The "High Water Mark of the Confederacy"
Lew Armistead reaches the Union lines, July 3 1863.
The Gettysburg Campaign
In a series of conferences from May 14 to 17, 1863 President Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War Seddons and Davis’ most trusted army commander, General Robert E. Lee, reviewed the strategic possibilities available to the South for the remainder of 1863.
In May, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia bested its Union counterpart, the Army of the Potomac against odds of 2:1 at the battle of Chancellorsville. However, the South could not rest on its laurels.
Federal General Ulysses S. Grant, in a maneuver starting April 26, pinned a small Confederate army against the Mississippi river fortress of Vicksburg. Vicksburg’s fall without a balancing victory would doom the Confederacy, President Davis felt.
It was unlikely that any direct action against Grant could relieve Vicksburg, although General Joseph Johnston was attempting to assemble a force sufficient to attempt the task. Lee, Davis and Seddon agreed that the proper strategic role for the Army of Northern Virginia was to move aggressively northward, seeking an offsetting success in battle.
Lee’s possibilities seemed unlimited in May of 1863. If the South won a decisive battle, shattering the Army of the Potomac, the United States might lose its will, and the war, with that one blow.
This prospect was too uncertain to rely on, but even a significant victory which left the Federal army in the field might cause Lincoln’s government to shift large numbers of troops east, relieving pressure on Tennessee and Vicksburg. Diplomatically, another victory near the Union capitol might at long last provoke foreign recognition of the Confederacy, with all that meant in terms of international aid and Union disillusionment.
If an important victory was not to be had, the South could still benefit from a summer living off the resources of the Union countryside rather than that of war torn Virginia. Even this minor advantage could be put to use. It would add pressure to plague Lincoln’s administration and restrict Northern domestic political options.
All that was necessary was for the Army of Northern Virginia to survive throughout the summer, defeat or avoid any Union forces in its way, then return safe in the autumn without using up more than a minimum of scarce military resources. The three leaders parted on May 17 with a general understanding of the task, and Lee’s expected role, each to prepare his portion of the undertaking.
Reality, in the form of military politics, set in immediately. Finding additional reinforcements for Lee’s army proved troublesome. Since late 1862 a number of crack Army of Northern Virginia brigades were seconded to the defenses of Richmond and the Carolinas. Lee wanted them back, but D. H. Hill, in charge of the eastern defenses, claimed couldn’t spare two he was using to stiffen his largely inexperienced army. Instead he offered two larger, but much less experienced brigades. President Davis backed him up, and kept two more veteran brigades for the Richmond defenses, against which a Union Army was poised to lunge the moment Lee moved.
Further augmenting Lee’s force, Davis ordered Imboden’s brigade, an independent command in the Shenandoah Valley, to “cooperate” to secure the Army of the Northern Virginia’s communications.
Inside the Army of Northern Virginia, Lee had to replace Stonewall Jackson, mortally wounded at Chancellorsville. He also attempted to solve a number of organizational defects.
Lieutenant General Richard Ewell, back from the sick list, took command of Jackson’s II Corps. A third Corps was created for Jackson’s star Division commander, A.P. Hill, by breaking Hill’s oversized Light Division in two, shuffling several brigades around and transferring a Division from Longstreet’s I Corps. All Corps now held 3 Divisions.
The artillery was also rationalized. Each Division received an organic battalion, and each Corps two more as a reserve, with a senior field officer as Chief of Artillery. Most batteries were brought up to 4 guns each, by disbanding weakened units. Modern pieces replaced obsolescent 6# cannon.
Stuart’s Cavalry Division was enlarged to six brigades, and its artillery strengthened.
This took time, during which the Federal Army also gained strength. On June 8, the Army of the Potomac’s Cavalry Corps surprised Stuart’s Division holding a Grand Review at Brandy Station. Stuart was forced into a desperate fight. The Union troopers fought well, and Stuart left the fight feeling humiliated and burning for revenge. Still, the army was ready, and the invasion was on.
The Invasion Begins
The Army of Northern Virginia began its northward trek on June 10, 1863. Ewell’s Corps moved up the Shenandoah Valley, screened by Jenkins’ Cavalry. Longstreet trailed Ewell, while A.P. Hill’s III Corps remained at Fredericksburg to preserve surprise as long as possible.
