July 3, 1863 - General George Meade's Army of the Potomac defeats General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg, stopping Lee's attempt to break the Union Army and seize the national capital at Washington.
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1861 had passed with little action by either side, as the Union -- stunned by the near-collapse of its troops at Bull Run -- built its army and tightened the naval blockade about the rebel states.
In 1862, Gen. George B. McClellan landed the Army of the Potomac on the Virginia Peninsula and attempted to take Richmond from the rear. But Lee stopped him cold. McClellan, over-cautious, returned to Washington. Lee invaded Maryland, but overwhelming Union forces nearly destroyed him at Antietam. The over-cautious McClellan refused to follow through on his victory, and Lee escaped. President Abraham Lincoln fired McClellan and replaced him with Major General Ambrose Burnside. Burnside followed Lee into Virginia, but was horribly bloodied at Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville.
In the west, Maj. Gen. Henry W. Halleck and Brigadier Gen. Don Carlos Buell had solidified the Union position in eastern Kentucky. From the pro-Union western Kentucky, they now plunged down the Tennessee and Cumberland Rivers. An Ohio colonel of volunteers named Ulysses S. Grant seized critical river forts on the Tennessee in early February, and Buell captured Nashville a week later. Their armies converged on Shiloh, on the Mississippi border. A surprise Confederate attack nearly defeated Grant, but William Tecumseh Sherman's heroic counter-attack saved the day -- and the two men formed a fast friendship. An angry Buell blamed Grant, and Grant was relieved. Union forces held Corinth (a critical rail juntion in northern Mississippi), invaded eastern Tennessee, and managed to defend Louisville.
But by spring 1863, Halleck was at a desk job in D.C., Buell had been fired, and Grant was back in control of the Army of the Tennessee. He was besieging Vicksburg on the Mississippi River; if he could capture it, the Union would have broken the main transportation line of the South.
And no one was coming to Vicksburg's defense. Confederate President Jefferson Davis urged Lee to invade the North. This would take the pressure off Vicksburg, maybe even drawing Grant east. It would also allow Lee's army to live off the rich farms of the North, giving war-ravaged Virginia a much-needed rest.
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On June 3, Lee began moving north from Fredericksburg, Virginia. Following the death of Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson, Lee had reorganized his army into three corps, commanded by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell, and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart commanded the cavalry corps.
Maj. Gen. Joseph Hooker was temporarily in command of the Army of the Potomac. Hooker knew Lee was on the move, but didn't know where he was headed. Hooker had to stay between Lee and Washington. By mid-June, Lee was across the Potomac River and heading into Pennsylvania.
The first indication of Lee's position was when Maj. Gen. Jubal Early's cavalry division raided the town of Gettysburg on June 26. Hooker now suspected Lee was close to the town. Lee, for his part, knew that Early's raid would alert Hooker. So he allowed Stuart to take nearly all the cavalary and ride north of the Union army and then south along its east flank. Lee believed this would so alarm Hooker than he would turn 180 degrees and attempt to fight the mobile Stuart. Lee could then smash into Hooker's army from the rear.
But Hooker wasn't that close: In fact, his army was just crossing the Potomac River. Lee was about 8 miles west of Gettysburg. As the Army of the Potomac raced north toward the town, Hooker sent Brig. Gen. John Buford on a reconnaissance trip south of Gettysburg.
There, on June 30, Confederate forces spotted Buford. Against Lee's orders, Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew and his subordinate, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth, sent two brigades (about 8,000 men) toward Gettysburg to engage what they felt was a "major force" there.
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Buford was heavily outnumbered. He needed to buy time so that the Army of the Potomac could get to Gettysburg and fully engage Lee. Buford occupied three ridges west of the town: Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge, and Seminary Ridge. Buford knew the battle wasn't going to be fought there. There were much stronger positions just to the south of the town: Culp's Hill (on the town's southeastern border), Cemetery Hill (on the town's southern border), and Cemetery Ridge (which ran due south along the Taneytown Road from Cemetery Hill). If the Union could hold these three features, they could defeat Lee.
