The Battle of Gettysburg: A Synopsis
By MSG Robert D. Wall Jr.
The Battle of Gettysburg
The beginning turning point during the American Civil War occurred between July 1st and 3rd in 1863, in and around the small town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania (PA). Historians and military leaders consider the Battle of Gettysburg the most critical engagement of the American Civil War (History.com Editors, 2009). The battle between the Army of the Potomac, Union Army (USA) led by General George Meade, and (Confederate States of America, CSA) led by General Robert E. Lee in a town 35 miles south of Harrisburg, PA would become the turning point between continued Union defeats and Confederate victories within the Potomac.
Over 165,620 forces engaged during this time, with an estimated 51,112 casualties from both sides (The American Battlefield Trust, 2022). The invasion of Gettysburg was General Robert E. Lee's second attempt to invade the North with the hopes of a quick end to the Civil war. President Abraham Lincoln heavily criticized the Union Army, General Meade, for not perusing General Lee across the Potomac even though the Union Army won the battle (History.com Editors, 2009; The Lehrman Institute, 2016). Despite heavy criticism, General Meade was valid in not pursuing General Lee after winning the three-day battle at Gettysburg.
Armies Leading up to the Battle
Understanding both armies leading up to the battle of Gettysburg is essential. Based on historical events before, during, and after the battle led to the leadership's decision to shape specific outcomes of the war following the battle of Gettysburg. The CSA and USA armies had been fighting for two years leading up to the fight at Gettysburg along the Potomac (Thibodeau, 2021).
General Lee had multiple reasons for invading the North. He intended to agitate the peace movement, draw the Union Army from the port of Vicksburg, take the fight out of the northern Virginia farmlands, and Lee hoped to put a swift end to the war (Thibodeau, 2021). Leading up to the battle, the CSA had won multiple battles. The fighting spirit of the CSA was at its pinnacle (National Parks Service, 2015). The Lee's CSA marched into Gettysburg 75,000 strong (HistoryNet, 2003). Their morale was high due to winning many battles over the previous two years leading up to the battle at Gettysburg. Members of the Confederate Army felt their army was superior and had precision range and accuracy of cannon fire (Coddington, 1968).
General Lee, at the time, wanted to drive a division in the USA for the summer, taking the fight out of the state of Virginia as stated above. As he moved across the Potomac River after his victory in May, he was looking to pull General Hooker's forces by trying to take advantage of the breakup of the USA forces. In addition, his drive was to break northern morale and impact USA plans by luring the army out of the Potomac to protect the land of Virginia (Coddington, 1968). General Lee had sent his cavalry, led by General Jeb Stuart, to York, PA. General Lee required the calvary to report on Federal troop movements. Unfortunately, General Stuart's Calvary was in York, PA, and did not provide a report to General Lee. The location of Gettysburg hosted a convergence of roads and allowed for multiple advantages should General Lee want to make his approach toward Washington DC gearing up for the fight against General Mead’s USA (Smithsonian, 2022).
Due to heavy losses of over 7,000 Union troops, General Hooker was desperate for reinforcements (Coddington, 1968). General Meade replaced General Joseph Hooker, whom General Lee defeated in May 1863 at Chancellorsville, VA. The Union Army suffered more
psychological and physical damage due to the loss at Chancellorsville (Coddington, 1968). Two days before the 1st of July, General Meade became the commander of the Union Army, leading to the beginning fight at Gettysburg (History.com Editors, 2009; Thibodeau, 2021). General Meade had received information leading up to the battle of scattered CSA forces. Further, Meade thought these movements were to separate his force and drive out his calvary (Coddington, 1968). However, Meade did not want to waste troop movements due to the awareness of the leading battle to come at Gettysburg, PA.
The Battle at Gettysburg, PA
As General Lee was advancing his army towards Gettysburg, leadership changes were happening in the Union Army. Even as General Hooker was pursuing the CSA through the Shenandoah, he was relieved from command three days before the battle of Gettysburg and replaced by General Meade. On July 1, 1863, around 0730 am, General Meade's calvary forces, led by Brigadier General John Buford, and two Corps of USA Infantry, established the USA line, and seized the high ground along three ridges intercepting (Battle History, 2022). However, Lee's full spectrum of his army was not within the region at the start of the battle. Around 2 p.m., CSA Second Corps arrived on the west of the town, outflanking union positions (Battle History,2022).
