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Gettysburg: The Army of Northern Virginia's Road to Destruction

Mark Caruthers holds a Bachelor's degree in Geography and History from the University of Arkansas (Fayetteville).

Army of Northern Virgina 1863

In May 1863 Jefferson Davis sat restlessly in his office contemplating the future of his young Confederacy. Pressed on all sides by invading forces the situation in the Confederacy was critical; the Mississippi was all but lost with the fall of Vicksburg very near; badly needed European recognition had not come; the Union Navy's blockade of the south was tightening; finances were collapsing.

The only hope for the survival of the Confederacy was one decisive victory that would end the war once and for all. His chief military advisor, Robert E. Lee, offered up a plan to invade Pennsylvania to pressure the Army of the Potomac into a battle on the ground of his choice, and defeat it on Northern territory. If Lee's plan was successful, it would leave Washington D.C. unprotected, and force President Lincoln to the peace table.

When Virginia joined the Confederacy in April of 1861, Robert E. Lee felt an overwhelming obligation from his family to resign his commission with the United States Army. Though he deplored slavery. He still held slaves, rented slaves, and one occasion whipped them. Lee's family had lived in the Virginia since 1640. He was the fifth child of "Light-Horse" Harry Lee, and Ann Carter.

Lee's father was a revolutionary war hero, served as the governor of Virginia in 1790, and Congress from 1799 to 1801.

Despite pleas from Winfield Scott, and an offer of high command in the Union Army, Lee left the only professional world he had ever known. He was quickly commissioned as a brigadier general of the Virginia State volunteers and became Jefferson Davis's chief military adviser. His home in Arlington was immediately occupied by Federal troops, rendering him homeless and penniless at the same time.

Two years later, Lee and his rebel army still stood at the gates of Richmond determined to defend the Confederate capital. If an army had ever felt invincible, the Army of Northern Virginia did the summer of 1863. Its leader at the age of fifty-five, Robert Edward Lee, was considered by most of his troops as the only general in the Confederacy capable of preserving their independence.

Lee's army of Northern Virginia had defeated the Army of the Potomac three times in the past twelve months against overwhelming odds. Confederate soldiers suffered from shortages of modern arms, ammunition, even the most basic items such as shoes. After his stunning victory at Chancellorsville, Lee's army was flush with victory and stood at the height of its strength.

March Toward Gettysburg

On June 3,1863, the Army of Northern Virginia began streaming steadily to the northwest, across the mountains of the Blue Ridge, and then northward through the Shenandoah Valley. The two great armies of the east were on now the march, moving inexorably toward the climactic battle that everyone knew had to come for some time, both sides fervently prayed the battle would settle everything once and for all.

For three weeks Confederate soldiers were spread across miles of Pennsylvania countryside roaming virtually at will against only token resistance. The Union army paralleled Lee's movements like a shadow, always careful to shield Washington and the other coastal cities from attack.

The rapid advance of General Meade was unexpected, a characteristic not previously displayed by previous Union commanders of the Army of the Potomac. Citizens in the state's capital of Harrisburg were in a state of panic as Lee approached.

The excitement in the capital increased when a train of army wagons came rumbling in accompanied by a squadron of cavalry. "The Rebels will be here tomorrow or the next day," said the teamsters.

The object of the coming campaign was the defense of the Confederate capital Richmond, Virginia. Lee had the choice of either to continue on the defensive and oppose the Federal advance as he had recently done or assume the offensive and take the war to the northern states to save Virginia from further destruction.

Lee knew that defensive victories won on Virginia's soil would only end up wearing down Confederate resistance. Lee's belief was that shifting the fighting onto Northern soil could cause the collapse of Northern public confidence to the point of demanding a negotiated peace.

The rapid northward movement of the Union army surprised J.E.B. Stuart, and caused the commander of rebel cavalry, to initiate a lengthy ride around Mead's massive army forcing him to lose contact with Lee's army.

Thus, during a critical period of the campaign, Lee was deprived of his eyes and ears. Without proper intelligence from Stuart, Lee had no choice but to concentrate his forces. Reluctantly, Lee had to abandon his planned attack on Harrisburg.

