Ken Burns’ PBC documentary series ‘The Civil War’ informs us that the average soldier at the start of the American civil war was 5’8”, 25 years old and 143 pounds (10 ¼ stone).
Despite the physical similarities between men on both sides, the conflict was about nothing else if not sharp contrast: North and South, Union and Confederate, ‘Feds’ and ‘Rebs’, blue and grey, free and slave state.
One might also add urban and rural to that list, because it was differences in lifestyle that essentially caused the war.
Contrasts would also show up on the battlefield, informing the way soldiers looked and acted, including in the war’s bloodiest battle, Gettysburg - a three-day affair that would change the direction of the war.
It might seem odd that a matter as trivial as tired feet could start an entire battle, but the issue was actually a symptom of greater social and historical forces.
Modernising economies sometimes struggle to keep their urban, manufacturing centres from drifting away – economically, politically and culturally – from their rural and agricultural areas, and balancing the two is an important component in national wealth.
That’s one of the arguments at the heart of Erik S Reinert’s persuasive book ‘How Rich Countries Got Rich and Why Poor Countries Stay Poor’.
Manufacturing, Reinert reminds us, is innately efficient and, more importantly, each extra worker helps to exponentially increase output. Agriculture, by contrast, is limited by available land – beyond a certain point, any extra workers added to a farm end up working with ever decreasing productivity. Factories and the goods that come out of them can go on getting ever more efficient and numerous. Whereas, crops, while subject to some increases in efficiency (such as better farm equipment) are always going to be limited by space.
Just how much of a role economics played in the Civil War is something historians will continue to argue about. What is certain though, is that in the years preceding the war, the urban-heavy north churned out textiles on a huge scale, something that was fuelled by vast quantities of cotton grown in plantations throughout the rural south.
It may have been anathema to many Northerners that slaves grew much of this cotton, but Southerners saw this as part of their way of life and integral to the economic system that produced the cotton the North used.
So when these two halves of the American economy divorced following the Confederate states’ succession (prompted by the anti-slavery candidate Abraham Lincoln winning the 1960 presidential race), the South would be worse off.
The South cut themselves off from the prosperity generated by the factories in the North, and from what we today would consider rather basic supplies, as outlined in Ken Burns’ Civil War:
“The greatest battle ever fought in the Western Hemisphere began as a clash over shoes. At dawn, on July 1 (1863), a Confederate infantry officer led his men toward the little crossroads town of Gettysburg Pennsylvania. Within view of a Lutheran seminary, whose high cupola offered a fine prospect of the surrounding farms and rolling hills. There was rumoured to be a supply of shoes at Gettysburg and the footsore rebels were there to commandeer them.”
It wasn’t only lack of footwear. Confederate soldiers had a motley appearance, what with having to cobble together supplies and uniforms in any way they could, while Union troops were well-supplied and always in uniform dress.
The North, determined to bring the South back into the Union, had enjoyed and employed these advantages, but now it was time for the rebels, or ‘rebs’, to try and balance the scales.
After a string of victories in 1863, Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was on an audacious march straight into ‘Yankee’ territory where they planned to break the back of the Union’s main fighting force: The Army of the Potomac.
The Potomac was a river that formed part of the border between Virginia, the northern-most state in the Confederacy, and Maryland. Just beyond that lay Pennsylvania, where the Southerners would end up on July 1, 1863, as they seized livestock and other supplies and exchanged them for, useless, Confederate currency.
They also grabbed any free blacks they could and sent them south to make them slaves. One officer defiantly told the locals:
“My friends, how do you like this way of our coming back into the Union?”
Bumping into each other
There’s no particular reason that the bloodiest battle of the Civil War occurred where it did. As Carl Smith describes it in ‘Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy’:
“The (Union and Confederate) armies, which had been moving on parallel courses, just seemed to blunder into each other and skirmish, and then their respective commanders decided that here was as good a place as anywhere to fight a battle… That Gettysburg should occur was inevitable, but that it occurred the way it did – and where it did – was the result of a series of coincidences.”
And these series of coincidences at first favoured the Southerners.
