel Strong Vincent's Union brigade to the slopes of Little Round Top. Understanding the importance of the hill, Vincent posted his regiments on the southern slope where they repulsed the first Confederate attacks. The southern regiments re-organized and renewed their efforts to drive Vincent's men from the hillside with repeated attacks. Vincent's line did not waver, however, and the Union men tenaciously held their ground. Vincent's left regiment, the 20th Maine Infantry under Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, held off the 15th Alabama Infantry for over an hour despite repeated attempts to get behind the Maine regiment and around its flank. With his regiment having lost heavily and ammunition nearly exhausted, Colonel Chamberlain decided to make a bayonet charge when the next attack came. The exhausted Alabamians were stopped in their tracks when a line of yelling, cursing men came down the slope at them with bayonets gleaming in the fading light. It was enough for many who threw down their arms. Others ran for their lives back into the woods of Big Round Top. Chamberlain approached a Confederate officer whose pistol misfired in the colonel's face, and accepted the officer's sword in surrender. While the 20th Maine was completing its action in the woods, Vincent's right regiment, the 16th Michigan Infantry, suddenly began to waver and give way. Screaming the "Rebel Yell", Confederates of the 4th and 5th Texas Infantry rushed up the slope in one final frenzy of shooting, stabbing, and clubbing. Racing to stem the flow of retreating soldiers, Colonel Vincent was in the act of rallying his soldiers when he was struck down by a southern bullet. At this critical moment Union reinforcements spearheaded by the 140th New York Infantry, arrived and halted the southern attack. Bravery and gallantry had saved Little Round Top, a key feature on the southern end of the Union line, but at a terrible cost in officers and men for both sides.
While the fighting raged at Little Round Top and around Devil's Den, Union troops in the Wheatfield came under attack first from G.T. Anderson's Georgia Brigade, followed soon after by the South Carolina Brigade of Brig. General Joseph Kershaw. Having left the protection of stone walls on Seminary Ridge, Kershaw's troops crossed the Emmitsburg Road dogged the entire way by Union cannon stationed in the Peach Orchard. Passing into the Rose Farm, Kershaw realized that his men would have to face two separate lines of Union infantry, one at the Peach Orchard and the other placed on a stone-covered hill adjacent to the Wheatfield. Forced to split his brigade in half, the general's left regiments moved against the orchard as his right marched toward the stony hill. Just behind Kershaw, the brigade of Brig. General Paul Semmes arrived and rushed to support the South Carolinian's attack. The fighting swirled through the woods surrounding the field as Anderson's troops probed and moved to outflank the Union forces under Generals DeTrobriand and Barnes. Kershaw's Confederates sought to split the Union defenders who, though outnumbered, fought back furiously.
Reinforcements from the Union Second Corps arrived, including the famous "Irish Brigade" led at Gettysburg by Colonel Patrick Kelly. The total number of Irishmen barely amounted to 500 officers and men. Before the brigade marched to the Wheatfield, Father William Corby stood upon a large boulder and granted the soldiers complete absolution at this time of crisis. The New York regiments unfurled their unique green silk flags bearing a golden harp and shamrocks and followed them southward. Kelly's soldiers were sent into the center of the "whirlpool", charging through the Wheatfield and into the woods on the west side where they threw back Kershaw's South Carolinians. One soldier recalled finding hundreds of dead and wounded soldiers amongst the rocks and called out to the unhurt Confederates to throw down their rifles and come forward. Several did, preferring capture to certain death.
