The Confederates success of July 1 was quickly overshadowed as the sun rose over Gettysburg, PA on July 2, 1863. We’ll hit on the high points of that terrible day, as it leads up to the climax on July 3. The day had ominous overtones for the Rebels, General Lee awoke as exhausted as his men, but with the chronic diarrhea that had bothered him off and on throughout the entire war. Ever the General, his mood was upbeat and he met with his corps commanders to settle on an offensive strike which he hoped would drastically affect the enemy’s army.
General Stuart was still absent, again placing Lee in the position of not knowing the extent of the Union troops which were then massing in the sleepy little town. Lee was anxious to be off and begin the attack, hoping for the element of surprise.
If his physical problems were ongoing, so also was the arguments presented by General Longstreet against such an attack. And this time Old Pete was correct. He was convinced that the total strength of the Army of the Potomac would be coming against the Rebel troops, which were at about half strength, and that a Union victory was a given. Longstreet offered a different idea, what he termed “strategic offense- tactical defense.” This scenario would hopefully provoke the Union army into attacking the Confederate troops where the Rebels had the offensive. Longstreet’s theory was that this approach had worked before — at Antietam (Sharpsburg), both Battles of Bull Run (Manassas) and even at Fredericksburg. Lee could not be dissuaded, his main psychology was that this would cause a drop in morale of his army just after they’d been victorious. As it turned out, Longstreet’s theory was the better one.
A term almost synonymous with Gettysburg was the Union’s “fishhook” line. The point of the hook was right at Culp’s Hill, the loop was at Cemetery Hill, and its loop on the end of the shaft was at two hills, Little Round Top and Big Round Top. Lee was northwest of the fishhook where the shaft joined to the curve; on the other hand,CSA General Richard Ewell was above the curve and ready to attack the right mass of Union troops.
If you have ever been to Gettysburg, walked the fields, and then driven up to see the sunset over Little Round Top, looking down you can imagine the strategic position of the Union troops on its high tops, and the approaching Southern troops appearing as sitting ducks clad in gray, Not that it was totally easy, one of my Union ancestors, Aaron Banta, lost his life with Colonel Patrick O’Rourke’s 140th NY troops on the Little Round top edifices. And the admirable Gen. Strong Vincent of the Union fell mortally injured on its peak, a stone on the top marked still where he fell. Famous names of the war also made their way to the Round Tops, the indefatigable General Hood and his Texans, and Col. Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine.
That same day Union General George Meade appeared to feel good, bold and cheerful. In that weird confluence that the war brought, Lee and Meade had been trained together at West Point. Lee declared to his staff that “General Meade will commit no blunder on my front, and if I make one, he will make haste to take advantage of it.”
The afternoon was drawing down, the Confederates still entrenched at the rocky place called Devil’s Den — which today seems to be full of the spirits of those who fell —below Little Round Top. The massive rocks are everywhere, like they were placed by a giant, including Table Rock, which perches precariously as it must have that day. Heavy fighting also was going on in the Peach Orchard (replanted this year with small peach trees in the ongoing effort to return the battlefield to its 1863 appearance) and the Wheatfield, also now replanted. The shots devastated the wheat crop, cutting them off as cleanly as scythes could have. Each time the Rebels appeared able to break through the lines, a Union force appeared to thwart the attack.
When the sun went down, the Rebels attacked Cemetery, East Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, to no avail as the Union forces held. Only Culp’s Hill was briefly lost, and then retaken by the superior Union troops after some seven hours of fighting.
The toll for Day Two was over 15,000 killed or wounded from both sides. America was losing two generations at one time — her adults and her youth.
Tomorrow: Day Three - the Massacre known as Pickett’s Charge