American Civil War: Battle of Gettysburg

Major General George G. Meade. Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

Following his stunning victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to attempt a second invasion of the North. He felt such a move would disrupt the Union Army's plans for the summer campaign, would allow his army to live off the rich farms of Pennsylvania, and would aid in reducing pressure on the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, MS. In the wake of Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's death, Lee reorganized his army into three corps commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. On June 3, 1863, Lee quietly began moving his forces away from Fredericksburg, VA.

Gettysburg: Brandy Station & Hooker's Pursuit

On June 9, Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton surprised Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry corps near Brandy Station, VA. In the largest cavalry battle of the war, Pleasanton's men fought the Confederates to a standstill, showing that they were finally the equals of their Southern counterparts. Following Brandy Station and reports of Lee's march north, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, began moving in pursuit. Staying between the Confederates and Washington, Hooker pressed north as Lee's men entered Pennsylvania. As both armies advanced, Stuart was given permission to take his cavalry on a ride around the eastern flank of the Union army. This raid deprived Lee of his scouting forces through the first two days of the upcoming battle. On June 28, after an argument with Lincoln, Hooker was relieved and replaced by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. A Pennsylvanian, Meade continued moving the army north to intercept Lee.

Gettysburg: The Armies Approach

On June 29, with his army strung out in an arc from the Susquehanna to Chambersburg, Lee ordered his troops to concentrate at Cashtown, PA after hearing reports that Meade had crossed the Potomac. The next day, Confederate Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew observed Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford entering the town of Gettysburg to the southeast. He reported this to his division and corps commanders, Maj. Gen. Harry Heth and A.P. Hill, and, despite Lee's orders to avoid a major engagement until the army was concentrated, the three planned a reconnaissance in force for the next day.

Gettysburg: First Day - McPherson's Ridge

Upon arriving in Gettysburg, Buford realized that the high ground south of the town would be critical in any battle fought in the area. Knowing that any combat involving his division would be a delaying action, he posted his troopers on the low ridges north and northwest of town with the goal of buying time for the army to come up and occupy the heights. On the morning of July 1, Heth's division advanced down the Cashtown Pike and encountered Buford's men around 7:30. Over the next two and half hours, Heth slowly pushed the cavalrymen back to McPherson's Ridge. At 10:20, the lead elements of the Maj. Gen. John Reynolds' I Corps arrived to reinforce Buford. Shortly thereafter, while directing his troops, Reynolds was shot and killed. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command and the I Corps repulsed Heth's attacks and inflicted heavy casualties.

Gettysburg: First Day - XI Corps & the Union Collapse

While fighting was raging northwest of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's Union XI Corps was deploying north of town. Composed largely of German immigrants, the XI Corps had recently been routed at Chancellorsville. Covering a broad front, the XI Corps came under attack by Ewell's corps advancing south from Carlisle, PA. Quickly flanked, the XI Corps line began to crumble, with the troops racing back through town towards Cemetery Hill. This retreat forced the I Corps, which was outnumbered and executing a fighting withdrawal to quicken its pace. As fighting ended on the first day, Union troops had fallen back and established a new line centered on Cemetery Hill and running south down Cemetery Ridge and east to Culp's Hill. The Confederates occupied Seminary Ridge, opposite Cemetery Ridge, and the town of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg: Second Day - Plans

During the night, Meade arrived with the majority of the Army of the Potomac. After reinforcing the existing line, Meade extended it south along the ridge for two miles terminating at the base of a hill known as Little Round Top. Lee's plan for the second day was for Longstreet's corps to move south and attack and flank the Union left. This was to be supported by demonstrations against Cemetery and Culp's Hills. Lacking cavalry to scout the battlefield, Lee was unaware that Meade had extended his line south and that Longstreet would be attacking into Union troops rather than marching around their flank.

Gettysburg: Second Day - Longstreet Attacks

Longstreet's corps did not begin their attack until 4:00 PM, due to the need to countermarch north after being sighted by a Union signal station. Facing him was the Union III Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Unhappy with his position on Cemetery Ridge, Sickles had advanced his men, without orders, to slightly higher ground near a peach orchard approximately half a mile from the main Union line with his left anchored on a rocky area in front of Little Round Top known as Devil's Den.

As Longstreet's attack slammed into the III Corps, Meade was forced to send the entire V Corps, most of the XII Corps, and elements of the VI and II Corps to rescue the situation. Driving the Union troops back, bloody fights occurred in the Wheat Field and in the "Valley of Death," before the front stabilized along Cemetery Ridge. At the extreme end of the Union left, the 20th Maine, under Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, successfully defended the heights of Little Round Top along with the other regiments of Col. Strong Vincent's brigade. Through the evening, fighting continued near Cemetery Hill and around Culp's Hill.

Gettysburg: Third Day - Lee's Plan

After nearly achieving success on July 2, Lee decided to employ a similar plan on the 3rd, with Longstreet attacking the Union left and Ewell on the right. This plan was quickly disrupted when troops from the XII Corps attacked Confederate positions around Culp's Hill at dawn. Lee then decided to focus the day's action on the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. For the attack, Lee selected Longstreet for command and assigned him Maj. Gen. George Pickett's division from his own corps and six brigades from Hill's corps.

