GETTYSBURG: Day Two– July 2 … “The Best Three Hours’ Fighting” (Part 6 of 8)

Lee’s most trusted soldier and second in command, Lt. Genl. James Longstreet, arrived in Gettysburg ahead of his powerful 1st Corps in time to observe the end of the first day’s battle. He took stock of the victory, but unlike the jubilant Rebels all around him, he was not pleased. The Yankees were clearly visible digging in on the hills south of town and he could see they had the better position supported by a wall of cannons arrayed along the hilltops. Longstreet, unlike the colorful Jackson, was a somber man, having in the span of one week lost three young children no older than six to scarlet fever in January of 1862. He was also a student of modern warfare; when it came to a contest between high-powered artillery supported by rifled muskets firing from cover versus attacking out in the open en masse he came down hard on the side of the defensive. It was his 1st Corps in December 1862 at the Battle of Fredericksburg that massacred waves of massed Union troops who repeatedly charged across open ground toward his well-entrenched positions, leaving a blue carpet of 10,000 dead and wounded in the field before him. Now, studying XI Corps and I Corps positions, he could envision a Fredericksburg in reverse should this accidental battle continue.

Having struck a punishing blow against the enemy, Longstreet reasoned the best move now was to disengage and swing south to get between the Army of the Potomac and Washington, D.C., take up a strong defensive position and wait for the attack that Meade would be compelled to launch, otherwise the Union capital would be threatened. He offered this advice to Lee, but, as Longstreet would later say, Lee’s blood was up. Lee had tasted victory. “If he is there tomorrow,” Lee declared, gesturing at the Union lines, “I am going to attack him.” But Longstreet rebutted: “General, if he is there tomorrow, it is because he wants you to attack him. A good enough reason in my judgment for not doing so.”

So began a major point of contention between the number one and two commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia in the midst of a desperate battle that would have a deleterious effect on the fighting yet to come.

Meanwhile on the Union side, General Meade, tired, stressed, and ill-tempered, reined up at the gatehouse of the Evergreen Cemetery with his staff at around midnight. Hancock had returned to his own II Corps so Howard briefed his commander on the day’s fighting. III Corps and XII Corps commanders Maj. Genls. Sickles and Slocum, respectively, also reported the arrival of their forces. Chief engineer Brig. Genl. Gouverneur Warren accompanied Meade as he toured the site. Meade approved the choice of battlefield and offered laconically: “Well, we may as well fight it out here.” Orders went out to the Army of the Potomac’s three remaining corps—Hancock’s II, Sykes’ V, Sedgwick’s VI—to concentrate on Gettysburg on the double. Some units would log forced marches of thirty-five miles that night to arrive by the next afternoon. The exhausted men were given no lee-way by Meade, who issued stern orders: “Officers are authorized to order the instant death of any man who fails to do his duty at this time.” By the dusk of July 2, with the army united, Meade would have close to 95,000 men covering the three-mile long “fishhook” position. He decided to wait for Lee and his roughly 77,000 men to attack him.

That morning, Lee, noting that the enemy was indeed still there, laid out his attack plans, much to the dismay of Longstreet. Ewell would try again to take the hills just south of the town on the Union right. Simultaneously, Longstreet’s two fresh divisions, newly arrived and bivouacked on Seminary Ridge, would strike the Union left en echelon, one going in first then the other progressively moving northward along the axis of attack. (Longstreet’s third division under Maj. Genl. George Pickett was not expected on the field until too late in the day to participate). The mauled two-thirds of the sickly A.P. Hill’s 3rd Corps would remain in reserve on Seminary Ridge while Hill struck near the Union center with parts of his one unscathed division under Maj.Genl. R.H. Anderson. Lee mistakenly believed that the Union left was exposed and vulnerable, and envisioned a massive flank attack the same as at Chancellorsville. But because he still lacked Stuart’s cavalry to be his “eyes and ears” and reconnoiter the ground, he had to rely on his staff officers to feel out the Union positions. They got it all wrong.

It took almost until mid-afternoon for Longstreet to gather his two divisions under Maj. Genls. John Bell Hood and Lafayette McLaws and move them into position. First off was his concern that one of Hood’s brigades had not yet arrived on the field. Opposed to staying and fighting here at all, Longstreet at least wanted his attack to be made with the full weight of his two divisions. “I don’t like going into battle with one boot off,” he grumbled. But Lee grew impatient; he ordered him to make do with what he had and get moving. (The brigade arrived in time to join the attack.)

