On this day in history, July 1st, 1863, the three-day long turning point and bloodiest engagement of the Civil War took place: The Battle of Gettysburg. Following Robert E. Lee’s success over the Army of Potomac at Chancellorsville, the Confederate general was granted authority by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy at the time, to commence further invasion of Northern states.
Lee held a vision to capitalize upon potential victories on Northern soil, which would bring the Lincoln command to negotiate peace. Lee also hoped to drive the war away from ruined Virginia farmland in addition to replenishing supplies for his Army of Northern Virginia.
On the Union side of the rising action, amidst of the defeat at Chancellorsville, Lincoln replaced the Army of Potomac’s commander Major General Joseph Hooker with Major General George G. Meade.
Unbeknownst to Lee, shortly after Meade took command, the Union general called for a pursuit of Lee’s army. Lee utilized the Shenandoah Valley as cover for his troops and made his arrival into southern Pennsylvania during late June. Lee eventually learned of the Army of Potomac on its way and planned to converge his armies at the crossroads town of Gettysburg.
On the morning of July 1st, Confederate forces led by General Richard S. Ewell and General A.P. Hill heavily outnumbered the Union brigade of 3,000 occupying Gettysburg, forcing them back half a mile south to Cemetery Hill. Lee saw opportunity in the disheveled Union fortifications, and ordered Ewell to storm Cemetery Hill before the bulk of Meade’s reinforcements could arrive. Ewell foresaw the Union forces’ advantageous positioning and declined the order, resenting his downgraded ability compared to that of the recently-deceased Stonewall Jackson.
On the following day, Union forces continued to regroup and amass while Lee assessed the present scenario. Lee’s second-in-command, James Longstreet, attempted to convey a defensive approach to the combat. The presumptuous general turned down Longstreet’s advice, determined to leave his strategy unchanged in the midst of a dynamic enemy.
The Union army prepared to defend around the fishhook-shaped set of hills and ridges, while the Confederate reinforcements began the assault by essentially wrapping around Meade’s position. Lee called for Ewell to lead a heavy attack on Culp’s Hill, while Longstreet was to hit the left flank commanded by Daniel Sickles.
Intense fighting between the Union army of around 90,000 and the Confederate forces of around 75,000 erupted across the battlefield and lasted until dusk. Ewell’s men had managed to breach East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill while successfully coordinating with Longstreet’s charge on the left, but had still failed to dislodge a majority of the Union’s strong positions.
The final day of the battle began with Union infantry regaining their foothold at Culp’s Hill, putting a halt on Ewell’s assault. The defining moment of the Battle of Gettysburg was seen with an attack later known as “Pickett’s Charge.” Lee remained determined, believing he was on the verge of another smashing blow for the Confederates. Once again against Longstreet’s better judgment, Lee ordered three divisions followed by a barrage of artillery bombardment to strike the center of Union forces lying at Cemetery Ridge.
Major General George Pickett – administer of a division smaller than 15,000 troops – would be under obligation to mobilize three-quarters of a mile across an open field to pierce garrisoned Union fortifications. Lee’s forces were hit by Union flanks from New York, Vermont, and Ohio.
Just scraping by with hardly half of his army, as well as Pickett losing a staggering two-thirds of his division, a demoralized Robert E. Lee called for a retreat back to a defensive line with dwindling hopes of a successful northern invasion. Lee held his position in wait for a counterattack that would never come, and the following morning fell back his battered and bruised army to Virginia.
The victorious Union casualties tallied up to 23,000, while the Confederates had about 28,000 fall in the battle. Although Lee’s job was not through and he would go on to reign victorious over more Union armies, the Battle of Gettysburg resulted in a dispirited Lee and a significant gash in the Confederacy that the Union would capitalize upon and win the war.
Finally, in the same year of 1863 during November, President Abraham Lincoln was requested to speak a few words at the dedication ceremony for the official National Cemetery of Gettysburg. Though brief, the 273-word speech masterly crafted by Lincoln went on to echo throughout time for ages to come.
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