Battle of Gettysburg - Overview

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In classic military terms, the American Civil War Battle of Gettysburg was a 'meeting engagement1' gone horribly wrong.

With Confederate troops spread in a 45-mile long arc from the Pennsylvania town of Chambersburg in the west and Carisle in the east, the Southerners' invasion had gone extremely well for a few weeks. However, the Confederate commander General Robert E Lee did not know the location of the 90,000-man Union army that was pursuing him because his cavalry (the intelligence gathering branch of mid-1800s armies) was far out of position to the east. In fact, the entire Federal army was between Lee's cavalry and his own 75,000-man army.

When a spy convinced Lee that the Union army was closer to some parts of the spread out Rebel army than they were to each other, Lee immediately ordered his forces to consolidate near the small village of Cashtown, just west of Gettysburg. As the county seat of Adams County, Gettysburg was a market town with roads from the surrounding countryside radiating into it from all points on the compass most of the Confederate forces headed toward Gettysburg and then planned to move on to Cashtown to link up with the rest of Lee's army.

As the Southerners were attempting to consolidate their forces, the Union army was seeking out the location of the Confederate army. Thus a classic meeting engagement occured at Gettysburg when Confederate troops under General Henry Heath ran into Union cavalry under the command of General John Buford. They took cover and began firing at each other.

Then things went horribly wrong. Both sides rushed to reinforce their men and more and more soldiers began to be drawn into the fight. Before too long, both commanding generals found that their entire armies had been drawn into a full-fledged battle.

On the first day's fighting, the Confederates drove the Federal troops through the town of Gettysburg and into the hills to the south and east of town. Had the Southern troops been able to capitalize on their early momentum, they might have swept the Union troops from the field, however this was not the case.

On the second day's fighting, the Union troops maintained a defensive position along the high ground south and east of town and waited for the Southerners to attack. Confederate General Robert E Lee ordered his troops to attempt to turn the right flank of the Union lines but the effort failed. So he ordered an attack on the left flank, which was anchored by the highest ground on the battlefield - the hill known as Little Round Top. This effort was also unsuccessful.

On the third day, Lee ordered a frontal assault on the center of the Union lines, believing that after hitting both flanks that Federal General George Meade would strengthen both positions and leave the center relatively weak. After an artillery barrage that was supposed to soften up the Union lines but overshot the mark, the Rebels engaged in an historic charge into the face of the enemy's cannons and infantry.

Pickett's Charge, as it came to be known, was a complete disaster and the Confederates pulled back and shortened their lines to face the inevitable Union counterattack. But Meade had had enough and held his ground, allowing the Southerns to slip away and eventually escape back to Virginia.

Historians agree that these three days in Pennsylvania turned the tide of the war. In fact, the small copse of trees that the Confederates reached at the climax of Pickett's Charge is known as the 'high water mark of the Confederacy'.

In November, President Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg and gave his famous speach. One hundred years later, President John F Kennedy declined an invitation to speak at the cemetery where Lincoln uttered his famous 258 words and Kennedy joined Lincoln as a victim of an assassin's bullet.

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1A meeting engagement is occurs when opposing sides in a conflict literally walk right into each other and begin shooting.

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