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.

Meade had displayed good judgment in selecting Hancock to take Reynolds' place, for he was just the man to inspire confidence in the disheartened soldiers and rise to the emergency that confronted him. But, though he performed wonders in the way of restoring order and encouraging his men to make a desperate resistance, it is more than probable that the Confederates would have swept the field and gained the important position of Cemetery Hill had they followed up their victory. Fortunately for the Union cause, however, the pursuit was not continued much beyond the limits of Gettysburg and, as though well satisfied to have got the shoes they came for, the victors contented themselves with the undisputed possession of the town.

Neither Lee nor Meade took any part in this unexpected battle, but Lee arrived during the afternoon while the Union troops were in full flight for the hills and, seeing the opportunity of delivering a crushing blow, advised Ewell, the commanding General, to pursue. His suggestion, however, was disregarded, and being unwilling to interfere with another officer in the midst of an engagement, he did not give a positive order, with the result that Cemetery Hill was left in possession of the Federal troops. Meanwhile Meade, having learned of the situation, was hurrying to the scene of action, where he arrived late at night, half dead with exhaustion and on the verge of nervous collapse from the fearful responsibilities which had been heaped upon him during the previous days. But the spirit of the man rose superior to his physical weakness and, keeping his head in the whirlwind of hurry and confusion, he issued orders rushing every available man to the front, made a careful examination of the ground and chose an admirable position for defense.

To this inspiring example the whole army made a magnificent response, and before the 2nd of July dawned the widely scattered troops began pouring in and silently moving into position for the desperate work confronting them. Meade had determined to await an attack from Lee and he had accordingly selected Cemetery Ridge as the position best adapted for defense. This line of hills not only provided a natural breastwork, but at the left and a little in front lay two hillocks knows as Round Top and Little Round Top, which, when crowned by artillery, were perfect fortresses of strength. Strange as it may seem, however, Round Top was not immediately occupied by the Union troops and had it not been for the quick eye and prompt action of General Warren, Little Round Top, the key to the entire Union position, would have been similarly neglected.

Lee was reasonably assured, at the end of the first day's fighting, that his adversary had not succeeded in getting all his troops upon the field and, realizing what an advantage this gave him, he determined to begin the battle at daylight, before the Union reenforcements could arrive. But for once, at least, the great commander received more objections than obedience from his subordinates, General Longstreet, one of his most trusted lieutenants, being the principal offender. Longstreet had, up to this moment, made a splendid record in the campaigns and Lee had such confidence in his skill that he seldom gave him a peremptory order, finding that a suggestion carried all the weight of a command. But, on this occasion, Longstreet did not agree with the Chief's plan of battle and he accordingly took advantage of the discretion reposed in him to postpone making an attack until he received a sharp and positive order to put his force in action. By this time, the whole morning had passed and every hour had brought more and more Union troops into the field, so that by the afternoon Meade had over 90,000 men opposing Lee's 70,000 veterans.

There was nothing half-hearted about Longstreet once he was in motion and the struggle for the possession of Little Round Top was as desperate a conflict as was ever waged on any field. Again and again the gray regiments hurled themselves into the very jaws of death to gain the coveted vantage ground, and again and again the blue lines, torn, battered and well-nigh crushed to earth, re-formed and hurled back the assault. Dash and daring were met by courage and firmness, and at nightfall, though the Confederates had gained some ground, their opponents still held their original position. Both sides had paid dearly, however, for whatever successes they had gained, the Union army alone having lost at least 20,000 men [Note from Brett: While this is possible, it is highly unlikely as the total casualties for the three day battle from the Unionist side were 23,053 according to official records. Current (circa 2000) estimates are that both sides lost about 9,000 soldiers on this day.]. Indeed, the Confederate attack had been so formidable that Meade called a council of war at night to determine whether the army should remain where it was for another day or retreat to a still stronger position. The council, however, voted unanimously to "stay and fight it out," and the next morning (July 3rd) saw the two armies facing each other in much the same positions as they had occupied the day before, the Unionists crowding the heights of Cemetery Ridge and the Confederates holding the hills known as Seminary Ridge and clinging to the bases of Round Top and Little Round Top, to which point the tide of valor had carried them.

A mile of valley and undulating slopes separated Cemetery Hill from Seminary Ridge, and their crests were crowded with artillery when the sun rose on July 3, 1863. But for a time the battle was confined to the infantry, the Confederates continuing fierce assaults of the previous evening. Then, suddenly, all their troops were withdrawn, firing ceased and absolute silence ensued along their whole lines. At an utter loss to understand this complete disappearance of the foe, the Union commanders peered through their glasses at the silent and apparently deserted heights of Seminary Ridge, growing more and more nervous as time wore on. What was the explanation of this ominous silence? Was it possible that Lee had retreated? Was he trying to lure them out of their position and catch them in some giant ambuscade? Was he engaged in a flanking movement such as had crumpled them to pieces at Chancellorsville? Doubtless, more than one soldier shot an apprehensive glance toward the rear during the strange hush as he remembered the terrifying appearance of Jackson on that fearful day.

But no Jackson stood at Lee's right hand, and suddenly two sharp reports rang out from the opposing height. Then, in answer to this signal, came the crash of a hundred and thirty cannon and instantly eighty Union guns responded to the challenge with a roar which shook the earth, while the air was filled with exploding shells and the ground was literally ploughed with shot. For an hour and a half this terrific duel continued; and then the Union chief of artillery, seeing that his supply of ammunition was sinking, ordered the guns to cease firing and the Confederates, believing that they had completely demolished the opposing batteries, soon followed their example. Another awful silence ensued and when the Union troops peered cautiously from behind the stone walls and slopes which had completely protected them from the wild storm of shot and shell, they saw a sight which filled them with admiration and awe.

From the woods fringing the opposing heights 15,000 men [Note from Brett: (circa 2000) just under 12,000 men] were sweeping in perfect order with battle flags flying, bayonets glistening and guidons fluttering as though on dress parade. Well to the front rode a gallant officer with a cap perched jauntily over his right ear and his long auburn hair hanging almost to his shoulders flying in the wind. This was General Pickett, and he and the men behind him had almost a mile of open ground to cross in the charge which was to bring them immortal fame. For half the distance they moved triumphantly forward, unscathed by the already thundering artillery, and then the Union cannon which had apparently been silenced by the Confederate fire began to pour death and destruction into their ranks. Whole rows of men were mowed down by the awful cannonade, but their comrades pressed forward undismayed, halting for a moment under cover of a ravine to re-form their ranks and then springing on again with a heroism unsurpassed in the history of war. A hail of bullets from the Union trenches fairly staggered them, yet on and on they charged. Once they actually halted in the face of the blazing breastworks, deliberately fired a volley and came on again with a rush, seized some of the still smoking guns that had sought to annihilate them and, beating back the gunners in a hand-to-hand conflict, actually planted their battle flags on the crest of Cemetery Ridge. Then the whole Union army seemed to leap from the ground and hurl itself upon them. They reeled, turned, broke into fragments and fled, leaving 5,000 dead and wounded in their trail.

Such was Pickett's charge - a wave of human courage which recorded "the high-water mark of the Rebellion."