Gettysburg: Third Day - Longstreet's Assault a.k.a. Pickett's Charge

At 1:00 PM, all the Confederate artillery that could be brought to bear opened fire on the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. After waiting approximately fifteen minutes to conserve ammunition, eighty Union guns replied. Despite being one of the largest cannonades of the war, little damage was inflicted. Around 3:00, Longstreet, who had little confidence in the plan, gave the signal and 12,500 soldiers advanced across the open three-quarter mile gap between the ridges. Pounded by artillery as they marched, the Confederate troops were bloodily repulsed by the Union soldiers on the ridge, suffering over 50% casualties. Only one breakthrough was achieved, and it was quickly contained by Union reserves.

Gettysburg: Aftermath

Following the repulse of Longstreet's Assault, both armies stayed in place, with Lee forming a defensive position against an anticipated Union attack. On July 5, in heavy rain, Lee began the retreat back to Virginia. Meade, despite pleas from Lincoln for speed, slowly followed and was unable to trap Lee before he crossed the Potomac. The Battle of Gettysburg turned the tide in the East in favor of the Union. Never again would Lee pursue offensive operations, instead solely focusing on defending Richmond. The battle was the bloodiest ever fought in North America with the Union suffering 23,055 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, 5,369 captured/missing) and the Confederates 23,231 (4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, 5,830 captured/missing).

Vicksburg: Grant's Campaign Plan

After spending the winter of 1863 seeking a way to bypass Vicksburg with no success, Maj. Gen. Ulysses S. Grant devised a bold plan for capturing the Confederate fortress. Grant proposed to move down the west bank of the Mississippi, then cut loose from his supply lines by crossing the river and attacking the city from the south and east. This risky move was to be supported by gunboats commanded by RAdm. David D. Porter, which would run downstream past the Vicksburg batteries prior to Grant crossing the river.

Vicksburg: Moving South

On the night of April 16, Porter led seven ironclads and three transports downstream towards Vicksburg. Despite alerting the Confederates, he was able to pass the batteries with little damage. Six days later, Porter ran six more ships loaded with supplies past Vicksburg. With a naval force established below the town, Grant began his march south. After feinting towards Snyder's Bluff, the 44,000 men of his army crossed the Mississippi at Bruinsburg on the 30th. Moving northeast, Grant sought to cut the rail lines to Vicksburg before turning on the town itself.

Vicksburg: Fighting Across Mississippi

Brushing aside a small Confederate force at Port Gibson on May 1, Grant pressed on toward Raymond, MS. Opposing him were elements of Lt. Gen. John C. Pemberton's Confederate army which attempted to make a stand near Raymond, but were defeated on the 12th. This victory allowed Union troops to sever the Southern Railroad, isolating Vicksburg. With the situation collapsing, Gen. Joseph Johnston was dispatched to take command of all Confederate troops in Mississippi. Arriving in Jackson, he found he lacked the men to defend to city and fell back in the face of the Union advance. Northern troops entered the city on May 14 and destroyed everything of military value.

With Vicksburg cut off, Grant turned west toward Pemberton's retreating army. On May 16, Pemberton assumed a defensive position near Champion Hill twenty miles east of Vicksburg. Attacking with Maj. Gen. John McClernand's and Maj. Gen. James McPherson's corps, Grant was able break Pemberton's line causing him to retreat to the Big Black River. The following day, Grant dislodged Pemberton from this position forcing him to fall back the defenses at Vicksburg.

Vicksburg: Assaults & Siege

Arriving on Pemberton's heels and wishing to avoid a siege, Grant assaulted Vicksburg on May 19 and again on May 22 with no success. As Grant prepared to lay siege to the town, Pemberton received orders from Johnston to abandon the city and save the 30,000 men of his command. Not believing he could safely escape, Pemberton dug in hoping that Johnston would be able to attack and relieve the town. Grant swiftly invested Vicksburg and began the process of starving out the Confederate garrison.

As Pemberton's troops began to fall to disease and hunger, Grant's army grew larger as fresh troops arrived and his supply lines were reopened. With the situation in Vicksburg deteriorating, the defenders began to openly wonder about the whereabouts of Johnston's forces. The Confederate commander was in Jackson trying to assemble troops to attack Grant's rear. On June 25, Union troops detonated a mine under part of the Confederate lines, but the follow-up assault failed to breach the defenses.

By the end of June, over half of Pemberton's men were ill or in the hospital. Feeling that Vicksburg was doomed, Pemberton contacted Grant on July 3 and requested terms for surrender. After initially demanding an unconditional surrender, Grant relented and allowed the Confederate troops to be paroled. The following day, the 4th of July, Pemberton turned the town over to Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi River. Combined with the victory at Gettysburg the day before, the fall of Vicksburg signaled the ascendancy of the Union and the decline of the Confederacy.

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Your Citation
Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo, Aug. 26, 2020, Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 26). American Civil War: Battle of Gettysburg. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Civil War: Battle of Gettysburg." ThoughtCo. (accessed March 26, 2023).