The Battle of Gettysburg Timeline: Three Days of Hell

The Battle of Gettysburg might have taken place in the span of just three days, but it was a battle that ended up taking the lives of more people than any other battle in the entire Civil War. Fought in 1863 from July 1st until July 3rd, it is considered the quintessential engagement of the American Civil War.

In May, General Robert E. Lee had become victorious over the Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville. It was his pride that drove him to make the decision to go on the offensive and try to successfully invade the north for a second time. Not only did he want to bring the battle out of Virginia and divert northern troops from Vicksburg, but he also wanted recognition of the Confederacy from France and Britain and hoped to fortify the cause of the northerners known as Copperheads, who favored peace. In July 1863, General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia, which was composed of 75,000 men, and the 97,000-member Union Army of the Potomac, fighting under George G. Meade, converged at Gettysburg and fought the famous Battle of Gettysburg.

Here is a look at some in-depth information about the timeline of the battle that ultimately led to the most bloodshed in the least amount of time, starting from day one when the troops first headed into Gettysburg until the battle reached its bloody conclusion and thousands of soldiers were wounded, lost, or died in battle.

Day One: July 1, 1863

At the end of June 1863, thousands of troops were headed to Gettysburg, marching toward what would become a very famous town in the history of the United States. In the area of Gettysburg, there were just two troops of the Union Calvary brigade. They were sent ahead of the Army of the Potomac, where those troops were headed through Maryland from the north in an attempt to get caught up to the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia led by Robert E. Lee. The rebels, however, were coming in from the west and the north area after pillaging the countryside of clothing, food, and livestock. Gen. Henry Heth had found out about shoes put in storage and hidden away and decided to take them.

Heth had more than 7,000 men with him. By early morning, they had gotten to within two miles of Gettysburg. There, they found almost 3,000 of Buford’s cavalrymen ready to do battle, and a skirmish broke out between the two groups of soldiers. Buford was on the lookout from the top of a seminary building and saw his troops being pushed back. An artillery man described the scene in as follows:

“men were falling, reeling…the horses were plunging and tearing, gone mad due to terror or perhaps their wounds, shells burst, drivers screaming, shots were fired overhead, flying above and creating clouds of dust s they fell, on all three sides the musketry came crashing while bullets hummed, whistled, and hissed all around. It was indescribable with dust, wreck, smoke, carnage, and blood.”

A couple of General Lee’s three corps gathered on Gettysburg from the north and the west. At the beginning, the vigorously battling Union troops had thwarted the gathering of Lee’s III Corps out of the western area. However, Lee’s II Corps then came in from the right side of the Union line, and even though their advance was furiously battled, the Rebels slowly got the Yankees away from their original position by pushing back. The veteran Confederate II Corps brigade, overseen by General Stephen D. Ramseur, entered after the couple of brigades in front of them had experienced their setback and did what they had to do. That started the Union soldiers’ falling back from Oak Ridge; pressure was applied heavily. General Jubal A. Early’s Rebel division of the II Corps showed up at the field, which caused the Yankees to back off because they were right there on the Union flank’s square.

The battle waged on all day, with Early’s attack being monitored by Lee, who sent in the III Corps toward the Union troops. Being attacked from all three sides, the Yankees were unable to thwart off the Rebels and around 3,500 of them were captured. According to General Hancock, who had arrived in Gettysburg at around 4:30 on Cemetery Hill, there was disorder, chaos, and panic that led to retreating and defeating.

Although Lee had a victory at this point, he did not feel overly confident. The Yankees had taken to high ground, and he recognized that it would help give the soldiers strength. He forwarded a note to his II Corps commander, General Richard Ewell, that essentially said to motivate the people to take hold of the higher position if it was a practical move. Ewell had been a replacement corps commander to Stonewall Jackson and was capable but new to everything. He wasn’t under the impression that the attack was practical, whereas Lee felt that Jackson would have stressed the need to do more.

The commander of the Union Army of the Potomac, General George C Meade, had been notified by Reynolds that he would wait until the other troops arrived by holding the Confederates who were invading in this area of town. He had sent out his men and the dismounted cavalry men who had originally stalled the advance of the Rebels. Unfortunately, a minie ball from a skirmisher struck him and he died.

After that, the rebels had to retreat due to the appearance of the Iron Brigade. The first of Robert E. Lee’s generals to be captured was James J. Archer, who was caught along with 75 other men. Although the Rebels on the other side (to the left) had made progress, they were forced to find safety after being met with devastating fire. 250 prisoners were captured, and by 11 am, the Confederate defense had all but failed. There was quiet for approximately two hours when the Confederate force started dropping cannonballs toward the rear of where the Yankees were.

