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The High Tide – Second Day’s Battle at Gettysburg Essay

The first day at Gettysburg had seen the two great armies – the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by General Robert E. Lee and the Union Army of the Potomac, led by newly appointed Major General George Gordon Meade – come together. The fighting had ended with the southern army in control of the town and Seminary Ridge, while the northern army possessed the high ground along Cemetery Ridge, a very formidable position dominated by two large hills – Round Top and Little Round Top – on the southern end of the line; it will be around those two hills that the Confederacy’s effort of independence from the United States will reach its high tide; it will break upon, and around those heights and it will ebb and flow there. It will be on the Union left that Longstreet’s Corps will be broken, and it will likewise be there that the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac will see the south’s hopes break and recede and from whence it will gain renewed strength from having been the instrument upon which those hopes are dashed.

The night between the beginning of the battle and its fiercest fighting found Lieutenant General James Longstreet’s I Corps hurrying toward the field. It had been delayed during the morning, left waiting as of part of Lieutenant General Richard Ewell’s corps passed by near the town of Greenwood; the I Corps had been moving throughout the day and evening reaching the main army about midnight. On the morning of the second day, Lee, Longstreet, A.P. Hill, Harry Heth, and John Bell Hood sat beneath a tree on Seminary Ridge and discussed plans for the day’s attack.[i]

Longstreet had tried to convince his leader that the Army of Northern Virginia should move around the Union forces flank and position itself between Meade and Washington, and he had believed he and Lee had agreed upon this strategy, and he tried to get Lee to follow through on that strategy, “We could not call the enemy to position better suited to our plans,” he observed. “All that we have to do is to file around his left and secure good ground between him and his capital.”[ii]

After the first day’s fighting, Lee had decided if Meade’s army was still found along Cemetery Ridge in the morning he would attack him and he told Longstreet so, “If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him.”[iii]

Longstreet had disagreed, “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.”[iv]

But the bit was between Lee’s teeth now and he would not, and could not, let go of the Army of the Potomac and move around it. There was too much at stake, and his army would never be able to survive for long as a group, and could not afford to spread out now in order to live off the land around them. Meade could wait them out and Lee knew this. This may not be the ground of his choosing, but here was where the enemy had gathered, and it was now here where he would have to fight him.

Lee had been observing the enemy’s position and he believed its left flank was in the air and unsecured, but he had no cavalry to confirm this. Major General J.E.B. Stuart had been assigned the mission to screen the Confederate army’s move northward, but had become distracted with the idea of riding around the Union army, and had hence left Lee with no screen and with no reconnaissance capability, and he now had to use the tools he had at hand. To determine if Meade’s flank was indeed unsecured Lee had sent a small reconnaissance party to the right to verify Meade’s position. He had sent Captain Samuel R. Johnston, one of his staff, to scout out the enemy’s flank. Johnston led his party to the top of Little Round Top, and found no one there. He could see, looking through the trees below him, no Union troops. The flank appeared to be unsecured! He returned to the commanding general and confirmed Lee’s suspicion that Meade’s left was exposed and opened to attack. But the empty flank Johnston had seen was only momentarily so, “…the reconnaissance party had taken a quick look at the enemy lines during the time when the Federals were in the process of shifting troops. In fact, the Union lines did extend south along Cemetery Ridge. Lee therefore had a complete misunderstanding of Meade’s position.”[v]

With his suspicions confirmed, Lee was determined to attack, and he turned to his most trusted Lieutenant – to his “Old War Horse” – Longstreet. But the I Corps commander did not share Lee’s confidence; he too had been studying the Union defenses and he had “concluded that this line was too strong for an attack to succeed. He urged Lee to turn its south flank and get between the Union army and Washington. This would compel Meade to attack the Army of Northern Virginia in its chosen position.”[vi]

Lee would not be swayed however, and ordered Longstreet to prepare for the attack; the attack that if it succeeded could drive the Union army from the field and win the war. But Lee’s battle plan “rested on two givens – first, that scout Samuel Johnston had spied not a single Yankee soldier from his vantage point on Little Round Top that morning; and second, that therefore General Meade lacked either the troops or the intellect to anchor his left flank properly.”[vii]

