In the summer of 1863 the South faced critical choices. Two years of bloody attrition were beginning to tell on both the Southern economy and populace. In the western theater the Confederacy had lost Tennessee, the southern half of Louisiana and parts of Mississippi. What was worse, the infant nation was about to be severed in two as Union armies besieged the last two bastions on the Mississippi River-Vicksburg and Port Hudson. If they fell. not only would the South lose 30.000 valuable troops,. but also the vast supplies of grain. cattle and horses in Texas and Arkansas would be lost to the war effort. Unquestionably, disaster loomed large in the west.
In the eastern theater, however, prospects were brighter for the Confederacy. Under the able leadership of Genera] Robert E. Lee, the Rebel Army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Union armies repeatedly, the latest victory being Chancellorsville in May. President Jefferson C. Davis now looked to Lee's army for the redemption of Confederate fortunes.
A number of plans were discussed by the Southern leaders in late May. All of them directed at striking an offensive blow to recoup Confederate losses. Generals Joseph E. Johnston and James Longstreet, the latter Lee's finest corps commander and right arm since the death of Stonewall Jackson at Chancellorsville, urged Davis to shift a portion of Lee's army to Tennessee, unite with General Bragg's Army of Tennessee, and attack to drive the Union forces back north across the Ohio River. Lee himself, however, felt that he could better serve the South's needs by invading the North and winning a decisive victory on Union soil. Davis agreed with Lee's proposals, and it was decided to move into Pennsylvania.
The first week in June found the Army of Northern Virginia concentrated around Culpepper, Virginia, preparing for the coming campaign. Troops were pulled from North Carolina to reinforce Lee, and the army was built to a strength of 75.000 men. In addition, Lee needed to re-organize his force in the wake of Jackson's death. The Rebel commander decided not to replace the lost general, choosing instead to alter his command structure from two army corps into three. Two of the armies best division commanders, Richard S. Ewell and A.P. Hill, were promoted to command the Second and Third Corps. respectively. Longstreet retained command of the First Corps. The army was now ready for the great offensive.
It was the Union Army of the Potomac which opened the campaign, however, as the Federal cavalry unexpectedly crossed the Rapidan River and attacked Stuart's horseman at the Battle of Brandy Station. The Rebel cavalry was in the process of preparing for a series of grand reviews when the Union combined infantry and cavalry force launched their surprise attack on the 9th of June. The battle was the largest mounted action of the war, with some 15.000 Union and Rebel troopers involved. It was an inconclusive affair, with Stuart driving off the Union forces. However, Stuart was harshly criticized for both his being surprised and his handling of the fight. Extremely sensitive, Stuart would be looking for ways to obliterate the stain in the upcoming campaign, a situation that he would eventually live to regret.
The middle of June saw the Rebel army on the move, as Lee sent Ewell's Corps into the Shenandohah Valley on a left hook into Pennsylvania. Longstreet followed, with A.P. Hill acting as rear guard at Culpepper. Lee's uneasiness about the performance of his new corps commanders was quickly laid to rest as both more than lived up to expectations. Ewell especially proved his ability, winning praise by capturing several thousand Federal troops at Winchester and by swinging quickly into the North. Certainly, he was filling Jackson's shoes admirably.
By the third week in June the Army of Northern Virginia was well inside Pennsylvania around Chambersburg with Ewell menacing the state capital of Harrisburg. The Union state and federal governments were in an uproar. The Rebel cavalry, however, had sown the seeds of disaster. Stuart, allowed considerable latitude in his orders to screen Lee's army, elected to take his three best brigades on a ride around the Army of the Potomac, an exploit he had pulled off successfully several times before. This time he made a mistake. He became entangled among the Lincoln columns headed north and was critically delayed. For ten crucial days, Stuart was completely out of contact with Lee, unable to provide his commander with valuable intelligence of the Union movements. Not until July 2nd did Stuart reach the army, after the battle had begun.
The intelligence Lee needed was significant. For the Union army was coming north. Seven infantry corps were marching with all possible speed to intercept Lee before he could threaten Washington or Baltimore. On June 27th. General Hooker was replaced, having lost President Lincoln's confidence after Chancellorsville. In the middle of the night, the Union 5th Corps commander, George Gordon Meade, was awakened and told he was the new army commander. Lincoln would brook no refusal. Meade immediately got to work, preparing for the fight of his career.
On the night of June 28th a spy in Longstreet's employ arrived at the Army of Northern Virginia's camps with news of the Union army and Hooker's replacement. Lee was doubtful of the spy, named Harrison, and was puzzled that Stuart had not relayed any of this information. Nevertheless, the commanding general could not risk inaction in the face of such news and ordered the army to concentrate prior to the coming fight. Gettysburg was chosen as the focal point.
