Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Gettysburg


Maps :

Gettysburg Campaign

Gettysburg Battlefield

Following Robert E Lee’s stunning victories at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, southern morale was on a high as the war entered its third summer. Yet from the standpoint of Davis’ government in Richmond the situation in late May 1863 for the Confederacy was anything but rosy. Military success in the eastern theatre had been bought at a heavy cost – the economy was in freefall, with the once lucrative seaborne export trade reduced to few hardy blockade runners. The casualties that had been incurred in a string of victories had been heavy, a resource that the south could scarce afford to lose with its much smaller population. Additionally all of the major battles (with the exception of Sharpsburg) had taken place in Confederate territory, many in the same small area of north Virginia, and a myriad of smaller scale battles in Kentucky and Tennessee leaving the farmlands stripped bare by the repeated passage of two very large armies.

Outside of the eastern theatre, the military situation was far worse; Confederate attempts to take the state of Kentucky had finally ended in failure at the battle of Perryville the previous autumn and a desperate struggle was now underway to retain control of Tennessee. At the same time that Lincoln replaced McClellan as commander of the Army of the Potomac with Burnside, he also replaced Gen Don Carlos Buell of the Army of the Cumberland for his ineffectual performance at Perryville, with Gen William Rosecrans. Whilst Burnside’s January offensive on the Rappahannock was stalling in the mud, Rosecrans defeated 35,000 Confederates of the Army of Tennessee under Gen Braxton Bragg at the 2nd battle of Murfreesboro (Stones River), 30 miles southwest of Nashville and Bragg was now holed up in the last Confederate stronghold in the centre of the state, the fortress of Chattanooga on the Tennessee river, just five miles north of the border with Georgia.

Further west, along the Mississippi, the situation was even more dire. On 16th May, just two weeks after Chancellorsville, the 32,000 men of the Union Army of The Tennessee under Gen Ulysses Grant had defeated 22,000 rebels under Gen John Pemberton at the battle of Champion Hill, Mississippi, sending the remnants fleeing back to the fortress of Vicksburg, the last remaining Confederate stronghold on the great river and placing it under siege. If Vicksburg fell, the Union would have unbroken control of the river, cutting the Confederacy in two.

Within the Confederate high command, a debate raged as to the best way to exploit Lee’s success. One party, including President Davis, favoured a redeployment of a significant part of Lee’s force to the west to either lift the siege of Vicksburg or to reinforce Bragg in a renewed attempt to drive Rosecrans from central Tennessee. Lee however favoured a second invasion of the north, believing firstly that the presence of a large Confederate army on Union territory would encourage the “copperhead” peace movement in the north that had gained ground since Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville and secondly that the ravaged farmlands of north Virginia should be spared a further campaign, with the fight taken to the rich, and largely untouched agricultural lands of Maryland and Pennsylvania.  A successful campaign now that thrust north through the Shenandoah Valley then east to threaten Baltimore, Philadelphia or even Washington itself, might – just might – be all that was needed to force Lincoln to sue for peace and recognise the Confederacy.

The Gettysburg Campaign opened on June 3rd 1863; both armies were still gathered either side of the Rappahannock at Fredericksburg, when Lee began to quietly move his Confederate Army of Northern Virginia to the northwest. The Union Army of the Potomac, still commanded by Gen Joseph Hooker despite the heavy defeat at Chancellorsville, began probing attacks across the river and soon established that a large force was moving. On 9th June, five miles up the Orange & Alexandria railroad from Culpepper Courthouse, the cavalry outriders from both armies met. At the battle of Brandy Station 11,000 Union cavalry under Gen Alfred Pleasanton who had been shadowing them along the north bank of the Rappahannock collided with 9,500 Rebel horseman under Gen JEB Stuart.   The Battle of Brandy Station was the largest cavalry engagement ever fought on the American continent, and ended in a bloody stalemate with 1,600 casualties. Although Pleasanton’s men didn’t discover the presence of Lee’s main force, now assembling near Culpepper, it at least confirmed to Hooker that Lee’s army was on the move.

After the standoff at Brandy Station, Lee divided his army into three columns, each led by one of his Corps Commanders for the march north. The first, under Gen Richard S Ewell struck out for Front Royal in the Shenandoah and marched up the valley towards Winchester, using the Blue Ridge mountains to the east to screen their passage. They had been ordered to thrust deep into Union territory, past the old Sharpsburg battlefield in Maryland and on into Pennsylvania to threaten the rail centre at Harrisburg.

In the days that followed further columns under James Longstreet and Ambrose Powell Hill struck to the east of the Blue Ridge then crossed over into the Shenandoah at Ashby’s Gap and Snicker’s Gap to follow Ewell on the march north, whilst Stuart and the cavalry remained on the eastern side of the mountains. By the 14thJune Gen Hooker realised that Lee’s main force was no longer at Fredericksburg; “Fighting Joe’s” natural instincts led him to contemplate a move on unprotected Richmond, but he was firmly ordered by Lincoln to pursue Lee northwards, keeping his own army at all times between Lee and Washington. Splitting his seven corps into two columns, he sent each north on either side of Manassas Junction in the direction of Leesburg whilst Pleasanton’s cavalry shadowed JEB Stuart as he attempted to cover the Blue Ridge Passes.

