On today’s date, July 1 in 1863, 150 years ago, began the greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere, when two nations came to deathgrips in the gentle rolling countryside of rural Pennsylvania. And the fighting took place near a small town named Gettysburg. Now that is a name that almost every American knows, even those who know little or nothing about history. That is likely because of the immortal words of our President spoken some months later at his “Gettysburg Address” dedicating the national cemetery at that location. I have covered that in my TIH posting for November 19. But the battle itself, which lasted three days from July 1 through July 3 was effectively the turning point in the greatest and bloodiest war ever fought on this continent. And it easily qualifies as the most important historical event to take place on each of those days. In this Blog I have done many postings about military engagements, and I expect to do more. But this is the only one wherein I will take up multiple days on one battle. It is that important, and the human drama is that intense.
General Lee Invades the North; “How do you like this..?”
In late May of 1863, General Robert E. Lee, commander of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia (above) decided to invade the North a second time. His first attempt had ended in failure at the Battle of Antietam in 1862. But he was convinced that an attack into the very heartland of the Union, Pennsylvania an attack which may threaten the city of Philadelphia, perhaps even the U.S. Capital of Washington D.C., this he thought may strengthen the anti-war element in the north and force the Union government to negotiate for peace. So by mid-June he had crossed his army of nearly 72,000 men over the Potomac River and marched them north into Maryland heading for Pennsylvania. This was a very lush chunk of country, and the Confederate Army did commandeer (steal) quite a lot of provisions from the locals. The farmers were paid with worthless Confederate currency. “My friends, how do you like this way of coming back into the Union? I hope you like it; I have been in favor of it for a good while.” said General William Smith to one angry group of townsmen.
The Armies Converge on the Town of Gettysburg
The Union’s Army of the Potomac, aware of the Confederate’s movements, if not their destination, was very careful to follow them, and keep between them and Washington. On June 28, President Lincoln made General George Meade the new commander of his army. Meade kept this posture as they moved into Pennsylvania. General Lee had recently lost his most able subordinate, Stonewall Jackson, and by then had reworked his troops into three Corps, under Generals Longstreet, A.P. Hill , and Ewell. But he had also given his flamboyant Cavalry commander, General Jeb Stuart permission to scout around the Union’s flank, albeit with instructions to stay in contact with him. This, General Stuart did not do. So while the Union knew approximately where Gen. Lee was, Lee had no idea where the Union troops were. So it was that when some of General Ewell’s men approached the town of Gettysburg on July 1, they ran into what seemed to be light resistance, but was in fact the troops of Union General Buford’s cavalry corps. And Buford (above) was determined to hold this ground until Meade’s forces could arrive, in order to deny Lee the high ground surrounding the town.
Buford Holds, the Two Armies Arrive at Gettysburg
Lee had not wanted to fight at this spot, especially since without the scouting reports he needed from the absent general Stuart’s cavalry, he had no way of knowing that the forces of Gen. Meade would soon be upon him, over 90,000 strong. But this was where he found the enemy, so this was where he was determined to fight them. So he brought his forces to bear upon the out-numbered troops of Gen. Buford. Bufords men put up a strong fight, but ultimately were forced to retreat through the town of Gettysburg to the area just south of the town. In her diary, local citizen Sarah Broadhead (below) gave an inkling of the panic which struck the town:
“All was bustle and confusion. No one can imagine in what extreme fright we were when our men began to retreat. A citizen galloped up to the door in which we were sitting and called out, “For Gods sake go in the house! The rebels are in the other end of town and all will be killed!” We quickly ran in and the cannonading coming nearer and becoming heavier, we went to the cellar and in a few minutes the town was full of the filthy rebels. They did not get farther, for our soldiers having possession of the hills beyond, shelled them so that they were glad to give over the pursuit, and the fighting for the day was ended.”
Mrs. Broadhead was right. Union troops under General Winfield Scott Hancock had arrived in time to stabilize the union positions anchored on the heights just south of the town, and brought their artillery to bear in holding back the rebel advance for the time being. Meanwhile, Meade was able to arrive with most of his army in the area. One of the anchors of the Union position was Cemetery Ridge, so named because of the old town cemetery which was on that spot. Just outside the cemetery was a sign which solemnly decreed:
“All persons found using firearms on these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law.”
Tomorrow: July 2, Gettysburg Day Two…….
Battle of Gettysburg (top) = http://capitolbadgers.wordpress.com/2010/07/01/gettysburg-what-happens-if-the-south-wins/
General Lee = http://www.biography.com/people/robert-e-lee-9377163
Sarah Broadhead = http://www.historictourcompany.com/oldtowntour.html
Diary of a Lady at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania” by Sarah Broadhead, http://books.google.com/booksid=bnTwWdHwmggC&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false