By the morning of 2 July, both armies arrived. The Union Army lines ran in a fishhook formation from Culp's hill southeast of the town to Cemetery Ridge, stretching about 3 kilometers (Battle History,2022). The Strength of the Union Army reached around 93,000 Soldiers and 372 cannons (Hawks, 2020).
The CSA military paralleled the Union positions for about five miles (Battle History,2022). General Lee's Army was 70,100 Soldiers and 280 cannons strong (Hawks, 2020).
Over 24000 USA Soldiers outmanned General Lee's men, but the CSA maintained the initiative by launching major attacks (Hawks, 2020). Lee developed his planning and attack process based on faulty intelligence. He was unaware that the USA positioned itself on higher ground, susceptible to launching lethal artillery and extending the Union line another 800m to the west (Battle History, 2022). Lee's cavalry was absent and unable to report proper troop positions. Thus, the positioning of the USA now had the advantage of attacking two sides, which forces and spread out the capability of the advancing CSA Forces.
General Lee never changed his planning or attack process on the third day of the battle. Using the same pans as the previous two days, Union troops laid down heavy artillery from Culps Hill, attacking the CSA (Battle History, 2022). This portion of the fighting lasted for over 7 hours, but the USA remained.
Due to the losses at Culps Hill, General lee changed his tactics. General Lee was under the assumption that the USA fortified the flanks and was weak in the center. He ordered General George E. Picket to lead his division with six other attached brigades in the center of the Union Army (Battle History, 2022), also known as Pickett's Charge. Before the advancement, Lee ordered all his artillery to the center of the Union Army.
At 3 p.m. Pickett's Charge had to advance 1,200 meters through fierce artillery fire from Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top (Battle History, 2022). Undenounced to General Lee, his calvary was also under attack on the east flank. General Gorge Custard attacked the Confederate calvary resulting in a length-mounted battle stopping the confederates (Battle History, 2022).
The two armies suffered 46,000 to 51,000 casualties (Battle History, 2022). Many authors have argued that there were as many as 28,000 CSA casualties following the battle at Gettysburg (Battle History, 2022, Hawks, 2020, and HistoryNet, 2003). The battle killed or wounded a third of most senior CSA Officers and key leaders (Battle History, 2022). Battle History (2022) further stated that General Lee would pull his troops back and reposition his troops to a defensive posture evacuating the town of Gettysburg on the eve of July 3 with hopes General Meade would persue.
Meade's Decision Not to Pursue Lee
On the 4th of July, the CSA remained across the battlefield, hoping that Meade would attack, but the cautious General Meade decided against the risk (Battle History, 2022). As Lee withdrew, the USA slowly followed. However, the CSA utilized weather in their favor. Due to the heavy rains, the Confederate Army was able to fortify the Potomac River. President Lincoln was eager for General Meade to pursue General Lee across the Potomac.
If we look at leadership capabilities, General Lee had two years of command, whereas General Meade at the time was only in command for a week. General Lee still had some of his experience generals in command, whereas General Meade lost four of his most experienced generals. Due to the short time in command and the loss of his generals, General Meade does not know his forces or command structure nearly as well as he knows that he ought to, and he also knows that Lee has this advantage over him (Ricks, 2017).
The battle at Gettysburg lasted more than 96 hours, limiting human endurance ability (Ricks, 2017). From 1-4 July, the weather was hot and humid while tying in 96 hours of battle and heavy losses on both sides. General Meade met with his commanders on the eve of the 4th to hear the options of his subordinate commanders for the best course of action. Casualty reports were estimates and not exact. In addition, General Meade's Union Army had a primary mission to protect Washington and Baltimore (Wittenberg et al., 2008). Once the Army could confirm
Lee’s CSA retreat, Mead's senior officers voted to remain at Gettysburg and advocated only direct pursuit by calvary (Ricks, 2017, Wittenberg et al., 2008).
