By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
While the Civil War victory at Vicksburg (discussed last week) was pivotal, it would not be an exaggeration to say that for the Union the entire war was at stake at Gettysburg. Volumes have been written, movies made, millions have visited the site in Pennsylvania.
On its 150th anniversary, I’d like to examine some events of significance at Gettysburg.
Up to that point in the war, Confederate troops had successfully defended the South, most recently at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg in June 1863. After that Robert E. Lee turned his army north, confident of victory. In the North there’d been strong talk of a peace initiative, especially after their most recent demoralizing rout, and Lee hoped to press the advantage so they could come to terms and end the war. A significant loss of leadership had occurred, though, when Stonewall Jackson was mortally wounded at Chancellorsville and was replaced by General Richard Ewell.
Lee drove his troops far enough north that the cities of Baltimore, Washington, DC and Philadelphia were threatened. At the same time Ewell was moving his men northward along the western edge, and J.E.B. Stuart was flanking Lee’s army to the East to reconnect with Ewell further ahead. However, Stuart’s orders from Lee were not specific as to when and how that was to occur, and it wasn’t until well into the second day of battle that Stuart finally arrived.
On June 30, 1863, the day before the battle began, the disadvantage of not having Stuart became apparent as Confederates cautiously moved toward Gettysburg, and then decided to retreat a few miles outside town to set up camp for the night. At the same time Union cavalry had moved into Gettysburg and through their scouts became aware of the Southern troops, how many and where they were located. Meanwhile, Confederate general A. P. Hill received word from a subordinate officer that he’d seen Union cavalry, but Hill for some reason scorned that report. He advised Lee he didn’t believe there were enemy troops in the area so Lee turned in for the night.
As he slept, two brigades of Northern cavalry led by General John Buford entrenched themselves on Seminary Ridge to hold the brick seminary building and the high ground on the west edge of Gettysburg. He realized its strategic importance and planned to keep the position until General Reynolds arrived with reinforcements the next morning. Throughout the first day, July 1, the main fighting took place on Seminary Ridge and Reynolds was killed shortly after he arrived. By day’s end, the Union army retreated to the east of town.
Ewell had earlier been ordered by Lee to take Cemetery Hill “if practicable.” However, either because the orders weren’t clear or Ewell didn’t find it “practicable” he did not. By not commanding the high ground the South ended up losing their advantage. The night of July 1st, Union troops moved onto Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill to the southeast overlooking the town, and stretched their troops south along Cemetery Ridge overlooking the Emmitsburg Road which led to Washington, D. C. 78 miles away. By July 2nd, the “heights were fully occupied with impregnable defenses.”
On the surface, what initially looked like an impending Confederate victory would turn in favor of the North. Events which followed have led to more than a century of trying to place blame by historians. Over the next few weeks we’ll look at other decisions and events.