Day One Here Day Three Here JULY 2nd, 1863 LATE, LATE AT NIGHT AND EARLY, EARLY MORNING
Lee and Meade had only just gotten to the scene of the action in the middle of the night. Until then, they had directed the battle from afar with nothing more than vague orders and knew nothing more than vague reports, which were largely obsolete by the time the rider had reached them. But they were present now.
Meade gathered a war council of all his generals to a) figure out what the hell had happened the day before, b) figure out what's facing them out there in the dark, and c) figure out what to do now. Because of his direct orders from President Lincoln, Meade had a diffident mindset at first. As he approached the war council on Cemetery Hill, he was trying to work out how to withdraw back closer to Washington D.C., being paranoid that Lee might slip around him and threaten the Capitol. But after meeting with his generals and reading the room, Meade switched gears; he decided that if all his men were eager to plant the flag on the high ground and fight here and now, then that's what they were gonna do.
Meade was a methodical man. His style of generalship is all about details, details, details, like an old engineer who knows his craft inside and out. There would be no reinventing of the wheel under him, no flashy strategies, no innovative maneuvers. He simply took the units he had available and planned out how much frontage they can occupy, what terrain they could exploit. He set up fields of fire, emplaced cannons, designated reserves and supply points. He shaped the piece of the Army of the Potomac that he had into until it resembled a fishhook. The sharp tip of the hook was just south of Culp's Hill. The curve of the hook passed through Culp's Hill and Cemetery Hill. And the hook straightened out into a line down Cemetery Ridge, ending at the natural fortress of Little Round Top. It was a hell of a tough nut to crack.
No matter how you approached them, it would be a literal uphill battle across wide open fields of fire. Since they were packed in so tightly together, if any piece of the fishhook that started to bend under pressure, Meade could break off units from a peaceful section to reinforce them rapidly. Having issued his directions to his subordinate officers, and satisfied that he'd done all he could, Meade then waited patiently for morning.
Lee was angry. He'd given explicit orders to avoid a full on engagement, and now here he was, stuck in a full on engagement. Worse, the enemy held the high ground. Worse
, he had next to no idea of the disposition of the Union army. J.E.B. Stuart, the legendary Confederate cavalry commander, was supposed to be Lee's eyes and ears. But Stuart was MIA, off joy-riding behind enemy lines, having fun taking prisoners and zapping supply trains like a raider instead of being the scout that Lee needed.
In the night of July 1st/morning of July 2nd, Lee took two actions to suss out how the enemy is positioned. He ordered a probe towards Culp's Hill, hoping to catch it unoccupied. It'd be way
easier to take Cemetery Hill if they could grab the high ground across from it as a base of fire. But that probe bumped into the survivors of the Iron Brigade, who had set up shop on the invaluable terrain. After a short and skittish firefight, the probe backed off to return to friendly lines.
At dawn, Lee sent a Captain Johnston (an experienced recon man) to find the Union left flank. Johnston took the long way around, cutting across the Emmitsburg Road far to the south and clambering up Big Round Top to scope out the miniature valley below him (including Little Round Top). Nothing. Not a soul. Johnston scooted back quick to report his findings. Lee, reasoning that the Union left flank must be on the Emmitsburg Road which Johnston had avoided by necessity, decided that there was a good opportunity to crack the enemy line open. If Meade was dumb enough to leave his left flank open and unanchored by favorable terrain, Lee would be happy to take advantage.
Lee spent the rest of the morning developing a cunning plan. He mapped out an attack in echelon
, meaning that he would stagger his attack all along the line, so that each element of his army would slam into the Union line at a different moment in time; the hope was that the never-ending series of stabs would overwhelm the Union response system and hopelessly confuse Meade as to where to send his reinforcements. Then, while the Union army was run ragged trying to respond to the myriad of attacks, Lee would send Longstreet straight north up the Emmitsburg Road and turn their unanchored left flank.