Neither Lee nor Meade intended to fight at Gettysburg, which held virtually no strategic value. Some of Lee's troops had passed through Gettysburg on June 26,1863, as they moved on for the attack on Harrisburg. Their commander had informed Confederate generals that a cache of shoes might be found in the town.

In July 1863 Gettysburg had a population of 2,400. It was at the central point of a network of ten roads which branched out to all corners of Pennsylvania. The gently rolling terrain around the town was dominated by low north-south ridges and scattered granite hills, which provided defensive positions for the armies that would fight and die attacking or defending them.

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The town was surrounded by small farms with cultivated fields, orchards, and woodlots that concealed out cropping of granite boulders. Gettysburg held considerable importance to Lee, it was the only place large enough to concentrate his three corps which amounted to 89,000 men.

In addition, the undulating waves of ridgelines which carried on eastward created a series of strong defensible lines for infantry to seize and hold against any attacker coming from the west.

Invasion of Pennsylvania Summer 1863

Lee's rebels move north and the stage is set for the Battle of Gettysburg.

Lee's rebels move north and the stage is set for the Battle of Gettysburg.

The First Day of Battle

On the morning of July 1, 1863, Lee sent his troops on an eight-mile march down the Chambersburg Pike Road to Gettysburg in search of shoes. Probing eastward, the Confederates found two brigades of Union cavalry screening the advance of the left wing of the Army of the Potomac.

The commander of the Union cavalry, General John Buford, ordered his troopers to dismount and take up defensive positions west of Gettysburg and prepare for the rebel attack. The 2,500 Federals formed a thin line from McPherson's Ridge north to Seminary Ridge. Buford's cavalrymen were armed with a revolutionary new weapon, the new spencer repeating carbines.

The spencer carbine was one of the first breech loading weapons that held seven rimfire cartridges. By ten in the morning the fighting intensified as rebel troops seemed to be pouring in from everywhere. Confederate General William D. Pender had arrived in support of Heath's troops, and now the Federal cavalrymen were badly outnumbered, but they still held on.

As the battle intensified Buford sent an urgent plea for help to John Reynold commander of the Union First Corps. Soon after ten o'clock in the morning Reynolds arrived just in front of his troops, he surveyed the situation and rushed to position his arriving infantry.

By now over 40,000 troops were involved in the battle north and west of Gettysburg as Confederate troops attacked in waves. The Federal troops were slowly being pushed back from McPherson's ridge to Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg.

By early in the afternoon Lee had decided to throw everything he had at the Union troops defending Gettysburg. Jackson's old 2nd Corps lead by General Richard S. Ewell, arrived and poured down from the north hitting the Federal right flank with devastating effect.

Soon the entire Union position caved in when their commander, General Reynolds was mortally wounded by a Confederate sniper. In desperation Union troops fled through Gettysburg followed by a large wave of rebel troops. It was an all-too-familiar situation for the Army of the Potomac; Lee had massed his troops to gain local numeric superiority and was crushing his enemy piece by piece.

As evening descended Union troops took up a fragile position south of Gettysburg on Cemetery Hill. Union troops defending Gettysburg took catastrophic casualties with only 2400 troops left to fight from its original 10,000 soldiers. The Iron Brigade was virtually destroyed, losing 399 out of 496 men. Over 4,000 Union troops were taken prisoner as they fled south through Gettysburg.

The Second Day of Battle: The Battle for the Two Little Round Tops

On the second day most of what remained of both armies arrived on the battlefield and prepared for battle. During the night Meade's army had established a fishhook-shaped defensive line that ran south of Gettysburg, that extended two miles to two hills known as the Round Tops. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia took up positions facing the Union Army along Hanover Road east of Gettysburg.

At noon on July 2,1863, Major General Daniel Sickles, commanding the Union Third Corps, committed a costly blunder advancing his 10,000-man corps a half-mile forward to occupy slightly higher ground along a road running southwest from Gettysburg.

There Sickles's troops held a salient with its apex in a peach orchard and its anchor in a maze of boulders locally called Devils Den, just below Little Round Top. Although this move gave Sickles higher ground to defend, it left his men unconnected to the rest of the Union line and vulnerable to attack on both flanks.

