How the Battle of Gettysburg Worked


Announcer: Welcome to Stuff You Missed in History Class from howstuffworks.com.

Candace Keener: Hello, and welcome to the podcast. I'm editor, Candace Keener, joined by staff writer, Jane McGrath.

Jane McGrath: Hey there, Candace.

Candace Keener: Hey, Jane. You sound a little bit sniffly over there.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, I have a cold. I think I got it from Josh Clark.

Candace Keener: What a bully.

Jane McGrath: Yeah.

Candace Keener: Well, today we're actually going to take up a topic that a lot of our listeners have emailed us about. We get a lot of requests for podcasts about the Civil War. And we're certainly no Ken Burns, and we're certainly not ambitious enough to try to tackle the entire Civil War in a single podcast. So we thought we might approach this in segments. So today, we're starting with what is - I think pretty undisputable - one of the most famous battles of the Civil War, and that's Gettysburg.

Jane McGrath: We have a great article on the site that goes into detail about what happened during the battle we're going to go over. And if you have the chance to be near a computer and look at the great visuals, that will help you a lot when we talk about different parts of the battle.

Candace Keener: Formations and lines and numbers of men - and strategies especially. So what's interesting about the battle of Gettysburg is that it occurred not early on, but maybe toward the middle of the Civil War. It ranged from July 1-3, 1863. And even though there were still two more years of war after Gettysburg, this was considered a major turning point. Because until now, the south had been waging some major victories. And if you look at the motivation of the Confederates and the Union, you can see that the Confederates had a lot on the line. For one, slavery was the south's institution and they were fighting to preserve it. And furthermore a lot of the fighting had been taking place on southern soil. So these men were fighting to protect their land, their homes, their family - they had a lot at stake. Meanwhile, many men from the north, while a lot had abolitionist causes at heart, weren't as committed to fighting in a war. They had been tapped for service by Lincoln. They were obligated to fight, but it was a war that they weren't as wholeheartedly invested in.

Jane McGrath: You can see that they weren't as excited about it as the thrill that the south had. But that's a good point. But also, the idea that much of the north, people hadn't seen much action in their own land or state. And this was a real change from that. This battle took place in Pennsylvania. Lee, the Confederate general, obviously was trying to invade the north. Ultimately, he wanted to take over Washington. By forgeing into the north in this campaign, he was trying to also get European support and recognition because they were struggling to get recognition. They were secretly training with the British at this time, the south was. But obviously the European powers didn't want to officially take a claim because this was an internal conflict with the United States. They didn't want to take a side quite yet. Also, we talked in a podcast earlier about the Emancipation Proclomation. And when that was finally instituted, that's when the European powers wanted to step away from support for the south and say they didn't want to support slavery necessarily. So a lot is at stake at this point, trying to get European support. To give you some context, Gettysburg is a small town in Pennsylvania. It only had a population of about 2,400 at the time. But it was also really important because about 10 roads intersected in the middle of this town. It was a major stop for traders and people going from Harrisbug in Pennsylvania to the capital of Washington. It was a bustling place in that way. And that's what brought the two forces, the south and the north together, at that point. While Lee was in enemy territory in the north, he was having trouble clothing and supportin feeding his troops. He didn't have the supply lines that he had back in the south. And so some troops were suffering and needed more shoes. One southerner, Major General AP hill actually heard that there were shoes in Gettysburg that he could take for his men. And that's why he started heading that way.

Candace Keener: Precisely. So what you're alluding to, Jane, is the fact that Gettysburg was an unplanned battle. No one planned to arrive in Gettysburg simultaneously and fight.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. Noone really knew where the other one was. The north and south didn't know where they were situated at this point. So they stumbled upon each other at Gettysburg.

Candace Keener: And I think that this battle at Gettysburg was sort of symptomatic of the circum stances of the Civil War. In the beginning, people thought the war would be over after a few major decisive battles. And that certainly was not the case. It turned into a war of attrition in which each side was trying to wear the other down. And these massive death tolls were being incurred. And as we'll see, Gettysburg was no exception to that. So here we have a couple of Conferate troops rolling into Gettysburg looking for shoes. And coincidentally there are Union troops already there. So we'll see that the south, who'd been so victorious so far - their men had a lot of valor, guts, courage, and maybe a little bit too much arrogance. They were men from Westpoint and the Viriginia Military Institute - we'll see that his cockiness paved the way for defeat.

