Battle of Gettysburg: Day Two - A Time For Heroes
If you haven't already, please read Battle of Gettysburg: Day One - The Armies Collide before diving into this story.
On the morning of Thursday, July 2, 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s blood was up and he was determined to inflict a war-winning blow against the Army of the Potomac. Almost all of Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had now united at Gettysburg. “There never were such men in an army before,” Lee had written that June. “They will go anywhere and do anything if properly led.” Lee’s army might have entered the Battle of Gettysburg at the height of its power, but as Lieutenant General James Longstreet studied the enemy lines with his commander, he knew that regardless of the skill and fortitude of the Southern soldier, the Army of the Potomac’s position was a forbidding obstacle.
The Union did indeed hold excellent ground to wage a fight. As historian James M. McPherson describes it, the Army of the Potomac maintained lines that occupied the high ground south of Gettysburg "in a shape that resembled an upside-down fishhook with its barbed end curving from Culp’s Hill through Cemetery Hill and the shank running south along Cemetery Ridge to the eye of the hook on the rocky prominence of Little Round Top.” Most of Major General George G. Meade’s army had also arrived and occupied those strong lines. More waves of blue were coming too, with the Fifth and Sixth Corps furiously marching to the battlefield. With flanks only two miles apart and the advantage of interior lines, the Federals would be able to shift troops “quickly from one place to another to reinforce weak spots,” as McPherson explains.
A master of defensive warfare, Longstreet tried to convince Lee that attacking such a strong position would be a mistake. He believed the best course of action was to move south and maneuver the army between the Federals and Washington, forcing Meade to come out and attack the Confederates on their own chosen ground. After the death of “Stonewall” Jackson, Longstreet was the most skilled and trusted subordinate that Lee had left. Despite Longstreet's concerns, the commander of the Army of Northern Virginia was determined to attack. Pointing toward Cemetery Hill, Lee told him, “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” Longstreet fired back, “If he is there, it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so.” Despite their differences of opinion in strategy, Lee entrusted the man he called “My Old War Horse” to lead the principal Confederate attack on that scorching hot summer day.
Monument to Lieutenant General James Longstreet at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
Longstreet was to lead his two fresh divisions against the left flank of the Union line at the southern end of Cemetery Ridge. Although his third division under Major General George Pickett was still on its way to Gettysburg and would not be available to fight that day, Longstreet was to be supported by a fresh division from A.P. Hill’s corps. Since Lee believed that the Union right flank was too strong to be attacked directly, McPherson explains that Ewell was to demonstrate against that section of the enemy’s position “and convert this demonstration into an attack when Meade weakened his right to reinforce his left.”
It took Longstreet most of the day to move his approximately 15,000 veteran troops into position. According to McPherson, a major part of the delay was, “Because the Confederates did not want to telegraph the point of attack, Longstreet had to countermarch several miles after discovering that the original approach road could be seen from a Union signal station on Little Round Top.” Complicating matters further, the Federal left was not on Cemetery Ridge as one of General Lee’s scouts had reported. Concerned about the low ground his Third Corps occupied at the south end of Cemetery Ridge, Union Major General Daniel Sickles had moved his troops forward, disconnecting back from the rest of the Union line on the ridge and leaving the key piece of ground on the entire battlefield, Little Round Top, uncovered. Longstreet’s division commanders wanted to exploit the situation by making a flanking move to the Union rear. General Longstreet had already tried in vain to get Lee to make a move like that rather than attacking the enemy head-on. With much of the day already burned away, Longstreet knew there was no time left to waste and ordered his division commanders to attack as Lee had instructed.
At around 4:00 p.m., the Confederate battle cry, the Rebel Yell, filled the air and Longstreet’s attack got underway. After his unauthorized move forward, Sickles’s corps “held a salient with its apex in a peach orchard and its left anchored in a maze of boulders locally called Devil’s Den, just below Little Round Top,” as noted by McPherson. When General Meade arrived to see what had happened, Sickles, who was the only non West Point graduate among the corps commanders in either army, begrudgingly offered to withdraw. “I think it is too late,” Meade said. “The enemy will not allow you." Meade was certainly right. Longstreet’s troops hit Sickles with pile-driving force. As the great Civil War historian Bruce Catton summed it up, “In effect, Sickles was struck on three sides at once, and his undersized army corps was swamped.” As fighting raged across the peach orchard, a wheat field to the east of the orchard, and Devils Den, Sickles, whose leg was shattered by a Rebel cannonball during the fighting, was crumpled with his Corps.
