As we celebrate our nation’s founding this 4th of July, let’s remember all the blood, sweat, and tears poured out over the decades and centuries to keep our America together; not the least of which horrific conflicts resulted in countless thousands pouring much blood and suffering during our Civil War, and the most devastating battle of that war, at Gettysburg. The battle was fought from the 1st until the 3rd July. Such conflict in the shadow of a day when we should all celebrate one nation together, and the ideals we try to live by, ALL of us, not just those of some.
Let’s not fall to that so severe conflict again; let us find our way forward together with certainty, and compromise, and not violence.
This from a Twitter Thread I found last week, all props to @pptsapper — who defines as, ” History person, Army officer, transplanted Buckeye. Writes stuff. Some Star Wars. One half of @warstoriescast. Views do not reflect or represent the DoD’s.”
Thanks for this account.
It’s around 0730 on the sunny, already-humid morning of July 1, 1863. One of the many blue-coated cavalry patrols and videttes posted to the roads surrounding the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania spots the movement of heavy columns of butternut uniforms west of the town
The troopers have had a long night in their outposts, heavy with dew, snatching as much sleep as a saddle and wet blanket will allow. The 8th Illinois Cavalry, nicknamed the Abolition Regiment, is posted on the Chambersburg Pike, which is now in the path of Beth’s rebel division
Lt Marcellus Jones borrows the carbine of one of his troopers. He raises it, sights it onto a rebel officer, and fires. He misses. The heavy air echoes with the sound, soon replaced by the morning birdsong of Pennsylvania. But not for long. The crackle of carbines begins to grow
US cavalry BG John Buford has only about 2,700 men around Gettysburg. As the eyes & ears of the Army of the Potomac, he has found the enemy & is determined to hang on to them until the infantry can arrive. As the pops of the carbines are telling him, his long morning is beginning
Gunsmoke wafts up from the lines of videttes along the Chambersburg Pike, Confederate rifles joining in, as Lt. John Calef of Gloucester, Ma, unlimbers his six 3″ ordnance rifles of Btty A, 2d US Artillery. Only one year out of West Point, Calef, too, will have a long morning
Confederate skirmishers fan out in long lines, pushing into the dense vegetation below Herr’s Ridge, trading potshots with what they’re now realizing is US cavalry, not local militia as their commander had thought. Undeterred, Heth continues to advance, bringing up his own guns
The steady thump of artillery resounds across the ridges west of town as the iron and brass tubes warm to their work. Troopers fire a fusillade from their carbines and scamper back, the line of outposts slowly giving way to Heth’s Confederates, forcing them to deploy in line
Rippling waves of musketry announce that Heth has his division deployed in line, rippling ranks pushing up against Buford’s troopers, who are falling back to McPherson’s Ridge. Calef’s guns are spitting fire with case and solid shot, each shock wave reverberating in the hot air
Buford’s tattered regiments fade off the line as the first infantry regiments of the I Corps arrive at the double quick, dust clouds following, and Hall’s 2nd Maine Battery drops trails and opens a rapid fire with case and canister on the approaching rebel infantry
The two US infantry brigades crash into battle along the Chambersburg Pike, the Badgers, Hoosiers, and Wolverines of the Iron Brigade deploying to the left of the pike, their tall black hats distinctive against the ripening corn and wheat fields. The sound of battle swells
Maj Gen John Reynolds, commanding the I Corps, while riding his line and placing the Iron Brigade is struck by a bullet, killing him nearly instantly. Reynolds had refused command of the Army of the Potomac just weeks before this. His men continue the fight as the heat rises
As Archer’s Tennesseans splash across Willoughby Run, they’re greeted by a sheet of flame and iron from the Iron Brigade, practically at point blank range – most of the brigade is captured, including Archer. MG Abner Doubleday, an old colleague greets him warmly.
“I’m glad to see you,” says Doubleday. “I’m not glad to see you by a damned sight!” growls Archer, as he’s led off.