By the time Meade learned of what Sickles had done, it was too late to order him back to the original line. Because by then Longstreet had already launched his attack. Sickles and his men were now forced to stand their ground and fight it out.

In the difficult terrain around the exposed Union position sharpshooters were practically invisible. The boulder-strewn, crevice-filled landscape, of Devils Den was a sniper's paradise.

Eight men of Company E of the 3rd Arkansas were found dead, shot precisely in the head by Union troops. A.P. Case of the 146th New York noted, " Behind a short low ridge of rock lay a row of eighteen dead who had been tallied one by one by our sharpshooters."

"Sharpshooters were detested on the battlefield and often not taken prisoner." Said, the 2nd Pennsylvania's E.M Woodward, "the boys showed them no mercy if they surrendered." When Union soldiers charged Devil's Den and captured twenty Confederate snipers, they all began to beg for their lives after being caught, expecting no mercy from their captors. When a Union sergeant in command assured them that they would be treated fairly, they refused to believe him until they discovered that their captors were members of a sharpshooter company themselves.

During the next few hours some of the Civil War's bloodiest fighting took place in the Peach Orchard, in a wheat field to the east of the orchard, at Devil's Den, and on Little Round Top. Longstreet's 15,000 veteran rebels punched through the salient shattering Sickles and crushing his undersized corps. But with skillful tactics, Meade rushed reinforcements from three other corps to fill the gaps in his line.

During that day sharpshooters proved to be an effective defense against the attacking infantry on both sides of the battlefield. Soldiers at Gettysburg often spoke of snipers breaking up attacks. This is what happened when several Union snipers pinned down a Louisiana Brigade of skirmishers below Cemetery Ridge on the second day of battle. "We had to remain there, more than five hundred yards in advance of Ewell's main line of battle, hugging the ground behind a very low ridge, wrote Confederate Captain William Seymour.

It was almost certain death for a man to stand upright as the confederates lost forty-five men from fire from the enemy's sharpshooters who were armed with long-range Whitworth rifles." The most desperate struggle that day occurred on the Union extreme left flank where two Union regiments isolated from the main line of defense battled for control of Little Round Top.

The 20th Maine and the 1st Minnesota achieved everlasting fame by throwing back numerous Confederate attacks which came dangerously close to a breakthrough. Rising above the surrounding countryside, the two Round Tops dominated the south end of the Union defense along Cemetery Ridge.

If Longstreet had been able to place artillery on Little Round Top, rebel artillerymen could have fired down on Cemetery Ridge with horrific effect on Union soldiers. Colonel Joshua L. Chamberlain, commander of the 20th Maine, prevented a Union defeat with an audacious bayonet assault down Little Round Top which finally broke up the rebel attack.

Day Three of the Battle: Lee Attacks the Center of the Union Line

On the third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg Lee let his passion cloud his judgement. Lee was convinced that his beloved Army of Northern Virginian could win once again no matter what the odds.

Lee firmly believed that success could not be achieved without great risk, and that day he was willing to lay his career on the line to prove it. But while Lee lapsed into emotion, Meade and his leaders acted with cold hearted determination and shrewdness. The result of Lee's decision was a tragedy for the Confederacy. Under Lee's orders Longstreet reluctantly ordered his men to assault the Union center at Cemetery Ridge.

Against all odds nearly 15,000 Southern men led by general George E. Pickett charged the summit to dislodge the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge.

Pickett's troops were cut down by murderous Federal artillery and volleys of musket fire. Perhaps half of the men hurled by Lee toward the ridge were slain or wounded. Nearly two-thirds of Pickett's division were slaughtered. Of all the field officers in the fifteen regiments of Pickett's Division only one escaped unhurt.

By then, Lee recognized he was defeated. So moved was Lee that he rode out to meet those troops who managed to find their way down Cemetery Ridge, greeting them with the words: "It is all my fault," and adding, "It is I who lost this fight."

Had Meade seized the advantage, as President Lincoln begged him to do, and attacked Lee's army as it retreated from Gettysburg, which was temporarily trapped and venerable by flooding around the Potomac River. But many more would have to die before Lee would be forced to surrender to the Army of the Potomac.