The Valley of Death
The Second Corps troops were able to clear the Wheatfield of southerners, but only for a brief moment. The arrival of a fresh Confederate brigade of Georgia troops commanded by Brig. General William Wofford, which had just smashed in the last Union defenders at the Peach Orchard, drove into the woods outflanking the Union positions. The line melted before the Confederate onslaught. Wofford's regiment swept the Wheatfield and aided by men from Kershaw's, Semmes, and Anderson's brigades, smashed into the division of U.S. Regulars commanded by General Romeyn Ayres, the last Union soldiers who could stem the southern tide. Standing their ground, the Regulars suffered terrible casualties when Confederates were able to sweep around the Union soldiers before they began a fighting retreat across what became known as the "Valley of Death". Wofford's men raced on to the northern base of Little Round Top where they were suddenly counterattacked by a brigade of "Pennsylvania Reserves". Led in the attack by General Samuel Crawford, the Pennsylvanians forced Wofford's men back across the Valley of Death and into the Wheatfield itself. Just before the fighting ended in this area, it had reached a crescendo in the Peach Orchard and along the Union line north of it.
The Peach Orchard
From his headquarters at the Trostle Farm, General Sickles attempted to control the flow of the battle while shifting troops to shore up his battered left. At the height of the battle the general was struck in the leg by a cannon ball and carried from the field on a stretcher. Despite the tremendous pain and shock, Sickles cheered on other soldiers hurrying to the front. He was taken to a field hospital where his shattered limb was removed that night. Command of the corps now fell upon General Birney, who knew that the situation was nearly hopeless. Union artillery at the Peach Orchard persisted in blasting back every Confederate assault, despite a relentless volume of Confederate iron thrown at them from guns on Seminary Ridge. Hapless infantrymen could only hug the ground as the missiles filled the air. At approximately 6:30, McLaws sent forward his Mississippi brigade commanded by Brig. General William Barksdale. The battered Union line collapsed when Barksdale's soldiers rammed through the Peach Orchard, flanking out Union regiments along the Emmitsburg Road. Barksdale was followed by Brig. General Wofford's Georgia brigade, which swept on to the Wheatfield, finally clearing it of Union troops. Supported by more southern brigades from Maj. General Richard Anderson's Division of Hill's Corps, Barksdale's men charged on, capturing cannon and shooting down Yankees who dared to make a stand. Before them was a sizeable gap in the Union line between Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, held by only a handful of Union batteries and one regiment of Union infantry. Barksdale's men, joined by two brigades from General Hill's Corps, stormed toward the gap.
On Cemetery Ridge, the 1st Minnesota Infantry was assigned to support a battery of Union guns when they were ordered to make a desperate charge. Without wavering or questioning the order, Colonel William Colvill led 262 of his men headlong into Brig. General Cadmus Wilcox's Alabama Brigade, halting them just long enough for more Union troops to arrive and fill the gap. Adjacent to Wilcox rushed Perry’s Florida Brigade, commanded at Gettysburg by Colonel David Lang. Lang attempted to counter the Minnesotans charge but was in turn ambushed by another Union regiment that fired into the Floridians' flank, driving them into Wilcox's units. A brisk Union counterattack by a brigade of New York troops under Colonel George L. Willard that drove back Barksdale now turned on Wilcox and Lang. In danger of being flanked and possibly cut off, Wilcox ordered the two brigades to retreat, leaving scores of dead and wounded in the path of the charge. An additional Confederate brigade that threatened the Union line right up to its center was also thrown back, and the sounds of battle slowly died away with the sunset. Darkness put a grateful end to the slaughter and Meade used the lull to shore up the Union left with troops from the First, Fifth, and newly arrived Sixth Corps. What was left of Sickles' corps was consolidated with other units on Cemetery Ridge and the Union line re-established where it had been approximately seven hours before.
