The Battle of Gettysburg was fought by the largest number of soldiers, totaling 172,000 young men (“American Civil War”). During the Civil War, our nation was divided by the North (Union Army) and the South (Confederate Army) for opposing viewpoints on slavery and states’ rights. The Battle of Gettysburg was fought over three long, arduous days. The soldiers struggled under their respected generals in a 25 mile battle zone (“American Civil War”). This battle was a triumphant victory and a heart-wrenching loss for the troops of the Yankee North and Rebel South.
The complexity of the Battle of Gettysburg brought together two fronts whose decisions and commitment would determine its outcome. Many generals commanded forces during this battle. General Robert E. Lee was a confident Confederate commander of the Army of Northern Virginia. He believed one resolute victory would bring an end to the war. To secure this victory, General Lee devised an offensive attack on Northern land. His Rebel troops were split into three divisions (I, II, III Corps) with approximately 25,000 men each and commanded by Generals James Longstreet, Richard Ewell, and A. P.
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Hill. Under Lee’s order each Corps traveled north discreetly so as to not raise Union Army suspicion (King 8-9). However, Lee’s strategy did not go unnoticed by the Union Army of the Potomac commander, Joseph Hooker. The movement of Confederate troops northward reduced the number of soldiers under Hooker’s watchful eye. He sent word to President Abraham Lincoln who, in response, ordered him to move the Union forces in the same direction to defend Washington, D. C. (King 10). However, Hooker moved to take a different course of action and wanted to attack the Confederacy’s capital of Richmond.
Because of this breach of conduct, Hooker was replaced by General George Meade and never allowed to forge an attack on Richmond (Appleby 486). News of Meade’s recruitment and the forward movement of the Union army over the Potomac River were delivered to General Lee by a confederate spy. Information of such importance should have been relayed more quickly by General Jeb Stuart who was Lee’s eyes and ears on the Army of the Potomac’s whereabouts. This infuriated Lee as well as Stuart’s tardy return from his mission. To combat this advancement, Lee quickly sent word to his three Corp commanders to move toward Gettysburg (King 11-13).
Soon after, another Union general became significant. His name was John Buford and he led his two cavalry brigades to the outskirts of Gettysburg. It was here that he noticed Confederate troops raiding the town for supplies like shoes, clothing, and food. Buford sent an urgent message for aid, since Union soldiers were outnumbered by approximately 4,000 Rebel soldiers (King 14). However, Buford’s cavalry was detected by a branch of the Confederate Army commanded by General Pettigrew. When these two fronts collided on McPherson Ridge on July 1, 1863, it marked the official beginning of the Battle of Gettysburg (“American Civil War”).
Buford held off the enemy for two hours. General John Reynolds arrived with Union reinforcements known as the Iron Brigade or 6th Wisconsin. Moreover, Confederates were also receiving aid from Ewell’s II Corps. So, the Rebels still outnumbered the Union troops (King 14-15). Late that afternoon and after sustaining 8,000 casualties, the Yankees were on the run. The death of Reynolds further pushes the Union army to the verge of crumbling. Somehow, Union forces are pulled together in a united front when General Winfield Scott arrives on the scene of Cemetery Hill.
They manage to take control here as well as Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill by the end of the day. On the other hand, the Confederates retained control of only Seminary Ridge. This setback for the South was likely the result of General Ewell’s failure to follow Lee’s command (King 15- 17). Despite this, the Rebel’s morale remained optimistic as they initiated the fighting on the following morning (King 18). Union forces retaliated and saved their position until one of General Meade’s commanders staged his own offensive battle (Appleby, Joyce 486; King 22). This Union general was Dan Sickles.
By moving his position without consulting General Meade, a “bulge” was created. This foolish mistake allowed 1,600 Confederate soldiers to rush the Union line to overtake Peach Orchard, capturing 1,000 Yankee prisoners (King 22). Another Union Army general, G. K. Warren, secured and protected a hill called Little Round Top before Confederates claimed it which helped combat the loss from Sickle’s blunder (“American Civil War”). At this point in the Battle of Gettysburg, both North and South sustained large numbers of casualties. The Southern casualties roughly totaled 7,000 of 22,000 troops.
The North suffered even more by losing 15,000 soldiers. Both sides needed to re-evaluate their battle strategies. Lee thought victory for the South was possible with better timing and artillery. Conversely, Meade and his other Union generals decided to stay in their current position and continue the battle (King 22). After dawn on July 3, 1863, Union soldiers fired upon the Confederacy’s I Corps led by General Longstreet. The two fronts dueled on Cemetery Ridge. Around 3p. m. , Union fire subsided. The North hoped this tactic would give Confederates the impression that their cannons were being destroyed.
The trick was successful and led to the climax of the Battle of Gettysburg (Appleby, Joyce; King 22; “American Civil War”). This final attack is known as Pickett’s Charge in honor of the general who commanded the attack. Pickett gave three divisions, which included 14,000 troops, the order to cross a treacherous mile-wide open valley. One of the divisions was led by General Lewis Armistead. Many Rebel troops followed him on foot. These soldiers were ambushed by Northern gunfire from 11 cannons and 1,700 rifles as they approached a small stone wall.
The Northern commanders yelled, “Fire! ” In response, Armistead yelled, “Come on boys! Give them cold steel! Who will follow me? ” His troops responded with their famous “rebel yell. ” Unfortunately, for the South, Armistead is fatally wounded leaving the Confederacy with no leader. Without direction, Rebel soldiers were killed, wounded, or captured. The lucky living retreated, ending the battle with a Union victory (King 26-27). More men fought and died in this battle than any other on American soil (“American Civil War”). A total number of roughly 51,000 men were lost (Gettysburg).
The North sustained casualties of about 23,000, while the South lost about 28,000 men. The lack of effective communication proved to be a downfall for the Confederacy (“American Civil War”). Lee was shattered by the loss, but his troops’ spirits were far from broken (King 30; Gettysburg). The Confederates retreated over the Potomac on July 4, 1863, and the war raged on for two more devastating years. The outcome of this complex battle was a direct result of the Union and Confederate commanders’ offensive decisions and relentless commitment of their armies.