Brief Reasons & Events leading up to Gettysburg:
Prior to 1861, the United States of America had always been considered as separate states wherein they created most of their own rules and regulations. A long-lasting debate argued whether to have each state, or a singular central government, decide issues such as taxation, commerce of products and, in particular; the issue of slavery. While the northern states opposed slavery, the southern states (whose economy depended on it) supported slave labor.
By 1861, after realizing that debating the issue could no longer resolve the argument between the northern and southern states, the southern states seceded from the United States and formed their own Confederacy of States. Jefferson Davis, (who graduated 28 out of 34 in his West Point class) was elected as their president. President Abraham Lincoln, who was then president of the United States, believed that, “A house divided cannot stand.” and therefore, a Civil War between the northern and southern states, (the Union vs. the Confederacy) broke out to decide once and for all, whether the United States would remain one country or split be into two individual countries.
In 1861 and 1862, Confederate armies achieved several victories over their Northern counterparts but by the summer of 1863, when General Robert E. Lee was put in command of the Army of Northern Virginia. Lee decided upon an invasion of the north, which he thought would pull both armies out of war-torn northern Virginia, where most of the fighting had previously been. He thought that by invading the north and in particular, possibly winning a victory in the north, it might cause embittered northerners to put pressure on the Lincoln Administration in Washington, to seek a settlement toward peace and thus bring an end to the war.
Lee’s fateful decision, eventually brought the war to the doorsteps of a small, rural south central Pennsylvania town called Gettysburg!
General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was 75,000 strong & was traveling north into central Pennsylvania. He felt confident. However; on June 30, Lee learned that 95,000 soldiers of the Union Army of the Potomac, led by Major General George G. Meade, were following closely behind.
Here’s the Timeline:
WEDNESDAY, July 1, 1863
General Lee ordered several brigades to travel east to check their location and to forage for supplies for his troops. Northwest of the town of Gettysburg they met. A skirmish ensued and as the battle heated, word was sent back to both commanders that the enemy was found and reinforcement troops proceeded to the area. Over the next 2 days Lee’s army converged onto Gettysburg from the west and north while Meade’s army arrived from the south and southeast. Thus a battle never planned, occurred simply by circumstance.
As Lee’s southern forces continued a persistent attack against the entrenched Union troops, additional arriving Confederate forces launched an all-out offensive which eventually drove the Union forces through the streets of Gettysburg and to a defensive line just south of town. By the end of the first day of battle (July 1st, 1863) a five-mile Confederate line covered the area stretching from Seminary Ridge on the west side of Gettysburg, through the town and on eastward toward the area called Culp’s Hill. As additional Northern reinforcements arrived on the field, they occupied a two-mile defensive position commonly referred to as a fishhook formation along Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill.
Commanding General Meade & his entourage arrived just after midnight.
THURSDAY, JULY 2, 1863
The second day of battle began as a series of disorganized and disjointed Confederate attacks on the Union defensive position south of the town. Though simultaneous attacks were supposed to have occurred on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge, the attacks took place at least six hours apart and ended with consistent retreats. Union forces held onto Culp’s Hill but the Confederate forces eventually drove back the Union troops in the areas referred to as Peach Orchard, Wheatfield, Valley of Death and Devils Den. Each one and each side, had a stunning amount of casualties. The Confederate troops advance of the Union right flank had initially succeeded but was finally stopped by the heroic efforts of the Union forces and most especially~ in an area known as Little Round Top.
“In this writer’s opinion, the defense of Little Round Top is a pivotal win for the Union Forces during the three-day battle at Gettysburg. Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, Commanding Officer of the 20th Maine Regiment~ was one of the most instrumental leaders during the battle at Gettysburg.” Historic account of the battle at Little Round Top may be read here.
Feeling successful after two days of battle with the Union army, General Robert E. Lee, believing his army was invincible and undefeatable, decided to attack, what he thought to be the weakest position of the Union line the next morning. Unfortunately for Lee, Union General George Gordon Meade, had already held a council of war with his Corps commanders early that morning & had decided to remain in a defensive position for the battle anticipated the next day (July 3rd). Meade finally decided, that very evening, after listening to the advice of each of these Commanding Generals, as to which of their commanders would lead their individual armies into, which would become, one of the most famous days & battles of the American Civil War.
FRIDAY, JULY 3, 1863
The third day of battle of Gettysburg began with another unsuccessful attempt by the Confederates to take over and occupy Culp’s Hill. Meanwhile, a mile east of Gettysburg a Confederate Cavalry of 6,000 troops held orders to attack the Union rear but the Union cavalry with a strength of over 5,000, managed to confront them in a firefight that contained and forced the Confederates to retreat. General Jeb Stuart led the southern forces and among the Union leadership was General George Armstrong Custer. (Appointed Brigadier General in the Union Army at the age of 23.) Read about General George Armstrong’s contributions to the Battle of Gettysburg here.
Robert E. Lee never explained Stuart’s actions that day. And Stuart, who was killed later in the war, also never wrote any explanation of what he was doing three miles from Gettysburg that day. Interesting!
At 1:00 PM, the largest cannonade that ever occurred on the North American continent thus far, assembled ahead of the planned rebel charge. Unknown to Lieutenant General James Longstreet, the cannon fire, which was to decimate the Union center overshot their target and only destroyed the farm fields far behind the Union troops. Once the cannon fire ceased, 12,000 Confederate soldiers marched in formation from Seminary Ridge to launch a famous, heroic attack upon the Union center. This would be forever after immortalized in history as the failed, Pickett’s Charge.
The Confederates hoped to reach a small clump of trees over one mile, away across an open field. Once the smoke from the cannonade had cleared the field, Union forces, though admiring the determination and desperate dedication of the men before them, began firing their own cannons once the Confederate soldiers were in range. The Union artillery hit and mowed down the columns of men like blades of grass. Only a small number of Confederate forces managed to reach the small clump of trees. Once there, Union forces engulfed them from three sides. General George Pickett’s division and other elements in the attack were virtually destroyed.
Retreating back to Seminary Ridge, General Lee waited for General Pickett. Once he understood that a defeat had occurred, Lee ordered Pickett to reform his division in the event of a Union counterattack. Pickett’s response to Lee was, “General Lee, I have no division.”
And that was that. After three days of devastating carnage, the battle at Gettysburg has ended with the Confederates being defeated and retreating back to Virginia the next day. Unfortunately, the horrors of the Civil War would continue for another two long, bloody years.
Coincidentally, the next day happened to be July 4th. It was on July 4th, 1776 that the first 13 colony states formally broke away from Great Britain and formed a new nation called the United States of America. Indeed, also coincidentally, that the United States should be one country, this same day (July 4th 1863), the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg, MS surrendered to a Union general, who two years later, would accept the surrender of General Lee and Confederate forces at Appomattox, VA.
That General was Ulysses S. Grant.
The American Civil War lasted 4 long years and resulted in over 600,000 deaths and 3,000,000 casualties of both northern and southern young men. However; our nation was reborn as one in 1865 at the end of the war.
From that time on, the United States would always be referred to with a singular verb: The United States IS one country!
GETTYSBURG (July 1 – July 3, 1863) by D. F. Howard @July 2016
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