American Civil War battle that ended Robert E. Lee’s second and final invasion of the north. His victories at Fredericksburg (13 December 1862) and Chancellorsville (2-5 May 1863) had handed Lee the initiative. His own army was as big as it had ever been, while the northern armies were shrinking as men who had enrolled for nine months in the summer of 1862 returned home. Lee decided that the best hope for the Confederacy was a victory won on northern soil.
On 3 June, the Second Corps of the Army of Northern Virginia left its camps at Fredericksburg, and headed north west to the Shenandoah Valley. On 14-15 June it pushed aside the Union garrison of Winchester (Second battle of Winchester), and on 15 June crossed the Potomac into Maryland. On 14 June the Army of Potomac left its own camps opposite Fredericksburg and began to march north in pursuit of the Confederate army.
For the next two weeks the armies moved north. Lee’s army spread out across Maryland and Pennsylvania, gathering supplies as it moved north. On 25 June, Jeb Stuart took off on another of his cavalry raids, depriving Lee of his scouts for a crucial week. Thus it was only on 28 June that Lee discovered that the Army of the Potomac was close behind him. Lee immediately began to pull his army back together, ready to fight his decisive battle.
On the same day General Hooker was replaced in command of the Army of the Potomac, after an argument with General-in-Chief Halleck. He was replaced by Major-General George Meade, a relative unknown, His division at Fredericksburg had nearly pierced the Confederate line, and he had risen to Corps command since. Only three days after being appointed to command the entire army, Meade was to find himself involved in the most famous battle of the war.
Lee decided to concentrate his army in the general vicinity of Gettysburg, an important road junction. A.P. Hill ordered one of his divisions into Gettysburg to seize a supply of shoes said to be in the town.
On the morning of 1 July, this division found Gettysburg defended by two brigades of Union cavalry who had arrived on the previous day. Behind them, Reynold’s infantry corps was on its way. The battle soon began to escalate. The Union cavalry was able to hold off the Confederate division for two hours, until Reynold’s infantry began to arrive. By the time Lee reached the battlefield, 24,000 Confederate soldiers faced 19,000 Union men, with more arriving all the time.
Lee ordered a general assault. Four Confederate divisions swept the Union defenders out of Gettysburg, and on to their reserve position on Cemetery Hill. Lee gave orders for an assault on this position, but gave Ewell, the corps commander, the final decision on whether to attack that night. He chose not too. This was one of the most controversial decisions of the war. The Union position on Cemetery Hill was already strong, and being reinforced with fresh troops. If Ewell had attacked, what had been a good day for the Confederates would probably have ended in defeat.
Overnight the bulk of both armies arrived around Gettysburg. Meade’s line stretched south from Cemetery Hill along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top, and east to Culp’s Hill. However, on his southern flank, General Sickles had moved his Corps west, to higher ground along a road that ran south west out of Gettysburg, in an area known as the Peach Orchard. This position presented a stronger front than Cemetery Ridge, which was not of any great height at this point, but left Sickles’s Corps exposed on both flanks. Lee planned a two pronged attack for 2 July. On his right, Longstreet was to attack Cemetery Ridge in force. On his left, Ewell was to act as if he was about to attack, and then turn his demonstration into a real attack if Meade weakened the Union right to deal with Longstreet. If all went well, both flanks would crumble, allowing Lee to surround the strong Union centre on Cemetery Hill.
Unfortunately, Lee was let down by Longstreet. Despite orders to attack as early in the day as possible, Longstreet’s attack did not go in until 4 in the afternoon. Worse, Sickle’s decision to move forward to the Peach Orchard meant that after several hours of intense fighting, in which the Union forces were pushed slowly back and back, all Longstreet achieved was to push the Union line back to Cemetery Ridge, where he had expected to find them in the first place. A great chance to seize Little Round Top, at the southern end of the Union line was also missed. Finally, towards dusk, the Union Sixth Corps reached the battlefield, and was immediately placed into the front line. Longstreet’s attack had failed.
Lee decided to try one more attack on 3 July. This time he would attack the centre of the Union line, on the northern part of Cemetery Ridge. Lee was able to form a force 13,500 strong to launch this attack, supported by 160 guns. However, the artillery bombardment was ineffective. Eventually the Union guns ceased firing, simply to conserve ammunition and await the coming attack. This was taken as a signal that the Confederate bombardment was having the required effect, and the attack was ordered in.
Picket’s Charge has become known as the High Water Mark of the Rebellion. His 13,500 men marched into devastating Union artillery fire, and those that did get close to the Union line were exposed to the concentrated musket fire of the undamaged Union infantry. No more than a few hundred of Pickett’s men reached the Union positions on Cemetery Hill. The Confederates suffered around 7,000 casualties during Pickett’s Charge, and achieved nothing. Lee had demonstrated a similar stubbornness at Malvern Hill in the previous year. He had entered Pennsylvania to fight a war winning battle, and he was not willing to give up after two days.
After three he was left with no choice. On 4 July his army was too battered to launch another assault. Meade’s army was in slightly better shape, although was not in a fit state to launch its own counterattack. After staying in place at Gettysburg until about one in the afternoon of 4 July, Lee began a skilful retreat back to Virginia. The great gamble had failed. As Lee was pulling back from Gettysburg, the garrison of Vicksburg on the Mississippi was marching out to surrender. East and west the Union was victorious.