Let me be clear. Meade had given orders to occupy Little Round Top. There should have been bluebellies crawling all over that hill when Johnston laid eyes on it. The fact that there wasn't
is sort of bizarre, and it was the root cause for the sheer insanity that was about to cook off that day. So let’s rewind a little. Meade gave out his orders and then settled in to wait patiently till morning. The problem was the man he gave the orders to- General Dan Sickles.
Sickles had been a big time politician in peace time, a Democrat Senator who drew his base of support from the immigrant enclaves of NYC. Despite his political differences with President Lincoln, and despite the cool attitudes that the Democrat base had about this suspect war to free the slaves (free them to compete with white workers, that is), Sickles consistently carried water for the Executive Branch in the rough patches at the start of the war. In the manner of the time, Lincoln had paid him back with a generalship, because that's how the game is played.
Things were loose back then. You could literally just be a General one day if you had the money or the right friends (and Sickles had both). That's seriously how one dumb political power broker ended up in charge of a freaking corps, one third of the Union Army on the field that day. Fun fact about Sickles, by the by- he once shot the son of Francis Scott Key in broad daylight for sleeping with his wife, and invented the "not guilty by reason of temporary insanity" plea out of whole cloth to get acquitted, because all kind of stuff is possible if you're a New York senator in the 1800's.
Anyway, Sickles received his orders- set up on Cemetery Ridge, and plant a strong force on Little Round Top. But Sickles was lazy and tired and took hours to get going that morning- that's why the hill was empty during Captain Johnston's recon mission. But as Johnston and his scouts rode back, Sickles marched forward, and upon reaching Cemetery Ridge he decided that Meade was screwing this whole thing up.
Cemetery Ridge was elevated terrain, but other than some fencing it was exposed. Right in front of him and across the shallow valley was higher ground with better cover. Sickles eyed positions whose names would soon echo through history, associated forever with blood and terror - the Peach Orchard, Rose Woods, the Wheatfield, Devil's Den.
Sickles unilaterally pushed his whole corps forward to occupy those deliciously strong positions. If there's one thing he knew for sure, it's that the higher the ground, the better. He also neglected to mention this decision to Meade. So, let's recap.
Meade believed his fishhook formation extends south along Cemetery Ridge, anchored on Little Round Top. He is wrong. A third of his army is in fact jutting out a mile in front of Cemetery Ridge, stretched dangerously thin and exposed from multiple angles. Lee, for his part, believed that the Union left was straddled on the Emmitsburg Road and thought he was about send a division rolling up their flank without significant resistance. He is also wrong- the attack was in fact about to charge face first into fortified positions on high terrain.
Literally nobody is in the driver's seat for this second day at Gettysburg.
———————————————————————— LATE MORNING
General Longstreet had been Lee’s right hand man ever since “Stonewall” Jackson had gotten killed two months back. Longstreet had intuited by observation what later strategists would conclude by analysis; direct frontal assaults are now as obsolete as stone axes in warfare. People were still using Napoleonic tactics to close distance with infantry and force the enemy to run with the bayonet. With shoddy cannons and inaccurate musketry, it was perfectly plausible to expect a brigade to endure a few volleys and get in close. But cannons, by this time, were works of art and science, and muskets were rifled. Charging in across open ground was now suicidal, as Iverson’s and O‘Neal’s brigades had relearned the day before.
Longstreet didn’t want to fight here. Not at all. With the enemy on the high ground? No. Longstreet argued for a wide flanking maneuver to bypass the Army of the Potomac entirely- slip all the boys south past Big Round Top and make for Washington DC. If they could get in between Meade and Lincoln (Longstreet figured), they could force Meade to attack them
instead. But Lee demurred. Bad for morale, with the enemy in their sights and not engaging. Plus, spending a day shuffling tens of thousands of men the long way around the Union defenses would be dicey. There was nothing saying that Meade mightn't see them moving and attack while everybody was out of position. No, Lee was going to play the hand he was dealt, and ordered Longstreet's corps to attack the vulnerable Union Left.