Day Two: July 2nd, 1863

On Day Two, Robert E. Lee ordered the left flank to be rolled up. At the same time, Lieutenant General A.P. Hill’s corps had threatened the Union center and continued their attack after Major General Richard Anderson’s brigades met up with Longstreet. On the Confederate side, Lee told his Lt Ewell to launch an all-out division attack along the front if it was practical. If this plan worked, not only would the Union army who held the high places topple, but the war might be won that very day. Unfortunately, Hill did not live up to expectations and his assault was without the power that Lee had wanted. Not only was Hill ill that day, but he was also unfamiliar with Anderson’s brigades and did not have the camaraderie that he was used to with his other divisions. This proved to be part of the problem.

Perhaps if Lee had put Anderson under the operational control of Longstreet, things may have fared differently, but he knew that Hill could be quite temperamental and high strung and did not want to offend him. On top of that, Longstreet and Hill did not trust each other. During the previous summer, they had a disagreement at the Seven Days Battle, and it carried over into their time together during Gettysburg. Hill had angered Longstreet after not taking back what he said about his actions at Frayser’s Farm. They had actually been so incensed with each other that they had planned a duel until Lee stepped in. This was just the first set of circumstances that led to failure.

Along with many reinforcement troops numbering in the thousands, the Union Army Commander Meade showed up at the Union Camps. Getting there in the early morning before the sun rose on July 2nd, they conducted an inspection by moonlight to pinpoint their position. He then gave the thumbs-up to the location as a place that was perfect for a good defense. He had a few things in his favor, such as the terrain. He also had more troops than General Lee and knew that even more were on the way.

At 10:00 am, the troops were marched in five brigades to about a mile from Cashtown. They waited around for an hour and a half before proceeding to the town. Anderson waited an additional hour to hear from Hill, even after hearing artillery fire to the east about eight miles away. They finally proceeded around 1 pm and reached the actual battlefield as late as 4 or 5 pm. Many people claim that if they had only gotten there earlier in the day, the Confederates would have taken over Cemetery Hill and that this three-hour delay might have cost them the entire war.

Lee met with II Corps commander General Richard Ewell a little later that same morning Lee was under the impression that Ewell had not been formidable enough and had expected more aggression from him on that first day in July. Lee told him that they had not taken advantage of that first day and that this gave their opponents a better position than they should have. Ewell knew that Lee was a soft-spoken gentleman who would not normally talk to him this way and he took this as being admonished or reprimanded, so he planned to give a better performance than he did before. Lee sent forth the orders for attack after the Union army got into position, and this attack was on the Union left by the corps under Longstreet’s rule. On the right side, Ewell had his men attack the line.

The next morning, the five brigades led by Anderson moved a mile and a half forward to take their position at the Confederate line. Many of the men had no shoes and tattered clothing, and it wasn’t until 9 am that the division was fully posted. However, the hot sun and high humidity were taking their toll. Inching forward, the Federal positions were about 1,200 yards away. Anderson informed Wright that they would attack the Yankees and instructed him to advance with Lang’s Floridians on his right and Posey’s Mississippians continuing their movement on his left. This all took place around noon.

Arriving on the battlefield, Major General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Federal II Corps got into position between Major General Daniel Sickles’ III Corps on the left and the XI Corps on top of Cemetery Hill on the right. Because he did not quite feel secure on top of Cemetery Ridge, Major General Daniel Sickles stretched his troops thin by advancing his two divisions to some higher ground near Emmitsburg Road. By the afternoon of July 2, Major General David Birney’s and Brigadier General Andrew Humphreys’ divisions formed Sickles’ out in the open salient with the Federal line running from left to right. They continued with Brigadier Generals John Gibbon and John Caldwell with the II Corps divisions.

At 3:00 pm, Sickles led his corps forward to take over the area, with his fresh line that was unsupported, forming a salient that was exposed to battle from both directions. When Meade heard sounds of fire from the line near the end, he fled to that area and was shocked to see Sickles’ defenseless position. Among the exploding shells, Sickles offered to remove his troops to the line they originally came from. An incensed Meade shouted about how he wished that they could but no one would allow it.

Fearing for this position, which seemed vulnerable, Humphreys ordered more artillery to help with his line. He also deployed cannons south of the Kringle house via Lieutenant Francis Seeley. Along the north of the building were Lieutenant John Turnbull’s six Napoleons. Ignoring the missile strikes around him, Humphreys ranged along his battle line.

For almost two hours, the Battle of Gettysburg raged on. Under General Lafayette McLaws, General James Longstreet launched his second division. This was a new attack that was initiated by a brigade from South Carolina, led by General Joseph Kershaw and followed by General Paul Semmes. This Georgia brigade was sent toward the Peach Orchard and Wheatfield at the center of Sickles’ salient. At 6:00, Gen. William Barksdale’s Mississippians, with another two brigades following them, slammed into the Peach Orchard. The Pennsylvania regiments held their own but were eventually forced out and headed towards the area of Cemetery Ridge.

