The Battle of Gettysburg, Day Two: A Test of Will With Blood

Battle Lines Drawn. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The morning of July 2nd, 1863 would dawn with the battle lines clearly drawn to the south of Gettysburg. Throughout the night, and much of the morning, the full might of both the Army of Northern Virginia, and that of the Army of the Potomac, reached the battlefield. 

Meade would array his forces in a “fishhook” position, beginning at Culp’s Hill, curving around Cemetery Hill, and extending along Cemetery Ridge. Terminating just shy of the hilltops known as Little and Big Roundtop. The depleted Corps would make up the defense of Culp’s and Cemetery Hills, whilst Hancock’s fresh 2nd Corps would command the main position along Cemetery Ridge; with Sickles 3rd Corps holding the extreme flank.

Lee, still lacking adequate knowledge of the terrain due to JEB Stuart’s continued absence with the cavalry, positioned Longstreet on his right flank, the Union’s left. Longstreet commanded two divisions out of three as Pickett’s division had been the rearmost in the march and hadn’t yet arrived. A.P Hill’s diminished Corps would command the center, somewhat to the northwest of Cemetery Hill, and Ewell’s 2nd Corps would be on the Union’s right flank.

Lee called a meeting early in the day and laid out his plan of attack. Believing that the Union forces would be stretched thin on their left he ordered the main attack to take place there, Longstreet commanding, whilst General Ewell would attack Culp’s Hill to stop Meade from maneuvering reinforcements to his left flank. Longstreet warned that the Union forces were well entrenched on Cemetery Ridge and that his men would be in full view of their artillery for their entire approach. He instead wished to swing around the flank, over the Roundtops and attack the Union supply train, cutting Meade off from retreat. Lee dismissed his general’s concerns, however, knowing that if he could drive the northerners from the heights of Cemetery Ridge he could role the Union line up like a carpet and route the entire army. Due to Pickett not yet having arrived to complete Longstreet’s Corps, a division would be pulled from Hill’s Corps, commanded by General Richard H. Anderson, to support his attack.

Though Lee desired to commence his attack as early as possible, Longstreet’s divisions were not in position until almost 4 PM. The main drive towards Cemetery Ridge would be led by General Lawfayette Mclaws, while General John Bell Hood’s division would push for the extreme left of the Union line, over Little Round Top. Anderson’s division would support Mclaws. 

Between Longstreet’s position and Cemetery Ridge stood a peach orchard, as well as a woody dell known as Devil’s Den. Longstreet knew that if he could reach Devil’s Den he would be somewhat sheltered from the Union artillery while making his ascent up the ridge. He would, however, encounter resistance sooner than expected. 

On the Union side, General Daniel Sickles did not like where he had been ordered to spread his line, and so pushed forward slightly, off of Cemetery Ridge, and into Devil’s Den and the peach orchard. A much more favorable position for his artillery, he thought. When Sickles failed to appear for a meeting of the commanders Meade rode out personally to his position to see what had held him up. When he found Sickles out of position he was furious but, knowing that the Confederate attack was imminent, ordered him to hold, instead sending the 5th Corps to reinforce Hancock.

Mclaws and Hood’s divisions advanced and were surprised to come into contact with Sickles Corp so far forward. Fierce fighting ensued. 

Meade’s chief engineer, Gouverneur K. Warren, upon seeing that the Little Roundtop was undefended, and realizing it significant strategic position, rushed to find someone to hold it. The first commander he found was Colonel Strong Vincent, who commanded a brigade of Maine volunteers, and was part of the 5th Corps. Without seeking approval from his commanding officer Colonel Vincent agreed to secure the hill. He did so unopposed, though that wouldn’t last long, and stretched his four regiments along its crest. On the extreme left was a tattered regiment, the 20th Maine, commanded by one Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain.

Mclaws’ division succeeded in pushing the Union forces back, all but annihilating them in the peach orchard, before being repulsed by Hancock’s flank. Hood succeeded in pushing through Devil’s Den, and approached Little Roundtop. Anderson arrived to support Mclaws and drove towards to top of Cemetery Ridge. Hood advanced again and again upon the Little Roundtop but the rocky terrain, steep slope, and forested summit made it difficult for him to dislodge Vincent’s beleaguered brigade.

Through withering fire Anderson was able to crest the top of Cemetery Ridge, pushing through Hancock’s lines, only to be met with the full might of the reinforcements sent by Meade, and he was forced to retreat. 

On the Little Roundtop, a last desperate bayonet charge, ordered and led by Colonel Chamberlain, succeeded in sweeping the remnants of Hood’s men from the hill.

On the Union right flank, weakened by Meade sending reinforcements to the west, Ewell managed to make some headway. He succeeded in taking the lower portions of Culp’s Hill, but due to slow advances by some of his divisions he was unable to hold any of the ground. 

Sickles lost most of his Corps and was himself wounded when a cannon ball shattered his leg- leading to its amputation. Hood would be wounded as well, and lose the use of his left arm. Colonel Strong Vincent would later die of his wounds sustained during the battle. He was 26, and his wife was pregnant with their first child. General Meade would promote Vincent to general shortly before he died. Joshua Chamberlain would be forever cemented in history for his actions on the Little Roundtop. 

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