The previous day, Ewell and 12,500 men of the Confederate II Corps had reached Winchester at the northern end of the Shenandoah Valley and attacked the 7,000 man Union garrison there, led by Gen Robert Milroy. Placed in a strategically critical location some 50 miles west of Washington, Winchester held the unenviable reputation of being the most fought over town in the civil war – estimated to have changed hands some seventy times by the end of the conflict. The Second Battle of Winchester lasted three days and resulted in complete victory for Ewell, who inflicted 500 casualties and took 4,000 prisoners for the loss of only 270 of his own men and also resulted in the dismissal of Milroy from his command.

On June 17th Stuart’s force arrived in the vicinity of the village of Aldie, 20 miles west of Washington, a strategic point on roads that led to Snickers Gap and Ashby’s Gap, two key passes over the Blue Ridge and met Pleasanton’s Union cavalry probing toward the mountains. The result was the inconclusive battles of Aldie and Middleburg, followed by a further clash on the 21st at the Battle of Upperville.  By the 25th Hooker, although in the dark as to Lee’s true intentions, now knew for certain that the Confederates were across the Potomac in force and heading for Maryland, so ordered his force into Maryland also and concentrated around Frederick and Middletown; but Lee was way ahead of him, having already crossed north into Pennsylvania, and was now near Chambersburg and Ewell at Carlisle.

Lee however, had problems of his own, if Hooker did not know what Lee’s intentions where, Lee had no idea where Hooker’s army even was. This was because Stuart had been ordered to use part of his force to cover the Blue Ridge passes, part to screen the army’s march north and keep them appraised of the position of Hooker’s army and with the rest of his force to raid eastwards to disrupt Union army’s march. When Stuart set out however, he found his way blocked by columns of Federal troops also moving north and was forced to veer south, around Manassas, before turning north himself and arriving at the outer defences of Washington on the 28th. In between Stuart and the main Confederate force, all seven of the Union Corps where massed around Frederick, Maryland intending to move north.

Hooker meanwhile, a few days earlier and under heavy pressure from Washington, had had a spat with Halleck over whether he should be allowed to re-deploy the garrison at Harper’s Ferry and in a fit of pique had tendered his resignation to Lincoln which, much to his surprise, was accepted. On the 28th, the same day that JEB Stuart’s cavalry skirted the outer defensive forts of Washington, command of the Army of the Potomac passed to Gen George Gordon Meade.

Born in Cadiz, Spain, Meade was the son of successful US businessman who had grown rich servicing contracts to the Spanish government in the early part of the 19th century. The family business collapsed during the Napoleonic invasion of Spain in 1808 leading to financial ruin for his father, who died a few years later. After his return to the US he graduated from West Point and enjoyed a successful career, serving with distinction in both the Seminole and Mexican wars. After the Mexican conflict he went into Civil Engineering and was responsible for the design and construction of several lighthouses, and was, at the outbreak of war, a member of the Great Lakes Survey team, having published the first detailed hydrological survey of the Great Lakes. He served in the eastern theatre of the war in all the major campaigns and was badly wounded at the Battle of Glendale during the Seven Days. At Fredericksburg the following year his assault against the Rebel positions on Prospect Hill was regarded as the closest thing to a success that the Army of the Potomac had in that otherwise unmitigated defeat. Regarded as a strict disciplinarian and a with somewhat prickly temperament, Meade was known as “old snapping turtle” to his men. Establishing his headquarters at Taneytown, Maryland he began by writing to each of his corps commanders that they were authorised “… to shoot any man who refused to do his duty ..”,  before ordering a concentration further north in the vicinity of a small college town in Pennsylvania where all the local roads converged – called Gettysburg.

Stuart continued his ride north, and around, Meade’s vast army intending to link up with Ewell’s corps, then between Carlisle and Harrisburg. On the 28th he encountered and captured a large Union supply train near Rockville before pushing on Westminster the following day where he met and defeated a small Union cavalry force under Maj Napoleon Knight. On the following day, he again encountered Union cavalry, this time under Pleasanton and fought the inconclusive battle of Hanover, before finally reaching Dover on the morning of the 1st of July.

Lee, still out of contact with Stuart, had finally received some reliable intelligence as to Meade’s dispositions by way of a Confederate spy. The man was named Henry Thomas Harrison, an out of work actor from Mississippi who turned out to have a talent for intelligence gathering. Paid by Longstreet to hang around bars in Washington and monitor the local press he learned that the Union force was concentrating at Frederick. Riding out there in person, he discovered that the information was true and that two corps were already there, with the rest on the way and moving north. He rode north and passed on the information to Lee together with the news of Meade’s appointment. This was the first information that Lee had received that indicated that the Union army was even across the Potomac and he decided on a concentration of his army at Cashtown, with Ewell at Carlisle, intending to finally concentrate at the only point in the vicinity were all the roads converged – Gettysburg.

The Battle of Gettysburg came about, allegedly, due to the rumour that there was a supply of shoes there, always in demand for the famously ill-shod Confederates. Lee sent a division under Gen Henry Heth from DH Hill’s corps from Cashtown to investigate and it was there, on the morning of 1st July, that they encountered the first cavalry outriders from Meade’s army – two brigades (about 2,500 men) under Gen John Buford, who had entered the town the previous evening. Buford deployed his men along Seminary Ridge just beyond a Lutheran Theological Seminary to the west of the town as Heth’s men attacked; although the Union troops were heavily outnumbered, they were armed with the new breech-loading Spencer Carbines, and with their superior firepower held their position as both commanders sent out riders to summon reinforcements.