Confederate Brigadier General William Barksdale leading his 1,500 Mississippians in a charge against Federal troops deployed around the peach orchard. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
Meade and his subordinates reacted swiftly to meet the emergency, rushing reinforcements to confront the enemy. Fierce counterattacks were launched and many sacrifices were made to prevent the Southerners from achieving a crippling breakthrough on Cemetery Ridge. For four hours, one of the greatest power struggles of the entire war tested the resolve of soldiers and commanders on both sides. The wheat field alone changed hands a half-dozen times as men in blue and gray traded deadly blows for control.
One of the Federal units called to action was the Irish Brigade of General Winfield S. Hancock’s Second Corps. Before the battle-hardened Irish-American Catholics entered the slaughterhouse, the brigade’s chaplain, Father William Corby climbed onto a boulder, blessing the soldiers and granting them absolution. Corby also told the men that “the Catholic church refuses Christian burial to the soldier who turns his back upon the foe or deserts his flag.” With the outfit already greatly reduced from previous fighting during the war, approximately 320 of the Irish Brigade’s remaining 530 soldiers were killed at Gettysburg.
Monument to Father William Corby at Gettysburg National Military Park. On July 2, 1863, it is believed that Father Corby stood on this very rock and provided absolution to the soldiers of the Irish Brigade before they entered the inferno of combat. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
When Longstreet’s attack began, Little Round Top, the vital piece of high ground that was supposed to form the left flank of the entire Union army, was undefended. Because of Sickles’s unwise move forward, this prime target was in grave danger of falling to the Confederates. As Catton explained, “If they took it, Meade’s entire position on Cemetery Ridge would be untenable and the battle would end in a smashing Confederate victory.” Meade had sent his chief of engineer’s, Brigadier General Gouverneur K. Warren to survey the situation on Little Round Top. To Warren’s horror, he found the hill devoid of Union troops and could see enemy soldiers rapidly streaming toward the position. After galloping down the hill with urgency, Warren ordered reinforcements to move with haste to the crest of Little Round Top.
Warren’s call was answered by Brigadier General Strong Vincent’s Third Brigade of the First Division of the Fifth Corps. As McPherson writes, the Pennsylvanian got his four-regiment “brigade in position just minutes before enemy regiments began their assault on Little Round Top.” Charging up the hill’s steep slope, 824 men of the Fourth and Fifth Texas regiments of Confederate Major General John Bell Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps delivered hammer blows against Vincent’s men holding the center and right of Little Round Top. Vincent roared to his men, “Don’t give an inch boys! Don’t give an inch!”
Don't Give an Inch, depicting Brigadier General Strong Vincent leading his soldiers at Little Round Top by Don Troiani. (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
Right when it appeared that the Union defense on Little Round Top was about to collapse, Colonel Patrick O'Rorke led his 140th New York directly into the mayhem and blunted the Confederate advance at the supreme moment of crisis. O'Rorke paid with his life for his gallantry and fell dead after he was shot clear through the neck. General Vincent was also mortally wounded in the fight for Little Round Top.
Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Twentieth Maine Volunteer Infantry Regiment held the far left of Vincent’s brigade on Little Round Top. Ordered to “hold that ground at all hazards,” Chamberlain's position also represented the extreme left flank of the entire Union army. A year earlier, he had been a professor of rhetoric and modern languages at Bowdoin College. Now, Chamberlain and his men were thrown into the most intense fight of their lives.
Chamberlain and the Twentieth Maine went up against the Fifteenth and Forty-seventh Alabama under Colonel William C. Oates. Thirsty and tired from a twenty-five mile march to reach the battlefield, the Alabamians mustered all the energy they could, launching repeated uphill assaults in an effort to roll up the Union left flank. After nearly two hours of fighting, more than a third of Chamberlain’s men were down and those still able to fight had nearly exhausted their ammunition. With the Alabamians appearing to be massing for another assault, Chamberlain made one of the boldest decisions of the war. As the fighting professor later reflected, “I stepped to the colors. The men turned toward me. One word was enough,-‘BAYONET!’ It caught like fire, and swept along the ranks.” Chamberlain and his men surged downhill toward the Confederates, stunning the worn out Alabamians, compelling the Rebels to surrender, and helping to save Little Round Top.