They’d sent four entire brigades into the town. During the Civil War, brigades contained four, or more often, five, battalions. However, it was common practice at the time to call their battalions regiments, only using the term ‘battalion’ for a particularly large regiment that had more than one unit. (Historically, it had been the British who did this – having a recruiting centre or area referred to as a regiment, and for that regiment to then churn out numerous battalions as required). While battalions, or in the case of the American Civil War, regiments, have varied slightly in size throughout history, generally the normal size has hovered at around 1,000 men. American Civil War regiments were not an exception, with 10 companies of 100 men led by a captain. However, by the time of Gettysburg, many of these units had been in the field for a long time and were understrength, so in practice, they varied in size quite a lot by this point.
Of the four Confederate brigades (which would have had about four or five regiments) that entered Gettysburg, one contained 1,200 men, another 2,241, a third 2,581 and the last one only 971 men – roughly totalling a 7,000-man force.
They were confronted by was a single Union regiment – the 8 Illinois cavalry.
Not surprisingly, the Union boys came off worse and did the best they could under the circumstance, pouring fire into the approaching Southerners with their state-of-the-art Sharps breechloaders and .44 calibre Colt pistols. (Standard issue weapons for infantry at that point were the comparatively slow muzzle-loading Enfield muskets – most well-trained soldiers could manage three shots a minute with these).
Amazingly, as they staggered their well-executed retreated, the 8 Illinois were able to slow the enemy down to the point that it took them more than two hours to advance a mile through the town.
This gave the Union more time to build up their forces as more units arrived on the scene. It didn’t, however, stem the tide of the huge Confederate advance, despite desperate skirmishing and hand-to-hand fighting:
“Panic ruled the fleeing Union troops, trapped in town where streets were unfamiliar and sometimes led to dead ends, many Union soldiers became disoriented and surrendered as (Confederates) flooded in behind them.”
Those who weren’t taken were pushed into the hills to the south of Gettysburg, where they established a headquarters on Cemetery Ridge. Named for the town grave yard that was located there, a sign on the gate, in keeping with the times, read: “All persons found using firearms in these grounds will be prosecuted with the utmost rigor of the law”.
Best wishes and intentions of the sign maker aside, by the end of the day, in and around the cemetery, roughly 65,000 Confederates would face about 85,000 Union soldiers in one of the biggest battles of the Civil War.
Commanders plan… and arrive
The direction of events continued to favour the South into and through the night of July 1.
Robert E Lee, having established an HQ on Seminary Ridge, opposite Cemetery Ridge, had time to confer with his deputy, General James Longstreet, who suggested a flanking manoeuvre around the Federal army and towards Washington DC.
But Lee had refused: “If the enemy is there (on the heights) tomorrow, (he had said), I will attack him”. Longstreet said: “If the enemy is there, it is because he is anxious that we should attack him – a good reason in my judgement for not doing so”.
But Lee was adamant – he would smash the Union army here, while he had the chance, knocking President Lincoln’s best sword out of his hand and forcing him to sue for peace. (Or, at the very least, winning a huge victory that would make the South attractive to so-far politically cautious potential European allies).
This calm and resolute deliberation on the Confederate side was the opposite of what was going on with the Army of the Potomac. When Meade got to Cemetery Hill in the early hours of July 2, he learnt that already one-quarter of his force (or what he thought was his force) – 8,500 men - were already dead or missing.
In fact, he had to start planning not even realising that, he actually had the numerical advantage over Lee. (Roughly 85,000 men to Lee’s 65,000, as mentioned, as well as plenty of artillery).
Meade’s subordinates had also picked good ground – a series of hills and ridges that gave them command over the low ground the Confederates would have to cross to attack them. They held Culp’s Hill (140 feet in elevation) on their right; half a mile away was Cemetery Hill (80 feet) on their northern-most left; then to the south was Cemetery Ridge (40 feet) and Little Round Top (170 feet).
Below them, they could see the Wheatfield, the Peach Orchard and the Devil’s Den between them and Seminary Ridge and the treeline to the south of it that made up the Confederate line. These place names would become capitalised as they gained infamy as sites of extreme violence during the course of the battle.