Lee’s main force was moving toward the town from the west along the Chambersburg Pike, while Ewell was approaching from the north along the Carlisle Road. Meanwhile, the Union First Corps under Gen John Reynolds was just ten miles to the south, with a further corps under Gen Oliver Howard a few miles behind them. By midday, Reynolds had reinforced Buford and Howard had deployed north of the town across the Carlisle road as the first major clashes occurred. With more and more Confederate troops arriving on the battle field, a bitter fight for the ridge lines west and north of the town developed, with the Union force being pushed off the ridges and back through the town, to form a new defensive line by sundown along Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. Both sides incurred heavy casualties, 15,000 in total, among them the Union I Corps Commander, John Reynolds, killed by a sniper. The remaining forces from both sides now began to arrive overnight to bring the total on each side to 94,000 Union, in seven corps, against 72,000 Confederates in three corps.

A debate raged among the Confederate command, with Lee wishing to capitalise on the successes of the days fighting by bringing on a full scale engagement, which he was convinced could be won. He was strongly opposed in this by Longstreet, who considered that Meade’s position on the high ground was too strong, and moreover, with the bulk of the Army of the Potomac committed here at Gettysburg, the roads to the south, on to Washington, were wide open. Surely, he argued, here was an opportunity to redeploy to the south and get between Meade and Washington, then pick high ground of their own choosing near to the Union capital and serve up another Fredericksburg – and possibly end the war there and then. But it was Lee who prevailed; little did he know it then, but Meade was about to serve up a Fredericksburg of his own.

By the morning of the 2nd July, Meade had deployed his force in the shape of a fishhook south of the town. The line curved south of Gettysburg along Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, before turning south along Cemetery Ridge, to terminate at a small wooded Hill called Little Round top; with the Confederates deployed north and to the west of the Union position.  Lee began to launch a series of probing attacks in sequence, like a firecracker going off, looking for weak points in the Union line, beginning at the southern end. His battle plan called for an attack in the south to capture the two Round Top hills (then unoccupied) by Longstreet’s Corps plus an assault against the Peach Orchard. Next came an attack on Cemetery Ridge by A.P. Hill’s Corps, followed by a final demonstration against Culp’s Hill by Gen Bushrod Johnson’s men.

The southern end of the Union line probably looked the weakest to Lee. Neither of the Round Tops were occupied at that point, the part of the line immediately north of them being occupied by the Union III Corps, led by Gen Daniel Sickles. Unlike many of his fellow Corps commanders, Sickles came from a political background, having no significant military experience when he was commissioned (as a Colonel) in 1862. Sickles was from New York and studied law as a young man in the offices of future Gen and Military Governor of occupied New Orleans, Benjamin Butler; becoming, in 1853, Chief Law Officer for the City of New York and later going on to serve as a member of the US Legation in London under future president James Buchanan. He went on in the late 1850’s to serve in the New York State Senate before securing election to the US Congress as a Democrat, a post he held until the spring of 1861. Sickles was best known before the war for a number of high profile scandals; these included being censured by State Assembly for entertaining a prostitute in his apartments, then taking her on a trip to London where he passed her off as his wife when presented to Queen Victoria at an official function; his real (and then pregnant) wife, allegedly only 15 years of age when he married her, was left behind in New York. In 1859, he shot and killed the US Attorney for the District of Columbia in a duel after accusing him of having an affair with his wife. The case is notable for being the first successful use of a temporary insanity plea to secure acquittal in US legal history. In 1862 he raised a regiment of volunteers in New York and was commissioned a Colonel at their head, eventually securing promotion to Brig Gen. He served in the Peninsula campaign, but missed both 2nd Manassas and Sharpsburg as his unit was assigned to the defences of Washington. His closest friend and ally in the army was Gen Joseph Hooker, with whom he shared a well known fondness for whiskey and women.

Assigned to command of the III Corps at Gettysburg, he had been ordered to deploy his troops along Cemetery Ridge at the southern point on the line, but disobeyed Meade’s orders and instead moved his troops forward 800 yards to the Peach Orchard which appeared to him a better position, but which created a dangerous salient in the Union line, just as Lee’s attack was beginning. Longstreet assigned the division of Gen Lafayette McLaws to assault the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field and the Devil’s Den as a fierce hand-hand fight ensued, with Meade pouring in reinforcements in the face of repeated infantry charges by the Confederates. Although McLaws’ assault was repulsed, the cost was heavy with the III Corps effectively destroyed as a fighting force and Sickles himself carried from the field on a stretcher after having his leg mangled by a hit from a canon ball – it would later be amputated – all the while coolly smoking a cigar and shouting encouragement to his men.

The remainder of Longstreet’s attack force was led by Gen John Bell Hood and was tasked with capturing the two Round Top hills; in fact he had a third division in his command, led by Gen George Pickett, but this was still in transit from Cashtown and would not arrive until the end of the day, after fighting had died down.

Originally from Kentucky, Hood had graduated from West Point in 1853 having been in the same class as James McPherson and John Schofield, and was a pupil of George Thomas – all of whom he would face on the battlefield during the Civil War. After graduation he served as a First Lieutenant in California and Texas, the latter becoming his adopted home; and it was in Texas whilst fighting the Comanche that he received the first of the many serious wounds of his military career – shot by an arrow through his hand. He quit the army immediately after the war started, dissatisfied with the neutrality of his home state, and served his adopted state of Texas instead, commissioned as a Colonel to lead an infantry brigade. In march 1862, he was promoted to Brig Gen and led the Texas Brigade with distinction during the Seven Days and subsequent campaigns, where he acquired a reputation for bravery bordering on recklessness.