Hero of Little Round Top, depicting Joshua L. Chamberlain leading the Twentieth Maine on July 2, 1863, by Mort Künstler. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
The Union faced another extreme crisis as the sun was setting on that bloody day. As a 1,500-strong Alabama brigade streamed forward, looking to take advantage of a gap in the Union line to breach Cemetery Ridge near its center, the only available unit General Winfield Hancock had on hand was the 262-man First Minnesota Volunteer Infantry Regiment under Colonel William Colvill. With Federal reinforcements on the way, but unable to arrive for roughly ten minutes, Hancock turned to Colvill, pointed to the mass of men in Gray, and said, “Advance Colonel, and take those colors.” Without hesitation, the Minnesotans fixed bayonets and plunged forward. “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant-death or wounds to us all,” wrote Colvill, “and every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.” In one of the most valiant charges in American military history, the First Minnesota stopped the Alabamians and prevented what could have been a catastrophe. Of the 262 soldiers who answered Hancock’s call, the First Minnesota suffered 70 killed and 145 wounded, including Colonel Colvill. As McPherson notes, “This casualty rate of 82 percent for those engaged was the highest of the war for any Union regiment in a single action.”
With General Meade forced to shift troops from Cemetery and Culp’s Hills to help overcome Longstreet’s assault against his left flank, General Ewell was poised to convert his demonstration into an attack against the union right as Lee had wanted. Ewell, however, did not take advantage of the immediate opportunity and most of his troops did not attack until almost dusk.
Because so many Union soldiers had been pulled and sent to other threatened sectors of the battlefield, the only Federal presence remaining on Culp’s Hill was the five New York regiments of Brigadier General George S. Greene’s brigade. Fighting from trenches and earthworks and outnumbered by more than three to one, Greene’s New Yorkers resisted the enemy bitterly. Colonel David Ireland’s 137th New York especially played a pivotal role, tenaciously defending the extreme right flank of the Union army on Culp’s Hill. Aside from the capture of some abandoned trenches, the Confederates were unable to break through against Greene’s troops. Although Ewell’s men achieved a temporary lodgment on Cemetery Hill, it was erased and his soldiers were driven back after a sharp Union counterattack.
Monument to Brigadier General George Sears Greene on Culp's Hill at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
As McPherson reports, “when night fell the Union line remained firm except for the loss of Sickles’s salient.” Facing crisis after crisis, General Meade displayed the kind of organization, coolness, and fighting acumen that had been missing from the previous commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Meade’s subordinates fed off of his clear handling of the army and performed superbly well. As Bruce Catton wrote, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac “had never had to fight any harder than they fought” that afternoon. Those men in blue had also probably never fought any better.
The Union line held firm, but the Federals knew very well that the Army of Northern Virginia would bring more fury on the morrow. Meade met with his generals that night and asked them to vote on whether the Army of the Potomac should retreat or stay and fight. Every one of them voted to stay. “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front,” Meade told General John Gibbon, who commanded one of the divisions holding the Union center. Gibbon asked him why he thought that. “Because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed,” replied Meade, “and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” As the next day would show, Meade was absolutely correct.
General Meade meeting with his corps commanders in the small farmhouse that served as his headquarters during the Battle of Gettysburg. (Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Both sides suffered almost 10,000 casualties on July 2, “bringing the two day totals for both armies to nearly 35,000,” as noted by McPherson. Whether in blue or in gray, the second day of fighting was a time for heroes. Many brave men had stood their tallest when it truly mattered most. With the destiny of their respective nations at stake, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac and the Army of Northern Virginia would continue to give their all in a fight to the finish. The Battle of Gettysburg would be settled on the fateful Friday of July 3, 1863.
American Battlefield Trust: Defense of Little Round Top.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.
History.com: The Irish Brigade.
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863 by Shelby Foote.
They Saved the Union at Little Round Top: Gettysburg, July 2, 1863 by Ken Discorfano.