Battle of Gettysburg - Day 2

July 1 - 3, 1863


On the afternoon of July 1, 1863, Gen. James Longstreet met Gen. Robert E. Lee on Seminary Ridge outside Gettysburg, Pa. The men watched as two corps of their Confederate Army of Northern Virginia routed two corps from the Union Army of the Potomac, pushing them through the town and onto the high ground to the south. It had been as hard a fight that day as any in the war -- the victorious Rebels lost 6,000 men, almost 22 percent of those engaged, while the Union's 8,900 casualties, or 28 percent, included 3,500 captured.

As they examined the strong position the Yankees were occupying, Longstreet suggested the Confederate army make a flanking movement to force the Union troops off the heights. But Lee, whose aggressive spirit was roused by the day's fight, said determinedly, "No, the enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there." "If he is there," replied Longstreet, "it will be because he is anxious that we should attack him; a good reason, in my judgment, for not doing so."

Union army commander Gen. George G. Meade, along with thousands of reinforcements, arrived at the Union camps before dawn on July 2. After a moonlight inspection of his army's position, Meade approved the location as being perfect for a defensive fight. Not only was the terrain in his favor but he also had more men on the battlefield than Lee -- and more were coming.

Later that morning, Lee met with his II Corps commander, Gen. Richard Ewell, who Lee felt had not been aggressive enough on July 1. Lee told him, "We did not pursue our advantage of yesterday, and now the enemy are in good position." Coming from gentleman Lee, Ewell recognized the statement as a severe rebuke and no doubt steeled himself to perform better in the day's coming battle. The Union army was in position, and Lee ordered his army to attack. The main assault would be delivered by Longstreet's corps on the Union left, while Ewell's men applied pressure to the right of the line.

Gen. Daniel E. Sickles's 10,000 men III Corps of the Union Army of the Potomac filed into position on Cemetery Ridge during the night and early morning of July 2, 1863. The corps occupied the extreme left of the Union line, the long shank of the hook-shaped position. Commander Gen. George G. Meade felt there was little possibility of a Confederate attack from that direction and devoted his energies to the other end of the line. Sickles, however was concerned about a low elevation one-half mile to his front, halfway between Cemetery Ridge and the Confederate army on Seminary Ridge.

Sickles feared that if the Rebels placed cannon there, his position on Cemetery Ridge, which at his part of the line was only slightly higher than the surrounding ground, would be threatened. A peach orchard was on top of the low, flat topped ridge and the Emmitsburg Road crossed over it. Another low ridge angled back from the peach orchard, past a wheat field, to a jumble of giant rocks known as the Devel's Den, 1,100 yards away. Five hundreds yards past Devel's Den was Little Round Top, and between the two was a marshy area through which meandered a little stream called Plum Run.

Much of the day's fighting would cover this entire area and the names Peach Orchard, Wheat Field, Devil's Den, and Little Round Top would, from that day forward, connote images of slaughter and mayhem to students of the Civil War. And the low area through which quiet little Plum Run flowed would forever be known as the Valley of Death.

At 3:00 P.M., Sickles marched his corps forward to occupy the area, his new, unsupported line forming a salient that would be exposed to attack from two directions. When Meade heard firing coming from the end of his line, he rushed to the scene and was flabbergasted to see Sickles's vulnerable position. Amid bursing shells, Sickles offered to withdraw his corps to its original line. "I wish to God you could," exclaimed an angry Meade, "but those people will not permit it."

At 5:30 P.M. on July 2, 1863, after the fighting on the second day of the Battle of Gettysburg had raged for 1 1/2 hours, Confederate corps commander Gen. James Longstreet launched his second division, under Gen. Lafayette McLaws, into the fight. The first division had attacked and crushed the left of the salient in the Union lines held by Gen. Daniel E. Sickles's III Corps. This new attack, spearheaded by a brigade of South Carolinians commanded by Gen. Joseph Kershaw and followed by Gen. Paul Semmes's Georgia brigade, was directed toward the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard, at the center of Sickles's salient.

Union army commander George G. Meade had been shifting troops from the right of his line to the endangered left. The Rebel attack was stopped by one of these reinforcing units, Gen. John Caldwell's II Corps division of four brigades. "I noticed," recalled a Union soldier, "how the ears of wheat flew in the air all over the field as they were cut off by the enemy's bullets."

At 6:00, Gen. William Barksdalel's Mississippians, other two brigades following, slammed into the Peach Orchard. Although the Pennsylvania regiments holding the position "fought like demons," they were forced out and fled toward Cemetery Ridge.

McLaw's last brigade, Gen. William Wolford's Alabamans, came up on Barksdale's right, and the two units wheeled to their right, trapping the Union brigades in the Wheatfield between them and Kershaw's and Semme's brigades. Joined by Gen. George Anderson's Georgia brigade from Gen. John B. Hood's division, the advancing Rebels quickly overran the Wheatfield, busting Sickles's advanced position wide open and forcing the Yankees to flee back toward the high ground. Confederate division commander Gen. Richard H. Anderson, following orders for an attack in echelon, sent three of his brigades forward toward the Union line north of the Peach Orchard.

On July 2, 1863, the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia made an oblique attack on the Union position at Gettysburg, Pa. This attack brought Gen. John B. Hood's division of Gen James Longstreet's corps into first contact with the south and east sides of the exposed position of the Union III Corps on the far left of the Union line. Gen. Evander Law's Alabama brigade moved toward the high hill known as Round Top while Gen. Jerome Robertson's brigade of Texans and Arkansans drove toward the jumble of large boulders known as Devil's Den. The area between these two positions, which became known as the "Slaughter Pen," was littered with bodies of Rebels who were felled by devastating volleys of rifle and canister before the Yankees pulled back to the Devil's Den.

On the far right, two of Law's regiments had little opposition and soon climbed to the top of Round Top. There they received orders to assault Little Round Top, a lower hill directly to the north. Quickly moving down into the bog between the two hills, Law's men were hit by a withering Union volley from the southern face of Little Round Top. Col. Joshua Chamberlain's Maine regiment had taken possession of the undefended hill just before Law's men appeared, and though outnumbered, Chamberlain organized a stubborn, heroic defense that saved the strategic position for the Union.

The battle still raged fiercely on the western slope of Little Round Top. There, three other Union regiments were crumbling under the relentless Rebel attack, until Union reinforcements sent by army commander Gen. George G. Meade came streaming over the crest and drove back Hood's men. West of Little Round Top, the fight for Devil's Den continued. Another of Hood's brigades was added, and five Union regiments reinforced the weak Union position. From the Slaughter Pen and from Plum Run, afterwards known as the "Valley of Death," the Rebels converged on Devil's Den and overran the position.

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Map of Day 2 battle in PDF format.

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