The Doom of the Confederates
If, on the one hand, the defeat of the Confederates at Gettysburg on July 1st to 3rd, 1863, practically settled the question at issue between North and South, on the other it was probably the last chance that the Federals had of winning a decisive battle.
General Lee, the Napoleon of the Southern States, commanded the Confederates, and had determined to make another invasion of Maryland and Pennsylvania. He had under him some eighty thousand men, and by careful manúuvring succeeded in getting into the neighbourhood of Gettysburg, where also General Meade had concentrated the Federal force. Meade was a fine old soldier who had succeeded to the Federal command in place of General Hooker, who had been defeated at Chancellorsville. He had realised the importance of striking a decisive blow and so stopping Lee's progress, and it was in order to do this that he had moved his army from Frederick City towards Gettysburg, which his advance guard reached on June 30th.
This advance guard of cavalry under Buford seized Gettysburg, and reconnoitred the country through which Lee was expected to come. Lee had made his headquarters some miles from the town, having thrown out advance guards into Heidelsburg, nine miles off.
On the morning of July 1st, Buford's cavalry was attacked by Hill at Chambersburg. He determined to do his best to hold the enemy in check until he received reinforcements. After a time General Reynolds came to his aid. Reynolds disposed his force along the hills known as Oak Ridge, and set himself the task of holding the post until the main body of the Federals could take up a position south of Gettysburg. He immediately dispatched a messenger urging Howard, commanding the 11th Corps, to hasten to his assistance, and then engaged the enemy. The Federals showed a valiant front, but received a severe blow when Reynolds was killed by a bullet from a rifle. General Doubleday immediately assumed command, and did his best to drive the Confederates off. They refused to be driven off, however, even when Howard arrived with his 11th Corps at one o'clock in the afternoon.
Howard at once took supreme command, and in the endeavour to cover as much ground as possible, and so obviate any flanking movement the enemy might make, he fell into the very trap he was trying to avoid. His force was not large enough to do what he wished, and the result was that his line became weakened, with large breaks that afforded the Confederates an admirable opportunity—which they were quick to seize. They had received reinforcements in the shape of Ewell's Corps. This had attacked the Federal right, while at the same time General Rodes attacked the centre, broke through it, and seized Oak Hill, the commanding point of the field of battle. Howard's force was thrown into confusion, and the whole line began to retreat in the greatest disorder, falling back on Gettysburg.
At this critical point General Hancock arrived. He had been hurried forward by Meade to assume command and to decide upon the position which the army should take up when it arrived. Hancock was a man of great personal magnetism, and very quickly succeeded in rallying the disorganised Federals. He quickly placed them in a strong position on Culp's Hill, south of the town, sending word to Meade to hurry up with the main body and occupy the range of hills known as Cemetery Ridge. This ridge runs due south of the town, but just near it "trends back to the east, thus forming a salient angle, or crotchet." The point where the ridge bends is known as Cemetery Hill, and Culp's Hill is on the extreme right.
No better position could have been found, for Cemetery Ridge is strongly defined, and ends three miles off in a well-wooded peak called Round Top, while a little distance to the north is another peak known as Little Round Top.
Meade soon arrived on the scene, and the whole Federal army of about one hundred thousand men quickly took up position: the right under General Slocum at Culp's Hill, the centre under Howard at Cemetery Hill, and the left under Hancock along the southern ridge, supported still farther south by General Sickles and the 3rd Corps. Meade had the 5th Corps under General Sykes in reserve on the right, although later it moved to the left. On the day of the first battle it was about twenty-three miles away, but by a forced night march it came and took up its position. Sedgwick, in command of the 6th Corps, was some thirty-six miles away when the battle began, but he also by a march lasting twenty hours arrived on the battlefield at two o'clock on the second day.
General Lee, who had arrived on the scene almost at the same time as the Federals had been driven back on Gettysburg, had taken up an equally good position on the west of the town, where the Seminary Ridge runs almost parallel with Cemetery Ridge. Lee had arranged his force thus: Ewell's Corps held Gettysburg and the ground between it and Rock Creek, thus opposing Slocum; Hill's Corps was in position along Seminary Ridge, so covering the Federal centre; while four miles in the rear was Longstreet, who had received orders to make a detour and attack the Federals on the left. This was to be the opening of the battle, but Longstreet for some reason or another was long in coming, and it was about four o'clock before he arrived on the scene.
