I was honored and delighted when my good friend Darroch Greer invited my wife Victoria and me to take part in another of his wonderful historical events at the Bedford Winery in Los Alamos, California, hosted by the great winemaker, history buff and raconteur Stephan Bedford.
Darroch is the Bedford Winery’s resident historian. (Does any other winery boast a resident historian?)
I’d been to several of Darroch and Stephan’s presentations staged in the courtyard of the Bedford Winery’s tasting room — and I’d always enjoyed the combination of fellowship, fine food and wine, and respect for history.
So, on November 16, 2013, Vic and I took part in Lincoln at Gettysburg: The 150th Anniversary of the Dedication of the National Soldiers’ Cemetery and Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863, Celebrated Through Eyewitness Accounts, Music and Victuals of the Era.
The main event was a staged reading of Remembering Lincoln at Gettysburg, written by John Copeland: featuring the words of eyewitnesses to that famous event at Gettysburg, when 15,000 people gathered in the town four months after the great battle to dedicate a final resting place for thousands of fallen Union soldiers.
Darroch gave me the task of summing up the battle itself before we began the reading.
What follows is my attempt to capture the stakes, the major action, and the drama of those three epic days of combat in ten minutes.
Reflections on The Battle of Gettysburg
Seminary Ridge, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, Little Round Top…
On June 30th, 1863, these were not yet legendary place names: they were simply topographical features on the landscape surrounding the small crossroads town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.
In the summer of ‘63, the war to preserve the union was not going well for President Lincoln and loyal Americans who wished to keep the United States intact.
Crushing Confederate victories at Fredericksburg that winter and Chancellorsville that spring left Unionists anxious and dispirited. The Army of the Potomac staggered under the blows delivered by Robert E. Lee’s seemingly invincible Army of Northern Virginia.
After the debacle at Chancellorsville, another in a series of unsuccessful Union commanders had been sacked – as General Joe Hooker was replaced by George Gordon Meade. Meade was a Pennsylvanian. That would prove provident. Just three days after taking command, General Meade would face Lee at Gettysburg.
Yet, as bad as the war was going for the North, the stakes for the Confederacy were existential. Two years of warfare fought almost exclusively on Southern soil took a terrible toll in battle casualties, civilian morale, economic viability and agricultural productivity. Rebel leaders knew they couldn’t win a war of attrition against the superior industrial strength and manpower of the North.
Something had to be done to change what was ultimately a losing equation — and convince the European powers to recognize the Confederacy.
In the west, General Grant’s army was closing in on Vicksburg, the last rebel bastion on the Mississippi. If Vicksburg fell, the Confederacy would be split in two. Meanwhile, the Union naval blockade continued to strangle Southern ports and cripple its economy.
Lee decided to take the war to the North. The goal of his invasion was to relieve pressure on war-torn Virginia. And if Lee could beat the Federals on their home turf — his army could threaten, or even capture, Washington DC and force President Lincoln to seek peace.
As Meade took command of his army, Lee’s 75,000 veterans were already in Pennsylvania. The opposing armies weren’t sure where each other were, but Meade knew Lee was somewhere west of the state capitol at Harrisburg. As Meade groped northward to find his foe, nobody thought the decisive battle of such a critical campaign would be fought at an insignificant dot on the map like Gettysburg.
Yet, when the battle came, both sides well understood what was at stake. Gettysburg lies just 86 miles from Washington DC: two days forced march to the nation’s Capitol. The battle for Gettysburg, therefore, would ultimately decide the outcome of the war.
It was nearing 6:00 PM when General John Buford and his cavalry rode into Gettysburg on June 30th. Buford watched with concern as a brigade of Confederate infantry came down the Chambersburg Pike. When the rebels saw Buford’s troopers they withdrew — and informed their superiors that Union cavalry barred their way. But the Confederate generals refused to believe there was anything more than green Pennsylvania militia in Gettysburg.
In fact, Buford’s cavalry were the tip of the spear. The Army of the Potomac was on its way. The fighting would wait until morning.