Longstreet’s march from Seminary Ridge to the jumping off point well south of town required several backtracks to avoid his 14,000 man force being spotted by Union observers high up on Little Round Top. In fact, it was nearing 4:30 p.m. before Longstreet, openly harboring a lack of enthusiasm for the plan, was in position for the assault. The Rebels expected to see an exposed Union left flank. Instead, as Genl. McLaws recalled, “the view astonished me as the enemy was massed in my front, and extended to my right and left as far as I could see.” They faced a solid wall of blue in the form of Union Genl. Dan Sickles’ entire III Corps anchored on high ground 900 yards out in front of, and detached from, the rest of Meade’s battle line on Cemetery Ridge. Lee’s scouts somehow missed this new enemy position.

Dan Sickles was a turbulent New York politician best known before the war for having shot and killed his wife’s lover. Now a general in charge of a Union corps, he was unhappy with his placement on the southern end of Cemetery Ridge that was basically flat. So he took it upon himself to move his III Corps out to slightly higher ground farther forward by farmer Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. In so doing he’d opened up a half-mile gap in Meade’s line, as the newly stretched-out position was too wide for III Corps’ 9,800 men to cover and also stay connected to Hancock’s II Corps on his right. This move also left the strategic Little Round Top undefended.

Sickles’ move did have the effect of further delaying the Confederate assault as Longstreet’s battle plan had to be changed at the last minute. Hood’s division was re-positioned farther right to accommodate the new Union flank. He now would have to charge uphill through a curious field of massive boulders, shallow streams and stone fences called Devil’s Den at the base of Little Round Top; this was “broken ground” unsuited for maneuvering large bodies of troops. Hood protested. Three times he asked Longstreet for permission to move farther to the right for better positioning. Three times the agitated Longstreet refused. It was getting late. He sent Hood a final sharp reply: “It is General Lee’s orders. The time is up. Attack at once!”

Meanwhile Meade, known for his atomic temper, had galloped out to Sickles and screamed that his position was indefensible because Rebel gunners could sweep it and their infantry could attack his salient from two sides with no close support on his flanks. But it was too late to pull back. When Sickles asked Meade if he should withdraw, as if on cue the guns of the South opened fire. “I wish you could,” shouted Meade over the noise, “but the enemy won’t let you!”

Finally, at five o’clock in the evening, with the sun already low in the western sky, the Confederate artillery roared and wave upon wave of Rebels burst toward the Union lines. On Culp’s and Cemetery Hills on the northern flank Ewell’s assaults got underway. At the same time, in the Devil’s Den, Peach Orchard and surrounding farms on the southern part of the field, first Hood and then McLaws on the Union left, then Anderson in the left-center launched a two-mile-wide offensive that would see of some of the fiercest attacks of the Civil War. In just a few hours of concentrated violence the Rebels and the Yankees slugged it out like demons—Confederate troops screaming the Rebel yell as they crashed upon their Union adversaries, who fought with equal determination to hold their ground. “The balls were flying so thick,” wrote a Texas veteran, “that you could have held your hat up and caught it full.” Men fell by the thousands with woodlots, plowed fields, ravines, barns, even fence rails and single boulders changing hands many times as unit after unit was committed by both sides into the melee.

Rebel and Federal artillery pieces ringed the battlefield, either engaged in counter-battery fire or directly in the field supporting their respective infantry. The guns blasted away non-stop, filling the air with deadly projectiles—solid shot that tumbled and plowed through ranks like bowling balls, time-fused case shot that exploded in starbursts over men’s heads and rained deadly chunks of metal down on them, and, at close range, canister which fired little iron balls that turned artillery pieces into massive shot-guns, ripping swaths into infantry formations. The din of battle could be heard for miles as the very ground over which the men fought shook.

As Meade predicted, Sickles’ III Corps could not hold its exposed salient. It was mercilessly assaulted by a tightly-packed line of McClaws’ Rebels spearheaded by a brigade of Mississippians led by the white-haired Brigadier General William Barksdale that rolled like a juggernaut through the Peach Orchard, unchecked by Union muskets and cannon tearing through their lines. (Barksdale would be mortally wounded leading from the front, dying the next morning.) After bitter fighting Sickles’ line collapsed under the weight of Longstreet’s powerful two division assault in what was looking like a repeat of the first day’s fighting. Sickles himself would have his leg torn off by a solid shot…he was carried off the field leaning up in his litter coolly smoking a cigar.

