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American Civil War: Turning Points

Battle of Gettysburg

By

American Civil War: Turning Points

Major General George G. Meade, USA

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration
American Civil War: Turning Points

General James Longstreet, CSA

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
American Civil War: Turning Points

General John C. Pemberton, CSA

Photograph Courtesy of commons.wikimedia.org
Previous: War in the West, 1861-1863 | Civil War 101 | Next: War in the West, 1863-1865

Gettysburg: Lee's Second Invasion of the North

Following his stunning victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Gen. Robert E. Lee decided to attempt a second invasion of the North. He felt such a move would disrupt the Union Army's plans for the summer campaign, would allow his army to live off the rich farms of Pennsylvania, and would aid in reducing pressure on the Confederate garrison at Vicksburg, MS. In the wake of Lt. Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson's death, Lee reorganized his army into three corps commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. On June 3, 1863, Lee quietly began moving his forces away from Fredericksburg, VA.

Gettysburg: Brandy Station & Hooker's Pursuit

On June 9, Union cavalry under Maj. Gen. Alfred Pleasonton surprised Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart's Confederate cavalry corps near Brandy Station, VA. In the largest cavalry battle of the war, Pleasanton's men fought the Confederates to a standstill, showing that they were finally the equals of their Southern counterparts. Following Brandy Station and reports of Lee's march north, Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker, commanding the Army of the Potomac, began moving in pursuit. Staying between the Confederates and Washington, Hooker pressed north as Lee's men entered Pennsylvania. As both armies advanced, Stuart was given permission to take his cavalry on a ride around the eastern flank of the Union army. This raid deprived Lee of his scouting forces through the first two days of the upcoming battle. On June 28, after an argument with Lincoln, Hooker was relieved and replaced by Maj. Gen. George G. Meade. A Pennsylvanian, Meade continued moving the army north to intercept Lee.

Gettysburg: The Armies Approach

On June 29, with his army strung out in an arc from the Susquehanna to Chambersburg, Lee ordered his troops to concentrate at Cashtown, PA after hearing reports that Meade had crossed the Potomac. The next day, Confederate Brig. Gen. James Pettigrew observed Union cavalry under Brig. Gen. John Buford entering the town of Gettysburg to the southeast. He reported this to his division and corps commanders, Maj. Gen. Harry Heth and A.P. Hill, and, despite Lee's orders to avoid a major engagement until the army was concentrated, the three planned a reconnaissance in force for the next day.

Gettysburg: First Day - McPherson's Ridge

Upon arriving in Gettysburg, Buford realized that the high ground south of the town would be critical in any battle fought in the area. Knowing that any combat involving his division would be a delaying action, he posted his troopers on the low ridges north and northwest of town with the goal of buying time for the army to come up and occupy the heights. On the morning of July 1, Heth's division advanced down the Cashtown Pike and encountered Buford's men around 7:30. Over the next two and half hours, Heth slowly pushed the cavalrymen back to McPherson's Ridge. At 10:20, the lead elements of the Maj. Gen. John Reynolds' I Corps arrived to reinforce Buford. Shortly thereafter, while directing his troops, Reynolds was shot and killed. Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday assumed command and the I Corps repulsed Heth's attacks and inflicted heavy casualties.

Gettysburg: First Day - XI Corps & the Union Collapse

While fighting was raging northwest of Gettysburg, Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard's Union XI Corps was deploying north of town. Composed largely of German immigrants, the XI Corps had recently been routed at Chancellorsville. Covering a broad front, the XI Corps came under attack by Ewell's corps advancing south from Carlisle, PA. Quickly flanked, the XI Corps line began to crumble, with the troops racing back through town towards Cemetery Hill. This retreat forced the I Corps, which was outnumbered and executing a fighting withdrawal to quicken its pace. As fighting ended on the first day, Union troops had fallen back and established a new line centered on Cemetery Hill and running south down Cemetery Ridge and east to Culp's Hill. The Confederates occupied Seminary Ridge, opposite Cemetery Ridge, and the town of Gettysburg.

Gettysburg: Second Day - Plans

During the night, Meade arrived with the majority of the Army of the Potomac. After reinforcing the existing line, Meade extended it south along the ridge for two miles terminating at the base of a hill known as Little Round Top. Lee's plan for the second day was for Longstreet's corps to move south and attack and flank the Union left. This was to be supported by demonstrations against Cemetery and Culp's Hills. Lacking cavalry to scout the battlefield, Lee was unaware that Meade had extended his line south and that Longstreet would be attacking into Union troops rather than marching around their flank.

Gettysburg: Second Day - Longstreet Attacks

Longstreet's corps did not begin their attack until 4:00 PM, due to the need to countermarch north after being sighted by a Union signal station. Facing him was the Union III Corps commanded by Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles. Unhappy with his position on Cemetery Ridge, Sickles had advanced his men, without orders, to slightly higher ground near a peach orchard approximately half a mile from the main Union line with his left anchored on a rocky area in front of Little Round Top known as Devil's Den.

As Longstreet's attack slammed into the III Corps, Meade was forced to send the entire V Corps, most of the XII Corps, and elements of the VI and II Corps to rescue the situation. Driving the Union troops back, bloody fights occurred in the Wheat Field and in the "Valley of Death," before the front stabilized along Cemetery Ridge. At the extreme end of the Union left, the 20th Maine, under Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain, successfully defended the heights of Little Round Top along with the other regiments of Col. Strong Vincent's brigade. Through the evening, fighting continued near Cemetery Hill and around Culp's Hill.

Previous: War in the West, 1861-1863 | Civil War 101 | Next: War in the West, 1863-1865
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