Two days later. a brigade of Heth's Division (Hill's 3rd Corps) encountered what they thought were Federal militia outside of the town. In reality. these were two brigades of Buford's cavalry division. Heth wished to enter the town in search of a shoe factory, for the footwear of his men was in poor condition. He asked Hill if there was any objection to his taking his entire division back to the town. Hill answered that he had "none in the world." With that permission, Heth's two leading brigades, Archer and Davis, set off early on July 1st for Gettysburg. At 9:30 am., as the Rebels marched southeast along the Chambersburg Pike, they encountered Buford's Union cavalry screen at Willoughby's Run. The battle had opened.
Heth, still thinking that only militia stood in his way, attempted to push forward into the town without going through the lengthy procedure of deploying all his infantry for a full scale attack. Buford, with 1600 Union horsemen, easily repulsed this first attempt. In response, Heth placed both Archer and Davis in line and tried again. As Buford gave ground, the lead division of the Union 1st Corps, including the famed Iron Brigade of westerners, arrived to collide with and repulse the Rebels. Major General John F. Reynolds, commanding the 1st Corps, had hurried his troops forward at Buford's urging and now made a critical decision. Reynolds saw that the terrain southeast of the town was favorable to a defensive battle and elected to hold off the Confederates until the rest of the army could arrive. Reynolds was leading Meade's left wing, consisting of 1st, 3rd and 11th Corps. His choice committed the Union army to battle.
Heth, with two brigades badly mauled, (many troops from Archer's and Davis' brigades were captured, including ,Archer himself), committed all four of his brigades to a new effort. It too was repulsed, and Heth chose to wait for Pender's Division to renew the assault.
The rest of the morning saw a stalemate as both sides awaited reinforcements. Reynolds himself was killed by a bullet about 10 a.m.. but 0.0. Howard, the 11th corps commander, arrived to take command, and placed his corps on the Union right, along the north side of town.
The battle re-opened in the early afternoon as fresh Confederate forces arrived. In addition to Pender, two divisions from Ewell's Second Corps, Rodes and Early, arrived opposite the 11th Corps and attacked. With three fresh divisions attacking, the Confederates outflanked 11th Corps and the Federal troops fell back with heavy casualties. The 11th Corps was accused in later years of having been badly routed, as they had at Chancellorsville, but the truth of the matter was that they were simply overwhelmed by superior Confederate forces. Heavy losses in Rodes' and Early's 5 Divisions attested to the tenacity of the Federal fighting.
Lee himself arrived at about 3 p.m., concerned about engaging the Union army with most of his troops not yet on the field. The fact of the Rebel victory allayed his fears, and Lee urged his men to press on and make the success complete. It was now, however, that the first of many Rebel command problems arose. Lee expressed the desire to his staff for Ewell to seize Cemetery Hill, on which Union forces were reforming, with Rodes and Early. Lee never communicated this desire to Ewell, however, and the Second Corps commander, faced with Lee's earlier orders not to bring on a general battle and the heavy losses of his troops, elected not to attack. In addition. even though A.P. Hill had the only fresh troops on the field. Anderson's. Lee never ordered him to try attack.
There the day's fighting ended, with a Rebel success. Nevertheless, the Union army remained unbroken, and fresh troops were arriving to secure the Federal position. Lee now had to decide whether or not to renew the fight the next day, or maneuver in the face of Meade to strike at Washington or Baltimore. That night, the Confederate commander conferred with his subordinates, and chose to attack again on July 2nd. Longstreet, ever mindful of the superiority of the defense, urged a flank march to get between the Union army and its capitol, but Lee felt that such a move would be too dangerous, especially without Stuart's cavalry to screen the march.
On July 2nd. Lee decided that his next attack should be made with Longstreet's fresh corps against what he thought was the exposed Union left along the Emmittsburg Road. Ewell, holding the line near the Union positions of Cemetery and Culp's Hills, felt that the ground was too poor to make a successful attack, and Lee, after visiting with Ewell, concurred. Therefore, Longstreet was instructed to make a long concealed march around the Union flank and then attack northwards. Ewell was to wait for Longstreet's opening and then seize Cemetery Hill from a weakened Union line.
Longstreet had only two divisions with him, Hood and McClaws. Pickett was still at Chambersburg guarding trains. I addition, one of Hood's brigades, Law's, was also not present and Longstreet wished to wait until Law was up to make his march. Lee agreed, and so Longstreet did not get started until after noon. The route of the march had been improperly scouted, and at one point it became apparent that Union signalers atop Little Round Top would spot the column. The troops had to retrace their steps and seek an alternate way. These repeated delays burned up valuable hours of daylight. It was not until after 3:00 in the afternoon that the Rebels were approaching their attack positions. Then Longstreet and Hood made a startling discovery. The Union line Longstreet had been instructed to attack was not at all where he and Lee had expected it to be. Union troops held positions much further south than the Rebels had believed and about a mile further west out from Cemetery Ridge. At the last second, Lee and Longstreet were forced to modify the attack plan. Hood urged a tactical move around the Round Tops to take the Union troops in the rear, but Longstreet overruled it on the grounds that the extra delay was unacceptable. Certainly, such a move could not be accomplished before dark, precluding any attack that day.