When Meade saw the Confederate deployments he quickly realised the danger of losing the hills and rushed a brigade from V Corps under Col Strong Vincent to its summit, just as the Hood’s assault was beginning, with fierce fighting still raging in the Wheat Field and the Devil’s Den. Little Round Top was a small, steep, rocky, heavily wooded hill occupied by just four small regiments; on the very end of the Union line, right at the summit was placed a depleted regiment of just 400 men – the 20th Maine, led by a polyglot theology academic – Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

Born in Brewer, Maine in 1828, he was the great-grandson of Franklin Chamberlain, a sergeant at the siege of Yorktown in the Revolutionary War, and the grandson of Joshua Chamberlain Snr, a Colonel in the War of 1812. Despite the family’s traditions, Chamberlain had no military background himself, his pre-war career being spent in academia. He attended Bowdoin College after self-teaching himself to speak Greek; and it was there that he met Harriet Beecher-Stowe, the wife of one of his teachers, and attended readings of early drafts of her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  After a stint at theological college he returned to Bowdoin and held a professorial chair in rhetoric; he would later be appointed Professor of Modern Languages, being fluent in no fewer than nine other tongues – French, Spanish, German, Italian, Hebrew, Arabic, Greek, Latin and Syriac. Strongly motivated both to maintain the Union and to see the abolition of slavery, Chamberlain volunteered in 1861, and was commissioned as Lt Col of Volunteers, soon rising to full Colonel of the 20th Maine; he also served for a time as chaplain to another Maine regiment. Present at both the battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville, his regiment saw little action in either, so were relatively un-blooded when thrust into the carnage at Gettysburg.

Despite being heavily outnumbered, Chamberlain’s men held their critical position against repeated charges up the boulder-strewn slope by swarms of Confederate infantry. Eventually, out of ammunition and in danger of being overwhelmed, Chamberlain ordered his men to thin the line to double its length, then fixed bayonets and charged down the boulder strewn slope, littered with Rebel dead and wounded. Incredibly, the courageous manoeuvre worked, and the Confederates broke – those who weren’t killed or captured, fleeing back down the hill; Gen Hood himself was among the wounded, receiving the bullet wound that left his arm paralysed for the remainder of his life.

With the failure of the attack on Little Round Top, the action switched to the north and centre of the Union line, where an assault was launched against Cemetery Ridge by AP Hill’s Corps and a further attack against Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill by Bushrod Johnson. The situation was particularly precarious on Cemetery Ridge, only lightly held after reinforcements had been sent to strengthen other parts of line, with the II Corps commander Gen Winfield Hancock desperately throwing in any troops he could find until eventually ordering a bayonet charge before the Confederates finally broke and retreated back across the Emmitsburg Road, and fighting died down for the day. At about mid afternoon on the second day, JEB Stuart finally arrived from Dover with the cavalry to receive a severe admonishment from Lee for failing to keep him informed and for encumbering the army with the large train of supply wagons that Stuart had captured a few days earlier at Rockville, near Washington.

At the overnight battle conference, both armies took time to re-group and to prepare for the next day’s fighting. Union troops were brought up to strengthen the line, particularly on Hancock’s front, in the centre, whilst Lee was strengthened by the arrival of George Pickett’s uncommitted division of Longstreet’s Corps. Having observed the day’s action, Lee became convinced that a determined assault against the Union centre, which had only just held against AP Hill’s assault was to attack the weakest point. Believing that the Union reserves were being used the bolster the wings on Little Round Top and Culp’s Hill, it seemed to him that their most successful fighting had been there and a massed artillery bombardment followed by an infantry charge against Hancock’s position on Cemetery Ridge would break the line, and destroy the Union position. Again, Longstreet was opposed to the plan, arguing that with the interior lines at their disposal, if the Union centre was weak now, it would not stay that way long. Moreover the massed Confederate infantry would have to traverse over a mile of open ground as it crossed the Emmitsburg Road, under artillery fire the whole way. Lee’s view carried the day however, with his belief that determined artillery fire, plus a demonstration by Ewell against Culp’s Hill, would clear Hancock’s troops from the ridge and effect a breakthrough in the Union centre. Unfortunately for Lee, Meade had also held a council of war that night, and had come to exactly the same conclusion – and consequently heavily reinforced his position in the centre, setting the scene for the third, climactic day of battle.

The lead unit for the attack was to be the remaining uncommitted division from Longstreet’s corps, led by Gen George Pickett.  A native of Richmond, Virginia, and son of one of Virginia’s oldest families of solid English stock, Pickett was best known before the war for his actions at the Battle of Chapultepec in the Mexican war, where, despite being wounded, he was handed the colours – by none other than his commanding officer at Gettysburg, James Longstreet – and carried them up onto the ramparts to announce the surrender of the fortress. He also once challenged to a duel the man who would command the forces ranged against him on Cemetery Ridge – Winfield Hancock. Pickett’s three brigade commanders for the coming assault where Gen James Kemper, a career politician who held the post of Speaker of the Virginia House of Delegates; Gen Richard Garnett, a veteran of the Mexican and Seminole wars who had served under Stonewall Jackson in the Shenandoah campaign and had been arrested by Jackson for alleged neglect of duty and was only spared courts martial by the intervention of Lee. A few days before Gettysburg, Garnett had had a severe fall from horse and was unable to walk, but insisted on leading his men in person from horseback during the attack. Finally there was Lewis “Lo” Armistead,  also a member of an English descended Old Virginia family, he was the nephew of Maj George Armistead who’s actions at the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 inspired the lyric for The Star Spangled Banner. A career army officer who, like his commander George Pickett, had been wounded at the Battle of Chapultepec, he served in a wide variety of posts in the far west before fetching up as Captain in command of the garrison of San Diego in California where he formed a close and enduring friendship with unit’s Quartermaster. At the outbreak of war each of the two men left to join the two sides, Armistead to the Confederate army and his friend to the Union army. Armistead’s last words to his dear friend on parting were said to be “Goodbye; you can never know what this has cost me”. That man was none other than the commander of the troops he would fight that very day – Gen Winfield Hancock