Delayed by Union artillery and poor communications, the other wing of Lee's army under General Ewell began the charge onto Culp's Hill at dusk. Confederate infantrymen under General Edward Johnson marched from the Hanover Road to Rock Creek at the base of Culp's Hill. Overwhelming Union artillery fire from Cemetery Hill had delayed the attack and Johnson found that the ground he had to cross to reach Culp's Hill broke up his formations, causing more delays to stop and reorganize before they reached Rock Creek at the base of the hill. In the gathering darkness, Johnson's men waded Rock Creek and pushed into deep woods where they encountered Union troops under Brig. General George S. Greene. During the afternoon, most of the Twelfth Corps had been sent from the hill toward the Round Tops to support Sickles' Corps, leaving Greene's troops to hold the hill. Stationed behind defenses constructed of logs, rocks, and earth, Greene's single brigade of New York regiments was stretched southward from the summit of Culp's Hill to a small knoll above Spangler's Spring. Johnson's brigades attacked the summit but reeled back under a never ending stream of Union bullets. Farther south, two regiments of Brig. General George Steuart's Brigade drove back Union skirmishers to find the Union earthworks on the knoll above Spangler's Spring abandoned.
Steuart attempted to press his units forward but halted when small arms fire hit his regiments from the summit of the hill and from the woods west of their newly won position. No matter in what direction the general sent his regiments, they were met with a blinding flash of musketry and forced back to the captured earthworks and stone wall that ran over the hill. "Our loss was heavy, " General Steuart reported, "the fire being terrific and in part a cross-fire." In the darkness, General Johnson could not determine his objectives and was uncertain of the force arrayed before him. The determined defense of Greene's men led Johnson to believe that he was heavily outnumbered. After communicating with General Ewell, he halted his attack at 11 PM and waited for reinforcements to arrive before renewing the assault at dawn. Though outnumbered almost three to one, Greene's men skillfully held their positions and fought back small probing parties of Confederates throughout the night. Additional Union regiments later arrived to support Greene and the echoes of rifle shots finally died away as both sides attempted to get a fitful few hours of rest before the battle would be renewed.
Northwest of Culp's Hill, two Confederate brigades from General Jubal Early's Division momentarily penetrated the Union defenses at Cemetery Hill. After dusk, Colonel Isaac Avery's North Carolina Brigade and Brigadier General Harry Hays' Louisiana Brigade, known as the "Louisiana Tigers", charged across the rolling Culp Farm and struck the Union positions at the base of the hill. The nickname for Hays' men came from former members of the original Louisiana Tigers or Wheat's Battalion, raised in 1861 but disbanded after Major Robert Wheat's death. The remaining Tigers were transferred into the various regiments of Hays' command where the other Louisiana soldiers had taken a liking to the nickname and the fame attached to it.
Union artillery sent shrapnel and canister at the dark columns approaching the hill. Soldiers fell in the corn and wheat, including Colonel Avery who was mortally wounded. Unable to speak, Avery handed an aide a last message: "Tell my father I died with my face to the enemy." The northern fire grew in intensity as the southerners got closer to the base of the hill where shaken Union regiments from the Eleventh Corps stood poised to resist the attack. Undaunted, the southerners rushed the Union line where the 5th, 6th, and 7th Louisiana Regiments overpowered and routed several Union regiments. Pouring through the gap, the Confederates rushed to the summit of Cemetery Hill and into the Union batteries stationed there. Though many of the infantrymen scattered, the Yankee artillerymen stuck to their guns defending them with rammers, trail spikes, pistols, and rocks taken from the nearby stone walls.
Not quite a quarter mile away, Colonel Samuel Carroll's brigade of the Second Corps was massed behind Cemetery Ridge when an officer approached with orders from General Hancock: move immediately to the assistance of the Eleventh Corps on Cemetery Hill. Carroll marched his brigade across farm fields and the Taneytown Road, and through cemetery where they stumbled into a scene that one officer compared to "a swarm of mad bees around the hive..." Carroll, "found the enemy up to and in among the front guns of the batteries on the road. It being perfectly dark, and with no guide, I had to find the enemy's line entirely by their fire." Carroll's three regiments attacked, wading into the mass of milling soldiers, breaking up the already disordered Confederate formations. An intense hand to hand battle over the Union guns began. The 6th North Carolina Infantry had planted their regimental flag on one battery but were thrown back by a vicious bayonet charge of Carroll's command. Several regiments from General Coster's Brigade of the Eleventh Corps joined in the counterattack and by 10:30, the last Confederates had been thrown off Cemetery Hill. By midnight, the Union line was restored.