This upset Lee's plans, for he had counted on falling upon the Federals before they could complete their arrangements. This lost advantage was made up to him by a blunder on the part of Sickles, who having taken up position on the Round Top Hills—really the key of the Federal position—moved most of his force on to another and less advantageous point, some quarter of a mile off. This left Little Round Top practically undefended, and Lee was quick to grasp the situation.
Longstreet was accordingly ordered to attack at once, and he opened a heavy cannonade upon Sickles. He tackled the centre and the right simultaneously, Ewell at the same time opening fire on the left. Hood, on the right, was bent on securing Little Round Top, and Sickles was hard put to it to maintain his position. At the head of his Texans, Hood picked his way carefully, feeling confident of being able to secure possession of Little Round Top; but he had reckoned without his host.
As luck would have it, General Warren, a chief engineer of the Federals, was posted on Little Round Top for signalling purposes, and realising the crucial character of the position he resolved to save it if possible. Ordering his little force to make a bold stand, he made off for Sykes's 5th Corps, which was hastening to Sickles's assistance. On his own initiative, he detached a brigade of this corps and told it to hasten down on Little Round Top.
It was in very truth a race on the result of which much depended. Hood had by now seen that he must hurry or he would lose his prize, and the Texans therefore pressed forward with all speed, while the Federals charged down on the peak. At the moment that Hood's force rushed into the ravine between Little Round Top and Round Top, their foes reached the former peak and took up position, dragging their battery with difficulty up the hill.
Nothing daunted, the Texans charged into the ravine in the face of a raking fire. The fight instantly became fast and furious. Up the hill the Texans scrambled, only to be cast down with great slaughter; up again, to meet the same reverse. Then changing his tactics, Hood set his men to rush the ravine. With bayonets fixed they tore through the rocky glen, and actually succeeded in turning the Federal left flank, only to be driven back, however, by a counter bayonet charge.
Little Round Top was saved; the blue-coated Federals remained in possession.
Sickles, however, was in a tight corner. He signalled for reinforcements, and three brigades were hurried off to his assistance, Meade himself leading one of them. But, do what they might, the Federals could not hold the position, and at last Sickles was driven back by Longstreet's grey-coated soldiers. Still the Federals fought on, hoping to regain their lost ground, but Longstreet pressed forward, refusing to be driven back. While he was still advancing, another Federal brigade pounced upon him with such force that he was compelled to fall back a little way. At that moment, however, Hood returned from his attack on Little Round Top, forced his way through the Federal line, turned their left, while at the same time their right was driven back by Hill's Corps. Sickles therefore had to fall back from what had really been an indefensible and unimportant position.
Lee's idea in attacking Sickles had been to drive the Federals from Cemetery Ridge, and in order to prevent the Federals from sending reinforcements to Sickles, he had ordered Ewell to attack Culp's Hill. For some reason Ewell delayed attacking until sunset, but although this left the Federals free to throw corps against Longstreet, yet it also gave him the advantage of having a less formidable line to attack.
The result was that, although he still had to withstand a heavy artillery fire, Ewell dashed bravely up the hill, at the same time sending General Early with another division to attack Cemetery Hill. Early failed to capture this latter, but after a stubborn resistance the Federals on Culp's Hill were forced back, their earthworks carried at the bayonet point, and held by the Confederates.
This closed the second day's battle, and to all appearance the action was going in Lee's favour. Meade had lost many thousand men, but although he had also lost Culp's Hill and the insignificant position in the south, he did not despair. Lee, on the other hand, was confident of victory, for even although he had failed to carry Cemetery Ridge, Ewell on Culp's Hill was right in the midst of the enemy's line.