Cobbling together a defence
At 4 pm the Confederate artillery opened up on the southern portion of the Union lines who replied with their own cannons.
Confederate infantry moved forwards under cover of their artillery, with men from Alabama rushing for Big Round Top.
The Union cannons unleashed canister shot (which sprayed the enemy like shrapnel) and muskets in an attempt to stall their advance. The 1 Texas regiment joined their comrades and got to within 140 feet of the Union line, only to be repulsed by musket volleys from the 124 New York regiment:
“Men began slipping from tree to tree, finding cover in shallow draws and behind boulders, firing at will and trying to close the distance between the gray and blue lines. Later one Texan wrote that Devil’s Den was more like ‘Indian fighting than anything I experienced during the war’.”
The Southern troops were racing for the hills south of the Union positions because one of their commanders, Colonel William C Oates, had noticed their extreme elevation and the fact that they were as yet undefended. He’d said that from that position he could have blown the whole Union army apart:
“Within half an hour, I could convert Little Round Top into a Gibraltar that I could hold against ten times the number of men that I had.”
(He was, of course, referring to the Great Siege of Gibraltar in which the ‘the rock’ had proved to be an impenetrable fortress for the British against three-and-a-half years of Spanish and French attacks launched during the American Revolutionary War).
Because the battle was essentially unfolding by accident, the Union commander arrived late on the scene and rudimentary mistakes were being made early on. There was no real-time communication and it was difficult for leaders to know what was happening, or even, as mentioned in the case of General Meade, to know how many men they had.
But when the Northern troops saw their enemy dashing for the hills south of them, they quickly realised what was happening and organised a rapid defence of this position. Their savage fire directed at the rebels is a testament to that, as recounted by one Confederate in PBS’ The Civil War:
“The line had broken because of the timber and the first fire of the hidden Federals. A long line of us went down, three of us close together. There was a sharp electric pain in the lower part of the body and then a sinking sensation to the earth, and falling, all things going dark.”
Saving Little Round Top
Foolishly, one of the Union commanders had taken his men out of the high ground in order, he said, to get a better shot at the enemy with his artillery. Unfortunately, this gave up the geographical advantage he’d enjoyed and exposed his men to attacks from above.
A charge was soon made by the 44 Alabama regiment near Devil’s Den, but they soon were cut down by a huge volley from the 4 Maine.
However, when the Maine men reloaded, the survivors shot back, one of the Union men saying that the line was “alive with burning powder”. Both sides continued to shoot at each other and refused to retreat until the 48 Alabama reinforced their comrades, which forced the 4 Maine into retreat. The 4 and 5 Texas also joined in and by now Little Round Top was in serious jeopardy.
The Southerners had charged up the adjacent Big Round Top, from the top of which Colonel Oates had made his pronouncement about using the smaller hill to dominate the Union lines. (Big Round Top was of course higher, but Little Round Top was closer to the enemy).
Meanwhile, Brigadier General Gouvenor K Warren, chief engineer of the Army of the Potomac, had seen the movement of 4 and 5 Texas regiments and ordered artillery rounds fired at the woods on Big Round Top. When they hit, he saw the bayonets attached to the Confederates’ muskets glistening in the sunlight, and he sensed they were manoeuvring to take both hills.
Smith points out that the opportunity Oates had spotted was now dawning on Union engineer chief:
“Warren realised that Little Round Top overlooked the entire Union line, and that whoever commanded its heights commanded the field of battle.”
He immediately informed General George Sykes of V Corps what was happening. Colonel Strong Vincent led the four regiments of his brigade up the hill to deter the Confederate advance. After coming under Confederate artillery fire, he placed his men on the western and southern slopes, but then saw Confederates running at him from the south west from Big Round Top. When they got to within 50 paces, his men fired, driving the Alabamians back away from the 20 Maine:
“After a minute the Alabamians regrouped and, uttering fierce battle-cries, charged the 20th Maine, using trees, rocks, and brush for cover as they fired, darted to a new position, reloaded, and fired again. The Alabamians drew so close that Union and Confederate soldiers were locked in a maelstrom of bayonets, clubbed rifles, and point-blank rifle fire.”
