Gettysburg – Historic Landmarks

Tto the Southern cause ” a glorious field of grief “—lies in a peaceful pastoral region, walled in on the west by the blue line of the South Mountain range, and studded throughout its landscape by lesser hills. Nearly as the same longitude as Washington, it is situated in Pennsylvania not far north of the Maryland border. Here the Chambersburg and Hagerstown roads cross one another and diverge; while a valley, highly cultivated, with grain fields and orchards, lies slumbering with thrifty farmhouses between two nearly parallel ranges of hills—Seminary Ridge on the west (near which stands a Lutheran seminary), and, on the southeast, Cemetery Ridge, one of whose hills is consecrated for burial purposes. This latter range begins in a bold and rocky cliff, called Culp’s Hill, at whose southerly extremity towers a conical and commanding rock, Round Top, crowned with a smaller spur, called Little Round Top, which overlooks the surrounding country. Midway in the peaceful valley is a lower inter-mediate ridge, along which runs the road to Emmitsburg. Upon this natural theatre was fought the desperate three days’ battle to be described, in the hot and exhausting weather of midsummer.

Learning from Couch that Lee’s army had turned away from the Susquehanna River, Meade, before dawn of July 1st, arranged for a defensive line of battle along Pike’s Creek, there to await the enemy’s approach. But Reynolds had gone leisurely on in advance to occupy the obscure town of Gettysburg, having in command the First, Third, and Eleventh Corps, the left grand division of Meade’s army. Buford, who had taken possession of this town with his cavalry the day before, and thrown out pickets, encountered on the Chambersburg road a fragment of the enemy’s advancing host. He despatched the tidings at once to Reynolds, who dashed forward on horseback, on that memorable morning with his First corps following fast on foot, and sent word for the rest of his command, now miles in the rear, to hasten up quickly. After an anxious survey with Buford from the belfry of the Lutheran seminary, Reynolds resolved upon the morning’s work. Here a battle might well be risked ; here the instant duty was to keep back that oncoming wave until Meade could mass his host to break it. With a higher mandate before his eyes, the letter of his written directions seems to have been disregarded. ” Heth’s Conferedate division approached in force from the west; and while Reynolds held it watchfully in check on the Chambersburg road, that devoted officer was shot dead by a bullet through his brain. His glory on this field was first and greatest, yet others were to win glory there before the fight ended. Doubleday now took charge, with such of the First corps as had arrived, and the fighting began in earnest. From ten in the forenoon for three long hours the First corps alone, with Buford’s cavalry, bore the brunt of the enemy’s advance, and forced A. P. Hill to wait for Ewell. The Confederates, largely reinforced, were pressing hotly when, about two o’clock, Howard arrived with his Eleventh corps, and, by virtue of his rank, assumed direction. He deployed at once to hold the two western roads to the left, while on the right confronting Ewell’s phalanx, which came into view on the road from Carlisle. But the Union line had extended too far; and Ewell, assailing it simultaneously in front and on the exposed flanks, won an easy victory; for in both numbers and position the Confederates had now the advantage. Howard’s column was pressed back into the town and through it, closely pursued, and suffering much in wounded and captured. But before this misfortune, Howard had taken the precaution to secure Cemetery Hill, which made a strong refuge place for posting anew his retreating troops as they poured southward. At this juncture, and toward four in the afternoon, Hancock arrived on the scene, sent thither by Meade to assume command in consequence of the death of Reynolds, whose tidings reached him. Hancock’s splendid presence at this discouraging moment was like that of another army corps, and gave calmness and confidence to our exhausted soldiery. He checked the fighting and received the disorganized regiments as they arrived. Howard, though demurring at the authority given by Meade to one who was, in lineal rank, his junior, cooperated generously in restoring order. The two arranged together a new position on Cemetery Hill and along the Ridge, impregnable to further assault for the day, and covering Gettysburg and the roads from Baltimore and the south. Slocum now reached the scene with Sickle’s dusty veterans of the Third corps, who had been marching all day by the Emmitsburg road. To him, as ranking officer, the command was turned over, and Hancock galloped back to urge upon Meade the advantage of this new field of battle.

Meade, while taken unawares, had not hesitated what course to pursue; and, though but three days in command of this great army, lie relinquished one plan to take up another, and moved his whole force promptly to the rescue. All night, and by every road of approach, the Union troops came swarming in from the southward and marched to their positions under the light of the full moon. Meade himself came upon the field at one o’clock the next morning, pale, hollow-eyed, worn with toil and loss of sleep, yet rising to the measure of his responsibilities.