On the next day, the 3rd, Lee therefore resolved to renew the battle, although his losses had been so severe as to cause the question to be raised as to whether the army should fall back on the Potomac. During the night Lee had strengthened his position, having brought up strong field-batteries, with which at the break of day he opened a searching fire on Culp's Hill. He then sent out his infantry to carry the position at the point of the bayonet. For four hours the fight raged, men on both sides being mowed down by the opposing artilleries. Although Lee had strengthened his line at this point, the Confederates were still outnumbered, and at last, after a terrible fight, the Federals regained the position they had lost on the day before, and their line was pretty much the same as it was at the beginning of the battle.
This disaster made it necessary for Lee to alter his plan. Instead of attacking the enemy's wings, he determined to try to force the centre at a point where the ridge was easier of assault. With this object in view he massed his artillery of one hundred and forty-five cannon on Seminary Ridge, a work which it took several hours to do.
Meade, on his part, quickly made arrangements to match his artillery against Lee's. Eighty guns were brought up and lined along the crest of Cemetery Hill.
With a blazing sun overhead, and a blood-soaked ground beneath, the artillery duel began at one o'clock, and lasted for two hours, at the end of which time the Confederate fire began to slacken, owing to ammunition running short. Meade immediately held his fire in reserve, ready for the Confederate infantry which he knew would soon advance.
Sure enough, as the thick clouds of smoke lifted, a column of some fifteen thousand grey-coated men were seen marching out from the Seminary Ridge, making for the Union lines. Red battle-flags floated in the breeze, and bright bayonets flashed in the sunlight. Leading the advancing body was Major-General Pickett's five thousand Veteran Virginians, the pick of Lee's army, who had been tried in many a battle and never found wanting. They now advanced boldly in the direction of the Union lines. One thing at least was in their favour: they had only arrived on the battlefield that morning, and so were fresh and ready for the fray. Supporting them were several divisions drawn from various parts of the Confederate force.
When they had covered half the ground between the opposing armies, the Federal artillery opened fire. Shells tore through the air, fell into the midst of the compact advancing line, tore great gaps in their ranks, which, however, were quickly filled up. Forward and still forward the gallant grey-coats pressed; not a man of Pickett's brigade looked behind, although their supporting divisions fell back somewhat before the terrific cannonade that was directed against them. Then on and on, with ever-thinning ranks, though still in steady and regular formation, they quickened their pace and rushed at the hill.
As if this had been the sign the Federals were waiting for, the whole crest of the hill showed as one great sheet of flame, "and the hurricane of bullets flew in the faces of the Confederates. Pettigrew's division, which was supporting Pickett, was flung backward, leaving two thousand prisoners and fifteen standards with the Union army. Wilcox's supporting brigade had fallen behind, so that Pickett and his heroes were left to face the deadly sleet."
It was one of those charges that will live in the history of the world's battles; and it was not yet finished. Leveling their rifles, the heroes sent in a stinging volley, then, shouting their battle-cries, they were on the move once more, rushing up the hill, and carrying the crest at the bayonet point.
They had won a temporary victory—it could necessarily not be more—for the Federals immediately turned their artillery upon them from every side, and poured in a terrific cannonade that threatened to annihilate the whole corps. A short-lived victory and a costly one. Three thousand five hundred of the five thousand had been killed, wounded or captured, including most of their officers. Some of them had dropped to the ground to escape the fire directed against them, and others had taken refuge in flight. Pickett, finding himself deserted by his supporting columns, gave the word to retreat, and, like the gallant cavalry at Balaclava, "all that was left of them" made their way back to the main body.
The Confederates thought that Meade would immediately order a general advance, and prepared to receive him. Meade, however, saw that his army was far from fit to undertake so difficult a task as to try to dislodge the Confederates, and, moreover, most of his ammunition was spent.
As it was, Lee knew that he had lost, and that he would have to retreat from Gettysburg, and that night his army began falling back, Meade following him very carefully. On July 12th the Federals came in sight of the Southerners at Williamsport, on the Potomac, where Lee had taken up a strongly entrenched position. Meade decided that he would attack him on the following day, but when dawn came the enemy was gone, and Meade had to rest content with the victory at the battle of Gettysburg, which, as an American historian has said, "Was the life and death struggle of the Southern Confederacy. . . . The battle had been fought, and the Confederacy was defeated; it was now doomed."