Wednesday, July 03, 2013

The Battle of Gettysburg - 150 Years ago today: Day 3

On this day 150 years ago, July 3, 1863, the grand and horrific finale of the Battle of Gettysburg would take place during the early afternoon.

After almost collapsing the flanks of the Union Army during the previous day's fighting, Confederate General Lee was convinced that reinforcement of the Union flanks had most likely left vulnerable the center of their defensive line.  Lee instructed his subordinate, General James Longstreet, to plan an attack on the Union center.  Longstreet chose a prolific copse of trees as the focal point of the planned assault, and determined that because the attacking infantry troops would be required to march almost a mile across an open exposed field on the way to the Union lines, a significant artillery barrage would be necessary to soften up the Union position prior to sending in the infantry.

At or about 1 in the afternoon, over 150 Confederate cannons opened up on the Union center, and would continue their rate of fire for almost 2 hours.  The cannonade was easily the largest of the war, and could be heard in Washington D.C., 80 miles away.  Unfortunately, the Confederates could not see that many of their shots were flying over the heads of the Union infantry, and were often exploding behind them.

At or about 3 in the afternoon, the Confederate artillery barrage ceased, and emerging from the woods on Seminary Ridge as if on parade were between 12,000 and 15,000 Confederate soldiers.  The front of their lines of attack extended almost a mile from north to south.  As the smoke of the Confederate cannonade blew away, it acted as a drawn curtain, revealing to the waiting Union troops a sight that was at once both magnificent and absolutely terrifying.

The Confederate troops began their march - known today as Pickett's Charge - across the almost mile-wide open field toward the Union center, and when they were within range, began to be mowed down by long-range shot and shell from Union cannons that had been largely untouched by the 2-hour Confederate cannonade.  When the Confederates were within 300 yards, the Union infantry rose from behind a low stone wall and began pouring volley after volley of musket fire into the Confederate ranks.  When the the Confederates were within 200 to 100 yards, the Union artillery opened up with canister rounds, which turn the cannons into giant shotguns.  When these were fired, a Union soldier reported a massive, collective groan emanating from the Confederate ranks, along with a roiling cloud of dust from which flew knapsacks, limbs, and heads.

Finally, about 300 Virginians under the command of Brigadier General Lewis Armistead made it to the Union  stone wall, but every one of them was either killed (including Armistead) or captured.  The rest of the Confederate participants of Pickett's Charge walked, limped, or crawled back to their position on Seminary Ridge.

General Lee, upon observing the assault's failure, told anyone who would listen, "This is all my fault!"

The casualty figures commonly accepted for the Battle of Gettysburg were:

Union: 23,000 casualties, including 3,155 killed
Confederate: 28,000 casualties, including 4,708 killed

Recent research has found that those numbers of killed merely represented the number of dead on the battlefield.  What was never taken into account were the thousands of wounded who made it off the battlefield but died shortly after, along with many of those designated as "missing" who were actually killed in the battle.

When these additional deaths are taken into account, the actual number of Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettyburg is closer to 5,300, and the Confederate dead was more likely upwards of 5,800.

The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee was badly mauled at the Batle of Gettyburg, but they were by no means knocked out of the War... not by a longshot.  The War would go on for almost 2 more bloody years, and the Army of Northern Virginia would continue to engage the Union Army at such places as The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.

Tuesday, July 02, 2013

The Battle of Gettysburg - 150 Years ago today: Day 2

On this day 150 years ago, July 2, 1863, the battle that everyone expected to happen was slow to get going.  Neither side had been prepared for the battle to happen at Gettysburg, so much of July 2nd was spent getting soldiers into position - especially for the Confederates, who intended to attack the Union line to their east.

Finally, at around 4:30 in the afternoon, a massive assault began, as the Confederates essentially attacked the entire Union line all at once, with the heaviest fighting taking place on the Union left, which was the southern end of the battlefield.  This day would immortalize such places as Little Round Top, Devil's Den, The Wheat Field, The Peach Orchard, and the Valley of Death, along with such names as Joshua Chamberlain, Daniel Sickles, and James Longstreet.

At Little Round Top, the 20th Maine Regiment under the command of Colonel Joshua Chamberlain would hold off charge after charge of Confederates as these Maine fishermen and lumberjacks would fight until they ran out of ammunition, necessitating a bayonet charge that sent the attacking Confederates running and saving the extreme left flank of the Union line.  Closer to the center of the Union line, a Confederate brigade (about 3,000 men) broke through, and the only Union men available to stop them from bisecting the Union army were the 262 men of the 1st Minnesota Regiment.  When the 1st Minnesota's delaying action was complete, only 47 of them walked away from the engagement.

With the darkness came the end of fighting on that second day of the Battle of Gettysburg.  The Confederate assault had come thisclose to breaking the Union line, but at the end of the day, the battlefield arrangement was essentially the same as it had been at the beginning of the day.  With General Robert E. Lee noting that the attacks on the Union flanks were unsuccessful, he was convinced that attacking the center of the Union line the next day could decide the battle in favor of his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.  Lee's July 3rd attempt to take the Union center would set up what many believe to be the defining moment of the War for Southern Independence, better known as the U.S. Civil War.

Monday, July 01, 2013

The Battle of Gettysburg - 150 Years ago today: Day 1

On this day 150 years ago, July 1, 1863, the battle intensified throughout the day as corps after corps of Confederate troops poured into the area north and northwest of the town as they took on a cavalry division led by Union General John Buford; soon to be reinforced by two Union infantry corps.  Such battle landmarks as the Railroad Cut and McPherson's Woods became famous on this day.

As the day wore on, the Union troops began to lose ground, and in the late afternoon, were forced to retreat
through the town of Gettysburg and take up defensive positions south of the town.  The Union army anchored the right of their line on Culp's Hill, then the line extended just over two miles along Cemetery Ridge to the base of a small hill called Little Round Top.  The Confederates under General Lee took up a position along Seminary Ridge, which paralleled Cemetery Ridge about a mile to the west.

During the evening and throughout the night, thousands Union and Confederate soldiers converged on the ground south of Gettysburg as they prepared for what they knew would be a huge fight the next day.