The difference between Lee's private character as a humane, courteous, quiet, kindly man, the very model of a Christian gentleman, and his reckless, overly aggressive, and costly tactics as a general is one of the most glaring contrasts in military history.

Lee's Army of Northern Virginia would experience higher casualty rates than any other army in the Confederacy during the Civil War. One reason for this was Lee's concept of the offensive-defensive, that he applied to tactics as well as to strategy. Another reason was the lethality of the weapons used and the traditional tactics used as warfare evolved during the war.

Lee was a student of Napoleonic tactics, but that was at a time when infantry weapons were not very accurate. The bayonet, a knife fitted to the end of a musket was primarily used to assault defensive positions. The basic infantry weapon was the single shot muzzle-loading smoothbore musket which was extremely slow to reload. The maximum range of this weapon was about 250 yards, but its effective range was more near eighty yards on a windy day.

Therefore, to compensate for the inaccuracy of the smoothbore musket battle lines were formed to concentrate the firepower of those inaccurate weapons on a specific point in the enemy's defense.

By 1863, nearly all infantrymen in the Civil War both north and south carried rifles. Rifling a musket increase its range four-fold by creating a spin to a bullet that enabled it to literally bore through the air.

After 1863, the rifle and trench dominated Civil War battlefields as completely as the machine-gun and trench dominated First World War battlefields. Civil War sharpshooters began to focus on enemy officers, which explains why officers and especially generals had higher casualty rates than privates.

In the Army of Northern Virginia officers were over twice as likely to be killed in action than enlisted men. Surprisingly at Gettysburg one third of Lee's generals became casualties, over a quarter of Union officers were killed or wounded, compared to one- fifth of its enlisted men.

Officers on both sides soon began to stay off horseback and when possible, wear private's uniforms with only a sewn-on shoulder patch to designate their rank.

Total War: The End of the Confederacy

The day after Lee's ill-fated charge against Cemetery Ridge his troops took up their positions east of Gettysburg and waited for a counterattack that never came; the Army of the Potomac was too exhausted and had taken too many casualties to continue the battle.

The battle for Gettysburg would prove the bloodiest of the Civil War. Of the 88,289 Union troops involved 23,000 were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. As for the 75,000 troops of the Army of Northern Virginia involved over 28,000 were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoner. Lee had lost over one-third of his army and his aura of invincibility.

On the afternoon of July 4,1863, a thunderstorm hit the battlefield and soon afterward Lee's troops buried their dead and began their long retreat back to Virginia. That day Vicksburg fell to Grant and his Federal Army of Tennessee dividing the Confederacy in half and leaving the Union in control of the Mississippi River.

With the victory Grant won favor with President Lincoln, he recalled Grant back to Washington D.C., and promoted to rank of lieutenant general giving him command of all Union armies. The only other man to hold that rank was George Washington, the man who led the Continental army to a victory, over the British at The Battle for Yorktown (October 19,1781), in the American Revolution.

Soon Grant put into motion a massive war winning strategy involving simultaneous advances on five separate fronts. George Meade and the Army of the Potomac, under Grants personnel supervision, would begin a drive towards Richmond and attack Lee's army of Northern Virginia.

The multiple Union offensives began on May,4,1864, after a series of bloody battles Grant had Lee's army with its back against the wall just outside the Confederate capital. Lee set up his defense at a major rail junction just outside of Richmond at Petersburg. Lee's heavily fortified positions surrounded Petersburg in a large east-west arc, with both ends resting on the Appomattox River, which protected the Confederate flanks.

Both the Union and Confederate armies would experience casualty rates over 50% as Grant pushed Lee's army to the point of near exhaustion. Grant could replace his loses, Lee and the Confederacy had nothing left to stop the Union juggernaut. The siege of Petersburg continued for over nine months.

Lee's troops were devastated, starving as they held on at Petersburg. Nearly all of his troops were veterans, at this point in the war few recruits could be found. The weight of the Union army was slowly squeezing the life out of the Army of Northern Virginia, the South's only remaining viable army.

On April 2,1865, Lee was forced to evacuate from Petersburg, the Confederate government fled before Union troops entered the city. On April 3,1865, Union troops occupied Petersburg and Richmond, the next day Abraham Lincoln visited the Confederate capital.