Hello, guys; today we are going to travel to the United states of America to a small town called Gettysburg. This is one of three articles about this three-day battle, which decided the fate of the North American continent in 1863.
By June of 1863, the American Civil War (more accurately known as the “War Between the States”) had been raging for over two years. The conflict started when the South fired on Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor, South Carolina, after previously forming the Confederate States of America when Abraham Lincoln was elected president. Despite the fact that no U.S. soldiers had died during the bombardment of the fort, U.S. President Abraham Lincoln quickly took the excuse and declared war without the consent of Congress (which was unconstitutional).
After a disastrous defeat at the First Battle of Manassas, the North fought back, winning massive victories. But the South rallied in May 1862, and the Southern armies under Robert E. Lee and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson won impressive victories and nearly captured Washington, D.C. However, they had failed to actually stop the war. In June, 1863, in a desperate effort to end the bloodshed that had by then claimed 200,000 American lives and stop the chaos, General Lee moved his 75,000-strong Army of Northern Virginia across the Potomac river into Maryland to begin the final invasion of the North. Lee’s objective was to drag the fighting away from the South and stoke the fire of a massive peace movement in the North (northerners were already tired of the war and wanted it to end).
The Union Army of the Potomac had endured a series of horrible defeats–Second Manassas, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville–that had made the once grand Army of the Potomac a laughingstock and still echoed through the northern public. Northern troops were demoralized and angry, because their commanders were, in their eyes, only butchers who cared nothing about them. Their strength was a skeleton of its former glory, having lost so many good officers and men in bloody battles like Fredericksburg and Antietam (Sharpsburg to Southerners). Most of the current officers were new, and the men under their command were inexperienced. Facing them were battle-hardened Southerners who had a deep hatred for the Northerner invaders.
Lee knew that if he could win another victory for the South on northern soil, it would cause northern politicians to pressure Lincoln for peace. Lee’s army crossed over the Potomac River and into Pennsylvania. Pressured by Lincoln, the commander of the Union army, Joseph Hooker, resigned, and Union General George Gordon Meade took command. The Army of the Potomac had less than 90,000 men, of whom 11,000 were cavalry. 40% of the Army of the Potomac was new and inexperienced.
Meade sent his cavalry to find Lee’s army. Meade’s fear was that Lee would get as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. John Buford, commanding a division of cavalry under Meade, spotted Confederate forces marching towards Gettysburg. Lee’s army was spread out, his three corps numbering 25,000. The First was commanded by James Longstreet, the Second by Richard Ewell (who had taken command of Thomas Jackson’s corps after Jackson died shortly after the battle of Chancellorsville), and Ambrose P. Hill, who commanded the Third Corps.
Two brigades from Henry Heth’s division, which was a part of Hill’s corps, encountered Buford’s Cavalry on July 1st. After a lengthy exchange of gunfire, Buford had pushed back Heth–but at a heavy cost. Heth reorganized his division and attacked again. This time, the Federal First Corps had arrived and pushed back Heth. Lee ordered Ewell’s corps to assault the “Yankees” (slang for northerners). Longstreet was still bringing up his corps. The Eleventh Corps had arrived on the field after a forced march, and they made a bad mistake by taking a vulnerable position.
On the Union Left, things were going very badly for the Yankees. The beloved commander of the First Corps, John F. Reynolds, was killed by a sharpshooter’s bullet whilst directing a Wisconsin Regiment forward. The Federal counterattack had been badly planned, and without Reynolds, it collapsed into a hasty defense. Dorsey Pender, who commanded the Second Division in Hill’s corps, attacked and broke through, routing the Yankees. Ewell’s corps attacked the Federal Right and routed it as well. The Federal Eleventh and First Corps fled through the streets of Gettysburg, hotly pursued by the Confederates. The Exhausted corps finally fell back to the hills beyond Gettysburg. With the Federals routed, Lee sent a message to General Ewell to take the two hills beyond the town with the phrase “if practicable.” Ewell decided not to, and today his decision is widely criticized by military historians. Thomas Jackson would have, as his men put it, “kept the blue bellies running.” The losses for the first day were staggering: 10,000 Federal and 7,000 Confederate. Nearly 5,000 Federals were captured and another 5,000 killed and wounded.
Next time we will talk about the second day of this historic battle.