Battle of Gettysburg
July 1-3, 1863
Cemetery Ridge seen from the origin point of Pickett’s Charge.
In the summer of 1863, General Robert E. Lee, feeling invincible after a series of decisive victories in Virginia, led his Army of Northern Virginia into Pennsylvania, their second invasionof the North. Lee’s plan was to upset the Union's own offensive campaigns, including the siege of Vicksburg, Mississippi, and to feed off the bounty of the rich northern farmlands. At the same time, the Confederates would threaten Philadelphia, Baltimore and Washington, encouraging the growing movement for peace in the North.
Prodded by President Abraham Lincoln, Maj. General Joseph Hooker moved his Army of the Potomac in pursuit of Lee, but was relieved of command at the end of June. Hooker'ssuccessor, Maj. General George Gordon Meade led the Union troops northward, keeping his army between the Confederates and Washington. When Lee learned that Meade had moved into Pennsylvania, he concentrated his army around Gettysburg, an important crossroads town southwest of Harrisburg. Both armies knew that a great confrontation lay ahead.
On July 1st, Brig. General John Buford's 1st Division of the Cavalry Corps met the Confederates as they advanced towards the outskirts of town. Heavily outmanned, they were able to slow Lee's troops, allowing Union infantry to arrive, but ultimately the Northerners were forced to retreat to the south through town. The Confederates did not follow up, and by evening the Federal army had begun to establish fortified positions on the high ground along Cemetery Ridge. By morning, the Union forces, now more than 90,000 strong, formed a fishhook-shaped line from Culp's Hill on the right to Little Round Top on the left.
Lee's 70,000 Confederate soldiers wrapped their line around the Union position less than a mile away, along Seminary Ridge. On the afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Devil's Den, Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard and Cemetery Ridge. On the Union right, demonstrations escalated into full-scale Confederate assaults on Culp's Hill and East Cemetery Hill. Although the Southerners gained some ground, the Union defenders still held strong positions at the end of the day.
On the afternoon of July 3rd, General Lee ordered a final all-out assault on the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge. After an artillery barrage lasting several hours, more than 12,000 Confederate soldiers, led by Maj. General George Pickett’s division of Virginians, emerged from the tree line on Seminary Ridge and began their 3/4-mile march, uphill and without cover, towards the Union entrenchments. The assault, later known as Pickett's Charge, would mark the ‘Highpoint of the Confederacy’, the furthest north the Confederate troops would reach during the Civil War. However, with more than 50 percent casualties, the assault was a disastrous defeat. Lee was heard to say, over and over, as his men returned from the field, 'It's all my fault. I've asked too much of you.'
The Confederates retreated to a defensive position on Seminary Ridge that evening, and remained there through a steady downpour on July 4th staring at the enemy still on Cemetery Ridge, awaiting attack. Much to President Lincoln’s dismay, and despite having fresh troops, Meade did not go on the offensive, letting Lee’s wounded army slip across the Potomac River thatevening. It was the mostly costly battle in American history, with as many as 51,000 soldiers killed, wounded, captured or missing during the three days at Gettysburg. It would also be Lee’s last campaign into Union territory.