The Union line had been established as the Army of the Potomac was driven from Gettysburg during the first day’s battle after Meade sent Major General Winfield Scott Hancock forward to take charge of the army on learning of I Corps Commander Major General John F. Reynolds death. Hancock had quickly determined the high ground south of Gettysburg running from Culp’s Hill on the north past Cemetery Hill and down the long stretch of Cemetery Ridge south to the Round Tops – could and should be held. He rallied the units on hand and established the defense, sending word to Meade of his disposition, who swiftly ordered the remainder of the army to converge on Gettysburg, and hurried to the site arriving around midnight. Hancock will be dubbed “Hancock the Superb,” by northern newspaper writers for his roll in the Union victory.[viii]

As Longstreet’s corps made its way south it would soon discover that not only was the Union left soon to be occupied, but that “Meade finally had most of his 85,000 men present. Lee with approximately 75,000 soldiers, was facing a formidable line that stretched from Culp’s Hill, around Cemetery Hill, southward along Cemetery Ridge, and finally to the Round Tops.”[ix]

Lee’s plan of attack called for Longstreet’s corps to position itself to attack the Union left flank, facing northeast astraddle the Emmitsburg Road, and to roll up the Federal line. The attack was to move en echelon from the right beginning with Hood’s and Major General Lafayette McLaws’s divisions, followed by Major General Richard H. Anderson’s division of Hill’s III Corps. The progressive sequence of the attack was supposed to thwart Meade from shifting troops from his center to bolster his left. At the same time, Major Generals Edward Johnson’s and Jubal Early’s II Corps divisions were to make a demonstration against Culp’s and Cemetery Hills (again, to prevent the shifting of Federal troops), and to turn those demonstrations into full-scale attacks if a favorable opportunity presented itself.

What Lee’s plan had not taken into account was the possibility of Union generals doing the unexpected, and as Longstreet’s corps moved into position its leaders were surprised to find Major General Daniel Sickles III Corps sitting right in their path well out in front of the entire Union line. It was both an opportunity and problem. An opportunity because in moving forward Sickles had left the Union left truly unsecured, and most especially he had left the Round Tops void of any Union forces; it was a problem because Sickles corps, blocking the expected path of advance would slow down the rebel assault.

As Sickles had moved his corps into position on Cemetery Ridge, he looked toward the Confederate lines and decided – on his own – that his corps was not in the best location. “Trees and boulders covered both the ground that he was to occupy and the area to his front seemed slightly higher. From there, Confederate artillery might be able to command his lines.”[x]

As the afternoon wore on, and shadows began moving through the woods nearby, Sickles, sensing a crisis was approaching, sent skirmishers into the woods to find out what the Confederates were doing. Twenty minutes later, his men reported enemy movement toward the south. “Thinking he had to act promptly to prevent the high ground from falling into enemy hands, Sickles moved his corps forward. Back on Cemetery Ridge, Hancock, whose corps was on Sickles’ right, was astounded by the move. One of his division commanders suggested that perhaps Meade had ordered a general advance and that Hancock’s corps missed the order.”[xi]

By moving his corps so far ahead of the Cemetery Ridge line Sickles not only forced Longstreet to modify Lee’s battle plan at the last moment, but he also greatly altered the strategic landscape. “Lee’s prospective battlefield was extended southward some three-quarters of a mile. Hood deployed his four brigades, newly designated as the outflanking division, along Seminary Ridge facing due east, toward Round Top and Little Round Top. The half mile or so of terrain between Hood and the two heights contained what military cartographers euphemistically termed ‘broken ground.’”[xii]

As he moved forward, to occupy the high ground, Sickles had placed his III Corps into a salient extending his line to a length far greater than could be adequately defended by the number of men he had in his command, and the shape of his line exposed it to both Confederate fire and attacks from three directions. To make matters worse, “not only had Sickles disobeyed his orders to occupy Cemetery Ridge, but he had also left Little Round Top undefended.”[xiii]

Reporting to Meade’s headquarters for a meeting of corps commanders as he was dismounting, heavy artillery fire could be heard in the direction of his corps on the Union left. Sickles quickly remounted and rode swiftly back to his men. Just as quickly, Meade mounted his horse, and he and his chief of engineers, Major General Gouverneur K. Warren rode to ascertain the situation on the III Corps’ front. When they reached Cemetery Ridge, Warren said, “‘Here is where our line should be.’ Hearing the Confederate cannon fire to the front, Meade replied, ‘It is too late now,’ and rode in the direction of the fire. Warren, wanting to get a better view of the terrain, rode to the crest of Little Round Top.”[xiv]