Jane McGrath: And especially, they were coming off of a win at the Battle of Chancelorsville. The south had a lot of confidence after that, even they - actually, we should note that at that battle Stonewall Jackson, the great southern leader was killed accidentally by friendly fire. He was a major liability. Like you mentioned, if it was to become a war of attrition, that put the confederates at a disadvantage because they had less men in general. And that was certainly the case at Gettysburg. They were outmanned by the north. One major point we should mention about Gettysburg is that Lee actually came into conflict butting heads with subordinate, Longstreet.

Candace Keener: So we have Robert E. Lee and James Longstreet. And Lee is very much a fan of aggressive war tactics, whereas James Longstreet prefers defensive tactics. And even though offensive tactics had won the confederacy Chancelorsville, it had also cost them nearly 12,000 men. And like Jane was saying, if this was a game of numbers, the south simply couldn't afford to take another huge loss like that. So there are plenty of historians and theorists out there who like to say that this conflict in ideology between Longstreet and Lee is what ultimately cost the south Gettysburg.

Jane McGrath: Right. Because some people say Longstreet was reluctant and slow to listen to Lee, so he didn't act as quickly as he should've.

Candace Keener: And if you see that portrayed in the movie, Gettysburg, you see that Longstreet was made out to be a more contemplative heroic figure. But there are other historians who would argue that it bordered insubordination because he would sometimes refuse to carry out these orders, or he would carry them out so slowly that they were rendered ineffective.

Jane McGrath: Sort of play devil's advocate for Lee at least. He knew at this point that Meade, the Union general at this point, had never won a major battle. And also the north had to replace a lot of their seasoned soldiers at that time with inexperienced men. And so Lee also felt, like we mentioned before - coming off of the confidence of the win at Chancelorsville and all of these things going with him - he had that confidence. He thought he could take the offensive and it would work out.

Candace Keener: He did. And let's not forget that the major initiative here was that he was on his way to Washington. He was going to take Washington. He was going to get Europe's recognition of the south and it was going to be a major coup. So you can see how this enthusiasm wound up costing him way too many lives. So we know that the battle lasted three days. So before we delve into the instances that occurred on each particular day of the battle, here are the highlights. Day one, is officially July 1, 1863. This is when the troops from both sides roll into town. They've already encountered - they've done their reconisense. They know that either side is there, so they know they're going to be waging a battle. And in Gettysburg, the Confederates actually pushed the Union troops out of the town to the hills outside of town. And this turned out to be a bad move because, in war, you want the vantage point of a hill because you have the elevation from which to fight and also to scope out what's going on on the other side.

Jane McGrath: Right. You can see the enemy more easily.

Candace Keener: Exactly. So by day two, which is July 2, Lee has a very ill-fated maneuver he tries, where he attacks the Union from the left side, hoping that the right side of the flank will dash over there and help save the guys. And then he's going to have someone else attack them from the right, and then the left will have to rush to the right's rescue. And essentially, both sides would crumble. But this attack failed. So on day three, July 3, he tries a different tactic, and that is attacking from the center - which also fails.

Jane McGrath: To go back, the day before the conflict actually started, you have this Union Major General, John Buford, who had arrived in Gettysburg. And he had two brigades of Cavalry with him. And he spotted Confederates, actually, from the top of a Lutheran seminary there. Buford then sent word to Major General John Reynolds, who was about six miles away at this point. He himself sent for reinforcements from Union General George Meade, who was six miles further from him at Tonteytown, Maryland.

Candace Keener: So at dawn, on July 1 - this is when Buford officially begins fighting with the Confederate Major General Hugh. And he had actually been sent to Gettysburg to procure these infamous shoes. And by 8:30 the Union was already struggling that day. By noon, they were completely pushed out of town and shoved off toward the hills.

Jane McGrath: Right. And these hills, we should mention, were in the south of town. And the Confederates actually tried to push further. They wanted to get the north past the good vantage point of the hills, but they were held back by the iron brigade, which consisted of about 1800 men. But the iron brigade actually lost 1200 - at least through casualties - that day. But they were still able to withhold and keep their ground on these hills.

Candace Keener: And what's important - while they were doing that and holding the Confederates back, there were Union troops mobilizing by Cemetary Hill and Culp's Hill. And the Confederates didn't know how many men were being prepared to fight.

Jane McGrath: So by afternoon, you have Confederate Hugh attacking the southern end of the Union flank, and Major General Robert E. Rodes attacking the northern end. By the end, some people argue that the Confederate Lieutenant General Yule was actually - he didn't push hard enough. He was ordered by Lee to push the north past the hills, but he tried and failed at first - and he wanted to wait until Longstreet arrived that night. Historians argue that he didn't try hard enough, and this was a major mistake that probably ultimately cost the battle.

Candace Keener: And I think at this point, too, Longstreet actually wanted to maneuver the troops around so they could get toward Washington.