On June 13, Ewell deployed in front of Winchester, where a Federal division under General Robert Milroy was forced to fight or run. Milroy stayed, repulsed Ewell’s first probe, then sent his command and some outlying garrisons up the valley toward Harper’s Ferry just before dawn on June 14. His men ran into a Confederate blocking force and disintegrated in the resulting battle. Less than 2000 of Milroy’s 9000 routed into Harper’s Ferry with the news the Army of Northern Virginia was coming up the Shenandoah Valley in force.
Joe Hooker, reprising his inaction at Chancellorsville, remained stationary, anxiously awaiting word of Lee’s whereabouts. To find out, U.S. cavalry probed the Shenandoah Valley passes.
Union troopers stabbed at the Rebel cavalry screen at Aldie on 17 June. In five days of serious fighting, the Federal horsemen gave as good as they got, and the presence of Lee’s Army north of the Rappahannock was definitely established.
Now thoroughly alarmed, Lincoln and his Army Commander-in-Chief Henry Halleck, ordered Hooker into action. As Lincoln astutely observed, “If the head of the animal is at Winchester and the tail is at Fredericksburg, it must be very thin somewhere. Can you not break it?”
Lincoln stripped Washington’s defenses of 15,000 veterans for the Army of the Potomac. More infantry joined General Dix at Fortress Monroe, whose 36,000 men were under orders to threaten and “if possible” attack Richmond while Lee was away.
To free the Union field command of still more tasks, Pennsylvania called up its State Militia, to guard Harrisburg. New York State’s more efficient militia command quickly directed 10,000 trained men to the line of the Susquehanna.
Hooker was unable to nerve himself to strike. His army moved inside the arc of Lee’s thrust, interposing his army between Lee & Washington. “Fighting Joe” meanwhile initiated a running telegraph battle with Halleck over the exact limits to his command authority.
Lee used his respite to bring most of his army over the Potomac. Stuart was to leave two cavalry brigades to screen the Shenandoah Valley passes, and, from June 24, bring the rest of his horsemen north by the fastest route. He was given a good deal of latitude as to how to accomplish this.
Stuart chose to move the best three brigades of his cavalry eastward on a raid behind the advancing Union Army, rather than between Lee’s main body and the enemy. The Army of Northern Virginia was left three cavalry brigades and Imboden’s independent brigade, but no overall Chief of Cavalry. The Southern force would sorely feel the lack.
While Stuart rode east, Lee’s army spread into the fertile farmlands of eastern Pennsylvania, foraging to sustain his Army. Along with foodstuffs, Rebel units confiscated horses, harness, medicines, wagons and all sorts of useful materiel. In an ominous note, black citizens of Pennsylvania were seized and coffelled, to be marched back to Virginia and sold. Lee’s first objective, subsisting his army on Northern soil for the summer, seemed imminent.
By June 28, the Army of the Potomac was concentrated some twenty miles west of Frederick, Maryland, deployed in a rough arc protecting Washington. The position was a good one, threatening a westward lunge against Lee’s communications, a move directly toward Lee’s leading troops, or, should Lee’s movements make that desirable, a defense of Washington. What Hooker was not doing was interfering with Lee’s movements or protecting the citizens of Pennsylvania.
Moreover, Hooker was quarreling at long distance with Halleck and Lincoln. On the 27th, he submitted his resignation over a technical issue of authority. To Hooker’s chagrin, Lincoln accepted. Major General George Meade, V Corps commander, was awakened early June 28th by a Presidential order to take the army and go fight Lee.
Meade, born in Spain, was ineligible to run for President, and so politically attractive. He was respected by the other Major Generals, a fact known to Lincoln. Moreover, Lincoln’s first choice, John Reynolds, made it clear he didn’t want the job.
Meade’s operations plan was forthright. He would advance toward Lee, concentrate his army along Pipe Creek, just inside Maryland, then engage as soon as Lee’s main force could be located.
The Army of the Potomac advanced in echelon from the west, leading with Reynolds’ two Corps (I & XI). The bulk of the army followed just to the east, while Sedgwick’s VI Corps, the army’s largest, acted as general reserve in the southeast. By June 30, the army was concentrated.
Federal cavalry, operating by divisions, was deployed on the front and flanks of the Army. Kilpatrick was at Hanover blocking J.E.B. Stuart, Gregg on Stuart’s back trail and covering the army’s new depot at Winchester. Buford, west of Gettysburg, screened the army’s advance.
French’s Harper’s Ferry garrison, including Milroy’s survivors, moved to Frederick, with a detachment on Maryland Heights. The position covered the Army of Potomac’s left flank and threatened Lee’s communications. The move also abandoned the Union bridgehead across the Potomac.
