Cicil War Profiles: Gettysburg: A titanic struggle

Date Published: 
July 4, 2014

In the dead of night on June 28, 1863, Maj. James A. Hardie arrived at Frederick, Md., on a secret mission from Washington. Hardie awakened Maj. Gen. George G. Meade in his tent with the droll comment that he “had come to give [him] trouble.”

To his astonishment, Meade — who did not grasp the humor and thought he was being arrested — learned that President Abraham Lincoln had appointed him to replace Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade was unaware that Hooker had submitted his resignation the previous day because of a quarrelsome relationship with General in Chief Henry Halleck.

Meade’s first order of business was to gain control of his 95,000 troops and continue pursuit of Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, some 72,000 strong, that was invading the North. The situation was perilous, because the Rebels were deployed across Pennsylvania from Chambersburg to York and poised to capture Harrisburg (see Coastal Point, June 13, 20 and 27, 2014).

Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry — Lee’s eyes and ears — had become separated from the main army, causing Lee to be unaware that the Union army was on the march toward Pennsylvania. When a Rebel spy brought this timely information to Lee at Chambersburg on the 28th, however, he ordered his forces to concentrate “in the direction of Gettysburg.”

Gettysburg was a community in south-central Pennsylvania with an extensive road network that also attracted the Union army commander. On June 29, Meade, in his search for Lee, ordered Brig. Gen. John Buford’s cavalry to reconnoiter the Gettysburg area. Buford’s arrival there the next day surprised a Rebel regiment heading toward town, inducing it to retreat toward Cashtown.

On July 1, the Rebels sent a stronger force toward Gettysburg in search of supplies, and to determine the strength of its defenders. This ignited a firefight with Union cavalry and artillery deployed northwest of the town.

Although Lee wanted to avoid a general engagement until all his forces were up, the clash developed into a full-fledged battle as more units arrived. At the end of the day, the Confederates on the field outnumbered their opponents and gained a victory — the Northerners fleeing through Gettysburg onto Cemetery Hill south of town.

Deciding not to pursue the Yankees, the Rebels planned to strike the Union’s left flank the next day. The attack, delayed until late on July 2, encountered a strong force swelled by late arrivals. Although Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles’ unauthorized movement with his corps created a vulnerable salient in the Union line, Meade’s army stood firm against Lt. Gen. James Longstreet’s assault.

When darkness brought an end to the fighting, the Union commanders met and decided to remain in a defensive posture along Cemetery Ridge, rather than withdrawing to a predetermined location in Maryland.

They based this decision in part on a report about the enemy’s fitness from Meade’s intelligence staff: “Prisoners have been taken today and last evening from every brigade in Lee’s army excepting the … brigades in [Maj. Gen. George E.] Pickett’s division.”

Nonetheless, perceiving vulnerability in the Union defenses on the second day, Lee determined “the general plan [of attack] was unchanged” for July 3. Lee ordered an offensive directed at the left-center of the Union position, with a key role for Pickett’s fresh division.

An earth-shaking artillery bombardment of the Union lines around 1 p.m. on July 3 preceded a march across a mile-wide field by some 12,500 intrepid Rebel soldiers under the command of Pickett, Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble. Their burden, however, was heavier than they could bear, as Union firepower mowed them down like a scythe through a field of wheat.

The repulse of “Pickett’s Charge” signaled an end to the fighting at Gettysburg. That night, Lee planned a withdrawal from the battlefield and a long march back to Virginia. The three days at Gettysburg had cost him more than 23,000 casualties, while the Northern army’s losses were similar in number.

Meade, the victor in a titanic struggle against the South’s finest general, still had difficult choices to make. Lincoln expressed gratitude, along with further expectations: “Now, if General Meade can complete his work, so gloriously prosecuted thus far, by the literal or substantial destruction of Lee’s army, the rebellion will be over.”

Lincoln feared Lee would escape across the Potomac River uncontested. The focus was now on Meade, and his response to the assignment that loomed ahead.

(Note: Sources include War of the Rebellion Official Records and National Archives files.)

Bethany Beach resident Thomas J. Ryan is the author of “Essays on Delaware during the Civil War” (available at Bethany Beach Books or from www.tomryan-civilwar.com). Contact him at
pennmardel@mchsi.com.