The Maine men were outnumbered but held the high ground and had so far beaten the Confederates back. But they were perilously low on ammo. So their commander, Lieutenant Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, got his men to charge the enemy with bayonets. It helped that the left-most side swung around like a “great gate upon a post” and caught the Confederates in their flank, completely by surprise. The Alabamians were sent charging back down the hill.
Vincent though was cut down by Confederate fire while trying to rally the 16 Michigan, who were being attacked by the 4 and 5 Texas to the right. Warren found Lieutenant Charles Hazlett’s Battery D of the 5 US Artillery and dispatched them to the hilltop before going off in search of yet more reinforcements.
The battery started shelling Confederates charging at the hill, but Confederate sharpshooters (snipers) in Devil’s Den, in turn, began firing at them. (During the Civil War, a battery normally consisted of six cannons, fired and tended to by about 100 artillerymen).
Warren found Colonel Patrick O’Rourke with his 140 New York Regiment and told him to join the battle. O’Rourke’s men charged the Southerners and drove them off. However, two other officers Warren sent over to Little Round Top were shot dead by Confederate snipers.
‘The Peach Orchard and the Wheat Field’
The Union side may have taken and secured Little Round Top, but the Confederates weren’t giving up. Along much of this area, many Confederate charges were hit by lethal artillery, including the anti-personnel canister shot.
Union infantry prepared to engage them, and when they did, Confederate muskets cracked at them, causing “Wheat (to fly) in the air all over the field… cut off by the enemy’s bullets”. The Union, though, threw reinforcements into the battle and it drove the Confederates back to an area nearby called Rose Woods.
But two more Southern regiments both moved to counter-attack, forcing the Union troops back through the Wheat Field. Though, as per the general see-sawing of the battle, they too were then held back by more Union reinforcements.
Adjacently, the Confederates began gaining the upper hand. Two Pennsylvania regiments were ambushed in their flanks by the 21 Mississippi which caused huge casualties. Having driven these regiments back, they worked with the Alabamians and other nearby regiments and began closing in on the Northern troops from either side.
Realising they were being pincered, the Union soldiers withdrew to Little Round Top, making it just in time. From this vantage point, Pennsylvanian soldiers unleashed two huge volleys on the Confederates then bayonet charged them, driving them back to behind the shelter of a stone wall on the eastern side of the Wheat Field.
Attacking Cemetery Ridge
North of the Wheat Field, Alabamian and Floridian regiments charged across the flat ground towards Cemetery Ridge, trying to dislodge men under the command of Meade’s Chief of Staff, General Andrew Humphreys.
But these men were backed up by three artillery batteries – K of the 4 US Artillery, and F and K of the 3 US Artillery, which fired “a storm of canister (shot)”. Still, the Confederates kept coming, pushing through the Peach Orchard.
The Union was plagued by mismanagement at this point in the battle and did not coordinate its defences, which allowed the Confederates to swamp them. They were forced to make orderly withdrawals in the face of a continued Southern advance, though elsewhere, at Trostle Farm, “the Confederate advance slowed as the 9 Massachusetts battery ripped holes in the gray-clad soldiers with load after load of canister”.
Charge of the 1 Minnesota
Another general watching the hammer blows fall on the Union line was Winfield Scott Hancock. Noticing a point where the line seemed most vulnerable, he flung the 1 Minnesota regiment at the charging enemy, who were, in this case, more Alabamians.
1 Minnesota plunged into them but received savage fire for their trouble. Of the 262 men from the regiment that were sent forward, only 38 were left standing at the end of their charge (a casualty rate of 82 percent).
Union casualties aside, it was the Southerners who were pushing their luck.