Two other divisions would also take part –  one led by Gen Issac Trimble, a former railway engineer and executive who had been severely wounded at the 2nd Battle of Manassas; the other by a former academic, linguist, author and diplomat Gen Johnston Pettigrew. Like his colleague Trimble, Pettigrew had also been severely wounded earlier in the war, taking a bullet through the throat and almost bleeding to death at the Battle of Fair Oaks Station (Seven Pines) during the Peninsula Campaign. The total Confederate force for the attack was about 12,500 men, supported by 70 guns, massed on Seminary Ridge

Also present to witness the assault was an Englishman, Col Arthur Fremantle of the Coldstream Guards. Although travelling as a private citizen, he toured many areas in the western theatre, accompanied Lee’s army on the Gettysburg campaign and was regarded by many of the Confederate officers that he met as an unofficial British military observer. Described by many of those men as a charming and eloquent, if sometimes a little gullible, he is nonetheless regarded as the foremost among the foreign witnesses to the war, his work Three Months in the Southern States being widely read on both sides of the Atlantic and containing many portraits of the men he met, and a detailed description of the minutiae of life in the Confederacy during the civil war. He also witnessed, after Gettysburg, the New York draft riots shortly before his return to Britain. For all his gifts as a travel and military writer I’m sorry to have to tell you that Fremantle himself was something of a toy soldier, having never actually fired a shot in anger in his life – his country Great Britain having wisely chosen to stay out of every major European war since Waterloo. Although he enjoyed high rank later in his career,  serving as a General in the Sudan campaign of the 1880’s it is principally as a writer on the American Civil war that he is remembered, where he fulfils, at least to American eyes, the essential role as the representative of the former colonial power who is both the recipient of an education into how America saw itself and had grown since Independance as well as a, completely genuine, admirer of the armies of both sides, but particularly the Confederates who’s feats of bravery against more numerous foes struck a chord with his own country’s experience of war.

The assault opened with an artillery barrage from the Confederate guns on Seminary Ridge, with one of the opening salvoes slicing in two a Union orderly as he served breakfast to the senior officers.  Hancock however, by now heavily reinforced by Meade, answered with his own batteries which took a heavy toll of the Rebel crews, forcing their commander, Col Edward Alexander, to withdraw his ammunition caissons out of range, thus grievously reducing their rate of fire, just as the attack was commencing. Fremantle observed the barrage and noted his surprise at seeing a military band playing polkas and waltzes as the battle raged just a few hundred yards away. Hancock meanwhile, his dispositions made, had nothing left to do but mount his horse, draw his sabre and ride up and down the line shouting encouragement to his men; when asked by one of his aides to ride out of range he replied that “there are occasions when the life of a commanding officer simply doesn’t count”. He would be wounded shortly afterwards, by a rifle bullet, and sat out the remainder of the battle from the rear.

Always a desperate endeavour, the charge became an impossible one once the artillery had failed to clear Hancock’s men from the ridge and the Confederates took fearful losses as they advanced across the open fields and over the Emmitsburg Road; before being met by murderous volleys of rifle fire as they approached the Union line. A Union soldier recalled the first volley as it went in, remembering that a sound like a collective sigh went up from Rebels in the front rank as the first shots hit them, accompanied by hats, guns and body parts being tossed into the air. The Confederates only reached the wall in one place, close “The Angle” and all that made it over the wall were either killed or captured, the Union soldiers chanting “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg” as the remainder of the Confederate force fell back towards Seminary Ridge. Armistead was among the men who reached the Union position, but was wounded almost immediately; subsequently captured, he died later that day in a Union military hospital. Fremantle, who encountered Longstreet sitting on a snake rail fence as the attack failed remarked to his host that he would not have missed Longstreet’s men’s “magnificent charge” for anything. Longstreet laughed and replied “I would very much like to have missed it, we have been repulsed, see there ….”. Fremantle would later record seeing the hordes of Confederate wounded streaming back across Seminary Ridge “as thick as the crowds on Oxford Street on a Saturday”.

“Picketts Charge”, which should rather have been called “Robert E Lee’s charge” since he ordered it against all advice, was an unmitigated disaster for the Confederates, the attack force suffering 50% casualties. As well as Armistead, Garnett would also be killed, and many of the remaining divisional and brigade commanders were wounded; Kemper took a bullet in the groin that could not be removed and left him in pain for the rest of his life. He would be captured, then escaped, then was captured again during the retreat from Gettysburg and subsequently exchanged for a Union prisoner. Trimble was badly wounded, captured and had his leg amputated before being paroled; he would take no further part in the war. Finally, Pettigrew was wounded by a canister fire 100 yards from the Union line, but continued to lead his men until carried to the rear; he survived the battle only to be killed shortly after at the battle of Williamsport (Falling Waters) during the retreat from Gettysburg. George Picket survived the battle unscathed and served for the remainder of the war, but never forgave Lee for what happened that day, remarking in later life “that old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg”.