Lee’s Army was dispersed on the 30th. Longstreet, at Chambersburg with the army trains, brought up the rear, To the north and east, Ewell threatened “Baldy” Smith’s militia at Carlisle. A.P. Hill was north of Fairfield and east of the other two Corps gathering forage and supplies. Stuart found himself outside Hanover, with most of the Union Army between him and Lee to his west. By this date, Stuart was burdened with over 100 captured Union supply wagons, a prize too valuable to abandon. Unable to determine Lee’s whereabouts, Stuart headed toward Carlisle, hoping to contact the Army of Northern Virginia there or at York.
Lee realized the Army of the Potomac was heading north, but did not know exactly where it was. Ewell was ordered to bring his men south to Cashtown. This would concentrate Lee’s army astride its line of communications, able to attack or evade a Union offensive. To carry out his orders, Ewell directed Early and Rodes to bring their divisions west and south on roads that converged at Gettysburg.
That same morning, Henry Heth moved his Division east toward Gettysburg, intending to confiscate shoes rumored to be available there. Shortly after 8:00 a.m., his skirmishers began exchanging fire with Yankee outposts. Northern troops, possibly militia, were between Heth and the town.
McPherson’s Ridge, July 1st
Union defenses crumble, 4pm, July 1st
About 8:30, Archer’s brigade, Heth’s point, encountered a line of bluecoats along a wooded crestline locally called McPherson’s Ridge.
Buford’s Cavalry Division held Heth’s initial probes. When an attack in force developed around 11:00, the newly arriving Union I Corps administered a stiff drubbing to Heth’s overextended lines. John Reynolds, commanding I & XI Corps of the Union army, deployed his men onto McPherson Ridge. Reynolds was killed shortly thereafter, but I Corps solidly blocked the road.
XI Corps reached Gettysburg about 12:30 pm. Two divisions advanced north of town, where more Southern infantry were visible. Abner Doubleday, now commanding I Corps, extended his line at an angle with XI Corps, meeting near Oak Hill.
In mid-afternoon a Confederate attack on the I Corps right got off to a poor start when Rodes’ brigadiers mishandled their troops. However, Early’s supporting attack unhinged the XI Corps line, and Rodes’ reserves struck the northern angle of the Union line just as the whole began to give way. When Heth, supported by Pender’s Division, joined in against the Federal left, the whole line crumbled.
Union horse, foot and guns streamed back through the town to Cemetery Hill, where XI Corps’ third Division was busy throwing up earthworks. Some 2,500 prisoners were lost, though the Federal army stayed in fairly good order. Newly-arriving II Corps commander, General Winfield Scott Hancock, directed the fugitives into a battle line along the tops of Cemetery Ridge.
Confederate follow-up was feeble, partly because the Lee’s Corps commanders were mindful of his order not to bring on a major engagement. Ewell declined to assault an entrenched Cemetery Hill or send troops up Culp’s Hill. A. P. Hill’s two Divisions west of town reformed and licked their wounds. The attack tapered off with the daylight.
The Round Tops, July 2nd
Situation about 4pm July 2, just before Longstreet's attack.
On July 2nd, Lee instructed James A. Longstreet, his most trusted Corps Commander, to attack the Union left flank “as early as practicable” Reconnaissance took til 10:00 a.m. “Old Pete” issued his final orders after carefully placing his supporting artillery and confirming that Law’s Alabama Bde. had reached Hood’s Division by an epic forced march.
Assembly was roundabout in order to reach the start lines unobserved by a Union signal station atop Little Round Top. Frustrating everyone, the assault did not jump off until 4:00 p.m.
During this lengthy interval, Union politico-General Dan Sickles took it upon himself to advance his III Corps defensive line to the edge of the Peach Orchard, where it could obtain better fields of fire. Sickles’ move uncovered the extreme Union flank at the two Round Tops and left III Corps beyond supporting distance of the rest of the army. Meade was unable to remedy this in time.
Longstreet’s attack, which earlier pointed at the front face of the Union III Corps, now overlapped the Federal flank. The way was open for a crushing, battle-winning, blow.
When it came the assault was unstoppable. III Corps was flanked and driven back in confusion. Elements of II and V Corps were thrown in piecemeal to blunt the Confederate drive, which retired after touching the peak of Little Round Top.
Longstreet, using three Confederate Divisions, smashed two Union Corps and badly hurt another.
In the north, Ewell’s Culp’s Hill assault got off late and went nowhere, increasing everyone’s losses.