While evaluating his army's gains at day's end, a disappointed Lee realized that his gamble of attacking the Union flanks simultaneously had not paid off. Longstreet's command had taken some high ground but his losses were very heavy and Meade still held along Cemetery Ridge. The capture of Culp's Hill was still in doubt, though if it could be secured in the morning, the Union position on Cemetery Hill and the Baltimore Pike would be threatened. Determined to strike Meade's flank again with as much force as possible the following day, Lee consented to Johnson being re-enforced and for the attack to continue at first light. By that time he would be able to make a better evaluation of his chances for success in another attack on the Union flanks or devise another strategy.
Late that evening, the general had a surprise visitor. General JEB Stuart arrived at Lee's headquarters to report on his success in riding behind the Yankee army and the capture of Federal wagons and stores. Instead of a warm welcome, Stuart received a cutting reprimand from Lee, upset with the cavalry commander who had not kept him informed of his movements or the position of the Union army during the past week. A shocked and embarrassed Stuart attempted to explain, but it had no effect on the old general. Lee's temper finally cooled. "I need you to help me fight these people," he reminded Stuart, before he changed the subject to his cavalry chief's assignment for the morrow.
General Meade spent the early evening shoring up his line by shifting troops to threatened areas, including Culp's Hill. It was imperative that the Twelfth Corps be returned to Culp's Hill to reinforce Greene's New Yorkers and drive out the threat to his rear at first light. Little did the Confederates who occupied the Union earthworks at Culp's Hill realize that they were only several hundred yards from the Baltimore Pike, the main route of communication and supply to the Union Army positions. Meade appreciated this fact and knew that measures had to be taken to block the Confederate opportunity as soon as possible.
Yet there were many issues on the general's mind that evening when he called his generals together for a "Council of War" held at army headquarters in the home of widow Lydia Leister on the Taneytown Road. The tiny house had two rooms, one of which was soon crowded with Meade's corps commanders, weary and dirty after the long day. The generals spoke frankly about the battle so far and discussed the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. Different viewpoints were shared until the central question was placed before the group: Should the Army of the Potomac defend their current position for another day or attack? Almost to a man, the officers agreed to stay at Gettysburg and wait for Lee to attack. If he did not, then Meade should order a counterattack and force Lee to fight or flee. The Gettysburg Campaign was about to reach its climax.
- ↑ Busey and Martin, p. 125. "Engaged strength" at the battle was 93,921.
- ↑ Busey and Martin, p. 260. "Engaged strength" at the battle was 71,699. McPherson, p. 648, lists the strength at the start of the campaign as 75,000.
Books for Further Reference
- Busey, John W., and Martin, David G., Regimental Strengths and Losses at Gettysburg, 4th Ed., Longstreet House, 2005, ISBN 0-944413-67-6.
- Coddington, Edwin B., The Gettysburg Campaign; a study in command, Scribner's, 1968, ISBN 0-684-84569-5.
- Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg - The First Day, University of North Carolina Press, 2001, ISBN 0-8078-2624-3.
- Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg - The Second Day, University of North Carolina Press, 1987, ISBN 0-8078-1749-X.
- Pfanz, Harry W., Gettysburg: Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1993, ISBN 0-8078-2118-7.
- Wert, Jeffry D., Gettysburg: Day Three, Simon & Schuster, 2001, ISBN 0-684-85914-9.
CivilWarWiki Related Pages
- Gettysburg Union Order of Battle
- Gettysburg Confederate Order of Battle
- Gettysburg Address
- Gettysburg National Military Park
- Gettysburg (film), a 1993 movie portraying the Battle of Gettysburg
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