Longstreet was slow to get started, and his attack was half-hearted. Neo-Confederates have damned his memory for it ever since; between his head-butting against Saint Lee and his participation in Reconstruction two years later, Longstreet has played the scapegoat for defeat in popular memory.
The Confederate movement to get into position took hours too long, and second-guessed their approach due to fear of being spotted too early. Poetically, it somewhat resembled a kid trying to work up the guts to show up behind the bleachers to finally fight the bully like he promised.
———————————————————————— MID DAY
Lee finally, finally
, made contact with his scout element. J.E.B. Stuart had finally showed up.
If Stuart was expecting kudos for his antics- causing havoc behind enemy lines, taking prisoners and raiding supply trains and such- he is badly mistaken. Lee was smack dab in the middle of a clash of armies and he had only the barest idea of how many of the enemy were over on those hills, let alone their disposition. Lee was blind because Stuart dropped the ball.
Stung as he was by Lee’s rebuke, and ashamed to have let the side down, Stuart offered his resignation. Lee refused- he still needed the best damn cavalry commander the Eastern Front has yet produced. Like a good manager, Lee put a valuable tool back in the toolbox so it’ll be there when he needs it. The day’s fight would have little need for cavalry, but tomorrow...
———————————————————————— Early Afternoon
Meade finally found out how fucked they were, that Sickles was a full mile out of position. He metaphorically grabbed Sickles by the collar and dragged him out to the new front lines to inspect how bad the damage was going to be. Meade's temper spiked up into a towering rage as he let Sickles have it. As he's berating Sickles for ruining everything, the forward elements of Longstreet's corps touched Sickles' men in the Peach Orchard. Gunfire broke out as the Confederates got cut down by infantry and artillery that the plan had said weren't there.
Meade shifted gears fast. He told Sickles to stand fast and hold out, that help was on the way. There was no point to marching back to Cemetery Ridge if the fight was on. As horrible as this problem was, fighting with your back to the enemy would be even worse. The fish hook formation, tight as it was, allowed for some slack in terms of how fast reinforcements could be shifted.
On the Confederate side, the plan was already shot to hell. They had orders to drive on up the Emmitsburg Road, but the Emmitsburg Road was a pitiless kill zone with Union troops entrenched in the Peach Orchard with flanking fire menacing them from the Wheat Field and Devil's Den. Lee's orders were a no-go, obsolete on contact with the enemy. McLaws and Hood, under Longstreet, wanted to adjust the plan on the fly and attack more intelligently. But Longstreet had already fought Lee on this attack, and Lee had made it clear he wants them to roll up the Emmitsburg
. While they hashed it out, the Confederate assault froze in place.
Confederate and Union artillerymen had fun trading salvos at each other's positions, while the infantrymen hugged dirt and hated their commanders for doing this to them.
McLaws on the left almost charged across the road at the Union men entrenched in the Peach Orchard, but at the last moment Longstreet called it off so Hood can get into position. Hood hated Longstreet's orders to charge on the right of the Emmitsburg road in support of McLaws (which was the "expose your right flank to withering fire" option), and instead attacked Devil's Den directly- whether this was deliberate disobedience or an inevitable shifting in response to terrain, I'm honestly not sure. Either way, it meant that McLaws was left hanging. It also meant that the unengaged Union artillery in the Peach Orchard was free to deliver withering flanking fire into Hood's left flank instead. One such screaming shell burst overhead and ruined Hood's left arm, knocking him out of the fight. Hood's underling Law took over for him.
Devil's Den was a scattering of boulders on elevated terrain, occupied by Union artillery and snipers. They rained precision death upon the advancing Confederates from relative safety. But there were so many targets... Law's troops streamed down the path of least resistance, south of Devil's Den, bypassing Sickles' incompetently laid defenses entirely and charging up to Little Round Top to complete the flanking maneuver.