Lee attempted to rally his men in person, taking personal responsibility for the debacle and trying to prepare for a Union counterattack that never came. The day’s fighting concluded with two minor cavalry battles to the south and east of the Union position as mounted Rebel units placed to exploit any breakthrough were met and repulsed by Union horseman, as well as an separate cavalry engagement at the Battle of Fairfield, ten miles west of Gettysburg, fought at the same time that Pickett’s charge went in.

By now completely exhausted and having suffered combined casualties of 46,000 (23,000 on each side), there was no renewal of fighting the following day as heavy rain began to fall on the blood soaked fields. Lee ordered a retreat late in the day on the 4th July, at the same time as Ulysses Grant accepted the surrender of the fortress of Vicksburg on the Mississippi, cutting the Confederacy in two.

The Confederates drew off towards Cashtown and Chambersburg, then back towards Virginia via Hagerstown eventually reaching the Potomac a week later; the Confederate wagon train containing the wounded was said to be seventeen miles long. Meade’s force was almost as badly mauled as Lee’s and the pursuit was half-hearted, allowing Lee to reach the river virtually without incident. However on getting there, Lee found the Potomac swollen by heavy rain and had to fight the rearguard battle of Williamsport (Falling Waters) on the 16th, before finally getting his men across, and fighting the minor battle of Manassas Gap on the 23rd then finally re-crossing the Rappahannock and bringing the Gettysburg campaign to a close.

Much has been written about the two opposing generals at Gettysburg, with the common interpretation being that the Union had finally found the answer to Old Man Lee in the form of Old Man Meade – but that for me is wide of the mark. Meade certainly played his part in stiffening the resolve of his force, but the re-organisation and restoration of the army after the defeats of six months previously were more to do with Hooker and Halleck than with Meade, who was appointed only three days before battle was joined. The plain truth is that Lee had simply become overconfident after the victories of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. Bold action had become his hallmark for the simple reason that with his smaller force, boldness was all he had available to him. Risk taking became a habit and a dangerous one, and at Gettysburg, Lee simply took one risk too many. For all his undoubted qualities, Lee fought the wrong battle, at the wrong place for the wrong reason; and it was the Confederacy that paid the ultimate price.

Although the war was to continue for another two years, the twin Union victories of Gettysburg and Vicksburg effectively ended all Confederate hopes of victory. Never again would any significant Confederate incursion into Union territory be possible and the war took on a largely defensive character for them in the eastern theatre. Despite a final Rebel success, Chickamauga, in the western theatre the war now became just a matter of time before the military and economic facts of life asserted themselves in the bloody and long drawn out final phase of the conflict.


Copyright ©2012 Savereo John

Ten Biggest Battles of the American Civil War – Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville


Eastern Theatre of the Civil War

Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville (map)

With Lincoln’s dismissal of McClellan after Sharpsburg the post of commander of the Army of the Potomac again became vacant and Lincoln pitched around for a replacement – finally appointing Gen Ambrose Burnside into the position. Born in Indiana, of Scottish ancestry, Burnside had graduated from West Point in 1847 and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Artillery. Posted to Veracruz during the closing stages of the Mexican war, he arrived too late to see any action and served only on garrison duty. After the war he was assigned to the western frontier, where he briefly served in the cavalry under Braxton Bragg, then a Captain, protecting  the mail routes to California.

He resigned from the Army in 1853 and, although only a minor figure in his military career,  set up a company to manufacture the product for which he became widely known in military circles before the war – a superior design of cavalry rifle known as the Burnside Carbine. Initially contracted to mass produce the weapon for the army, his business collapsed among accusations that government officials had been bribed by a rival to cancel the contract, even though he had already heavily invested in plant – leading to financial ruin for Burnside. In 1858, he ran for a Congressional seat in Rhode Island for the Democrats, but was heavily defeated and went on instead to secure a senior position with the Illinois Central Railroad, where he met and befriended the company’s Vice President – a certain George Brinton McClellan.  Tall and imposing in stature, and jovial and friendly by nature, Burnside’s most prominent physical features were the huge bushy side whiskers that he wore all his adult life and for which he became famous . Originally known as “burn-sides”, the fashion became popular on both sides of the Atlantic and gives us the modern word “sideburns”.

Burnside had been offered command of the Army of Potomac twice before, the first being after the collapse of Peninsula campaign. However, partly out of loyalty to his close friend McClellan, but mostly through a stark realisation that he was unqualified for so demanding a role, he refused. After the fiasco of Sharpsburg, Lincoln again offered and he again refused, before finally – after an appeal to his patriotism – accepting in Oct 1862. In the late autumn of that year, and under heavy pressure from Lincoln, Burnside hatched a plan for a winter offensive. His army was massed south of Washington, between Manassas Junction and Thoroughfare Gap with Lee’s main force to his south at Culpepper Courthouse, and Stonewall Jackson and the Shenandoah Valley army to his west, south of Winchester. Burnside rejected the favoured plan of Lincoln and the Cabinet – a crossing of the Rappahannock at  Rappahannock Station and a direct assault on Culpepper along the line of the Orange and Alexandria railroad, followed by a thrust towards Richmond. He was afraid that Stonewall would attack his supply lines from the west, just as he had done to Pope in the summer, plus he had – perfectly correct – concerns that the railway would be insufficient to keep his massive army supplied. Instead, he dusted off an old plan of McClellan’s for a rapid march southeast, and cross the river at the small town of Fredericksburg, 25 miles away, outflanking Lee and opening the way for a descent on Richmond along the line of the Richmond, Fredericksburg and Potomac railroad. The plan, while bold, was also risky since it relied on a critical dependency – the bridge at Fredericksburg was inadequate for the passage of a large force, and at any rate led directly into the town on the south bank creating a single choke point. This was to be surmounted by the deployment of pontoon bridges at various points, to allow a speedy crossing.

