The February Meeting 2017
The Battle of Gettysburg
Presentation by Grant Richardson
Grant began by explaining that this battle was fought from July 1st – 3rd 1863 in and around the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, as part of the Gettysburg Campaign in the American Civil War. It had the largest number of casualties of the war and proved to be the turning point .
The town is about 90 miles north of the U S capital of Washington DC and the battle area was approximately 25 square miles. There were a total of 172,000 men & 634 cannons involved in the local conflict . There were 51,000 military casualties, one civilian casualty and 5000 dead horses. 569 tons of ammunitions were expended. General Lee took responsibility for the loss and the Confederacy was never to recover but the Civil War continued for two more years.
The two main leaders of the opposing forces were the Confederate General Robert E Lee who commanded the Army of Northern Virginia and the Union Major General George Gordon Meade who commanded the Army of the Potomac. Under their command were other various officers whom Grant mentioned throughout the presentation.
General Robert E Lee Major General George Gordon Meade
In June, General Lee decided to take the war north, his objective being to engage the Union army and destroy it. His immediate plan was to destroy the railway bridge at Harrisburg, north east of Gettysburg and then turn his attention to Philadelphia, Baltimore or Washington DC as these seemed the best targets for the Confederate interests.
Anticipating that the Confederates would march on Gettysburg from the west the Union defences were laid out on three ridges west of the town; Herr Ridge, McPherson Ridge and Seminary Ridge which provided good terrain for delaying action by their small cavalry division. This strategy would buy time until the arrival of the Union infantrymen who could occupy the strong defensive positions south of the town at Cemetery Hill, Cemetery Ridge and Culp’s Hill. Control of these heights was an important factor to the outcome of the ensuing battle.
Reconnaissance of the countryside around Gettysburg by Pettigrew’s Brigade, under Heth’s Confederate command spotted Union Cavalry on McPherson’s Ridge one mile west of the town.
The Battle began in the morning of July 1st when Confederate troops attacked the Union cavalry division on the ridge. Outnumbered, the Union forces drove off the initial attack and held the position due to the additional support given by the arrival of the John Reynolds Infantry Division. However they were overpowered later in the day by the arrival of additional Southern troops and were forced back into the town. In the resulting confusion thousands of Union troops were taken prisoner before they could rally on Cemetery Hill which lay south of the town.
During this lull in the fighting the Union troops strengthened their defences whilst waiting for reinforcement troops to arrive and take up position.
Battle lines Day One
On July 2nd the battle lines were drawn with the armies a mile apart on two parallel ridges: the Union forces on Cemetery Ridge were placed in a defensive formation resembling a “fish hook” and the Confederate forces occupied Seminary Ridge to the west. The opposing armies now faced each other in two sweeping arcs and Lee ordered an attack on both Union flanks and fierce fighting broke out at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den and the Peach orchard.
In the south the Confederates thrust on the Unions left flank broke through their advanced lines at Peach Orchard and left the area strewn with dead and wounded. To the north the attack proved futile against the entrenched Union’s right on East Cemetery Hill although they were able to take possession of the southern slope of one of the lesser hills on one occasion. Here the lack of effective communication proved to be the Confederacy’s downfall for only a few hundred yards away were the Union’s supply trains. If the Confederates had moved through the streets of Gettysburg to aid the attack on Cemetery Hill these would have been found and ultimately the battle would have been won.
On July 3rd Lee decided to press the attack to the Union centre on Cemetery Ridge. In the early afternoon the Southern artillery opened a bombardment which for a time involved the massed guns of both sides in a thunderous dual for supremacy. However the Union lines remained intact.
The climax of the three day battle came with one of the most incredible assaults in military history when a massed advance of 15,000 Confederate soldiers crossed the open fields towards the Union centre on Cemetery Ridge. They marched for one mile whilst being pounded by Union artillery and raked with rifle and carbine fire. Some elements of the Confederate forces did reach the Union lines but failed to break them and the attempt ended in disaster. Within 50 minutes 10,000 of the assault troops had become casualties and the attack was to be remembered in history as “Pickett’s Charge”. Major General Pickett was one of three Confederate Generals who led the assault under Lt General Longstreet who had doubts about the success of the charge.