Jane McGrath: Right. When he finally arrived that night, at the end of day one.

Candace Keener: Right. Lee was the one who held on. And perhaps Lee was looking around and had gotten word of some numbers. And he got a little bit cocky because the Confederates lost 8,000 men that day and the Union had lost 9,000.

Jane McGrath: It's interesting you mentioned what Lee knew and what he didn't. One important point we forgot to mention earlier was that Lee was out of contact with his Cavalry men, which were basically his eyes and ears. And they were led by J.E.B. Stewart. And this was a major disadvantage for the south at this point. Usually, during battle that's a huge advantage to be able to know where your enemy is. And so what Lee didn't know hurt him. So like we said, General Longstreet arrived that night, the end of day one. He argued with Lee about what to do. He wanted to take a more defensive position. And then at the beginning of day two, which was July 2, the rest of the Union army came to reinforce their troops. And the Union positions themselves in the shape of a fishhook at this point, curving - this is when visuals would help at this point - curving around Culp's Hill, snaking around Cemetary Hill, down Cemetary Ridge to the hills of Little Roundtop and Roundtop, which were hills. And the Confederates were in a long, thin, concave line. Longstreet and Yule were on the flanks either side and Hill was in the center. Lee actually ordered Yule to attack the Union right around Cemetary and Culp's hills, and Longstreet to attack Union left. But unfortunately both of these attacks were delayed at this point for various reasons. And Longstreet and his counterpart were not able to attack until late afternoon that day.

Candace Keener: So at this point, the Union Commander, Daniel Sickles, actually takes his troops and moves them down into Peach Orchard and then toward Wheatfield and Devil's Den.

Jane McGrath: And Longstreet wasn't expecting him then.

Candace Keener: No. And that's why these were such notorious battles because they were so bloody and so violent, and so many deaths occurred through here. And essentially, what they were fighting for at this point was Little Roundtop, because this is where elevation comes back into play. This is such a pivotal point, where you can watch the movement down below. You can see what the other side is doing. So Colonel Chamberlain actually wanted to defend his Union troops place on top of Little Roundtop so that the Confederates couldn't get to it. And he stood his ground for two hours with the Confederates just firing away at them. And he eventually lost a third of his men before he commanded a very famous bayonet charge to take out the Confederates.

Jane McGrath: And this saved the Union flank at that point. It was very successful. So actually, by the end of day two, both sides lost about 9,000 men. It was about equal, but certainly bloody. So that brings us to day three, July 3. Before dawn actually - the Union took back ground that they had lost the day before around Culp's Hill. And this immediately foiled Lee's hopes of attacking the right flank of the Union.

Candace Keener: Right. So he's thinking that he's going to attack the center. And Longstreet again, a very common theme, is disagreeing with him and saying, "No, I don't think this is going to work." And in fact, it did not. So a major point of contention between Longstreet and Lee was that, in order to get to the men on Culp's Hill, they were going to have to march through about three-quarters of a mile of an open field. So the Confederates down below were just in a wide open expanses, perfectly positioned to be shot at from the Union troops who had the position on an elevated plain.

Jane McGrath: So you understand why Longstreet objected to this plan, but Lee argued that the Union was weakened. He thought that the Union didn't have much left in them. But he was wrong.

Candace Keener: And guess who comes along at this point, who's been missing out on all the action - the Confederate Major General George Pickett.

Jane McGrath: He really jumped on the chance, because he had missed a lot of the action beforehand. He wanted to prove himself at this point. And we should mention that Pickett wasn't the only - he had his brigade. But he wasn't the only one who had men there, but his men led the charge and so that's why it's referred to as Pickett's Charge.

Candace Keener: As Pickett's Charge, which was comprised of 15,000 men. Like Jane said, 5,000 of them were actually Pickett's men, and 10,000 who technically belonged to Longstreet. So again. Longstreet opposes this idea of Confederate soldiers rushing toward Cemetary Ridge, but Pickett insists. So, he leads the charge. And what's really tricky at this point is that the Union soldiers have been firing from their elevated point. And then they decide they're going to pull the wool over the Confederate's eyes, so they stop firing entirely to trick the Confederates into thinking that they've run out of ammunition. And so this gives the Confederates an even falser sense of confidence as they continue to push forward.

Jane McGrath: So they're walking into a trap at that point.

Candace Keener: Exaclty.

