Gettysburg – July 2nd, 1863
“On the morning of July 2nd. 1863, General Robert E. Lee appeared to be on the crest of a wave. He had won a smashing victory, he had his army in hand now, and there was good reason to suppose that he would complete the triumph today. By nightfall Confederate independence might well be very near.” *
But something was distinctly different for General Lee and the Confederates on July 2nd. “For the first time in this war the Federal army–larger than the Army of Northern Virginia, as was always the case, was able to stand on the defensive on its own soil. Lee would have to force the fighting all the way.” *
During the evening and into the morning of the July 2nd arriving elements of the Union army began deploying on the edge of the town along Cemetery Ridge. The Federal battle line on Cemetery Ridge eventually resembled the shape of a fish hook. The Union defensive hook curled around Culp’s Hill continued around East Cemetery Hill, and proceeds with the shank running a mile or so along Cemetery Ridge stopping at two prominent rocky and wooded hills; Little Round Top and Big Round Top. (Map)
General Meade and the Union army proposed to sit tight in this formidable defensive position. Robert E. Lee and the Confederates would have to make the next move…
On the other side of the valley the Confederate commander was running out of options. “Lee could not stand his ground and wait for the Federals to attack; living off the country as it was, his army had to keep moving, and unless it went back to Virginia immediately, tactically admitting that the whole invasion had failed, it could not move until it had beaten the Army of the Potomac.” *
On Seminary Ridge that morning, seeing the Federal army entrenched, guns bristling from the heights around Gettysburg a mile or so away, Lee’s most trusted general, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, proposes to his commander a sweeping flanking movement; to disengage from Gettysburg and move the Confederate army between the Federals and Washington. This Longstreet believed would compel the Union army to follow and then Lee could find and then fight on ground of his own choosing.
General Lee’s answer looking over at Cemetery Ridge, “No. The enemy is there and I am going to fight him there.”
In Michael Shaara’s pulitzer prize winning novel, “Killer Angel’s”, Robert E. Lee conveys his hopes to Gen. Longstreet that Gettysburg will be the final, decisive, battle of the war. “Lee said, I pray it will all be over soon….Soldiering has one great trap. To be a good soldier you must love the army. But to be a good officer you must be willing to order the death of the thing you love. That is…a very hard thing to do. No other profession requires it. That is one reason why there are so very few good officers. Although there are many good men.” But Lee confesses to Longstreet that the cost of the war is not inexhaustible, it can not continue to go on and on. “The price gets ever higher….we are prepared to lose some of us…but never all of us. But that is the trap. You can hold nothing back when you attack. You must commit yourself totally……I want this to be the last battle.” **
“Lee outlined his battle plan for July 2nd without delay. He would strike at Meade’s flanks, trying to crush both ends on his line simultaneously. To be sure, the Federal position was powerful, but Lee’s army had the habit of victory…” *
Longstreet’s attack on July 2nd, ordered by Lee, would be fought over a landscape now famous for the intense struggle there. Innocuous names like, The Wheat Field, The Peach Orchard, the infamous Devil’s Den and “the two rocky hills”, Little and Big Round Top, became the epicenter of the fighting on July 2nd. Additional fighting in the late evening at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill made July 2nd. 1863 the bloodiest day in the three day struggle at Gettysburg.
But the “butcher’s bill” on July 2nd, at least somewhat, might have been avoided if Union Maj. Gen. Dan Sickles hadn’t disobeyed orders.
Standing on Cemetery Ridge in position with his III Corps, Sickles couldn’t help but notice that there was high ground in front of him, between his position and the enemy. Fearing the enemy might gain this high ground Sickles seeks out General Meade for permission to move his men foreword. Meade declines sighting the integrity of the Union battle line. Dan Sickles position ordered by the commanding general was to deploy along Cemetery Ridge and extend his line to the Round Tops.
Upon his return to his lines, disobeying direct orders, Maj. Gen. “Devil Dan” Sickles decides to make this foreword movement anyway moving his 10,000 strong Corps out into the farms and “high ground” that bordered the Emmittsburg Road in his front. Abandoning the Round Tops for this perceived higher ground put Sickles men more then a half mile from reinforcements and giant bulge in the Union line. (Map)
Meade was furious and rode out to see Sickles in person. As Gens. Meade and Sickles confer, Sickles suggesting he turn his men around and go back the way he came, the conversation is interrupted by the first Rebel cannon fire of the day. The signal guns portend General Longstreet’s coming attack. Dan Sickles had inadvertently positioned his men in the center of the enemy’s coming onslaught. To Sickles’ idea that he turn around and get his men back to Cemetery Ridge, as the shells came whistling in, Meade retorted, “I wish the hell you could but those people won’t let you.”