The next day, July 1st, the Rebs returned down the Chambersburg Pike determined to push Buford’s cavalry off the ridges north of Gettysburg. Fighting dismounted, Buford’s troopers put up a stiff resistance, buying time for reinforcement. In the cupola of the Lutheran Seminary overlooking the fight, Buford watched the progress of the battle raging to his front — and looked anxiously to his rear for the approach of General Reynold’s First Infantry Corps.
I would’ve loved to be there at the moment Reynolds rode up to the seminary and called out, “How goes it, John?” And Buford shouted back — “The devil’s to pay!”
Buford was right. Before the day was done, Reynolds was dead and Union troops were driven off Seminary Ridge, through the town of Gettysburg, and into defensive lines on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Ridge above the town and fields below. The Union First Corps lost two thirds of its men: dead, wounded, taken prisoner, and missing in action. But their sacrifice had kept the rebels from taking the high ground.
Lee wasn’t pleased that Union forces occupied the heights. But his army had once again driven their enemy from the field.
Day Two at Gettysburg was a violent, chaotic stage on which some of our favorite Civil War characters played their most memorable roles. For most of the day both armies consolidated their positions.
Ironically, Lee’s units arrived on the battlefield from the north and Mead’s army came up from the south.
It wasn’t until 4:00 pm that General Longstreet’s Corps began the Confederate attack on the Union’s left flank along Cemetery Ridge.
But the Rebel advance ran into something unexpected: Union General Dan Sickles’ Corps, posted in a peach orchard – far in front of the main Union line.
Sickles was the only Union corps commander without a West Pointeducation. But while he was not a professional soldier, he was a born leader: a pugnacious New Yorker who never shied away from a fight.
And he was in for an epic one.
There were innumerable peach orchards in America on July 2, 1863. But the stand of trees that Sickles’ troops defended from 4:00 to 6:30 PM that day would be known ever after as The Peach Orchard. It was here that Confederate General William Barksdale’s brigade of Mississippians made their famous charge. It was here that Sickles lost his leg to a cannonball. It was here that, after fierce fighting, Sickles’ men were forced to fall back under heavy fire.
And it was here that New York’s Excelsior Brigade made their heroic stand.
But the bravery of the Excelsior Brigade could not stem the flood of Rebels charging through the peach orchard to exploit the gap in the Union line caused by the collapse of Sickles’ exposed position.
General Winfield Scott Hancock – in command of the Union center – and another Pennsylvanian — knew that, in just a few minutes, the Rebs would plow through that gap and penetrate his defensive line. The day, the battle, and the war, could be lost.
Hancock rode toward the crisis point and rallied Sickles’ retreating troops. But the few shell-shocked soldiers willing to reform their lines would not be enough. Hancock called for reserves, but they’d never arrive in time. He needed something to plug that fatal gap.
That something was the First Minnesota Volunteer Regiment.
Hancock asked the unit’s officer, “What regiment is this?” “First Minnesota,” replied 23-year old Colonel William Colvill. With the clock ticking toward disaster second-by-second, Hancock pointed toward the oncoming Rebels and bellowed, “Charge those lines!”
Said a First Minnesota veteran, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all, the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position. And every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice”.
The 262 men of The First Minnesota advanced on the double quick, shouldering their muskets through a hail of lead, bearing down on the center of the enemy line. On Colvill’s order to charge, they raced forward with leveled bayonets. The lines collided with a shock, muskets blazed, and fighting raged hand-to hand. The First Minnesota’s flag fell five times, but it was taken up again each time.
The Southerners were stunned by the First Minnesota’s fury and tenacity, and for 15 precious minutes, paid for in blood, the Rebel advance was stalled. Of the 262 men who made that charge, only 47 survivors rallied back to General Hancock: an 83% casualty rate that remains the greatest loss by any American military unit in a single battle. But the men of The First Minnesota bought Hancock the time he needed to reinforce the gap in his defensive line.
Longstreet renewed his relentless assault on the Union left in bloody engagements that made The Wheat Field and Devil’s Den synonymous with savagery, gallantry and wholesale sacrifice.
Before the fights in The Peach Orchard and Wheat Field, Union General Gouvernor Warren stood on Little Round Top and saw Longstreet’s battle line forming on the ridges beyond The Wheat Field.