Fierce fighting erupts around an unfinished railroad cut, hand to hand in places. Rebels swarm up close to Hall’s Battery, to be blasted back by double canister
Col Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin leads a counterattack that blunts the Confederate push into the railroad cut, leaving him holding 7 swords of rebel officers. The musketry begins to fade away, only the pop shots of the pickets can be heard as a lull settles over the fields
If seen from above, the road networks around Gettysburg are like the spokes of a wheel. A high-flying bird might have seen miles of marching men converging on the town. From the north, Ewell’s Corps was arriving by brigade, going into line from Oak Hill spreading east
To the west, Heth was joined by Pettigrew and Pender’s divisions. Heth’s reconnaissance in force was bringing the whole army into action, something Lee had expressly warned against. But in an army drunk on the legacy of victory, orders went by the wayside.
Up from the south comes the tramp-tramp-tramp of the XI Corps, the jingling rattle of Osborne’s artillery and its attendant caissons, as the corps goes into line to the right of the I Corps, stretching in a wide arc north of the town. They are too few to hold this ground
The one-armed commander of the XI Corps, MG Oliver Howard, makes the key decision to post one of his divisions on Cemetery Hill, the dominant rise just south of the town. This is the only reserve for the two corps as they adjust their lines and prepare for what will come next
Atop Oak Hill, Confederate MG Rodes is perfectly situated to strike the angle of the I Corps line, where it bends east to link in with the XI Corps. With his three brigades, he can hit the one US brigade at that angle – Baxter’s – with fire from three sides. He begins the attack
But Rodes does not coordinate his attacks. He keeps one brigade of Georgians back and orders O’Neal and Iverson’s brigades forward. No officer of the division conducts a reconnaissance. In the heavy heat of the early afternoon, O’Neal attacks Baxter’s right flank
O’Neal’s brigade is raked with musketry and by the particularly galling fire of two batteries of XI Corps artillery on his left flank. One of these is Battery I, 1st Ohio Light Artillery, commanded by Hubert Dilger, a German-born and trained artillery officer with deadly aim
Rodes deploys his own batteries to silence the US guns, but Dilger methodically picks apart the rebel guns, dismounting 5 of them. He sighted one particular shot; his spotter informed him that he’d missed. “Oh no” Dilger replied, “I think you’ll find that I plugged the muzzle”
Nicknamed “leather britches” for his penchant for wearing leather trousers into combat, Dilger advances a section against more rebel batteries. Cut up in his front and flank, O’Neal is forced to withdraw with heavy losses.
Iverson’s North Carolina brigade of about 1,300 men began their attack, without their commander, from the left of Oak Hill, soldiers’ boots scuffing into the rich farmland, flags fluttering as if on parade, lines dressed, but no skirmishers ahead to feel out the enemy defenses.
Baxter, a miller from Michigan and militia captain before the war, shifts his brigade behind a stone wall & orders the men to lay down behind it, concealing flags and muskets. The Tarheel troops approach the wall, with their front & flank exposed, the only sound the tramp of feet
At 80 yards, Baxter gives the order, and the stone wall blossoms, first with the blue of the NY, PA, and MA troops as they rise with colors taking the wind, and then flame and smoke, as the entire brigade levels one of the most lethal volleys of the war. The NC line disappears
The 88th NY and 90th PA fire a buck and ball combination from their smoothbore muskets, absolutely murderous at short range. Rifle fire from the other regiments decimates the Tarheels, with over 600 struck down, dead and wounded, helpless under the gale of fire
“Up, boys, and give them steel!” Baxter shouts over the roar and his men charge forward, seizing over 300 prisoners and three battle flags. Iverson’s brigade ceases to exist as a fighting force. Just like that, Rodes’ division, one of the largest in the ANV, is cut to shreds
It is now 2:30 in the afternoon, and Robert E Lee finally arrives on the field. Seeing that he has two of his corps already in action against what appears to be a much smaller US force, he gives the order for general battle. Hill and Ewell may now attack from the west and north
Attacking from the west Pettigrew’s brigade of North Carolinians strikes the Iron Brigade, lapping around their southern flank, striking the 19th Indiana particularly hard. Men load, fire, load, fire in mechanical frenzy in some of the hottest close-in fighting of the war
The attack spreads from south to north, Pender and Heth’s division pounding on the I Corps, although Pender is showing a lack of aggression. The tired I Corps is fighting with spirit but running low on ammunition. Baxter’s Brigade is out, and replaced by Paul’s Brigade
Two more of Ewell’s brigades pound Paul from Oak Hill, but with no more success than Rodes had. But now Ewell’s attack ripples down the line to the north, striking at the XI Corps, overextended and holding precarious ground, their flank exposed
Unlike Rodes, Jubal Early’s division coordinated its assault on the exposed division of Francis Channing Barlow, positioned too far forward to allow for mutual support. Under attack from front and both flanks, the division held, faltered, and then buckled, with Barlow wounded
The fighting on Blocher’s Knoll, Barlow’s position, is brutal & fierce. 19-year old Bayard Wilkeson, commanding Battery G, 4th US Artillery, is unhorsed by a rebel shell, his leg horrifically mangled. Still directing the fire of his guns, he amputates his own leg with a penknife
Bayard’s father is a Sam Wilkeson, a war correspondent, who hears of his son’s wounded and travels thru the lines under a flag of truce that night. He is with his son in his final hours when he dies later that night.
