When Robert E. Lee ordered a concentration of his Army of Northern Virginia at the little town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, in late June, he was at a disadvantage he had never encountered before: he did not fully understand the size or the position of his opponent. Lee had been out of contact with his eyes and ears, Jeb Stuart's cavalry, for more than a week. He did know one thing for sure: George Meade had taken over command of the Army of the Potomac. Lee knew Meade, and he predicted Meade would not make the same kind of crippling errors that John Pope, Ambrose Burnside, and John Hooker had made over the past year. He could also assume that the Army of the Potomac, no matter what parts of it were nearby, would have more manpower when fully concentrated than his own Army of Northern Virginia. Lee would assemble at Gettysburg and wait until Jeb Stuart joined him. Then he hoped to make the kinds of maneuvers and flank attacks that brought him and his army victory after victory.
Gettysburg was the single bloodiest battle of the war, not counting the 1864 Wilderness and Spotsylvania fights as a single battle. The number of killed, wounded, and missing in the two armies together was 51,000 men.
Meade did not give him the chance. Despite having been repeatedly bested — even humiliated — by the Army of Northern Virginia, the Army of the Potomac marched directly toward their old foe. This was, after all, not Virginia; the Northern soldiers were defending territory in one of their own states.
On July 1, the first Confederate infantry converging on Gettysburg was spotted by Union cavalry commander General John Buford, whose troops were in advance of Meade's army camped on a hill southwest of town. Buford sent his men to engage the Confederates and called for reinforcements. The Rebel soldiers raced back to camp with news of the Union troop movements, and a Confederate attack on the Union cavalry line was ordered. So began the Battle of Gettysburg.
The first Union infantry to arrive in support of Buford were from the First Corps, led by Major General John Reynolds. The Southerners continued to advance. Reynolds was killed in the ensuing battle, which laid waste to the Iron Brigade of the West, one of Reynolds's best fighting units. The Confederates kept pressing the Federals, though more were coming in behind them and spreading out to the right. Lee came up and was not convinced that here was a place for a general battle, but far off he could see another wing of his army advancing from the north that would outflank the growing number of Federals. He ordered these men forward.
Union and Confederate dead, Gettysburg Photo courtesy of the National Archives (165-SB-36)
During this first day of fighting, the Confederates outnumbered the Union forces. They drove these elements of the Army of the Potomac back through the streets of Gettysburg to what was called Cemetery Hill and Cemetery Ridge south of the town. A final attack might have pushed the Federals off of this high ground, but Lee's subordinate, General Richard Ewell, did not risk it. Both armies settled down for the night. They rested or dug entrenchments while more regiments and divisions made their way toward the little town in support of their comrades.
When morning broke, the Union army had formed its men into the shape of a fishhook. The shank was located along Cemetery Ridge, which ran due south from the town and ended in two prominences called Little Round Top and Big Round Top. The curved part of the fishhook was at the northern part of Cemetery Ridge — Cemetery Hill — bending eastward. The barb at the end of the fishhook was a prominence called Culp's Hill.
The Confederate commanders were unsure how to attack the Union position. General Longstreet wanted to maneuver the Army of Northern Virginia to a location between the Federals and Washington, D.C., drawing them into a battle against Confederate defensive works. Lee, however, still did not have Stuart and could not be sure how such a maneuver could be successfully carried out; he overruled Longstreet and ordered an offensive against the Federals south of the town. His hope was to send Longstreet secretly to the south and come upon the open flank of the Union army just as Jackson had at Chancellorsville two months before.
“In a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.” — Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
The main trouble was that the Union army's southern flank had changed during the night and then again during the day. Not only had more Federal troops come up as reinforcements, but Union general Daniel Sickles decided on his own to move his corps a mile forward from the Union battle line. Moreover, Union troops were beginning to fortify Little Round Top, which had been deserted. If Longstreet obeyed Lee's orders strictly, his men would be subjected to flanking fire from Little Round Top. Longstreet had to delay and reconfigure his attack and did not get it going until about 4 P.M., but it came with terrible ferocity.
Dead Confederate sharpshooter in the Devil's Den, Gettysburg, Pennsylvania Photo courtesy of the National Archives (165-SB-41)
The Confederates nearly conquered Little Round Top. Had they done so, they may have won the battle. They smashed Union positions in places whose names have now grown into American legend: the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield, and Devil's Den. Longstreet's men nearly caved in this sector of the Union army, but the Federals held on and Meade deftly sent reinforcements at the right times to the right places. Lee also struck at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, but he could not dislodge the Union men from their strong positions.
Lee was now in a quandary. He did not have enough supplies for days of maneuver in Pennsylvania. He had to soundly defeat the Federal army or retreat. He chose to attack in a high-stakes gamble of smashing the Union center and sending the Federals reeling. In this endeavor he sent Jeb Stuart, who arrived at last the night before, around the rear of the Union army to descend on the back of Cemetery Ridge. At the front he would send forth 15,000 men in what has become known as Pickett's Charge.
It almost worked, but Stuart was stopped by Federal cavalry in a desperate clash, and the 15,000 who advanced a mile over farmers' fields faced such withering fire that they could not break the Union line for more than a few minutes. Thousands were captured, and only about half the men who began the charge ever got back.