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 – Second Manassas and Sharpsburg

President Abraham Lincoln and General George Brinton McClellan

Ten Biggest Battles of the Civil War (table)

Eastern Theatre of the Civil War (map)

Second Manassas and Sharpsburg (map)

The second battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run) on 28th to 30th Aug, fought over substantially the same ground as the war’s first battle, was the largest engagement of the Northern Virginia campaign of the eastern theatre of the Civil War which lasted from mid July to early September of 1862. In total the Union deployed the 78,000 troops of the newly formed Union  Army of Virginia under Gen John Pope, who were opposed by 50,000 men of the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under Robert E Lee. The campaign is considered as a resounding Confederate victory.

The Army of Virginia had been established by Washington on 26th June 1862, the same day as Lee’s attack at Mechanicsville that began the Seven Days, with Gen John Pope appointed as its commander. Pope was a Mexican war veteran, who had also had a peacetime army career as a topographical engineer. At the outbreak of war he was assigned to the western theatre and despite a personality regarded as prickly and prone to bragging by his subordinates, he enjoyed the confidence of his commanding officer Gen Henry Halleck and led a number of successful actions. As commander of Union Army of the Mississippi, in Feb 1862, he was tasked with clearing Confederate obstacles from the river and as part of the campaign captured the rebel stronghold of New Madrid, Missouri in a surprise attack, then went on to capture the fortress of Island No. 10 on the Kentucky Bend of the great river, taking 12,000 prisoners and opening navigation of the river as far south as Memphis, Tennessee to the Union. For this success, Halleck promoted Pope to Maj Gen and placed him in command of one wing of his own army, then besieging Corinth, Mississippi, when Pope was summoned to Washington to be placed in command of the Army of Virginia.

After the embarrassing defeat of the Peninsula campaign, Lincoln had turned to Pope as a man more inclined to offensive intent than the over-cautious McClellan and tasked him with the defence of Washington and the Shenandoah Valley as well cutting the strategic Virginia Railroad connecting Gordonsville and Lynchburg in order to draw Lee out from the defences of Richmond. Campaigning in the Shenandoah had been in progress for 6 months, with the Confederate forces under the command of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, a former mathematics professor. Despite his poor performance in the Seven Days, Jackson had enjoyed huge success in the Shenandoah, where his small force of 17,000 had defended the rich farmlands from three separate Union armies, each larger than his own, totalling  more than 53,000 men. At the battles of Kernstown, Front Royal, Winchester, Cross Keys and Port Republic Jackson’s tiny force had consistently out-fought, out-marched and out-thought the Union forces, inflicting many casualties and stealing so many supplies from the enemy that the commander of the largest Union force, the hapless Gen Nathaniel Banks, was known to the rebel troops as “Quartermaster Banks”.

From an early point in the campaign, Pope showed that he had very different ideas on the prosecution of war from McClellan, believing that the consequences of rebellion should be brought home to civilians found to be aiding or sympathetic to the rebels. He ordered that any house from which shots were fired at Union troops be burned and its occupants taken as POW’s and that his officers be given licence to arrest any male civilian they considered “disloyal”. In addition he ordered that his army subsist from the land when in rebel areas, handing over worthless vouchers in payment, a system that rapidly degenerated into a licence for theft by his men. This caused outrage in the South where the press dubbed him “Miscreant Pope”.

Pope opened the campaign by concentrating his forces near Cedar Mountain, preparing to attack Gordonsville, while Jackson marched from the Valley and attempted to interdict him by occupying Culpepper Courthouse and Lee prepared to take the Army of Northern Virginia north from the defences of Richmond to confront Pope. On the 9th Aug at the battle of Cedar Mountain, 16,000 confederates under Jackson met and defeated 8,000 Union men under Banks, inflicting 2,400 casualties, but had to withdraw to Gordonsville after Pope brought up his main force. On Aug 13th, upon hearing that McClellan was evacuating his force from Harrison’s landing, Lee made his move and advanced to the Rappahannock river in the hope of confronting Pope before McClellan could reinforce him.

As Pope moved south along the Orange and Alexandria railroad to confront Lee, resulting in a series of inconclusive skirmishes around Rappahannock Station, Stonewall succeeded in getting behind Pope’s force and on 27th Aug captured and destroyed the gigantic Union supply depot at Manassas Junction, causing Pope to abruptly disengage and move north to confront him. The following day, the 28th Aug, one whole wing of Lee’s army under Gen James Longstreet, 28,000 strong, attacked the small Union of force of 5,000 guarding Thoroughfare Gap, scattering them and allowing Longstreet to reinforce Stonewall – with dire consequences for Pope as he had now allowed two significant portions of Lee’s army to unite against him.