Burnside set out on 15th Nov and his leading elements reached Falmouth, a mile upstream of Fredericksburg on the north bank 2 days later, finding only 500 Confederate troops guarding the town on the south bank. The first part of the plan worked – when Lee realised what Burnside was doing he thought that the Federal troops would certainly cross immediately, and so deployed his army 20 miles to the south along the banks of the North Anna river, the next realistic defensive line. From that point on however, Burnside’s plan began to unravel. Due to a catalogue of administrative errors the pontoons failed to arrive on the 17th. The officer commanding the lead elements, Gen Edwin Sumner, begged to be allowed to attempt a crossing immediately using the existing bridge and nearby fords – arguing that this was their only chance to take the town while it was lightly held and then push on to occupy a ridge to the west of the town called Marye’s heights before Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia arrived. Burnside refused, believing that the heavy autumn rains would render the fords impassable and leave Sumner stranded on the south bank. This decision was to have catastrophic consequences for the Union when battle was finally joined.

The pontoons finally arrived, two weeks late, on 30th of Nov, by which time both armies had had ample time to assemble; 114,000 men of the Army of the Potomac on the north bank, and 73,000 men of the Army of Northern Virginia on the south, by now well dug in on Marye’s heights overlooking the town. It wasn’t until 11th of December that Union engineers constructed the first pontoons, on either side of the town and under a murderous fire from Confederate snipers. Attempts to suppress the sniper fire by Union artillery on the north bank were ineffective as the rebels simply took shelter in the cellars under Fredericksburg until a brigade of Union troops crossed the newly constructed pontoon and fought a street by street battle to clear the snipers from the town, supported by more than 5,000 artillery shells fired from Union batteries on the north bank – the first major incident of urban fighting in the war.

Burnside’s army began to cross in the mid afternoon, and by noon of the following day the main force was on the south bank. Lee had withdrawn from the town and divided his army in two wings. The left under Gen James Longstreet, was dug in along Marye’s heights overlooking the town, whilst the right, led by Stonewall Jackson was massed in woods on Prospect Hill, with a railway line running parallel to the river, a mile south of the town opposite the southern pontoon bridge, as a thick early morning fog carpeted this section of battlefield. Probing attacks by Union troops revealed a gap in the defences where a patch of swampy woodland 600 yards wide extended in front of the railway line, and 5,000 Union men under Gen George Gordon Meade moved forward to exploit it. An artillery duel followed by a hand-to-hand battle rapidly developed around the gap as both sides poured in reinforcements and at one point Meade’s men succeed in breaking through the gap and reaching the main defences on the wooded hill, but failure to adequately support the breakthrough meant that Jackson was able to stabilise his front, albeit at the cost of 3,500 casualties to 5,000 for the attackers. By late afternoon, Jackson was withdrawing to positions south of town as the main focus of the battle moved to Marye’s heights.

The Commander of Lee’s left wing, Longstreet, had his men along a 600 yard long stone wall that ran across Marye’s Heights, deployed three deep with 7,000 reserves behind them as well as his massed artillery batteries. In front of him an open plain sloped down to the town of Fredericksburg, cut by a canal with just three small bridges, meaning that attacking Union troops would have to be funnelled at each of these crossing points, all well within range of Longstreet’s artillery – in short, the Confederates had created a near – impregnable position. Burnside, who had expected the morning action to the south of the town to be the main fight now ordered his subordinate Gen Sumner to assault the ridge, but it was a hopeless endeavour. Under heavy artillery fire as they crossed the plain, and each wave was cut down about 100 yards from the stone wall by repeated rifle volleys. When Sumner’s men failed to carry the defences Burnside sent Gen Joseph Hooker’s corps up from the town to try as well, but with predictable results. In all fourteen charges were made against Longstreet’s men, but all were bloody failures – no Union troops got closer than 40 yards to the stone wall before the attack was called off as darkness fell and Burnside ordered his men to retreat back across the river, having lost 8,000 casualties to only 1,500 Confederate in an action that was originally intended to be a purely diversionary effort to draw the Confederates away from Jackson’s position on Prospect Hill.

That evening a distraught Burnside first tried to blame his subordinates, then declared that he would lead a fresh assault the following morning in person, before being talked out of it by his aides. The night of the 13 – 14th Dec 1862 was bitterly cold, with the aurorae playing in the clear skies above as thousands of wounded lay scattered across the battlefield. The author Louisa May Alcott documented their plight in the 1863 novel Hospital Sketches, based on her experiences as a nurse tending the wounded after Fredericksburg. In total the Army of the Potomac lost 12,000 casualties against only 5,000 Confederate, most of them on Jackson’s front.

The news of the defeat at Fredericksburg was received with consternation in Washington, with  Lincoln writing “If there is a worse place than hell, then I am in it”. Yet such was his desperation to find someone, anyone, to lead the Army of the Potomac, that he initially retained Burnside in his post. Three weeks later, in January 1863, Burnside made an abortive attempt at a further winter offensive by marching back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, intending to force a crossing at US Ford, close to Chancellorsville. The heavy winter rains however turned the roads to mud and, with some of his subordinates openly agitating against him, Lincoln was finally forced to act, and Burnside was stood down, to be re-assigned to the western theatre where, in command of smaller forces in a theatre with less political interference, he enjoyed a measure of success.