With both of the XI Corps divisions in retreat, Howard now pushes Coster’s Brigade into the roiling maelstrom. This unit buys precious time for the remainder of the corps to escape, minus 1,400 prisoners, as the US line quickly nears full collapse
Back to the west, Pender’s Division is still pounding on the I Corps, which has fallen back to Seminary Ridge, gunners retreating by recoil when their battery horses are killed off – firing their guns and reloading as the crews haul the gun further back to reload
Scales’ brigade of five North Carolina regiments attacks along the Chambersburg Pike, only to meet the combined fury of Charles Wainwright’s I Corps artillery. The guns blast the rebel lines with case & canister, utterly pulverizing it. Only 500 men and one LT return out of 1400
But one rebel brigade finds the weak spot in the line and pours through a gap. The afternoon air rings with musketry, shouts, screams, curses, and the road of the artillery. The Iron Brigade bends back and grudgingly gives way as the I Corps line begins to crumble
Wainwright, seeing what’s coming, begins to withdraw the US guns. He orders the batteries to move at a walk, so as not to alarm the infantry. However, as the rebels breach Seminary Ridge, the order to gallop is given, and the batteries tear off at full speed, 3 teams abreast
These guns speed their way to Cemetery Hill, where they are quickly placed in dominant positions, alongside the XI Corps reserves. This is the rallying point for the exhaust US troops, some falling back in good order, some no better than a rout
On the I Corps left flank, Paul’s Brigade is in grave danger of being cut off and surrounded. They must fall back, but to do so, they must have time. The division commander orders a forlorn hope: one single regiment that will hold to permit the rest to escape. The 16th Maine
The colors are ripped from their staff by the color guard & torn into shreds, each man tucking a piece into a pocket. Tilden stabs his sword into the ground and breaks it off at the hilt. After this act of defiance, the regiment scatters. Only abt 40 make it back to Cemetery Hill
The 157th New York, raised from near the center of the state, also sacrifice themselves in a counterattack outside the town to buy time for the XI Corps to clear the town, taking 75% casualties in the process. The sacrifices pay off. As the shadows lengthen, the US regroups
One officer and his staff have arrived on Cemetery Hill. II Corps commander MG Winfield Scott Hancock, sent by Meade to assess the ground and situation. Hancock confers with Howard, who defers to Hancock’s seniority. They agree that this position is where the army will fight
Hancock and Howard are working hard to create order out of chaos; placing regiments and batteries, directing the wounded rearwards, providing direction for wayward groups of men who are still streaming in, escaping the maelstrom in the town and Seminary Ridge
Lee, too, is attempting to bring about order in his chaotic lines, as the evening draws closer and as he gains the reports of his commanders. Hill’s Corps, he finds, has been extensively mauled in the fighting that day. Its one division not engaged is still in reserve
Ewell’s Corps is untangling itself from fighting in the town, but is best disposed to continue the fight. Lee asks Ewell to take the heights beyond the town, if practicable. Lee’s orders are vague, broad, and not directive. But Ewell begins a recon with his officers
Cemetery Hill bristles with artillery, the guns posted here and there amongst the white tombstones. But the neighboring height, Culps Hill – wooded and rocky, not open like its neighbor – appears to be undefended. This inspection takes some time to complete