Two days later, Stonewall made an attempt to lure Pope into battle by attacking part of his army along the Warrenton Turnpike, about two miles to the west of the stone bridge over Bull Run, where the war’s first battle had been fought. As Pope brought up his main force, 62,000 strong, Longstreet approached from Thoroughfare Gap and brought the Confederate force to 50,000 setting the scene for the 2nd battle of Manassas (2nd Bull Run). Jackson deployed along an unfinished railway embankment and prepared for the attack. Unaware of how close Longstreet was, Pope was convinced he had trapped Jackson and launched an assault against the embankment, with heavy losses on both sides. As Longstreet arrived early the afternoon, he threw his 25,000 men against the Union forces recovering from the morning assault against Jackson and sent them reeling back across the old 1st Manassas battlefield and over Bull Run where they established fresh defensive positions. The Union lost 10,000 casualties, against just 1,300 Confederate – a crushing Confederate victory.

Pope withdrew his force to the northeast, concentrating around Centreville, but by Aug 31st, he had lost his nerve and decided to withdraw his army to the defences of Washington until directly ordered by Halleck to attack. Lee however had plans of his own, and on 1st September sent Stonewall and 20,000 men against a force of 8,000 Union men at the battle of Chantilly inflicting 1,500 casualties – including the two Union divisional commanders Philip Kearney and Isaac Stevens who were both killed. This brought to a close the disastrous Northern Virginia campaign, with Pope withdrawing to the defences of Washington under virtual siege. The campaign had cost the Union 16,000 casualties out of 78,000 engaged against 9,000 Confederate out of about 50,000 engaged. Union morale plummeted further after the disaster , whilst Lee’s reputation as a military genius was cemented. Modern scholarship regards the Northern Virginia Campaign as Lee’s finest achievement. Pope was removed from command shortly afterwards, and spent the remainder of the war on the western frontier, out of harm’s way.

Whilst the Union armies failed in the field, Lincoln had political problems of his own. Although an avowed opponent of slavery, he was also a realist. His principal war aim was to re-establish the Union; a precipitous move against slavery might damage the southern economy, but would have dire consequences for his own side too – “I would do it, if I were not afraid that half the officers would fling down their arms and three more states would rise” he said. Nonetheless, in June 1862, on the eve of the Seven Days, Congress, now controlled by the Republicans, outlawed slavery in the western territories, settling the principal issue that had triggered secession in the first place. Lincoln took a secret decision to emancipate all slaves in rebel held areas, believing that such a proclamation would extinguish any remaining support for the Confederacy in Europe, particularly Britain and France. He was persuaded however by his wily Secretary of State William Seward to avoid any public announcement until better news arrived from the battlefield. Unfortunately for Lincoln, there was worse to come. In the western theatre, Braxton Bragg’s Confederate Army of Tennessee had re-invaded Kentucky and attempted to establish a pro-Confederate government at Lexington. Meanwhile Lee, emboldened by his recent success, went on the offensive.

On the 3rd Sept, two days after the Confederate victory at Chantilly , Robert E Lee notified President Davis in Richmond that he intended to invade Maryland and attempt to raise the state for the Confederacy, then capture the rail centre at Harrisburg. The following day 40,000 troops crossed the Potomac at White’s Ford, near Leesburg, into Maryland and headed for the town of Frederick. A Maryland woman watched Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia as they passed – “… the dirtiest men I ever saw … a most ragged, lean and hungry set of wolves. Yet there was a dash about them that our Northern men lacked.”; whilst another wrote “This body of men moved with no order, their guns carried in every fashion, no two men dressed alike, the officers hardly distinguishable from the privates … were these the men who had defeated again and again our splendid legions ?”.

Desperate to get the Army of the Potomac back into the field Lincoln reluctantly turned again to McClellan to take the lead, reasoning that if anyone could get the army back on  its feet again, it was him. The decision was highly controversial however and caused a split in Lincoln’s cabinet, the majority signing a petition opposing the decision; Lincoln, always the pragmatist, felt that he had no choice saying “we must use the tools that we have”.

Despite having only 55,000 men at his disposal, against 90,000 available to McClellan, Lee defied military convention, as he did many times in his career, and split his force by detaching Stonewall to attack the Union ammunition depot at Harper’s Ferry, where in 1858 Lee himself had captured the anti-slavery campaigner John Brown. Deploying 30,000 against just 13,000 defending the town, Jackson forced their surrender after a three day siege, the largest Union surrender of the war. Lee meanwhile had concentrated his remaining force at Hagerstown, 20 miles to the north.