Meade, meanwhile, had just realized that Sickles hadn't put anybody
on Little Round Top, which was the one patch of dirt that Meade had specifically told him to fortify. He shot a order out to his reserves to get a brigade up there and dig in fast, fast, fast fast fast
. The courier, however, could not find the assigned unit; it's chaotic out there. The messenger bumped into Vincent's Maine brigade in reserve behind the Wheat Field and, under pressure, revealed the contents of the order. Vincent risked a court martial by taking the initiative and abandoning his post to go off and occupy Little Round Top himself. Vincent got there just in time to fight Law's assault from the high ground.
The little valley in between Devil's Den and Little Round Top, carved out by the Plum Run stream, earned two new nicknames that day: the Slaughter Pen, and the Valley of Death. LATE AFTERNOON
Lee's timetable was ruined. His complex plan to attack in echelon was dead on arrival, wrecked by friction and faulty assumptions. Longstreet's attack had kicked off hours behind schedule, and the planned diversionary assaults on Cemetery and Culp's Hill fell victim to the same confusion and delay that had afflicted Rodes' assault on Cutler at Oak Ridge the day before. The moving pieces just weren't moving in concert. Meade was able to bring up reinforcements to hold the line as fast as Longstreet was able to kill them off. The attacks, retreats and counterattacks across the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Rose Woods, and Devil's Den are intricate and confusing to us today. It was confusing to them too. I'm not going to get lost in the details.
Each side brought in reinforcements as they arrived piecemeal from outside of Gettysburg, and hurled them into the fray as soon as they arrived. The pattern was that a successful assault was soon followed by a successful counterattack by fresh infantry, who paid for their victory in blood and were shortly afterwards attacked and slaughtered in turn. By such means did the strongholds change hands multiple times throughout the afternoon and evening.
In lieu of beat by beat replays, I will instead focus on two small narratives within the chaos.
———————————————————————— The Irish Brigade
If you're an Irish-American nerd, you already know about this.
The Irish Brigade had been formed at the very start of the war, drawn from the Irish immigrant enclaves of New York City. Their officer corps was drawn in part from the Fenian Brotherhood, a militant Irish Republican secret society devoted to overthrowing the British. Their commander at Gettysburg, Thomas Francis Meagher, had been a leader of failed (and pathetically inept) Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848, and was in fact a convicted felon in Great Britain who had escaped Van Dieman's Land to live in exile in New York.
The war had treated the Irish Brigade rough. Between Bull Run in 1861 and Chancellorsville earlier that year, they had been reduced to just 530 men: a regiment-sized brigade.
At the Wheat Field, Meagher saw a massive hole in the Union line about to be stormed by a Confederate brigade. The Irish Brigade didn't have the numbers to stop them, but they could slow them down for long enough for other men to plug that gap.
The Catholic chaplain gathered the Irish Brigade around them and granted mass absolution of sins, as there was not enough to time to hear each man's confession individually. This was common enough in European armies, but this was the first time it had happened in Protestant America. After that, they charged.
The Irish Brigade used smooth bore muskets instead of the newfangled rifled muskets that everyone else used. But this let them fire buck-and-ball shot, a .69 ball with four tinier balls in tandem. It was like a long range shot gun. They might not be able to snipe, but at close range their volleys were deadly. The Wheat Field was very close range indeed. The Confederates stopped in their tracks and bled. But their return volleys slashed the Irish Brigade into pieces. 320 men out of the 530 Irishmen were killed or wounded in minutes. They take second place to the Iron Brigade in terms of percentage of casualties at Gettysburg, and third place overall throughout the war.
The gap had held long enough.
———————————————————————— The Mainers, the Alabamans, and the Texans at Little Round Top
Law threw together an ad hoc, expanded brigade by combining his own Alabaman regiments with two Texan regiments, to make a strong enough force to take Little Round Top and push through to flank the whole Union line.
The significance of Little Round Top is actually not entirely clear. Historians as far back as the 1870's considered it to be the lynchpin of the whole battle. Control of it gave Meade an artillery firing point able to cover half the Union line, and had Lee taken it and set up his own artillery on the summit, he might have been able to deliver flanking fire across that same line. That said, Lee himself did not appear to have thought this way; he would later describe Longstreet as being "delayed" by the necessity of clearing out that hill, not of it being an objective in its own right. There's also been some question about how useful Lee would have found it anyway as the cannons might not have been able to have been stacked up properly to even fire at the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.