Battle Lines Day 3
The Southern war effort never recovered from this engagement and after the failed charge the Battle was deemed to be over and the Union was saved. Lee retreated on the afternoon of 4th July and never again attempted an offensive operation on such a large scale.
The area has many geological sites which give good observation of the surrounding countryside and therefore also provide good fields of fire. Both McPherson’s Ridge and Seminary Ridge were used effectively in this way during the initial stages on Day 1 of the Battle. Equally the cleared area on Little Round Top and both Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill were crucial to the defence of the Union Army as well as the use of slopes and the observation given westward from Cemetery Ridge. The Union also used the high gap between Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill as a signalling post
In summary the terrain of most importance to either force during the historic three day battle were:
Herr’s Ridge used by the Confederate Army to bombard the Union forces during the first day of the battle and push them into the town itself. McPherson Ridge and Oak Hill used initially by Union troops to slow and stop the advance of Confederate troops and cavalry and then used later by the Confederate Army to push onto Seminary Ridge. Seminary Ridge was used by the Confederate Army to dominate the North as well as the town of Gettysburg. This area was also used by artillery on the third day to bombard Union lines before Picket’s Charge.
Big and Little Round Top which were used by the Union to dominate the southern aspect of the battle field. Little Round Top was also vital to the defence of the Union line as the commanding views afforded by the clearing on the western side were used to place both artillery and infantry to great effect. Had the South taken this hill on the second day the outcome of the battle would have been altogether different.
Culp’s Hill used by the Union’s artillery and cavalry. Its north eastern steep slopes proved a hindrance to Confederate soldiers who could see its strategic position but could not take it. If taken then it would have been a gateway to the Union’s unprotected eastern flank. Powers Hill used as a look out post as well as a signalling station. In particular the area gave supporting cavalry and infantry the views and cover to support Union soldiers in the central part of Cemetery Ridge.
Many mistakes were made during this battle. The Confederate Army lacked good lines of communication so that some orders were not heard and others were carried out too late. Again the lack of experience of some officers meant that rash decisions were sometimes made and key resources were not always used. The Confederates had the chance to snatch victory when they were on the slopes of Little Round Top but left it to the Union to defend – a decision many were to regret years later.
The Union was lucky to have many men who knew the area well and some were in fact local farmers who had been drafted or were volunteers. Both armies did make use of the local terrain but only when they realised its potential and importance. Had they analysed the terrain they would have assessed the area and set achievable goals which would have included seeking to deny their enemies access to certain strategic features.
It has been documented that Gettysburg was regarded as “a town of very little military importance” and that the battle was never really planned to be fought there. This Grant believes to be quite naďve. Gettysburg had very good lines of communication in all directions. Many of the surrounding ridges had excellent views of all the routes both into and out of the City and obstacles could easily be engineered along their courses.
The main railway line, although not fully built, ran through Gettysburg and was ideal for the fast transportation of troops and supplies. It also commanded the main routes to Washington and Baltimore as well as having a high concentration of fords and crossing points. The battle was inevitable but the way it was pursued by the Confederates and their conduct during its course was quite unimaginative and bizarre.
When answering questions. Grant replied to John Turner that the Union had well maintained and good supply trains whereas the baggage trains of the Confederate Army lagged a long way behind their troops who also had to forage for their food. To David Richardson he responded that if the Unionists had mapped the area they would have known which areas to defend and that would have helped them to concentrate their fire power. The Confederate army had done all it had been asked to do. He thought the population of Gettysburg was in the region of 600.
Replying to Malcolm Eady he thought that cannon fire was not accurate but when concentrated could take out a lot of people and of course they were supported by rifles [capable of up to 5 rounds a minute] and muskets. To John Demont he said that the weather prior to the battle had been cloudy but very warm. The day temperature rose from 22 degrees C on July 1st to 30 degrees C on July 3rd. It was a major factor in which the troops had to contend with dust, thirst and the heat especially those Confederate troops advancing over open ground.
To Derek West he replied that the railway would keep up behind the advancing Unionist army and that bridges where necessary could be constructed in 24 hours.
Past President Lawrie Jones thanked Grant for a very detailed and enjoyable talk on an important subject which had been well appreciated by members.
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