General Meade deferred to the knowledge of his officers. Meade felt pursuing Lee would result in constant fighting through the mountain passes, and terrain would slow USA forces, who were also low on ammunition (Wittenberg et al., 2008). Meade received a sketchy report of the CSA locations, and Meade Felt it was imperative to understand the location of Lee's Army. Meade was critical in ensuring supply positions. Meade felt it did not make sense to move the army unless he knew where to send his supplies (Wittenberg et al., 2008). In addition, Meade felt terrain was against him as well. His scouts found the mountainous country was full of solid defenses. The CSA commander had the advantage, and high water due to the heavy rains made routes impossible to follow (Wittenberg et al., 2008).
Over 50,000 casualties covered the three-day engagement at Gettysburg between the Union and Confederate Army (The American Battlefield Trust, 2022). Gettysburg is the bloodiest single battle of the conflict and marked the turning point in the civil war. However, President Lincoln's hopes of ending the war would not happen due to General Meade's non-pursuit of Lee's Army. General Meade's Army faced significant handicaps. His officers opposed aggressive pursuit; they were short on supplies and ammunition, heavy rains made it impossible to track CSA movements, exhausted from battle, and half the men were without shoes due to five weeks on the march leading up to Gettysburg (Wittenberg et al., 2008). Due to exhaustion, limited clothing, soaked, no shoes, weather, lack of ammunition, and confederate fortified terrain, despite heavy criticism, General Meade was valid in not pursuing General Lee after the battle of Gettysburg.
The American Battlefield Trust. (2022, August). Gettysburg. American Battlefield Trust. https://www.battlefields.org/learn/civil-war/battles/gettysburg
Battle History. Gettysburg PA. (2022, August). https://www.gettysburgpa.gov/history/slideshows/battle-history
Coddington, E. B. (1968). The Gettysburg Campaign. Google Books. https://books.google.com/books?hl=en&lr=&id=P-7RMD77eQcC&oi=fnd&pg=PR7&dq=confederate%2Barmy%2Bbefore%2Bgettysburg&ots=072L7v__xd&sig=s8CupDZ_OLL7Acucwk47AhB28PE#v=onepage&q=morale&f=false
History.com Editors. (2009, October 29). Battle of Gettysburg. History.com. https://www.history.com/topics/american-civil-war/battle-of-gettysburg
HistoryNet. (2003, July 3). The Battle of Gettysburg: Facts & Info on the Civil War's Turning Point. HistoryNet. https://www.historynet.com/battle-of-gettysburg/#:~:text=The%20Battle%20of%20Gettysburg%2C%20Pennsylvania,75%2C000%20in%20the%20Confederacy's%20Army
Ricks, T. E. (2017, April 7). Why gen. Meade was right to stop after Gettysburg and not pursue gen. Lee. Foreign Policy. https://foreignpolicy.com/2017/04/07/why-gen-meade-was-right-to-stop-after-gettysburg-and-not-pursue-gen-lee/
The Lehrman Institute. (2016, April 1). The Generals and Admirals: George Meade (1815-1872). Mr. Lincoln's White House. http://www.mrlincolnswhitehouse.org/residents-visitors/the-generals-and-admirals/generals-admirals-george-meade-1815-1872/
National Parks Service. (2015, February 3). The will to win (U.S. National Park Service). National Parks Service. https://www.nps.gov/articles/the-will-to-win.htm
Smithsonian. (2022). From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg. From Chancellorsville to Gettysburg |National Portrait Gallery. https://npg.si.edu/blog/chancellorsville-gettysburg
Thibodeau, S. (2021, April 16). Lead up to the battle of Gettysburg. Civil War Cycling. https://civilwarcycling.com/index/gettysburg-battle-summary-day-0/
Wittenberg, E. J., Petruzzi, D., & Nugent, M. F. (2008). One Continuous Fight: The Retreat from Gettysburg and the Pursuit of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia July 1-14, 1863. Google Books.https://books.google.com/books?id=IXJ2tWDdPaIC&printsec=frontcover&source=gbs_ViewAPI#v=onepage&q=pursue&f=false
About the author:
Master Sergeant Robert Wall is a Senior Healthcare Noncommissioned Officer with over 27 years as a paramedic for the Army. He holds a Doctorate in Public Safety from Capella University. He has served 3 tours in Iraq and one tour Afghanistan. He currently attends the Sergeants Major Course at the US Army Noncommissioned Officer Leadership Center of Excellence.
* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of MilitaryHistoryOnline.com.