While the fire was spreading and intensifying, Warren and his aides raced up the rocky slopes of Little Round Top, and once there were stunned to find there were no Federal soldiers, except for a handful of signal-men on the heights, and it was further apparent, “from what the signal-men had seen and from Warren’s own observations, that Confederate attackers were less than a mile away and moving toward the heights even as they watched. That discovery, Warren later wrote, ‘was intensely thrilling to my feelings and almost appalling.’ Earlier in the day he had written his wife, ‘we are now all in line of battle before the enemy in a position where we cannot be beaten but fear being turned.’ Now that fear was upon him. To General Warren it was instantly clear that if Rebel infantry and artillery seized Little Round Top, they would utterly dominate the Potomac army’s position on Cemetery Ridge.”[xv]

Understanding what would happen if someone didn’t occupy the heights and do so quickly, Warren sent one of his aides to Meade calling for troops to meet the emergency. He also dispatched another aide, Lieutenant Ranald Mackenzie, to Sickles and to have him order one of his brigades to the crest. By the time Mackenzie found Sickles, his corps was already heavily engaged and the General was beginning to realize the scope of his recklessness, and told Mackenzie he could not spare any of his men.

Mackenzie rode back to Cemetery Ridge in search of other troops, and soon found Major General George Sykes, moving forward with his V Corps. “Without hesitation, without clearing the matter with headquarters, Sykes sent a courier to the commander of his lead division, James Barnes, with orders to answer Warren’s call.

“Sykes’s courier, in his search for Barnes, encountered Colonel Strong Vincent, commanding the V Corps’ lead brigade. ‘Captain, what are your orders?’ Vincent demanded of the courier. He needed to find General Barnes, said the courier. ‘What are your orders?’ Vincent repeated. ‘Give me your orders.’ The captain answered, ‘General Sykes told me to direct General Barnes to send one of his brigades to occupy that hill yonder,’ pointing to Little Round Top. ‘I will take the responsibility of taking my brigade there,’ said Vincent. As the corps’ lead brigade, Vincent’s was the logical choice for this task, but in sensing the crisis and bypassing the chain of command, Strong Vincent, too rose to the occasion. His variegated brigade – Twentieth Maine, Eighty-third Pennsylvania, Forty-fourth New York, Sixteenth Michigan – was soon scrambling up the rocky face of Little Round Top.”[xvi]

Warren did not sit idly by while his aides were looking for troops; Warren also moved off searching for men to place on the exposed left. Noticing infantry moving up, he moved to the unit discovering it was none other than a regiment from the brigade he had earlier commanded. “As he started to explain the army’s plight to the regimental commander, Warren saw his younger brother, Edgar, approaching. Edgar Warren was an aide to Brigadier General Stephen H. Wood, commander of a brigade in the V Corps. The army’s chief engineer received promises that the entire brigade would send help. Next, Warren directed an artillery battery and the brigade’s lead regiment to move to the top of the hill. He then rode to see the V Corps commander and secure additional reinforcements. The ensuing fight for Little Round Top was a close contest. Federals ran up one side of the hill as Confederates ran up the other. The fight ended with the Army of the Potomac holding the position. Warren had taken action in time.”[xvii]

Longstreet had repeatedly argued to have the army move around Meade’s flank, but he had been overridden by Lee. He was not happy about the planned attack, but he was a career soldier and he would obey orders. But after being rebuffed, he was determined to follow the letter of Lee’s instructions and it made him extremely inflexible. His division commander on the far right, Hood, recommended that the right wing of the attack should be extended around the Round Tops and into flanks of the Union army. “Longstreet replied that Lee’s orders were to attack up the Emmitsburg Road, and that everyone would obey the orders of the commanding general. Nevertheless, Hood extended his lines to the right to include Little Round Top, and his near success against Warren on that hill was proof that the Federal line of battle was vulnerable.”[xviii]

Longstreet’s artillery fired a cannonade for more than an hour, and then his divisions charged forward, slamming into Sickles’s front and flanks. Sickles’s decision to move forward was a bad one, but his men fought bravely and made the Confederate I Corps pay dearly for each yard it advanced, and Sickles defended it well. “…the fight for the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield lasted almost four hours. Before being seriously wounded, Sickles skillfully plugged the holes in his lines almost as quickly as they developed.”[xix]