Realizing that Sickles’ advanced position left Little Round Top undefended, Warren sent couriers scrambling for units to help defend the hill. One of his couriers encountered 26-year old Colonel Strong Vincent.
Told that Warren needed troops “to occupy yonder hill,” Vincent declared, “I will do so and take the responsibility.”
Vincent rushed to Little Round Top and placed the four regiments of his brigade in line on the extreme left of the Union army, with the 385 men of Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine anchoring the end of the line. Soon after that, the Confederate assault began.
Vincent, brandishing his wife’s riding crop, urged his men, “Don’t give an inch!” It wasn’t long before Strong Vincent fell, mortally wounded. Like General Warren, Vincent had done his part to save the Union left flank. Now, it was up to Chamberlain’s 20th Maine to play their role in the deadly, decisive drama on Little Round Top.
At 6:30 PM, after repulsing yet another rebel attack, Chamberlain’s troops were nearly out of ammunition — and running out of time. Ordered by Vincent to “Hold at all hazards,” Chamberlain knew he couldn’t retreat. He ordered his men to “fix bayonets.”
Said Chamberlain, “I ordered the bayonet. The word was enough. It ran like fire along the line, from man to man, and rose into a shout, with which they sprang forward on the enemy, now not 30 yards away. The effect was surprising; many of the enemy’s first line threw down their arms and surrendered… The enemy’s second line broke and fell back, fighting from tree to tree, many being captured, until we had swept the valley and cleared the front of nearly our entire brigade.”
Longstreet’s Corps had failed to take Little Round Top – and both sides regrouped for the fighting that would climax the next day.
On July 3, 1863 the exhausted armies faced each other across a mile of open farmland — preparing to commence the final violence of their epic battle. Though Lee planned to strike the Union center early in the day, the thunderous cannonade preceding General Longstreet’s assault did not begin until 1:00 in the afternoon.
Actually, the third day of the battle began at dawn as Union guns opened fire in defense of Culp’s Hill on the Federal right flank. By 11:00 am, Billy Yank was once again in possession of the earthworks they’d lost to Johnny Reb the day before. The fight on the Union right was over almost before it began.
Lee had attacked both Union flanks – and the Federals had paid dearly in their defense. Since General Meade must have had to draw troops from his center to reinforce his embattled flanks, Lee resolved to attack the Union center.
Lee’s “Old War Horse” Longstreet argued that the wiser course was to go around Big Round Top, get behind the Union army’s left flank and threaten the roads to Philadelphia and Washington D.C. – thereby forcing the Union army off the high ground on Cemetery Hill to give battle on ground of the South’s choosing.
But Lee was resolved to strike – and break – the Union center. “The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there.” After all, his army had never failed to break the Union lines in a frontal assault. But Gettysburg was a different: for the first time, Pennsylvanian Generals Meade and Hancock and the Army of the Potomac under their command were defending home turf. There was nowhere to run. As Hancock rode his lines that morning, he no doubt reminded his troops of the need to hold firm and give no ground.
General Pickett’s division would lead the charge that became known forever after as “Pickett’s Charge.” The three brigades of General Pickett’s division were led by Generals Garnett, Kemper and Armistead. General Lo Armistead was a close friend of General Hancock, who waited for him across the open killing field.
Pickett’s brigade commanders would pay a heavy price: Garnett and Armistead died in the charge. Kemper was severely wounded. The rebels managed to punch a hole in the Union center, led by Armistead, shot down as he placed his hand on a Federal cannon. But the Army of the Potomac sent the rebels in retreat across the farm fields over which they had so gallantly, but futilely, charged.
Of the more than 13,000 Confederates who made the assault, more than 7,000 lay dead or wounded on the field afterward.
On July 4th, the day after General Meade’s Army won the Battle of Gettysburg, the Confederate stronghold at Vicksburg fell to Union troops under General Grant.
At great cost, the soldiers of the Union Army had given their war-weary nation two great birthday gifts. And while it would wear on for two more grinding years, the Civil War was essentially over.