Meanwhile, Meade and his generals were preparing for the Rebel attack. Meade elected not to attack on the 2nd, instead waited for Lee's expected assault By midday, all of the Union army except the 6th Corps was present.
As the Federals waited, however, Daniel Sickles, the 3rd Corps commander, became impatient. His part of the line along Cemetery Ridge was lower than the rest and was dominated by another ridgeline located about a mile to his front. Sickles was a friend of Hooker and had no faith in Meade, so he decided unilatteraly to move his troops forward without awaiting Meade's approval. The terrain he occupied did have its merits but was too far forward to be supported by rest of the Union army on Cemetery Ridge. Meade was furious when he discovered Sickle's advance, but before anything could be done to rectify' the situation, Longstreet struck.
Between 4 and 6 p.m. - one of the fiercest battles of the war raged on that flank. Eleven Rebel and Twenty-two Union brigades fought a seesaw battle through the Wheatfield, Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, and to the crest of Little Round Top. The Union troops, committed piecemeal due to the forward position of Sickles' Corps, managed to hold on to Little Round Top and to preserve the Federal Line along Cemetery Ridge, but at heavy costs. By the end of the action. 8,000 Union and 6,000 Confederate troops, were casualties. Brigade and regimental officer losses were extremely heavy on both sides, and by the end of the battle both sides were badly disorganized.
Towards the end of the action on the south flank, Ewell launched an abortive evening assault on the Union Cemetery Hill position. After some fierce fighting, Ewell's Corps was repulsed. The day ended with Rebel failures on both flanks, Lee was gravely disappointed and was forced 10 make another decision about the course of the battle.
The second day's fighting yielded to the South nothing but frustration. Lee, however, was convinced that the Union army was perched on the brink of collapse. needing only one last push to disintegrate into a routed mass. He chose to gamble all on one mighty blow at Meade's center with his last unscathed division, Pickett's. As Pickett was in Longstreet's Corps, Lee chose him to coordinate the attack. Longstreet was strongly opposed to the assault, believing it to be a futile waste of life. Events would bear out this belief.
In addition to Pickett, two divisions from A.P. Hill's Corps, Heth and Pender, were chosen to make the attack. The latter two commands were unengaged on July 2nd after the bloodletting the day before, and were fresher than the rest of Longstreet's Corps. The remaining division of Hill's Corps, Anderson's, was to support the attack column with two brigades, primarily to cover Pickett's right flank.
Finally, Lee decided that a mass artillery bombardment would shatter Meade's lines before the infantry closed. Over 100 cannon from all three corps were positioned for the preparatory fires, all under the control of Longstreet's artillery officer, Col. E.P. Alexander.
Longstreet, with all his arguments rejected by Lee, readied the attack. The preparatory bombardment lasted almost 90 minutes. Unfortunately for the Rebel gunners, the distance and the smoke raised by so many cannon obscured the Union line. The barrage later proved to be almost completely ineffective in smashing the Union lines. Two Federal batteries were badly mauled at the focal point of the impending attack, but were replaced by reserves almost immediately. The Rebel infantry would have to do the job Lee expected of them alone. When the Rebel infantry emerged from the woods on Seminary Ridge, they had almost a mile of open fields to cross before reaching the Union line, Federal cannon tore into them at once, inflicting casualties from the start. The Confederates closed into a massive assault column, a perfect target for the Union infantry,' and artillery - especially when the Rebels were within canister range.
Despite a valiant effort, with some of the Picket's Troops actually breaching the Federal line, the results were all that Longstreet had foreseen, Picket's Division was all but destroyed with almost 60% casualties. Lee, as he met the returning survivors of the grand attack, exclaimed in an anguished voice, "Too bad, Oh, too bad!" In his report, Lee assumed full responsibility for the fiasco. It was a grim day for Southern hopes.
On July 4th, Vicksburg surrendered to Grant and Lee held his ground. He hoped to redeem his fortunes by provoking Meade to attack. Meade, with his 0's-n army hard hit by heavy losses and the loss of many aggressive leaders - including three of seven corps commanders, did not take the bait. That afternoon, in the midst of heavy rain, Lee withdrew, preceded by his 20 mile long train of wounded. Meade followed but did not interfere with the Rebel retreat to Virginia