They had started the battle well, their superior numbers pushing the Union forces back into the hills. The trouble was, Lee failed to recognise that by the second day he was the one who was actually outnumbered and in continuing to try and dominate the enemy the way he had on the first day, his forces were getting strung out. This made communication difficult, and it also meant that his men would become over-extended far more easily, without easy access to reinforcements, artillery support nor able to communicate well with those in the rear. Fighting over a larger area also tired them out, which is why they were so often overwhelmed and driven back to Seminary Ridge and the rest of their line to the south.
The union right
Over on Culp’s Hill, artillery had been exchanged with the Confederates opposite for much of the afternoon. After this initial bombardment, a division attacked the Union position, but closing the distance took so long that it was dusk before the men got there:
“When (the rebels) started up (the slope), the northern face of the hill erupted in a blaze of musketry which illuminated the dusk. The Union had dug in and used their prepared positions to offset the Southerners’ superiority in numbers.”
Here, the Union were well organised, with runners dispatched continuously so that the resupply with ammunition of men in trenches along the slopes would be assured.
The fighting eventually died down, and Meade met with his generals. A plan was hatched to bombard the rebels opposite Culp’s hill with artillery starting at 4:30 the following morning, to either dislodge or force them to keep their heads down while Union infantry prepared to attack. Again, the advantage here lay with the Union now because their shorter and closer lines meant that men could be easily reinforced when they attacked, or moved to wherever they were needed while in defence.
Lee’s great gamble
One would think that, for all the advantage the Union side now had in the ground it occupied, the one Achilles heel lay in the gaping hole at the bottom of their ‘fish hook’.
In fact, General Longstreet had sought to outflank the Union lines south of Big Round Top and to drive his forces in between them. But Lee got him to pull his men back and insisted on a frontal assault opposite his headquarters on Seminary Ridge.
Lee’s idea was to soften up the Union side with artillery, and to then attack them with his ‘indominable’ infantry.
Longstreet took one look at the Union line through his binoculars and said: “General, it is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arranged for battle can take that position”. But Lee, who suffered a heart attack at one point early on in the Gettysburg campaign, is said to have had his judgement throughout hampered by this.
Or perhaps it was simply a case of prior success having gone to Lee’s head. That’s the theory espoused by historian Stephen B Oates:
“Lee, by the summer of 1863, had come to believe that he was invincible and so was the Army of Northern Virginia. The record would almost invite that when you see how they had pummelled one Union general after another and defeated, or at least fought to a draw, the Army of the Potomac, almost in every battle up until that point. And Lee really did think that if he asked his boys to do something, they would do it – that they would do anything. He had come by Gettysburg then to believe in his invincibility and that of his men, and it was his doom.”
Ironically, it hadn’t started out this way. Lee was a modest man of conservative sensibilities. He was against secession, calling it outright rebellion, and he understood entirely why Lincoln was using force to put the country back together. No nation could ever last if it broke apart after the election of a president some of its members disagreed with. He knew that, and would probably had done the same in Lincoln’s shoes… in fact, he’d almost fought for Lincoln. But he couldn’t ever bring his sword to bear against his beloved home state of Virginia, and when Virginia had also seceded along with the rest of the South, Lincoln had watched his best general walk out the door.
Now he wanted nothing more than to smash Lincoln’s best army and to force his surrender.
While fighting would start up around Culp’s Hill again early on the third day of the battle, the climax of the fighting would be near Cemetery Ridge.
The big assault would be in front of Lee’s command and involve 50 regiments, with artillery lining up behind to support them.
Once the attack commenced, “Seminary Ridge exploded, as nearly 170 Confederate guns thundered and roared”.
The target was not Union infantry, but the Union guns opposite. For the most part, they escaped the cannon balls, but their horses and ammunition did not.
Still, Union gunners moved themselves and their weapons out of the way, and the Southerners took this as a sign that they’d been beaten back. They hadn’t – it was merely a strategic withdrawal, not an outright defeat.
Orders were rushed to Pickett, a relatively green commander, to advance. He deferred to Longstreet and asked him if he should go forward. Longstreet, who of course had disapproved of the whole action from the beginning, could only bring himself to nod.