McClellan meanwhile, who had assumed that Lee’s objective must be to swing around to the east and threaten Washington, and was pursuing with his usual excess of caution, was handed the most extraordinary piece of luck. On 13th of September, as Jackson was besieging Harper’s Ferry, the Union commander was handed a piece of paper, found by one of his men in a field near Frederick used by the Confederates as a camp a few days earlier. The paper was wrapped round three cigars, but when opened and read, turned out to be a copy of Lee’s battle plan. At a stroke, McClellan now knew where Lee was headed and that he had split his force into two. “Here is a paper .. “ he told his men “with which if I cannot whip Bobby Lee, I will be willing to go home …”. A similar enthusiastic message was sent to Lincoln promising that he would “send trophies”. Typically for McClellan however, he did nothing for a whole day before finally making his move.

On the 16th of September, Lee with 18,000 of his men, took up defensive positions along a three mile ridge, a few miles to the east of the small town of Sharpsburg, and overlooking a small stream called Antietam Creek. Writing after the war, Lee’s subordinate Gen James Longstreet recalled the day “ … the blue uniforms of the Federals appeared among the trees crowning the heights on the eastern bank of Antietam Creek. The number increased and larger and larger grew the field of blue until it seemed to stretch as far as the eye could see …”. McClellan had brought his main force, 90,000 strong, against Lee’s tiny, divided army. “There was but a single item in our advantage” one of Lee’s aides remembered “ … but it was an important one. McClellan brought superior forces to Sharpsburg, but he also brought himself …”.

Had McClellan hurled his force across the creek that day, the war would have ended there and then, but he did not attack until the following day, believing that he had a least 100,000 men opposing him, giving Lee the chance to order Jackson to force march through the night from Harper’s Ferry and also to call up further troops under Gen Ambrose Powell Hill stationed at Botelers Ford, who would arrive mid way through the following day, more than doubling Lee’s force.

The battle commenced the following morning with an attack against Stonewall’s corps, at the northern end of the Confederate line, with an assault by 9,000 men of Gen Joseph’s Hooker’s corps along the Hagerstown turnpike towards a plateau on which sat a small whitewashed German Baptist chapel named Dunker Church. Seeing the Confederates massed in a cornfield ahead of them, an artillery duel ensued followed by a ferocious hand-to-hand fight in the cornfield before Confederate reinforcements arrived and a back-and- forth duel ensued that lasted all morning and ended in a bloody stalemate. At midday action shifted to the centre of the Confederate line, where 2,500 rebels held a sunken lane against twice that number of Union troops, as another hand to hand fight developed and each side threw in reinforcements until another stalemate ensued.

The final action of the day occurred in the southern section of the battlefield, where Gen Ambrose Burnside and 12,500 men had been ordered to stage a diversionary attack across the creek to coincide with the morning assault in the north, but due to confused orders, Burnside started his attack late. Immediately in front of Burnside’s position was a stone bridge over Antietam Creek, beyond which a small force of Confederate sharpshooters and a few artillery pieces were hiding in woods on a hill overlooking the bridge. Burnside appears not to have known that the creek was only waist deep and could have been forded with ease, instead funnelling his men across the bridge, where the rebels picked them off at will, causing heavy casualties. Eventually, after three separate assaults, sheer weight of numbers told, and the bridge was crossed and the Confederates were pushed back into the town, until AP Hill’s force arrived on the battlefield in the nick of time and stemmed the Union advance. By 18:00 the fighting had died down and Lee’s battered force re-grouped for the final assault that must come the next day – but it never did. McClellan, still convinced that he was outnumbered paused himself and allowed Lee to escape to the south, back across the Potomac. Desperate pleas from Washington to pursue Lee’s broken army were ignored as they “would not be prudent”.

Sharpsburg had 22,800 casualties, not only the single bloodiest day in the civil war, but the single bloodiest day in all US history, before or since. Lincoln held McClellan solely responsible for a stalemate that should have been a decisive victory – despite the huge odds in his favour his excessive caution meant that fully one third of the Union force never fired a shot. Lincoln sacked McClellan, who took no further part in military operations for the remainder of the war. In 1864, he secured the Democrat nomination for the presidential election of that year to stand against him  – a battle which he also lost.

Although a disaster in many ways, Sharpsburg came to be regarded a turning point in the war. It wasn’t the victory that Lincoln was looking for, but it was as much as he was going to get; on 22nd September he issued the Emancipation Proclamation – finally ending any thought in the minds of the British or French governments of any intervention in the war in favour of the Confederacy.



Copyright ©2012 Savereo John