Law peeled off one Alabaman regiment to attack Devil's Den to the north of the Slaughter Pen, and the rest drove on to Little Round Top.
The Alabamans and the Texans were hard men. That whole morning, they'd been marching, struggling to get to Gettysburg in time to be useful. In the 87 degree summer heat and with only one canteen of water per man, they'd quick marched twenty miles that day, losing men as heat casualties as they went. Scarcely had they arrived before Hood threw them into battle.
As they crossed Plum Creek, the exhausted and heat-struck Confederates tried to stop to refill their canteens. Their officers beat the shit out of the enlisted men with the flats of their swords to keep them going; they were at that stage where they were going on pure adrenaline, and if they stopped for a water break, they were probably going to stay stopped.
They charged uphill to Little Round Top through the rough terrain, and ran into blistering fire from the Maine regiments up the hill that knocked them back. The Southerners reformed, caught their breath, and charged uphill again. And again. And again.
After another few hours of desultory failed charges, the Mainers on Little Round Top ran out of ammo. So they bayonet charged downhill instead.
The Alabamans and the Texans surrendered en masse, worn out beyond endurance. Little Round Top stayed in Union hands even as all else gave way.
———————————————————————— STILL LATE AFTERNOON
But, long story short, the Confederates won again on the Union left. By sunset, they owned Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Rose Woods, and Devil's Den, having shoved Sickles' corps back to Cemetery Ridge. But Little Round Top had held. The Confederate line, bloodied and exhausted as it was, got their shit right and attacked up Cemetery Ridge as one. But fresh reinforcements drawn off of unengaged Culp’s Hill arrived to stiffen the Union line. Furious fire ripped the weary Confederates apart and drove them back.
The apocalyptic killing spree that would happen the next day sprang in part from one small Confederate success at this time. An under strength brigade had crossed the field and smacked into Cemetery Ridge, and on contact had driven the blue bellies off with the bayonet. Being all by themselves, and with Union reinforcements closing in on them, they’d withdrawn back to friendly lines with the rest of their limping, bleeding, worn out comrades.
But clearly, even a small unit could close distance on Cemetery Ridge. A larger attack might have worked... EVENING
As the echoes died away from the killing fields of Peach Orchard, Rose Woods, the Wheat Field, Devil's Den, and Little Round Top, the diversionary attacks meant to support them finally kicked off. Confederates used the dying light to charge up the impregnable natural fortresses of Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. As can be imagined, they failed, and the Confederates suffered massive casualties for nothing. The fighting lasted well past nightfall- we’ll get into more detail tomorrow, because midnight is an arbitrary line to draw between the skirmishing and small pushes that stopped and started periodically all night long. The only part of these attacks that can be called a success is that the Confederates established a foothold at the base of Culp's Hill in the small sections that Meade had deemed nonessential and had already pulled out from so as to reinforce the idiot Sickles, who had gotten a leg blown off and had been carted away from the field. Sickles would later get the Medal of Honor for his bullshit that day, because all kind of stuff is possible for a New York Senator in the 1800’s.
Of all the men, Union and Confederate, who had fired in anger that day, approximately 1/3rd of them had been killed or wounded. This shakes out to roughly 15,000 men- 6,000 Confederates and 9,000 Union troops- cut down, a little less than 10% of each army. Now, the single bloodiest day in American military history was the battle of Antietam less than a year before, where 23,000 total had been killed or wounded. But- and I note this to drive home just how insanely intense
the fighting had been that day- Antietam had last twelve hours. The fighting on the second day of Gettysburg had lasted only six. I did the math, so you don’t have to- at Antietam, about 32 men on average were killed and maimed every minute. At Gettysburg, on the 2nd day, it was about 42 men every minute.
It was a terrible day to be a soldier.