Chapter XXII. The Battle of Gettysburg
The news that Grant was slowly, but surely, tightening his grip upon Vicksburg, and that nothing but an accident could prevent its capture, was known to the whole country for fully a week before the surrender occurred, but it neither encouraged the North nor discouraged the South. To the minds of many people no victory in the West could save the Union, for Lee was already in Pennsylvania, sweeping northward toward Harrisburg and Philadelphia, and even threatening New York. Hooker, in the field, and Halleck, in Washington, were squabbling as to what should be done, and the Union army was groping blindly after the invaders without any leadership worthy of the name.
It was certainly a critical moment demanding absolute harmony on the part of the Union leaders; but while the fate of the Union trembled in the balance, Hooker and Halleck wrangled and contradicted each other, apparently regardless of consequences, and the climax of this disgraceful exhibition was a petulant telegram from Hooker (June 27, 1863) resigning his command. Had "Fighting Joe" been the greatest general in the world this resignation, in the presence of the enemy, would have ruined his reputation, and the moment President Lincoln accepted it Hooker was a discredited man.
To change commanders at such a crisis was a desperately perilous move, but the President knew that the army had lost confidence in its leader since the battle of Chancellorsville and the fact that he could even think of resigning on the eve of a battle demonstrated his utter unfitness for the task at hand. It was, therefore, with something of relief that Lincoln ordered General Meade to take immediate charge of all the troops in the field, and the new commander assumed the responsibility in these words, "As a soldier I obey the order placing me in command of this army and to the utmost of my ability will execute it."
At the moment he dispatched this manly and modest response to the unexpected call to duty, Meade knew little of Hooker's plans and had only a vague idea of where his troops were posted. Under such conditions success in the coming battle was almost impossible, but he wasted no time in complaints or excuses, but instantly began to move his forces northward to incept the line of Lee's advance. Even up to this time, however, the exact position of the Confederate army had not been ascertained, for Lee had concealed his infantry behind his cavalry, which effectually prevented his adversaries from getting near enough to discover the direction of his march.
Another "cavalry screen," however, covered the Union forces and though Lee dispatched Stuart to break through and discover what lay behind it, the daring officer for once failed to accomplish his purpose and Lee had to proceed without the information he usually possessed. This was highly advantageous to Meade, for his forces were badly scattered and had Lee known that fact he might have crushed the various parts of the army before they united, or at least have prevented some of them from reaching the field in time. He soon learned, of course, that Meade had taken Hooker's place, but if he had not heard the news directly, he would have guessed that some great change had occurred in the generalship of his opponents, for within twenty-four hours of his appointment Meade had his army well in hand, and two days later the rapid and skillful concentration of his force was clear to Lee's experienced eyes. By this time both armies had passed beyond their cavalry screens, and on the 30th of June, 1863, the advance of the Confederate troops neared the little town of Gettysburg.
But Lee was not yet ready to fight, for, although he was better prepared than his adversary, he wanted to select the best possible ground before joining battle. By a strange chance, however, it was not Lee but his bare-footed followers who decided where the battle should be fought, for as his advance-guard approached Gettysburg one of the brigade commanders asked and received permission from his superior to enter the town and procure shoes for his men. But Gettysburg was found to be occupied by Union cavalry and the next day (July 1st) a larger force was ordered forward to drive them away and "get the shoes." Meanwhile, the Union cavalry had been reenforced and, to offset this, more Confederates were ordered to the support of their comrades. Once more Union reenforcements were hurried to the front, and again the Confederates responded to the challenge, until over 50,000 men were engaged in a savage conflict, and before noon the battle of Gettysburg, one of the greatest battles of history, had begun.
The men in gray, who thus unwittingly forced the fighting, were veterans of many campaigns and they attacked with a fury that carried all before them. The Union troops fought with courage, but General Reynolds, their commander, one of the ablest officers in the army, was soon shot through the head and instantly killed, and from that moment the Confederates crowded them to the point of panic. Indeed, two of Meade's most effective fighting corps were practically annihilated and the shattered remnants of the defenders of Gettysburg were hurled through the town in headlong flight toward what was known as Cemetery Hill, where their new commander, General Hancock, found them huddled in confusion.