Throughout the day on July 1, Buford was forced to give ground. Most of Lee's army was present by late afternoon, but by now Buford was in the town and most of Lee's troops could not be brought to bear. By evening, most of Buford's men had sifted through the town itself and lodged on Culp's Hill, Cemetery Hill, and the Emmitsburg Road (just a few yards west of Cemetery Ridge).
That night, most of the Army of the Potomac arrived on the battlefield.
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On July 2, Lee pushed hard against the Union's left on Emmitsburg Road. The northern part of the Union line was slowly pushed back, up onto Cemetery Ridge. In the south, however, Lee's troops shattered Meade's III Corps, wiping out large numbers of Union soldiers in the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard. As the Confederate troops advanced, Meade's chief engineer, Brig. Gen. Gouverneur K. Warren, realized that two hills which anchored the southermost portion of Cemetery Ridge -- Little Round Top and Round Top -- had not been occupied by Union forces. He swiftly dispatched four under-strength regiments to hold them. Throughout the afternoon, Col. Joshua Chamberlain held Little Round Top against repeated assaults by overwhelming Confederate forces. Only a bayonet charge by the 20th Maine, initiated by Lt. Holman S. Melcher, finally saved the day by routing the Confederates and taking large numbers of prisoners. Lee's forces attacked Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill, to try to force Meade to reinforce them and thus abandon Little Round Top. But Union forces there held.
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Lee planned to do on July 3 when he had tried to do on July 2: Attack Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. But a dawn artillery barrage allowed the Union forces to regain its losses on Cemetery Hill, leaving them stronger than before. So by 11 AM, Lee was forced to focus almost exclusively on the Union line along Cemetery Ridge.
Lee opened his attack on the Union left with a massive artillery bombardment. But his artillery did not inflict the damage it was supposed to; Union forces held their fire, and Lee's artillery commanders were fooled into thinking that the Union cannons had been destroyed.
At 3 PM, the Confederate cannon fire subsided. Now, 12,500 Confederate soldiers under the command of the flamboyant, confident Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, began to march across three-quarters of a mile of wheat and hay toward the Union lines on Cemetery Ridge. This is "Pickett's Charge".
Pickett's men approached, artillery on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top poured into the Confederate flanks. Still the rebels came on. Units on Pickett's right were to move east, shift north, move east, and shift north again, and soon they were out of range of Little Round Top -- but now massed against the Union center. Now the Union artillery opened fire, wiping out nearly half the Confederate force.
Pickett finally reached the Union lines. Here, a jog in the Union lines created what historians call "the Angle". It was a weak spot in the Union defenses, and Pickett had twice the number of men here to attack than he should have needed. Now Pickett's men, led by Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead, charged the Union line. Hand-to-hand combat broke out, and the Confederates managed to surmount the stone fence at "the Angle". But Meade, who had predicted the charge during the night, had reinforcements ready. They rushed into the line, and overwhelmed Armistead's command.
It was over. Pickett's command was broken, and only a third of his men staggered back to the Confederate line.
Stuart, sent to flanking the Union right, was intercepted by U.S. cavalry forces led by Brig. Gen. David McMurtrie Gregg and Brig. Gen. George Armstrong Custer. A lengthy mounted battle, including hand-to-hand sabre combat, ensued. Custer led a charge into the Confederate line during the battle, blunting the attack and blocking Stuart from achieving his objective.
Union casualties were 3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded, and 5,369 captured or missing out of 104,000. Confederate casualties were 4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded, and 5,830 captured or missing out of about 71,700. Nearly a third of Lee's generals were killed, wounded, or captured.
It rained heavily on July 4. Lee had hoped that Meade would attack him, but Meade refused. Instead, late that afternoon, Lee withdrew and began the long march back to Virginia. Meade -- good in battle, hesitant when not -- did not pursue him aggressively, and Lee was able to retreat back across the Potomac to safety.
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On November 19, Abraham Lincoln traveled by train to Gettysburg to dedicate the Soldiers' National Cemetery.
In his 90-second Gettysburg Address, Lincoln redefined the purpose of the war and made one of the most stirring speeches of world history.