After his sound defeat of the Union army at Chancellorsville, Confederate general Robert E. Lee decided that the time was ripe for an invasion of the Union. On June 3, 1863, he began moving his Army of Northern Virginia, numbering 75,000 battle-seasoned veterans, through the Shenandoah Valley (the “breadbasket of the South”) into Maryland and Pennsylvania. The Union Army of the Potomac, under command of Joseph Hooker, still smarting under it’s defeat, moved cautiously northward, following the Confederate Army while keeping between Lee and Washington D.C. Lee had ordered his flamboyant cavalry commander, J. E. B. Stuart, to keep him informed about the Federal army’s whereabouts. However, after a showdown against Union cavalry at Brandy Station, Stuart decided to make yet another ride around the Union army. This move left Lee “blind” as he moved further into Pennsylvania. After Lee learned of Hooker’s replacement by corps commander George Gordon Meade on June 28, he began concentrating his army. All his men began moving towards the road hub of Gettysburg. Meade also moved his men towards this hub, and thus the stage was set for a showdown of giants.
After hearing about a supply of shoes to be found at Gettysburg, Confederate divisional commander Heth (part of Hill’s III Corps) decided to probe towards the town from the northwest. On the morning of July 1, 1863, the brigades of Archer and Davis encountered the Union cavalry division commanded by Buford. After some skirmishing, the cavalry formed lines atop McPhersons Hill. Buford realized that he would have to hold the high ground southeast of Gettysburg, and, seeing that the Federal I Corps (commanded by John Reynolds) would arrive soon to support him, he formed a defensive line. Archer and Davis formed to attack the Federals, but were driven back at the timely arrival of Cutler’s brigade and the famous Iron Brigade. The other two brigades under Heth, Pettigrew’s and Brockenbroughs, failed to initially dislodge the Federals. In this fighting, a Confederate sharpshooter killed Reynolds, who’s corps was taken over by Abner Doubleday (who had, 1835, invented what is known today as baseball. However, Archer was captured in the railway gap with some of his brigade. He was the first Confederate general to be captured in the entire war. Heth entrenched on Herr Ridge, opposite the Federals, and awaited developments. Soon after noon, Rodes’ division of the Confederate II Corps marched down from the north and found the Union flank unprotected. He assaulted it and then was supported by Early’s division coming south also. Another Confederate division arrived, Pender’s, which, along with the other Confederates, began to drive the Union (now consisting of Doubleday’s I Corps and Howard’s XI Corps) back. By day’s end, the Federals had routed through the town to Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill south of Gettysburg, where they reformed and entrenched. Ewell was suggested by Lee to attack Culp’s Hill, but did not. Throughout the whole day, the Confederate generals on the field had acted with extreme caution because they knew Lee had not wanted to fight this battle.
During the night, reinforcements arrived for both sides. On the Confederate side, only 1 of 9 divisions (Pickett’s ill-starred division) was not present yet. Newly arrived Union troops stretched the line from Culp’s and Cemetery Hills through Cemetery Ridge down to the two Round Tops. At dawn, Lee ordered Longstreet to march south and assault these hills.
The march took until 4 P. M., especially because Longstreet had to make a counter-march to avoid being detected (he was, despite this.) At 4 P. M., he formed the divisions of Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood to attack. Hood would form the extreme Confederate flank. By extreme incompetence, the Union commander of the flank, III Corps commander Dan Sickles, decided to place his entire corps on a peach orchard almost a mile in front of the rest of the line. McLaws and then Hood smashed into Sickles with devastating effect. Meade sent his V Corps (his own former corps, now commanded by Sykes) to reinforce Sickles, but Longstreet broke through and drove right to the base of the Round Tops in some of the fiercest fighting of the war. Longstreet’s men attacked through such places as the peach orchard, the devil’s den, Weikart Woods, and the wheatfield to reach the Round Tops. This is where Joshua Chamberlain led his 20th Maine Regiment on a downhill bayonet charge that saved Little Round Top. He was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for his conduct at this battle, and finished the war as the division commander who formally received the Confederate surrender at Appomattox.
On the extreme Confederate left was the division of Johnson (in Ewell’s II Corps). His division attacked Culp’s Hill, but only secured a precarious lodgement. As dusk approached, Ewell sent Hays and Avery’s brigades on an assault on Cemetery Hill. They gained the crest, but were forced off after darkness fell. Hill’s III Corps was also not inactive. One solo brigade under Wright gained Cemetery Ridge, which was to be the target of Pickett’s charge the next day. He was unsupported, however, and also was forced to retreat. Lee’s army had pushed back both Union flanks, and Lee was confident. He would order a crushing blow at the Union center on the third day.
Pickett’s division would lead this attack. His division was the only division that had not fought in the first two days of battle, and so rightly should attack. Lee determined that he would be joined by the divisions of Pettigrew (Heth had been wounded) and Trimble (Pender had also been wounded.) Elements of Anderson’s division would support the flanks. Lee’s decision to attack the center was bolstered as Johnson was forced off Culp’s Hill that morning.
At 1 P.M. in the afternoon, E.P. Alexander commenced a massive bombardment of the Union center, commanded by Hancock of the Federal II Corps. Union artillery answered back, then fell silent to conserve ammo for the coming attack. Alexander passed word to Longstreet to hurry and press the attack. Pickett asked Longstreet for permission to advance. Longstreet didn’t answer, but only bowed his head. Pickett understood this as a yes, and marched forward.
Even though the Confederate brigade commanders had been advised to go on foot (to make smaller targets), Garnett of Pickett’s division had been accused by the dead Jackson earlier for cowardice. He insisted on going on horseback, and was shot down before the Confederates reached Union lines. Lewis Armistead, a good friend of the Union general Hancock’s, placed his hat on his sword as a beacon as he led the attack towards the clump of trees atop the ridge. He died with his hand on a Union cannon inside the Angle in the stone wall atop Cemetery Ridge. Of the 13 colonels in the 3 brigades of Pickett’s division, all were killed or wounded. The Confederate attack of 12,000 men was devastated. Only half returned, in a shambled state, to Seminary Ridge, where the Confederate lines were. Lee met these with his words, “It is all my fault.” When Lee ordered Pickett to re-form his men, Pickett cried, “I have no division now.”
The next day, July 4, 1863, was rainy. The two armies simply stared at each other across the lines. That night, Lee began his withdrawal. He had lost a third of his army in the battle, and it would never be the same after. Longstreet’s I Corps would only have 2 divisions instead of 3, after the destruction of Pickett. Lee’s army withdrew into Virginia, leaving behind 28,000 casualties. Meade lost about 24,000 men. Lee submitted his resignation to Jefferson Davis, who refused it. Longstreet also wanted to resign, saying that he thought the South could no longer win the war (he was dissuaded by Lee.) In all, this second invasion of the North (the first culminated at Antietam) ended in a failure.