This report was written for my English 11 class at Coatesville Area Senior High.
“The accidents of history give the nobility to the commonest of men and turn rude country crossroads into names that echo through the ages.” (1) With a new commander, Major General George Meade, in charge of the Union army, General Robert E. Lee felt as though he could easily outmaneuver this commander. As was with all the other Union generals, they were slow to command and easily crushed. Lee could not be more wrong. In only two days, Meade’s army caught up very quickly to Lee’s and was right on his tail. Fate, however, landed the two bruised and battered armies into a little town that would forever be changed. “His [Lee] temperament, his belief his troops were invincible, army tradition, and military concepts shapes the general’s conduct and decisions from the time he reached Gettysburg.” (2) The two armies converged at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania where the Union won the Battle of Gettysburg not because of their strategies, but because of the mistakes of the Confederates.
“Lee’s army was being drawn into battle led by its weakest infantry division, a patchwork organization with inexperienced officers in key commands.” (3) In what only started out as a rummaging for shoes, the first day’s battle began. A small division of the Confederate army, led by General Henry Heth, plowed into a battle that would forever change the course of the war.
Being greatly outnumbered, Union General John Buford fought with his brigades of dismounted cavalry to try and slow Heth’s advance, long enough for General John F. Reynolds to arrive with his I Corps. When Reynolds arrived, he assessed the area surrounding the town of Gettysburg and knew that this place was critical to the Union position. While leading his troops into battle, Reynolds was struck in the back of the head by a stray bullet and died in his saddle. With this disarray in the Union lines, and two more Confederate forces running into the battle, the Confederates could now surely overthrow the Union. (4)
Once the Union began their retreat through the town of Gettysburg, their ranks broke up. People and animals blocked the streets, adding even more chaos to the already dazed Union army. When the Union reached Cemetery Hill, however, they were surprised to find a fresh new brigade already setting up a line of defense under the command of the “superb” General Winfield Scott Hancock. Hancock had specific orders from Meade to take command of the scene. (5)
Lee was weary of any more engagements in the area before he could have secure information on the enemy’s whereabouts. Unfortunately for Lee, it would never arrive in time. The cavalry commander, General J.E.B. Stuart, had not been heard from since the campaign began in June. Without Stuart, Lee was left to fight this battle blind. In the last attempt of the day, Lee requested that Lieutenant General Richard Ewell drive the Union off Cemetery Hill. Instead, Ewell did not do as requested. He felt that he could not achieve this and did not even try. With the Union still battered, Ewell could have pushed off the forces on Cemetery Hill, but left them to dig in overnight to build up a strong defense in the morning. (6)
On the second day, Meade’s plan was to shape the lines into a fish hook with Henry Slocum’s Corps on Culp’s Hill, Oliver Howard’s Corps stretching between Culp’s and Cemetery Hill, Hancock’s Corps along Cemetery Ridge, and Daniel Sickles’ Corps connecting onto Hancock’s and down to the Round Tops. Sickles, on the other hand, did not follow Meade’s plan and set up his Corps about three-quarters of a mile beyond Hancock. He was positioned out towards the Peach Orchard and arched back to the Wheatfield. Meade did not realize this until it was too late. (7)
Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s Corps was slowly coming into Gettysburg and spread along Seminary Ridge. Major General A.P. Hill’s Corps was to position on the center of the ridge, stretching almost to the town. Finally, Ewell’s Corps connected onto Hill’s and swung around an arc parallel to Meade’s. (8)
Longstreet had been arguing with Lee all night and morning, trying to convince him not to fight there at Gettysburg. Lee did not listen. Lee explained that he wanted to “give battle now, while Meade’s army was incomplete.” (9) Lee’s plan was for Longstreet to attack Meade’s left, exactly where Sickles would place his Corps. Ewell will create a diversion by attacking Culp’s Hill and prevent the Union from sending reinforcements down to help Sickles. (10)
It has been said that since Longstreet did not want to fight, he purposely delayed the attack. Longstreet was not in position to fight until 4 p.m. When the attacks happened, however, it was devastating. Major General John Bell Hood recognized the importance of the little hill, known as Little Round Top, and focused on retrieving it. However, a brigade from George Sykes’ V Corps arrived and defended the position on Little Round Top just in time. The Confederate forces advanced several times, only to be brutally beaten down, and in the end, they could not take Little Round Top. Major General Lafayette McLaws hit the jutting angle of Sickles’ line in the Peach Orchard from two sides at once, with Longstreet’s cannons battering away at them the whole time. (11) Ultimately, in the end, the Confederates overtook the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield, but could not grasp the strategically important Little Round Top, which ultimately could have won them the battle. Nevertheless, even these mistakes could not have prepared the Confederacy for what was to be on the last day of battle.
On the last day, Lee was presented only two choices. Should he retreat and save his communication lines or should he make a last, desperate assault on the Union lines and hope to overthrow them? He chose to launch an attack directly at the center of Meade’s line, located on Cemetery Ridge, which he thought would be the weakest point. Moreover, he had good reason to. On the day before, his army attacked both wings of the enemy, so they would be the most enforced, leaving the center thin and vulnerable. Lee could not have been more mistaken. For in the center of the line were Hancock and his Corps, the strongest position of the Union army. (12)
Lee ordered the attack the following morning, leaving his “old war horse,” Longstreet, in command. Longstreet knew right away that this attack would fail. This was the last, desperate march to save the Confederates at the battle, but it would end as the bloodiest. Lee ordered the divisions of General Isaac Trimble, General James Pettigrew, and the flamboyant General George Pickett to be in the assault. A cannonade preceding the march would help to split the lines in the center. Then the march began.
The result of the charge was a disaster. “Advancing Confederate soldiers dropped like flies under the barrage of Union artillery and rifle fire.” (13) Men were dying everywhere. Cannons from the Union stripped away the Confederate lines before they even reached the fence at Emmitsburg Road. Once there, the Union opened fire and ultimately destroyed what few lines were left. Few men were able to reach the Union lines, but they were either shot or taken prisoner. Overall, the Confederate lines were destroyed. (14) When Lee asked Pickett to reform his men after the battle to prepare for a Union counterattack, Pickett responded: “General Lee, sir, I have no division.”
In the end, with all the mistakes of the Confederacy added together, the result ended in a Union victory. However, not many people realize it was these mistakes that caused the final outcome of the battle. Approximately 15,000 soldiers were killed at the battle. Many of them because of the mistakes that could have been prevented.
(1) Davis, 155; (2) Battle Chronicles, 69; (3) Battle Chronicles, 59; (4) Davis, 163; (5) Catton, 180; (6) Battle Chronicles, 68; (7) Davis, 167; (8) Davis, 168; (9) David, 168; (10) Clark, 34; (11) Davis, 170; (12) Clark 43; (13) Breen, 444; (14) Breen 444
Battle Chronicles of the Civil War, 1863. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1989.
Breen, T.H., Robert Divine, George Fredrickson, and R. Hal Williams. America Past and Present. 6th ed. New York: Addison-Wesley Educational Publishers Inc., 2003.
Catton, Bruce. Gettysburg: The Final Fury. Garden City: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1974.
Clark, Champ. Gettysburg: The Confederate High Tide. Alexandria: TIME-LIFE Books, 1985.
Davis, William. The Battlefields of the Civil War. New York: Smithmark Publishers Inc., 1991.