By L&T Columnist Gary Damron
Many events are being conducted in observance of the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, with historians and military strategists studying it in depth. Visiting the battlefield, the Peach Orchard where my great-great-grandfather died, and studying maps and records have helped bring it to life.
In a previous article, we discussed the failure of Confederate troops the first day to take the high ground, which resulted in the North occupying the area to the south and east of town.
One word that comes to mind concerning the Confederate’s second and third days of battle might be described as dilly-dallying: uncertain, indecisive, wavering, dawdling or delayed.
The plan of Southern troops was to attack Union troops on both flanks. General A. P. Hill was to meet the Union on the north. Though he’d gotten a late start that morning, initially he was successful.
Later that day he removed himself from command of his men and General Richard Ewell took over. Hill was a good commander but had an ongoing problem of being struck by illness during tense and difficult times. His soldiers under Ewell were ineffective and lost what gains they’d made earlier that day.
Meanwhile, on the south flank, General James Longstreet for some reason did not arrive on the field with the first corps until afternoon – then had to call off the attack because nightfall was approaching.
General J.E.B. Stuart also arrived late the second day and had not made connections with Ewell as expected. After terrorizing the Northern populace and gathering supplies, he arrived at the battle site with materials, including 140 wagons which became a problem.
According to the Richmond papers afterward, Stuart had been so busy showing off that he hadn’t adequately done his job. The only comment Robert E. Lee made concerning their arrival was, “The absence of the cavalry rendered it impossible to obtain accurate information.”
Union troops were just as surprised as Lee when they stumbled into each other, but General George Meade’s commanders responded more rapidly than Lee’s. Longstreet by that time had advised Lee not to engage the North’s decidedly better-prepared positions, and perhaps that’s why he seemed to hesitate. General Jubal Early, after the war, would blame Longstreet for the crushing defeat.
Lee’s plan for the third day was to launch a massive assault by all Southern troops. The main thrust was to be at the center of the line, led by General George Pickett under Longstreet, and was to be preceded by an artillery barrage.
For some reason the artillery was not in place early so troops had to wait on it, and then the only effective rounds were the solid shot canisters.
It was commonly said for years that the Confederates were bad shots, but newer studies provide a better answer. A different type of fuse on the explosive rounds had recently replaced those manufactured in Richmond, and their explosions were delayed by a second or more. Thus they flew over the heads of most of the Union soldiers and exploded harmlessly behind them.
Confederates had 272 pieces of artillery which opened fire, and then 12,000 men were sent marching across an open field, under the assumption the artillery would have disrupted the Union lines. As it turned out, more than half of those traversing the three-quarters of a mile were mowed down; when Pickett was ordered to re-form his division he replied, “General Lee, I have no division.”
Casualties in the effort were tremendous, with the only brigade to reach The Angle never receiving reinforcements. Twenty-three thousand Union soldiers died in three days, while twenty-eight thousand Confederates were lost in the carnage.
As the Southerners retreated rain set in, and then they received word of the devastating loss at Vicksburg. The victory that Gen. Lee hoped would force the North to compromise turned into a defeat that would change the direction of the war.