Jane McGrath: And Longstreet ordered Pickett's Charge ultimately around 3:00 p.m. It didn't end up very well. 15,000 Confederate men went up against about 10,000 Union infantry men. But, of course, even though the Confederate had more men at this point at this little skirmish, the Union has the upper hand by the higher ground. So it ultimately failed for the Confederates. They lost about half of their men in the attack, and all 13 colonels - actually, one Confederate brigaid led by Brigadier General Lewis Armistead actually made it to the top of the ridge. He was actually shot down soon after the reaching the top. But it was about this point where we know as the high water mark of the Confederacy. And it doesn't necessarily recognize the farthest north that the Confederates literally got, but because obviously they're fighting towards the south at this point just because of the terrain of Gettysburg - but it's very symbolic. It's the best chance they had for the northern invasion. Like we said, they got to that point but weren't able to hold it. And that was sort of the last ditch effort for the confederates at that point.

Candace Keener: So it became pretty apparent now, that the battle was over and the Confederates had lost. And those who could slunk back to their troops. Some just died in the middle of this field, and they retreated. All the troops that were still able to be mobilized retreated. And some numbers for you, just to put this in perspective - out of 88,000 Union troops, 23,000 were wounded or killed. And that as 26.1 percent of the Union's forces. By contrast, 75,000 Confederate troops - 28,000 wounded or killed - for a total percentage of 37.3 of Confederate men.

Jane McGrath: So southern obviously took the harder hit in the Gettysburg.

Candace Keener: Exactly. And in a war of attrition, you can't afford to lose numbers like that. So the Confederates went back to Virginia, and they didn't venture back into the north again. And Washington was essentially saved. And Lincoln was very upset with General Meade for not essentially finishing off the Confederate troops.

Jane McGrath: Yeah, Lee was actually expecting an attack when he was retreating and that never came. And a lot of people criticized Meade for not taking that opportunity to - to put it not very nicely - to kick them while they were down. This was a perfect opportunity to clinch it.

Candace Keener: And we're not quite sure why. Historians speculate that the troops were so physically exhausted by this point and so many men were down that Meade couldn't gather enough men to kick him when he was down. But it would've been ideal. And Lincoln was actually so enfuriated that he fired Meade. And so Meade actually gave the Confederates a chance to scrape themselves up, dust themselves off, and regroup.

Jane McGrath: Yeah. And the south were actually able to win a couple more battles before the end of the war. You probably know this wasn't the end of the war. The war would go on for another two years, even though this was a major turning point, obviously. One thing you might be asking is - one of the most famous Union generals at this point was Ulysses S. Grant. So why wasn't he here? Why haven't we mentioned his name? He was fighting another battle at this point, a very important battle named Vicksburg. And this was very long as well, it lasted for months. And finally it ended on the day after Gettysburg ended, July 4, 1863, after a 47-day siege on that town. It was a Union victory, Grant came out ahead. And this was very important because it reclaimed the Mississippi River fo r the north. This was a vital trade route. Also, in addition to that, it split the south in two, which made connections and reinforcement difficult between the south at that point. Grant was actually probably the reason the north won the war, because of his strategy of using the numbers against the south. He was willing to play the numbers against the south, even if it meant more casualties - it ultimately resulted in victory.

Candace Keener: So hopefully, in a future podcast, more on Grant later. And we can delve more deeply into Vicksburg. And just to wrap up the Battle of Gettysburg, in this place where no one expected to fight, you may be wondering how many civilians were killed in the bloodbath. And the answer is one. And I hesitate to say just one - I already made the mistake of saying earlier, only 8,000. Any death in war is obviously a tragedy. And a young woman about 20 years old - her name was Jennie Wade - she was at her sister's house baking bread and she was hit by two rogue bullets while she was inside. So how about that?

Jane McGrath: Oh, that's sad.

Candace Keener: Very unfortunate coincidence, getting caught in the crossfire there. And I actually blogged about the unknown soldier of Gettysburg, maybe just one of many unkown soldiers of Gettysburg, a couple of weeks ago on the Stuff You Missed in History Class blog. And if you missed that, the entry pertained to a five-part series in The New York Times by Errol Morris, who was writing about an amber type that had been found in a dead soldier's hand. And he had no identification on him, just this old tiny picture of three children. And so the story of tracing down his identity and the idea of being able to put a name and life to one dead soldier in a field of thousands of dead soldiers was a touching story. So we actually blog about many more topics than just the Civil War on our blog - everything from Talking Like Shakespeare Day to the latest news in the Great Wall of China excavation.

Jane McGrath: That's right. And we also address some of your questions directly on Monday's now.

Candace Keener: We do. And every Friday we do a little recap of our podcast. So we certainly hope that you will visit the blogs at howstuffworks.com. And also, if you think of any topics you'd like to hear about or have any comments or feedback for Jane and me, be sure to email us at historypodcast@howstuffworks.com.

Announcer: For more on this and thousands of other topics, visit howstuffworks.com.