Upon completing his recon, Ewell opts not to attack Cemetery Hill – perhaps fearing losing everything. His division commanders are also reluctant to attack, urging him to wait for Johnson’s division to arrive before they attack. Ewell requests assistance from Hill, who says no
As dusk falls and fireflies mingle with the lanterns going to and fro from ambulances, Ewell moves two brigades of Johnson’s fresh division towards Culps Hill, but halts them, as US troops are spotted. A rebel patrol is met with an ambush, capturing their officer; the rest flee
This is the newly arriving US XII Corps, which moves into position on Culp’s Hill. Hancock’s II Corps and portions of Dan Sickles’ III Corps go into line south of Cemetery Hill, along the low crest of Cemetery Ridge. George Sykes and his V Corps are but a few hours march away
Losses have been grievous – slightly higher on the US side, but no less horrific for the rebels. And now Lee is bound by his own mistakes and those of his commanders to fight a battle on unknown ground, against an unknown enemy. He still has troops marching up from Chambersburg
Those troops – & those of Hill and Ewell – did not leave the Pennsylvania towns unmolested. They demanded payments of cash from many towns. But far, far more grievous are the hundreds of free African-Americans living in PA who are swept up by Lee’s army & sent south: into slavery
Stuart’s cavalry, still absent, is engaged in the same despicable behavior. African-American communities are devastated by marauding Confederate bands sweeping up people. The intent is clear: no Emancipation Proclamation will stop the slavers from prosecuting their brutal war
But in US regiments across the battlefield, there existed an anomaly that historians are still piecing together: Black soldiers in supposedly all-white regiments. While many were present as cooks, still others were combat troops. Some state units turned a blind eye to race.
I will say that this is a vitally understudied field – Juanita Patience Moss has been compiling rosters that number over 1,000 men who served in white regiments. This seems to have been especially common in the northeast. It is a study that breaks apart our conceptions
July 2, 1863 in Adams County, PA begins as a slightly overcast, muggy day, in the high 70s, climbing towards 80. The overall popular of the county has increased by over 100,000 by now, as the majority of both armies have arrived on the field, although more troops are on the march
George Meade has met with his corps commanders upon his arrival just after midnight this morning and has agreed to remain on the line picked by Hancock and Howard. His chief engineer, Gouverneur Warren, has ridden the line and confirmed the position’s defensive attributes
The US line runs from the XII Corps on Culp’s Hill, to the I and XI on Cemetery Hill, turning south where the II and III Corps occupy Cemetery Ridge. At first light this morning, Meade was up and riding every inch of his line, inspecting positions, and making recommendations
Because of the reconnaissance earlier, Sickles knows that the enemy is out there. Just how many, he is not sure, nor their full intent. Meade, fearing the worst, gives orders to the II and XII Corps to be prepared to give support, and sends word for the V Corps to support the III
In the XII Corps is 62yo BG George Greene, an engineer by trade. All day long on Culp’s Hill, his men are occupied with pick and shovel, felling trees and digging earthworks. The grim engineer is determined that any fight that is coming will not be a fair fight.