“Longstreet’s men struck this salient with tremendous power, breaking the defending Federals and threatening to destroy the entire Union Position…Longstreet was putting 12,000 to 14,000 men into action and he struck Dan Sickles’ corps with overwhelming force. The defects of Sickles’ chosen position were revealed at once, and many a good Union soldier paid with their lives for this general’s lack of battle savvy.” *
The Reenactment 2013
The reenactments of the fighting on day two at Gettysburg were stirring as thousands of reenactors took to the field to play out this 150 year old drama. The Bushey Farm, just south of Gettysburg, was the scene of the Blue & Grey Alliance reenactment in late June 2013. The huge farm contained various types of topography, open fields, wooded hills and period farm buildings with dirt roads snaking through the landscape.
The BGA organizers planned a four-hour continuos battle on day 2 at the Bushey Farm. Starting at the “Little Round Top” the fighting would then move on to the “Devil’s Den”, rolling into the “Wheatfield” and ending with a reenactment of the fighting at the “Peach Orchard”.
The wooded hills on the Bushey Farm served as “Little Round Top” for this scenario. The troops in blue lined the tops of the wooded hills and waited for the Confederate onslaught. As the Confederates approached and attacked up the hills, smoke filled the trees as the Union reenactors held back the Rebel attack. Seen from behind the Union lines, the silhouettes of the soldiers stood out amongst the trees highlighted by gun smoke; the Confederates a grey haze at the bottom of the hill.
This four hour battle required me to change film in the field between the clashes. Sitting in the shade, between the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard fights, I sat under a tree, took out my portable darkroom, and started to change film in the 90 degree heat. Changing film in that kind of heat can be challenging not including the ticks falling from the above trees and crawling on me while my hands were busy in the changing bag….
A wonderful and heart-wrenching occurrence happened during the “Wheat Field” scenario. As thousands of Union troops stood in battle lines, with their backs to the forest, delivering volley after volley at the Confederates across the way , all of a sudden, not ten feet from the smoke-swirling battle line, a baby deer jumps up! Sleeping in the field just feet from the smoking guns the deer sat still for the entire battle until the last moment. The deer stood frozen, shaking, looking at the impenetrable wall of blue in front. Darting back and forth, the deer, reluctant to run, exposed, into the open field, looked for an opening to escape to the woods behind the troops. The reenactors amazed at first quickly began to see the small tragedy unfolding in front of them. The reenactors began to yell, “make a hole, make a hole!”
The baby deer darting to and fro finally makes it safely into the woods. The moment recalled to me something the late Shelby Foote relates that happened in 1863 at Gettysburg. A Confederate trooper waiting to attack before Pickett’s Charge, observes a rabbit that jumps up and runs toward the rear. The trooper says, “I’d run too if I was an olde hare”……
I left the field halfway through the “Peach Orchard” fight and began to ascend the large hill on the Bushey Farm looking for another perspective on the ongoing battle. From above, looking down as thousands of reenactors moved in battle lines below, the vista from this perch gave me a 19th century illustrators view of a Civil War battle. The guns smoke boiled up from the fighting as I took in this scene from a 1/2 mile away. This four-hour battle scenario left me exhausted, and somewhat shell-shocked…
The Battlefield at Gettysburg
What actually transpired in the afternoon and evening of July 2nd. at Gettysburg in 1863, the Confederate attack on the Union left flank, with upwards of 14,000 Confederate attackers, was the Civil War at its bloodiest and most desperate.
For instance the attacks by Longstreet’s Alabamians on the Unions’ far left flank, the Confederates making repeated charges up the Round Tops. This fighting was made famous for the stand of the 20th Maine Regiment and their bayonet charge down Little Round Top ordered by Medal of Honor winner, the 20th Maine’s commanding officer, Col. Joshua Chamberlain.
But prior to the fierce fighting at the Round Tops, all afternoon, Longstreet’s forces had been smashing into Sickles’ positions at the Wheat Field and the Peach Orchard around the Sherfy Farm. These overwhelming Confederate attacks eventually beat back Sickles’ men but fierce exchanges of ground occurred and last minute arrivals with more willing Federals filling the gaps.