Lee, at the opposite entrance to Gettysburg, had arrived on the first, in season to watch from Seminary Ridge the new position which his flying foe was taking. His mind was not yet made up to fight an offensive battle; for, impressed by the steadiness of this new alignment, he gave no order of attack to break up the Union preparations, but merely sent Ewell the suggestion to carry Cemetery Hill, if he thought it practicable. Ewell, however, spent the afternoon in waiting to be reinforced; and a great Confederate opportunity was neglected.

The sanguinary fight of the second did not commence until far into the afternoon. This July weather was hot and oppressive; many of the troops just arrived on either side had borne a long and exhausting march; and doubtless the opposing commanders felt the onerous burden of initiating battle.

Little Round Top was the key to the Union position; and the enemy concealing their movements in thick woods until the signal for assault was given, revealed them-selves suddenly at four o’clock, with an outflanking line. Sickles held an advance position not intended by Meade, but too late to be rectified. Upon him, unsheltered, was made by Hood’s division from Longstreet the first furious assault, Lee desiring that ground for his artillery in storming the higher crests beyond. Here, for nearly two hours, raged a fierce and sanguinary conflict.

The Confederates were driven from the hill; but later in the day, when the Union right was much depleted by the reinforcements hurried to Round Top, a line of intrenchments left here by Geary’s division were carried by the Confederate General Johnson, who held the position all night. Artillery had taken part wherever it could, in a pell-mell fight which slackened and then ceased late in the evening.

Thursday, the 3d of July, dawned with that same bright summer weather, intensely hot, which invited inaction, until the sun should pass its meridian. Meade, though uncertain of the issue, prepared for either fate with coolness and fore-thought. At sunrise he telegraphed to his general who commanded at Frederick, to harass and annoy the enemy should they be driven to retreat, but in case discomfiture came to the Union army, then to interpose his force so as to protect Washington.

The midday silence was broken by a simultaneous discharge of 130 cannon planted on the Confederate ridge, to whose terrific uproar half the number responded on the Union side. Dense clouds of smoke settled over the valley, through which the shells went hissing and screaming to and fro. This tentative artillery duel, whose damage done was trifling in comparison with the prodigious noise and flame, occupied about an hour. The Union lines stood firm as before, and even firmer, and no spot showed weakness for the foe to break. Obedient to Longstreet’s orders, as the black canopy rolled away, Pickett valiantly led forth his troops from behind a ridge, where they had lain concealed, and a column of some 17,000 men moved wedge-like over the green landscape of waving grain and stubble, irradiated by the beaming sun. On they came, in full sight from Cemetery Ridge, for nearly a mile; but before they had advanced half-way across the valley they bore off toward the centre and in the direction of Hancock’s front. And now, while the Union artillery, which Lee had hoped to silence, opened from right to left upon the forlorn column with a terribly destructive fire, Pickett’s assaulting force of five thousand, thinning in ranks at every step, approached the long, bristling Union line, which was drawn up firm on the heights. Pettigrew’s division, supporting it on the left, was attacked by Alexander Hay’s, of Hancock’s corps, with such fury that the ranks wavered and broke, and all courageous who were left alive mingled with the troops of Pickett At an advanced point, where part of Webb’s small force held a stone fence, that barrier was carried with yells of triumph; but Webb fell back among his guns, and, aided from right to left by Union brigades and regiments, which rushed valorously to the scene, a din and confusion arose, men fighting and overturning one another like wild beasts, until, at a little clump of woods, where Cushing, a Union lieutenant of artillery, fired a shot as he dropped, and the Confederate General Armistead, foremost in this assault, fell while waving his hat upon his sword-point, the last invading surge expended itself. More than two thousand men had been killed or wounded in thirty minutes. Pickett now gave the order to retreat, and as his bleeding and shattered force receded in confusion, the Union soldiery sprang forward, enveloping on all sides the Confederate ranks and swept in prisoners and battle ensigns. Wilcox, too, whose supporting column on the other side had become isolated, had to cut his way out in retreat, forced by a Union brigade, while batteries from above on Little Round Top rained down iron hail. While this main battle raged, sharp cavalry combats took place upon both flanks of the hostile armies.

With the repulse of Pickett’s splendid but impracticable charge, the third day’s fight of Gettysburg, the briefest of all in duration, and yet in proportion, the bloodiest, came to an end. Lee, shaken by the terrible consequences, took candidly the blame of this futile effort upon himself, and with soothing words drew off to save the remnant of his army. Meade, from the opposite heights, made no counter-charge, but comprehending quite slowly the magnitude of his victory, which he described in despatches as a ” handsome repulse,” refrained from pressing forcibly his advantage.