As the I Corps continued its assault on the Union left it began to flow up and around the Round Tops, as it moved to the left and right enveloping Sickles’s Corps it began the long hard fight into and through the forbidding Devil’s Den. This area of the Union line was being defended by the One Hundred Twenty-fourth New York Infantry known as the “Orange Blossoms”. The fighting soon became some of the hardest of the war, and presently became desperate. “Some of the Texans later claimed that the muzzle flash of their rifles had singed the New Yorker’s uniforms. At the start of the fight, the regiment’s Colonel A. Van Horne Ellis and Major James Cromwell had been on foot. It was safer that way.” As the fight worsened, “Ellis had their horses brought forward, and he and Cromwell mounted up. To a captain who remonstrated at what good targets the colonel and major would make on horseback, Ellis replied, ‘The men must see us today.’”[xx]

The fighting became hotter, and as moment of immediate “crisis seemed to approach, Ellis gave the signal. He and Cromwell led their men down the slope in a counterattack. For a few moments all was glorious victory for the Orange Blossoms as the First Texas broke and fled before them. Then, near the foot of the slope, the Texans turned and blasted a volley into the faces of their pursuers. Cromwell, a magnificent figure on his iron-gray horse, crumpled to the ground. The Orange Blossoms surged forward to recover his body, and the rocky hillside became a fiery cauldron of battle. One participant recalled that all was ‘roaring cannon, crashing rifles, screeching shots, bursting shells, hissing bullets, cheers, shouts, shrieks and groans.’”[xxi]

The Texas line receded and it looked as though the Orange Blossoms may have won a startling victory, but suddenly, “…emerging from the thick smoke and passing through the Texas’ line, strode a solid gray-glad line of battle, fresh and unbloodied, two ranks deep, shoulder-to-shoulder and stretching out of sight in the battle smoke in either direction. Brigadier General Henry Benning’s Georgia brigade had moved up from its reserve position and was going into action to renew the momentum of the Confederate assault. The Georgia line swept the scattered Orange Blossoms before it like the first chill blast of a violent spring storm. Colonel Ellis fell dead with a bullet in his brain, and the survivors of the 124th, now scarcely one hundred strong, fell back to the crest of Houck Ridge, struggling to delay the Confederate advance.”[xxii]

As the Confederate assault began to flow over the top of the ridge it soon collided with the Fourth Maine Regiment. Its commander, Colonel Elijah Walker, realized very quickly that the Rebels would soon be able to turn his flank and continue to plunge through the Union line. “Walker responded with the sublime audacity that seemed almost commonplace on both sides this afternoon. He ordered his regiment to wheel to the right, fix bayonets, and charge. ‘I shall never forget the “click” that was made by the fixing of bayonets,’ the colonel wrote years later. ‘It was as one.’

“The Fourth Maine surged to the top of the ridge, but there it, too, met the onrushing wave of Benning’s Georgia brigade. The fighting became hand-to-hand on the ridge top and in Devil’s Den. The Maine men were soon joined by reinforcements of their own, one regiment from the other end of Ward’s line and another from de Trobriand. The oversized Fortieth New York took up the position the Fourth Maine had just left, covering the Slaughter Pen and Plum Rum gorge. The Ninety-ninth Pennsylvania, led by Major John W. Moore with the shout of ‘Pennsylvania and our homes!’ charged into Devil’s Den alongside the Fourth Maine and drove the Georgians and Alabamians out of the boulders and off the ridge. Meanwhile, the Fortieth New York charged the Confederates who were trying to press through the gorge and drove them back but could not dislodge them. One Confederate counted seven separate charges by the Fortieth. The two sides blazed away at each other there until the Slaughter Pen was more thickly strewn with bodies than with boulder.”[xxiii]

Sickles’s salient had caused Hood’s division to move to the right of the assault, and it began to flow over and about the Round Tops, and the two right-hand regiments, the Fifteenth and Forty-seventh Alabama, under the Fifteenth’s Colonel William C. Oates, climbed up – and over – the steep, heavily wooded slopes of Round Top, and then plunged down into the saddle separating it from Little Round Top to its north. “Oates’s instructions were to locate ‘the left of the Union line, to turn it and do all the damage I could….’”[xxiv]

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