“…A Confederate charge was beaten back when Hancock called on one of the army’s best regiments, the 1st Minnesota, to make a counterattack all unsupported. This prevented a Confederate penetration that might have wrecked everything, but the 1st Minnesota was all but destroyed, losing more than 80 per cent of its men”. *
Fighting at the Devil’s Den, a prehistoric jumble of massive glacial boulders, became fierce as Federals hurried to reoccupy the ground after the Sickles debacle. Confederate General John Bell Hood’s division attacked as Union troops took up positions in the rocks at the Devil’s Den and along the Round Tops. Gen. Hood although grievously wounded in the attack, pushes his men on and eventually, and miraculously, the Confederates fight their way into the rocks at the Devil’s Den pushing the Federals from the position. Hood’s soldiers hold the Devil’s Den, using it as an effective sniping position and fortress, for the rest of the days’ battle.
Today, walking along the huge complex of boulders at the Devil’s Den, looking down into the crevices, deep “alleyways” down between the rocks, you can see and imagine hundreds of men crowding and seeking protection in these crevices as Union fire descended from the Round Tops.
The site of the now famous Alexander Gardner photo of the “Dead Rebel Sharpshooter” is still there at the Devil’s Den. The little nook between boulders, with the small neat rock wall merging the natural casement, still conceals a good sniping position. Standing in the “Sniper’s Den” one gets a clear, unobstructed view of the Union position on Little Round Top.
An excellent view of the Devil’s Den can be had from the bald summit of Little Round Top itself just a few hundred yards away. From here, as Union Gen. Warren quickly surmised and called for reinforcements on July 2nd 1863, nearly the entire battlefield can be viewed from Little Round Top. The Devils Den below, the Wheat Field and Peach Orchard beyond and in-between, the Valley of Death.
The view from Little Round Top today is beautiful, absolutely stunningly laid out before you with a wonderful variety of glacial rock formations, hills and wooded tracks interspersed with meadows, farm houses and fenced-in cultivated fields…..and hard to fathom the cataclysm that occurred here 150 years ago.
For example, the distance between the Devil’s Den and Little Round Top is quite close. In fact if you clap your hands at the Devils Den today you will hear three distinctive sound slap-backs. During the fighting on July 2nd, with Rebel guns in the Devils Den and Union artillery on the Little Round Top above exchanging salvoes, combined with the incessant volleys of musket fire, the concussive sound waves caused the soldiers ears to bleed.
During the late afternoon fighting, Dan Sickles has his leg blown off by a cannon ball near the Peach Orchard but General Meade has things in hand and saves the day by getting every soldier available to the crisis point at Gettysburg on July 2nd 1863.
Confederate artillery officer, Edward Porter Alexander, commanding the guns at Gettysburg on July 2nd, refers reverentially to Meade’s leadership during this afternoon fight when in his memoirs he writes, “Meade saw the danger, and with military foresight prepared to meet it with every available man. There was not during the war a finer example of efficient command than that displayed by Meade on this occasion.” ***
Attacks on the Union right flank at Culp’s Hill and East Cemetery Hill on July 2nd, were also conducted by the troops under Confederate General Ewell but these attacks were uncoordinated with the main Rebel assault and ultimately failed.
The Union positions at these salients were strong and reinforced so fighting petered out that day with thousands of casualties strewn across the fields of Gettysburg.
Longstreet said, “it was the best three hours fighting ever done by any troops on any battlefield”
On the evening of July 2nd, as Union soldiers reinforced their positions at Gettysburg, across the valley Robert E. Lee felt he had come very close to winning the fight that day. In fact, “by the narrowest of margin imaginable the Confederate attack was beaten off. Then additional Union troops were sent farther south to take possession of Big Round Top, and in the end a solid anchorage for his(meade’s) left. But as the Duke of Wellington remarked after the Battle of Waterloo, it had been a damned near thing.” *
That evening General Lee thought over his options and knew he had enough man power for one more fight. “Lee could not withdraw from this battle without admitting outright defeat, he could not simply hold his ground and wait for the Federals to come over to the offensive, and the armies were locked together too tightly to permit the kind of maneuver that Longstreet had called for. Lee was compelled to strike one more blow on July 3rd, and he had just strength enough for one more blow.” *
“And what nobody quite noticed at the time was that Robert E. Lee was fighting this battle in a manner unlike any he had followed before. His army had become a superb instrument for finding and exploiting enemy weak spots, and over and over again it had won battles against superior numbers by behaving in that way. Now, for the first time, it was hitting the enemies strong points; in effect, it was fighting Meade’s way, not Lee’s. Coming north of the Potomac, the Army of Northern Virginia had mislaid its old recipe for victory.” *
(*) Bruce Catton, “Gettysburg: The Final Fury”
(**) Michael Shaara, “The Killer Angels”
(***) Edward Porter Alexander, “Military Memoirs of a Confederate”