On the extreme US left, the tiny companies of the 2nd US Sharpshooters take up their places. The green-clad men, expert shots all, are using cover and concealment as they move to cover Sickles’ left flank. Spotting rebel skirmishers, they open fire, beginning a small firefight
Atop a small rocky hill overlooking Devil’s Den, chief engineer GK Warren is visiting the signal corps station. He notes no other troops on this height, only the men of Ward’s Brigade down the slope . He sends a message to the NY battery there: fire into the woods to your front
The New Yorkers fire down the slope, over the heads of the 124th NY, the “Orange Blossoms.” Looking thru his binos, Warren spots the sun flashing off moving barrels and bayonets in the treeline. Rebels. He immediately sends his aides dashing off to find reinforcements
It is now just about 4 PM, and the semblance of quiet is broken by the roar of 36 Confederate cannon opening the attack on the left flank. On the right, Ewell is doing his due diligence and opening a barrage of his own against the US guns on East Cemetery Hill
Longstreet has arranged Hood’s division to the south and McClaws’ to the north. But as they recon the ground, they find with a shock that the III Corps is not where it was supposed to be. Hood argues to outflank them but Longstreet reminds him of Lee’s battle plan
A staff officer from Warren reaches MG Sykes, V Corps commander, who sends an aide galloping off to tell MG Barnes to bring up his division for LRT. The aide meets Col Strong Vincent en route. Upon hearing the peril, Vincent orders his brigade forward, not waiting for orders
Hood now gives the order for the infantry assault, personally charging in with the Texans. Moments later, he is felled with a wound and leaves the field. His large brigades continue the attack on their own. Laws’ exhausted Alabamans press into Devil’s Den but get distracted
The green-clad sharpshooters – recruited from MN, MI, PA, NH, ME, & VT – are drawing Laws’ flank regiments away from their objective of Ward’s flank – only 2 will head there. 3 veer off in pursuit of the sharpshooters, who gradually fall back up the wooded slopes of Big Round Top
Determined Confederates from the wheatfield press down into Plum Run Valley, the stream clogged with the dead and wounded, and up against the north slopes of Little Round Top. The PA Reserves Division meets them with a charge that drives them back to Stony Hill
With the III Corps broken, victorious and disorganized rebels surge towards the gap on the II Corps left flank. They are met first by the blast of over 16 cannon, assembled by Ltc Freeman McGilvery, the remnants of batteries that he has thrown together
But rebel infantry fire silences gun after gun, until McGilvery has only two left firing, salvaging ammunition from broken caissons. But it is enough time. Infantry from the XII Corps dash up and into line, sealing the gap and sending the rebels spilling back
Just to the north, Wilcox’s AL brigade spots another gap in the II Corps line. Hancock rides up to Col Colvill: “What unit is this? “The 1st Minnesota.” Pointing to the enemy brigade, Hancock orders, “Attack that line.” Like a thunderbolt, the Minnesotans charge
Their headlong charge carries them through the first rank and they become embroiled in hand to hand fighting, buying time for supports to come up and seal the gap. Out of 262 men who charged, only 47 make it back to Cemetery Hill, with no men captured
As the shadows lengthen, Hill’s Confederates make one more attempt against Cemetery Ridge but are driven back by the rifle fire of the II Corps. Hancock’s men will not give any more ground. The din of battle here slowly diminishes as night falls. But not on the right
Meanwhile, on Culp’s Hill, only Greene’s Brigade of 1,400 men is left, as Ewell begins his infantry attack with Johnson’s Division, some 4,700 troops. Several units from the I and XI Corps arrive to bolster who Greene, who brushes back the first rebel attacks
The rebel infantry are shocked to find strong entrenchments, and the withering fire from Greene’s men – who each kept several loaded rifles next to them in their trenches – sends them reeling back down the hill with severe losses. Greene’s losses are few
On the extreme right of the US line is the 137th NY Infantry led by Scottish-born Col David Ireland. Fighting in the darkness, they are dueling with the 23rd and 10th Virginia, who are trying to flank their line. The New Yorkers drive them back with 2 bayonet charges
The Nutmeg Regiment takes the buildings but find that they are now the target of a vicious Confederate cannonade, round shot tearing great holes thru the barn walls, causing casualties. The Connecticut men fall back, torching the buildings. The smoke hangs & drifts in the air
Lee has decided against trying the US flanks, too heavily defended. He deems that a dual attack, infantry against the center, cavalry against the rear, will cause the US line to break. Three divisions will crack the center, preceded by a two hour artillery barrage
The divisions are to be Pickett’s fresh division, as well as the divisions of Pettigrew and Trimble, which have both been significantly bloodied in fighting with the I Corps on July 1. Longstreet will have overall command. He is far from optimistic on the chances of success
Stuart and his cavalry have reached their positions from where they will launch their attack against the Baltimore Pike, the main US line of supply. Stuart has already been detected by US cavalry who are now moving into position to oppose him