Meade could hear the fighting on the high hills on his right flank and sensed that Lee was trying a double-envelopment. But it was his left that was in jeopardy as Hood’s and McLaws’ howling men seemed on the verge of breaking his lines by hitting them with what their proud 1st Corps commander would later hail, with some justification, as “the best three hours’ fighting done by any troops on any battlefield.” But Meade remained calm. Taking advantage of his concave interior lines, he methodically stripped troops from one part of his position or from his reserve V and VI Corps and fed them in to support Sickles’ disintegrating front, plugging gaps in the line to prevent any Confederate break-through from becoming a rout. The seesaw fighting swirled unabated, ripping through once obscure landmarks that now occupy hallowed places in U.S. history: the Peach Orchard, the Rose Woods, the bloody Wheatfield, the rock strewn Devil’s Den, the Valley of Death.

On Little Round Top itself, Union Chief Engineer Warren, sent by Meade to inspect the summit, was stunned to find it virtually empty; he could see the grey tide of Hood’s charging division headed his way. He immediately spurred his horse down the reverse slope and sent his couriers off to inform General Meade and find help. The first unit to answer Warren's calls was Col. Strong Vincent’s Union brigade of the V Corps coming to Sickles’ aid. Vincent took it upon himself to scramble his brigade up to the top just in time to throw back the climbing Rebels in a desperate struggle that was often hand-to-hand. Had Hood’s men taken Little Round Top, their guns could have dominated the Union position below. Sadly, Vincent (a Harvard Law graduate turned soldier) was killed. He was posthumously promoted to Brigadier General, earning much-deserved accolades along with Warren for quick thinking that quite possibly saved the Union army that day.

Meanwhile on Culp’s and Cemetery Hills the fighting was ferocious as the Rebels attacked, were pushed back down the hills, re-formed, attacked again, were repelled again far beyond twilight, the muzzle flashes piercing the sinister nightfall like angry fireflies. But the Yankees were dug in too well and they held the high ground.

Eventually the Confederate attack lost steam, slowed by Union reinforcements, heavy losses, fatigue and darkness. Without Picket's division Longstreet had no fresh reserves to exploit his gains and was finally compelled to call off the attack. As the fighting subsided, a new chorus of moans and screams of the wounded to be added to the previous day’s harvest of misery once again replaced the sharp echoes of battle. Meade would conclude, as Wellington had at Waterloo forty-eight years before, that it was a close run thing. “But it’s all right now,” he said with relief to his gathering generals as the last of the Rebels withdrew.

By sundown it was clear that, though grievously wounded (especially Sickles’ ruined III Corps), the Union Army was still holding firm as neither flank was broken. But Lee knew he had come so close. At one point during the height of the evening’s fighting, he witnessed one of Anderson’s brigades, advancing from McLaws’ left, rush toward the Union center. They penetrated all the way to the crest of Cemetery Ridge by a clump of trees that stood silhouetted against the sky before they were beaten back Union reinforcements. Lee wondered: If one brigade could get that far what could an all-out assault of full divisions on the center achieve?

July 2 was the bloodiest of the three days’ fighting at Gettysburg, and in fact, saw some of the severest combat of the entire war. About 9,000 Confederates and 10,000 Union men were scythed down in just a few hours. Among the casualty rolls were several senior officers including CSA Genls. Pender, mortally wounded, and Hood, struck by shrapnel early in the fight, losing the use of an arm. Harry Heth had been hit and incapacitated late on July 1, his skull cracked by a bullet. For the North, not only had they lost Reynolds the day before, but several division and brigade commanders had fallen as well. Gettysburg was taking a toll on the high command of both armies in a manner unheard of on modern battlefields. And the issue still had yet to be decided.

That night, Longstreet, lamenting the damage done to two magnificent infantry divisions for no significant gains, once again pressed Lee about moving south and taking the defensive. Lee at this point had had enough of his recalcitrant lieutenant and would hear none of it. “I am going to whip him here,” he insisted. “Or he is going to whip me.”

[Next Segment: Day Three — July 3…“An Ocean Of Armed Men”]

What's Your Reaction?