Gettysburg Battle Summary
Battle of Gettysburg Timeline / Gettysburg Battle
The Gettysburg battle summary provides a brief overview of what transpired between July 1-3, 1863. It is tough to summarize the Gettysburg battle as it covered three hard-fought days though we will make a concerted effort to do so. For a more detailed look at the battle please view the Battle of Gettysburg timeline.
Gettysburg Battle Summary - July 1, 1863
The Battle of Gettysburg begun in the early morning hours of July 1, 1863 as Union General John Buford stood to defend the high ground around Gettysburg with his small cavalry division. The Confederates advanced on the town with multiple divisions and believing that they were facing only local militia, attempted to push them aside.
By the time the Confederates under Major General Henry Heth realized they were tangling with a battle-hardened cavalry division, they were already fully-engaged and decided to pressure the Union defenses with superior numbers.
The Union cavalry put up a good fight and were able to hold the high-ground until General John Reynolds arrived with I Corps. As General Reynolds was the highest-ranking general on the field, he took command of all Union forces. As he was positioning the Iron Brigade into defensive positions west of town, he was struck by a Confederate bullet and killed instantly.
The Confederates also started attacking from the north and the Union forces who were still outnumbered, were forced to shift some troops there to defend. Eventually the Union forces were overwhelmed west and north of town and forced into a haphazard retreat toward Cemetery Ridge.
Commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, General George Meade had not yet reached the battlefield so after Reynolds’ death, he appointed General Winfield Scott Hancock in charge of the Union troops. Hancock was not the highest-ranking general on the field however, and this caused some confusion and ill-feelings. Nonetheless the Union command began working together as strong defensive positions were taken to the south of town on Cemetery Hill.
As the Union troops arrived on the field, Hancock would tell them where to defend and before too long, strong defensive positions were maintained utilizing both troops and artillery.
Confederate General Richard S. Ewell who had attacked from the north was now in field command with General Robert E. Lee not having reached the field. Lee gave Ewell the decision to attack the hill “if practicable". After carefully weighing factors including troop strength, time of day and enemy troop strength, he decided not to attack and this ended the fighting on Gettysburg day 1. More of the Gettysburg Battle summary will be continued on Gettysburg day 2.
Gettysburg Battle Summary - July 2, 1863
On the second morning of battle, the Union troops sat entrenched on the hills of Gettysburg due south of town. Their lines were in the shape of a fishhook and they were content to stay where they were.
After considering his situation, General Lee decided on a frontal attack of the Union positions against the advice of his closest advisors. General James Longstreet suggested they withdraw from the field and head toward Washington as the Union army would be forced to pursue, and they could fight them on the ground of their choosing.
General Lee was determined the fight the enemy where they stood so he ordered General Longstreet to carry out the attack. The attack was delayed in order to ensure the Confederate troop movements were masked so a longer route had to be taken to get into position.
It was 4pm before the attacks began and the fighting quickly became fierce and bloody. The Confederates coordinated an en echelon attack which started on the Union left and would continue toward the center and eventually the right.
Fighting was fierce at places like Devil's Den, The Wheatfield, and the Peach Orchard. The salient created when General Daniel Sickles, without authorization moved his corps forward folded under the pressure form the attacking Confederates under General John Bell Hood. General George Meade realized the danger on his left and sent reinforcements form the Union center and right to aid the beleaguered Sickles.
The 20th Maine, made famous by the book “The Killer Angels” and later the movie Gettysburg held the Union left under relentless Confederate attacks and help thwart their attack.
Later in the day, Confederate General Richard Ewell who had only been demonstrating on the Union right to keep the Union forces guessing, mounted a frontal assault on Culp’s Hill at close to 7pm that evening.
The hill was defended by just a handful of troops under Union General George Sears Greene who had his men building defensive breastworks the entire day and because of this, they were able to repulse attack-after-attack by the determined Confederates. Because Meade needed to send reinforcements from this position to the Union left, they were seriously thin on the right and the Confederates were trying to exploit it.
The fighting subsided at close to midnight and the Confederates retreated to the lower breastworks on Culp’s Hill having paid a heavy price in losses for little ground gained. This ended the fighting on Gettysburg day 2. More of the Gettysburg Battle summary will be continued on Gettysburg day 3.
Gettysburg Battle Summary - July 3, 1863
To continue the Gettysburg battle summary, the fighting resumed at 4am that morning when the Union troops counter-attacked on Culp’s Hill. They started with an artillery barrage then sent in troops that had come back to reinforce the Union right. After 6 hours of fierce fighting, the Confederates were pushed back to their original positions from the day before.
This unexpected attack altered Lee’s battle plans on this day as he had originally planned an assault similar to that on day 2. After careful consideration, Lee planned a frontal assault of close to 12,000 troops on the Union center.
It was a grand plan but again, General Longstreet did not agree it was a good plan. He tried to talk Lee out of it but he insisted the attack would go on as planned. He felt the Union army had to be weak in the center considering their strength on the flanks.
At approximately 1pm the Confederates opened up with a barrage from 150 cannon to soften up the Union defenses prior to the assault. The aim was to knock out as many Union artillery pieces as possible as the infantry could not cross that 1 mile stretch of field under constant long-range fire.
After a few hours of both armies trading artillery fire and with the Confederates running low on shells, Longstreet reluctantly gave the order for the infantry assault to proceed. The Confederates, 12,000 strong stepped out of the woods and into history to begin the assault that would thereafter be known as Pickett’s Charge.
The Confederate ranks, nearly one-mile wide, were to converge on the center of the Union line at the Copse of Trees after exercising a series of obliques to get their forces concentrated in the center.
Confederate troops were under constant artillery fire which ripped ghastly holes in their ranks. Fences made the advance even more cumbersome as infantry had to climb over and through them breaking up the ranks even further.
As the Confederates converged toward the center they came within range of the Union infantry who were ducking behind a stonewall for cover. The first volleys were catastrophic as thousands of Confederate soldiers fell wounded and dying.
By the time the Confederates reached the wall their ranks were absolutely devastated. Confederate General Lewis Armistead stuck his hat on his sword and urged his men over the wall. Armistead's men were able to breach the wall at "The Angle" and this was considered the "High Watermark of the Confederacy."
Quickly Union reinforcements beat the Confederates back into a hasty retreat and this effectively ended the Battle of Gettysburg. The Confederates had been dealt a crushing defeat and two days later they would retreat back to Virginia, never to invade the north again.
This concludes the Gettysburg battle summary. For a more detailed account of the battle, please visit the Battle of Gettysburg page and explore the relevant links.
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