And so Pickett pulled up in front of his men on horseback at 3:10 pm and said: “Charge the enemy and remember Old Virginia”. Smith tells us:
“And with that the Southern advance began, rifles (or rather, muskets) with fixed bayonets at low port resembling a ‘glittering forest of bayonets’, 100-110 paces to the minute, blue flags fluttering in the slight breath of afternoon breeze, voices silent and faces determined, having been ordered neither to run nor to utter their famous rebel yell. In the late afternoon heat (it was the hottest part of the day – nearly 90 degrees Fahrenheit and very humid), the skirmishers stepped from the woods and started a sixteen and a half minute walk that led 10,000 Confederates forever into history.”
And they would walk into history, but not in the way they intended. Rather, in a kind of American Battle of the Somme, the Confederates would walk headlong into artillery (fired at them from Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge) – artillery that their commanders had assured them had been knocked out.
But they kept going. The most salient point in their advance would be into a position called ‘Bloody Angle’, which consisted of fences and stone walls behind which Union troops and an artillery battery waited:
“The long-silent Confederates defiantly screamed their rebel yell, a long, eerie ululation, and raced forward to the wall. The 71 Pennsylvania broke. The artillery fired the last of the canister at point blank range, and suddenly the gunners were fighting tooth and nail, using handspikes and rammers against Confederate bayonets.”
Adjacent artillery and batteries on Cemetery Ridge swung around and poured fire into the rebels in support of their comrades below.
Meade had also anticipated Lee’s attack and was ready to move reinforcements from nearby Culp’s Hill to bolster his line on Cemetery Ridge.
Many of Pickett’s men had already retreated in the face of the terrible artillery fire they’d sustained at Bloody Angle, and now those who hadn’t would be rushed by Union troops six ranks deep. In determined hand-to-hand combat the ‘federals’ forced their rebel enemies back, and now Pickett’s remaining men turned and fled back to the safety of the Confederate lines.
Unlike the Somme, retreating men were not court-marshalled. General Lee rode out to meet survivors and took responsibility for the whole debacle.
And it was a debacle – of the 11,000 men who went out, only 4,500 had come back.
Elsewhere, Union and Confederate cavalry were fighting each other on the southern portion of the battlefield. At one point, this fight became as bloody and frantic as the one going on to the north:
“First Confederate horses broke into a canter, and the Union cavalry followed suit. Then the Confederates galloped, and so did the Union, two mounted units charging at full speed toward each other, sabers drawn and glistening in the afternoon sun. The units collided head-on with a resounding clash that toppled many horses and riders head over heels. In the ensuing mounted melee overall organization vanished… In many ways it resembled a brawl more than a military action.”
Exhausted, both sides soon withdrew.
The question the Union side now confronted was whether or not they should pursue and try to finish off Lee’s battered army. But Meade, who’d studied history, including the Battle of Hastings, knew that it was difficult to change an army from a defensive to an offensive footing (the Anglo-Saxons may have lost to the Normans because they broke ranks and pursued them down the hill at Hastings).
He chose not to pursue Lee, ensuring the survival of his army, but also that the war would not end anytime soon.
Of the roughly 150,000 men who had taken part in Gettysburg, a third of these had ended up casualties:
The residents of Gettysburg, roughly 2,400 in number, now had more than ten times that number of wounded men to tend to. Ken Burns’ The Civil War features this haunting quotation from one of these residents about the aftermath:
“Wounded men were brought into houses and laid side-by-side in our halls and first storey rooms. Carpets were so saturated with blood as to be unfit for further use. Walls were bloodstained, as well as books that were used for pillows.”
Meanwhile, as it headed south, the waggon train of wounded for the Army of Northern Virginia stretched for 17 miles.
As for the man who’s unit had been given the starring role in the battle’s climax:
“Pickett never forgave Lee'. Years later he said ‘That old man had my division slaughtered’.”
Many more would be slaughtered - the war would now go on for another two years.
For more on Gettysburg and the American Civil War, read 'Gettysburg 1863: High Tide of the Confederacy' by Carl Smith and 'Union Infantryman 1861-65' by John Langellier. Visit Osprey Publishing for more military history.