McLaws’ last brigade, General William Wolford’s Alabamans, came up on Barksdale’s right, and the couple of units went to their right, pinning the Union brigades in the field between them and Kershaw’s and Semme’s troops. Then came General George Anderson’s Georgia troops from General John B. Hood’s division. The advancing Rebels quickly took over the field of wheat, busting Sickles’ advanced position open and forcing the Yankees to retreat back toward the ground that was higher. Confederate division commander General Richard H. Anderson, who was listening to what he was told to do, sent three of his brigades forward toward the area of the Peach Orchard occupied by the Union.

On this same day, the Union position was attacked by the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia. Known as Slaughter Pen, the brigade of Texans and Arkansans drove toward the mishmash of big rocks known as Devil’s Den, which got its name because of all of the Rebel deaths from canister and rifle volleys. Two of Laws’ regiments climbed to the top of Round Top, where they were ordered to assault Little Round Top, lying below to the north. Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s Maine regiment put up a good defense that saved the strategic Union position.

The battle on Little Round Top’s western slope carried on. The Rebels vigorously attacked three other Union troops, who were faltering, until General George G. Meade sent in reinforcements and drove back the men of Hood. West of Little Round Top, the fight for Devil’s Den continued. Another of Hood’s troops was put in, and five Union regiments strengthened the weaker Union position. From the Slaughter Pen and Plum Run, which would later be known as the “Valley of Death,” the Rebels forged on Devil’s Den and overran the position.

Day Three: July 3, 1863

The Union Army of the Potomac under General Meade kept watch on top of Cemetery Ridge, which was just outside of the town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia’s I Corps Commander Longstreet tried to talk Lee out of attacking Meade’s position on that third day. He said that based on his extensive knowledge of the capabilities of soldiers and armies, he felt that no 15,000 men could take that position.

The brave men who faced a storm of bullets being shot while advancing across one mile of open farmland in the sweltering heat were made up of several units in the Confederate army who were all under the same commander: Longstreet.

With fresh men who had not battled at all during the first two days, General George E. Pickett spearheaded an assault with three Virginia brigades. Four brigades from Virginia, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina were on Pickett’s left. In Pettigrew’s back side of the area, Gen. Isaac R. Trimble led a couple of North Carolina brigades from General William D. Pender’s division. Moving in support of these nine troops were a brigade from Alabama and a small one from Florida from General Richard H. Anderson’s command.

Approaching the Union line, they converged on a narrow front, and the handful of men who pierced the line fell under a wave of Union reinforcements. The ones who got the furthest were the North Carolinians on the Rebel left. General Lee reported that the men were heroes with valor and fortitude.

At 3:00 pm on July 3, 1863, more than 10,000 controlled and trained Confederate soldiers came out from the trees along Seminary Ridge and formed battles ranks that were perfect in alignment, facing the Union position a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. For two fortnights, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had outdone Major General George G. Meade’s Union Army of the Potomac in intense fighting in and around Gettysburg. However, Lee was set on attacking Meade’s troops, who still occupied a defensive position in the south of the town.

Major General George E. Pickett, a 38-year-old career soldier who hailed from Virginia, commanded three of the nine brigades attacking the Confederates. Pickett’s division initiated the assault, advancing with perfect precision. Almost immediately, holes began to form in the Confederate lines from the Union artillery positions.

Under orders to avoid firing or letting loose their trademark Rebel Yell, the Confederates closed the holes in their lines and kept moving forward. Union artillery changed from shells to canisters and mowed swaths through the Confederate ranks. As the troops moved forward, Union infantry sent streams of minie balls into the ordered Southern troops. Although the surviving Rebels fought hard with hand-to-hand combat and return fire, there were not enough of them to continue to hold the line. Their choice was simple: either go back across the mile of open ground or surrender.

The soldiers who were captured numbered around 4,000, and General Pickett’s division lost 70 percent of its men. On the other hand, the Union only lost around 1,500 men which was a far cry from the number of casualties they had inflicted on the Rebels. Robert E. Lee had felt that his troops were invincible, which proved to be flawed thinking. The numbers are staggering, with the Battle of Gettysburg being the bloodiest battle in the history of the United States with more than 50,000 fallen men in total. Of the 82,000 Union soldiers who were engaged, over 3,000 were killed, over 14,000 were injured, and over 5,000 were missing. The 75,000 Confederates suffered almost 4,000 killed, almost 19,000 injured, and at least 5,000 missing.

After the loss at Gettysburg, Lee expected some sort of retaliation, but it never came. On July 4, Lee withdrew his army towards Virginia and offered his resignation to President Jefferson Davis. He went on to win other battles, but the Battle of Gettysburg turned things around to lead to a victory for the Union in the Civil War.

In November 1863, President Abraham Lincoln delivered what is known as the Gettysburg Address at the dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery. Lincoln used this speech to memorialize the fallen soldiers at the Battle of Gettysburg. Although there are five known speeches, the sentiment is the same no matter which one is viewed.

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