There can be little doubt, that of all the commanders of the Army of the Potomac, there can have been few more unfitted to the role than Burnside, indeed it was said of him that he should never have held any commission at all above the rank of Colonel. Yet in general, the judgement of history has been kinder to him than it might have been, for the simple reason that no-one was more aware of his shortcomings than Burnside himself, it was role he never wanted and, had it not been for his sense of patriotism, he never would have accepted it. After the war, he enjoyed a successful career in the railway business, served three terms as governor of Rhode Island, having switched parties to the Republicans, attempted mediation in the Franco – Prussian war whilst on a visit to Europe and served  two terms as Senator for Rhode Island; he was also appointed the inaugural president of the National Rifle Association.

Burnside’s replacement as commander was Gen Joseph Hooker. After graduating from West Point in 1837, he served with distinction in the Seminole wars of the 1840’s and 1850’s and in the Mexican war. After leaving the army in 1853, he worked in farming and made an unsuccessful attempt to enter politics in California. He returned to the army at the outbreak of war with the rank of Brig Gen and again served with distinction during the Peninsula campaign and at Sharpsburg. Like his earlier predecessor as commander of the Army of the Potomac, McClellan, Hooker was an extremely able administrator and a very effective motivator of his men; but where he differed was in his aggressive attitude to combat – his nickname among the troops  was “Fighting Joe”.

After re-organising, reinforcing, re-equipping and restoring the army’s battered morale after the debacle of Fredericksburg, Hooker went on the offensive. In late April 1863, while maintaining his main force before Fredericksburg, he sent 10,000 cavalry under Gen George Stoneman northwest to cross the river at Rappahannock Station, and thrust south to attack Confederate lines of communication back to Richmond. At the same time 40,000 men under Gen John Sedgwick would renew the attack on Fredericksburg while Hooker himself took the bulk of his force, some 70,000 strong back up the north bank of the Rappahannock, then across to the south bank and across the Rapidan river to the south, just west of the confluence to the two rivers, intending catch Lee in a pincer. Hooker took up position with his force around a small hamlet called Chancellorsville, in a broad clearing close to an area of dense woodland known as the Wilderness, a few miles south of the Rapidan, and ten miles west of Fredericksburg.  Although outnumbered two to one, and in a precarious position, Lee – still at Fredericksburg –  wasn’t fooled by the move and defied military convention by dividing his force, leaving just 10,000 men to hold off Sedgwick, while he rushed with his remaining 50,000 to confront Hooker in the woods south of Chancellorsville.

The main action of the battle of Chancellorsville opened on the 1st May with an attack by Hooker to the southeast, where he soon ran into Stonewall Jackson’s men advancing towards him close to an unfinished railway line at Tabernacle Church. Despite early success by his men, Hooker seems to have lost his nerve – perhaps believing after the failed attacks at Fredericksburg that the best way to take advantage of his superiority in numbers was to draw Lee towards a defensive position and wear him down. Whatever the reason, Hooker withdrew from the fight and by nightfall had his men dig breastworks around Chancellorsville and waited for Lee to come on to them.

That night, Lee consulted with his main subordinate Stonewall Jackson and, at his urging, hatched what is remembered as the most audacious manoeuvre of his career. The following morning, Lee split his force yet again and sent Jackson westward with 26,000 men on a broad flanking march along the narrow roads snaking through the dense woodland in front of, and then around, the huge Union army until they reached the extreme western flank of Hooker’s position. In the late afternoon, Hooker’s men were preparing their meal when their pickets reported that an unusual number of animals were bounding out of the forest, first squirrels and foxes then larger creatures such as deer. Within a few minutes the reason for every creature large and small being flushed out of the woodland became horribly apparent as Jackson’s 26,000 rebel infantry began to pour out of the forest at a right angle to Hookers entrenched troops. Pandemonium ensued as the Confederates formed into line of battle and opened fire; within minutes panic began to spread along the Union line, which collapsed like a house of cards. Within a few hours, the Confederates came within range of Hooker’s headquarters at Chancellor House. The confusion in the Union ranks was increased further when a stone pillar against which Hooker was leaning was struck by a canon ball, knocking him temporarily unconscious. Dazed, Hooker refused to relinquish command and, but for the timely arrival of Union reinforcements, his entire army would have disintegrated there and then.

Night fell with the Union troops having retreated two miles before the fighting died down. Lee’s great victory, often called his “perfect battle”, was tinged with tragedy however. That night Stonewall and few aides were returning from a reconnaissance of the Union positions when they were mistaken by Confederate pickets for a Union raiding party and fired at. Jackson was severely wounded and was carried to a field medical station where his arm was amputated. Although transferred to a military hospital the following day, pneumonia set in and eight days later he died; robbing Lee of his most able and talented subordinate. Still to this day, Stonewall Jackson’s sweep around the wing of the Union army at Chancellorsville is studied as the perfect example of how to carry out an outflanking manoeuvre.

Fighting resumed the following day, with the arrival of significant Union reinforcements, and the two armies clashed again at Salem Church and at the second battle of Fredericksburg, but by the end of the 4th of May, Hooker had had enough and withdrew back across the Rappahannock, robbing Lee of the chance to destroy the Army of the Potomac. The Union lost 17,000 casualties at Chancellorsville (out of 133,000 engaged) against 13,000 Confederate (out of 61,000). The two interlinked battles of Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville were the high watermark of Confederate fortunes in the eastern theatre. Although both were resounding rebel victories, never again would a numerically superior Union force be beaten so easily in the field.



Copyright ©2012 Savereo John