Pickett’s Charge, July 3rd
Although it was clear the Army of the Potomac was still combative, Lee believed the North was severely shaken. One more punch might decide the issue.
Longstreet suggested turning the Round Tops, but Lee chose to stake everything on his men’s proven valor. Ten brigades, supported by 170–180 cannon, would strike the very center of the Union position, breaking the Federal line. Longstreet demurred, but Lee insisted – his worst mistake of the war.
Meanwhile, George Meade worried his army could not stand another day of battle. He called a formal Council of War to decide whether or not to fall back to a better position along Pipe Creek, south of Gettysburg. His Corps commanders urged him to hold in place.
Meade then reasoned that, since Lee had already launched attacks on each flank, he would next strike the center of his line.
Meade’s Chief of Artillery, Henry Hunt, sited the army’s batteries for a deadly crossfire along the entire line of Cemetery Ridge and readied additional reserve guns and ammunition to relieve units which took heavy damage or ran low on shells. Meade also moved fresh infantry behind Cemetery Ridge to counterattack any breakthrough.
Shortly after 1:30 p.m., the Army of Northern Virginia unleashed the heaviest artillery bombardment of the war against Cemetery ridge. After 45 minutes of fire, some Union pieces were silenced, and more were withdrawn to preserve them. Union casualties were light, though a tendency toward overshots made the area immediately behind the ridge hazardous and drove Meade from his HQ.
Between 2:30 and 3 p.m., a line of men in worn grey and butternut broke cover in front of Seminary Ridge and headed across the valley into an inferno.
Some few, impelled by nearly superhuman bravery, reached the top of the ridge, where Union defenders halted the charge among the Federal cannon. The last Confederate thrust was spent, then repulsed.
There were other actions that day. That morning firing raged among the trenches on Culp’s Hill to little purpose. Cavalry engaged on both army flanks. Several miles to the northeast, Stuart’s cavalry pummeled a smaller Union command, but could not break through to envelop the Federal rear areas they guarded. Southwards, US General Judson Kilpatrick managed to wear out Farnsworth’s cavalry and maul Wesley Merritt’s Regular brigade by ill-advised charges into Hood’s riflemen.
When the noise died down the other fighting was lost to history. Pickett’s Charge became the symbolic “High Water Mark” of the Confederacy, and Lew Armistead, charging hat on sword, its Roland. Later, President Abraham Lincoln would come to this field and, in a few short phrases, reveal its importance to the country and the ages.
Meade declines to attack – July 4th
Between July 3rd and 4th, Lee dug in on Seminary Ridge. The Army held its lines while doctors gathered up the wounded and the army train started South. Rain added to everyone’s misery and made combat more difficult. The Union army was content to see off the Confederates, preserving its hard fought victory from any last minute reversal.
After the Battle
Lincoln greatly desired an active pursuit, but the Federal army proved unable to mount one. French’s men at Frederick were still recovering from the debacle at Harper’s Ferry. French believed anything as ambitious as blocking Lee was beyond their power. Instead, he brought his regiments to Gettysburg on July 5, integrating them into III Corps, of which he took command in place of the wounded Sickles.
Major General Pleasonton, a vocal, not to say strident, advocate of all-out pursuit, managed to scatter his cavalry divisions hither, thither and yon. Union horse demonstrated their combat skills once again, inflicting several thousand enemy casualties (mostly prisoners) for around 1000 losses. But at no time were they in enough force to penetrate Stuart’s screen and threaten the main body of the Army of Northern Virginia.
Lee fell back to Falling Waters, on the Potomac, intending to cross there. But Federal cavalry burnt his pontoon train before he arrived. High waters precluded fording without bridge or ferry. By July 10, Lee was trapped against a swollen river with the Army of the Potomac closing inexorably.
Lee calmly and methodically made the best of the situation. Stuart’s cavalry jabbed and weaved, fending off Yankee horsemen and protecting the all-important army trains. An improvised ferry moved artillery ammunition to the north bank and the worst wounded south. Confederate infantry and artillery entrenched an arc on a low ridge outside Falling Water, and prepared for an epic stand.
On July 12 Meade caught up with Lee’s army. The Union spent the 13th in reconnaissance, preparing an assault for the 14th. During the night of the 13th, Lee finished a pontoon bridge and evacuated his men to safety. Since all remaining bridges over the Potomac had been burnt during the pursuit, Meade was unable to follow for some days. This effectively ended the campaign.