28 year old Edward Porter Alexander has command of over 100 artillery pieces and most of the Army of Northern Virginia’s supply of reserve artillery ammunition. His orders are to silence US batteries and suppress or break up the US infantry in the center of the line
The artillery arm of the Army of Northern Virginia is its weakest. It lacks a strong corps of properly trained artillerists, guns are captures or imports, and their ammunition is of an inferior quality, causing rounds to explode well before or after they are supposed to
At around 1 PM, the report of two rebel guns heralds the beginning of the barrage. Seminary Ridge blossoms with flamestabbed smoke, as solid shot and explosive shells furrow the earth of Cemetery Ridge or burst overhead with thunderous report, a tremendous noise rising over all
Guns from the Peach Orchard join in, long lines of roiling smoke, disrupting the midday meal of the II Corps staff, tossing solid shot through Meade’s headquarters building, rending branches from trees that fall with a mighty crash
US artillery begins to slowly respond in measured tone, no less deafening. Batteries from Round Top to Cemetery Hill open fire, sweating gunners sponging the barrel, loading new shot, ramming it home, pulling the lanyard, repeating, frenetically, sootgrimed and disheveled
To the east, Stuart is beginning his cavalry attack. The 5th Michigan Cavalry’s tenacious skirmishers are defeating his plan to pin the US cavalry in place and flank them, so he sends in the 1st Virginia Cavalry at a galloping charge, scattering the skirmish line
The infantry on Little Round Top are greeted by the sight of dark-green clad snipers of the 1st US Sharpshooters, 3 companies from Michigan. They begin unpacking rifles, spotting spotting scopes, and bipods, the bearded professionals telling the infantry to get under cover
For the next hour, the expert marksmen keep up a continuous and lethal fire on the rebel sharpshooters in Devil’s Den, forcing them under cover and causing multiple casualties. Further south, US cavalry officer Judson Kilpatrick orders a suicidal charge thru rocky terrain
Thinking that the rebel flank is open, Kilpatrick, nicknamed “kill cavalry” for his disregard for human life and for logical tactics, orders a mounted charge against dug in rebel infantry by Farnsworth’s Brigade which only serves to kill horses, men, and Farnsworth himself.
From Little Round Top, Meade asks the V Corps to mount a reconnaissance in force to see how strongly the Wheatfield is held. Sykes details 5 regiments for the job, with another 4 from the VI Corps, all under the command of Col. William McCandless, some 2,500 men in all
Close to 6 PM, the lead wave of Pennsylvania regiments charges across the Wheatfield, routing several units and recapturing some guns and caissons lost the day before. Their path carries them deeper into the Rose Woods, dispersing the 15th GA & capturing their colors & many men
McCandless is deep in Confederate lines, but is alone & unsupported. If he is attacked on either flank, he is too far from the main lines to be assisted. Probably with Sickles’ fate in mind, he secures his prisoners and any US wounded, & returns to the east edge of the Wheatfield
Save for the small-scale skirmishing that continues this night and into July 4, the three-day saga of Gettysburg is at an end. Meade and his army have defeated Lee’s stratagems at every turn. Under cover of darkness and rain, Lee will begin his retreat, Meade following
Over 150,000 troops have clashed across the woods, fields, hills, and rocks around Gettysburg. The town’s 2,400 inhabitants are now surrounded by over twice their number in dead around the battlefield. The wounded number in the tens of thousands, in varying degrees of seriousness
Nature – the physical landscape – will heal. The rifle pits will be tilled under. The graves will be covered with grass and moss. Trees will grow again. But the nation remains physically and mentally scarred to this day, as we try to come to terms with the magnitude of the battle
The nation has not healed from the wounds of the Civil War. Bandages have been placed over them, but they are superficial, and hide the deep scarring. For one side to so earnestly strive in a cause as hideous as that of human slavery is something unpleasant for us to think about
So, in the intervening years, we have created multiple narratives. These range from a romanticizing of the war as the thing that forged the US, to the idea of the Lost Cause – that the unified south fought only for their rights as states against an evil Federal government
Many of these narratives leave out the enslaved persons themselves. Many focus only on the battles and the courage of all the soldiers, leaving the messy causes to the political scientists.
But to refuse to look into the face of the cause of the war is to lose the war entirely
Lincoln said it best, in his speech just mere months after the close of the battle, where the lure of Gettysburg was already drawing people in. “We here highly resolve, that these dead shall not have died in vain.” The nation was to have a “new birth of freedom.” And it still is.
The Battle of Gettysburg only means anything as long as we hold to “that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion.” Otherwise, it is nothing but a tragedy of useless carnage. It only means something once the promise embodied in the Declaration is true for all.