Battle Of Gettysburg Essay Research Paper Gettysburg

Battle Of Gettysburg Essay, Research Paper Gettysburg was the Army of the Potomac’s only great victory on the battlefield. Antietam, certainly a strategic victory, showed Robert E. Lee’s unstoppable killing

Battle Of Gettysburg Essay, Research Paper

Gettysburg was the Army of the Potomac’s only great victory on the battlefield.

Antietam, certainly a strategic victory, showed Robert E. Lee’s unstoppable killing

machine was indeed stoppable. And the Army of the Potomac did eventually

force Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia from its impregnable Petersburg trenches.

But Lee’s surrender at Appomattox Courthouse finally came when the Rebel army

was so weakened that surrender was almost a foregone conclusion. Such Union

victories as the ones at Sayler’s Creek and Five Forks in the final weeks before

the historic surrender on April 9, 1865 can hardly be called great battlefield

victories. While the AOP can only notch one momentous battlefield win onto their

belt, they were, of course, on the winning side in lesser battles that did not

significantly impact either the tactical or strategic situations. Malvern Hill, the last

major action of the Seven Days campaign where Confederate forces were

severely and boldly repulsed, is one such example. When analyzing Gettysburg it

has become commonplace to ask why Lee and his army failed to win a great

victory. Fewer people look to the other side of the equation and ask why Meade

and the AOP won. What circumstances changed to enable the AOP to transform

a long string of defeats into a great victory? The odds were certainly against them

in many ways. The AOP had become accustomed to losing. Fresh from two

devastating defeats within the past six months, the AOP was chasing a seemingly

invincible fighting machine. To heighten the odds against the blue underdogs,

they were given a new commander, Major General George Meade, only four days

before they were to fight what would become the battle of their lives. So why did

the Union win at Gettysburg? The men in blue fought like demons along their line,

of this there is no doubt. But the Union had fought admirably before. While it was

the 90,000 front-line men who held their own, ultimately giving better than they

got, in the final analysis something else must help explain this rather unusual

occurrence–a spectacular, indisputable Federal victory in the East. The answer is

found in the performance of the AOP’s officers. Gettysburg was clearly the

best-led fight the AOP would ever engage in (and this includes later battles when

U.S. Grant would be on hand to conduct the proceedings). Everyone from lowly

Lieutenants to Major Generals performed exceptionally well under the most dire

circumstances. Perhaps even more impressive, the officers in blue were in “top

form” for three consecutive days. A failure or let-down from even one of the

critical players over that three day period could have easily erased R.E. Lee’s

only out-right defeat from the history books. Day 1, July 1, 1863 saw the start of

the best three days of the AOP’s life. Brigadier General John Buford, recognizing

the fact that whoever held the high ground south of Gettysburg would control the

killing fields, dismounted his cavalry for a showdown with Major General Henry

Heth’s infantry division. Deployed to the west of Gettysburg to slow Heth’s

advance, the 2,700 dismounted troopers, firing rapidly with their breech-loading

carbines, stalled the 7,500 Confederates for one crucial hour. Colonel Thomas

Devin’s and Colonel William Gamble’s cavalry brigades fought ferociously under

mounting pressure, and held on long enough for infantry reinforcements to arrive

from Major General John Reynolds’ I Corps. Reynolds became the ranking Union

commander when he arrived on the field, and he never gave retreat a thought.

Like Buford, he recognized the importance of holding the high ground south and

east of Gettysburg. Within an hour and at Reynolds’ urging, the famous Iron

Brigade quick-timed onto the field and slammed into Heth’s Rebels. Suddenly the

graybacks, facing infantry and not just dismounted cavalry, retreated back across

Willoughby Run, a small stream a mile or so west of Gettysburg. Reynolds’

decisiveness in committing his troops without delay was the last contribution he

would make for his country. Within minutes of arriving on the field, directing

sorely needed reinforcements to Buford’s hard-pressed cavalry, this excellent

general (some would say the best general in the AOP) fell, struck behind the ear

by a Minie ball. Major General Abner Doubleday then became the senior officer

on the field. Doubleday’s performances before and after Gettysburg can best be

described as mediocre. On July 1, however, he fought the battle of his life. The

fury of this first day’s fighting is often overshadowed by the carnage of July 2 and

3, but Doubleday did not hesitate to commit all the troops he had on hand in a

desperate attempt to blunt the Confederate attack. Even Doubleday’s unit placed

in reserve, the Iron Brigade’s 6th Wisconsin, engaged the 2nd Mississippi when

that Confederate regiment was roughly handling the 147th New York. These

Federal regiments, charging under the leadership of Major Edward Page of the

90th New York and Lt. Colonel Rufus Dawes of the 6th Wisconsin, finally

captured close to 1,000 prisoners in Gettysburg’s infamous unfinished railroad

cut. History does not usually treat the fourth Union commander of the day, Major

General Oliver Howard, kindly. His XI Corps was disgraced at Chancellorsville by

Stonewall Jackson’s famous flank attack on May 4, 1863, less than nine weeks

prior to this fateful Pennsylvania day. Many historians even treat Howard’s

performance on July 1 harshly. Yet the fact remains that Howard, like Buford,

Doubleday, and Reynolds before him, saw that the ground at Gettysburg was the

best the AOP could hope for in their death struggle with the ANV. Leaving a

division under Brigadier General Adolph von Steinwehr in reserve on Cemetery

Hill south of Gettysburg, Howard rushed the rest of his winded men, who had

come into Gettysburg on the run, to meet a new threat from Lieutenant General

Richard Ewell sweeping down from the North of town. A. Wilson Greene makes a

compelling argument defending Howard’s strategic performance in his essay,

“From Chancellorsville to Cemetery Hill.” Howard’s XI Corps deployed north of

Gettysburg shortly after noon, and Howard knew that he was performing a

delaying action, desperately holding on until more reinforcements arrived. “I

immediately determined to hold the front line as long as possible and when

compelled to retreat from the Seminary Line as I felt I would be, to dispute the

ground obstinately; but to have all the time a strong position at the Cemetery . . .

that I could hold until at last Slocum and Sickles, with their eighteen thousand

reinforcements, could reach the field.” [Greene, pp. 73-74] To this end Howard

succeeded admirably, holding back the Confederates until well after 4 P.M.

Howard’s men, partly because of their reputation gained from Chancellorsville,

are treated with contempt because they eventually retreated through the streets

of Gettysburg. The fact remains, however, that the XI Corps took 2,900 casualties

on this crucial day of fighting. The ground they gave up was covered in their

blood, and the XI Corps, by delaying the Confederate advance, saved the Union

position on Cemetery ridge. Without Cemetery Ridge, a Union victory at

Gettysburg would have been impossible. As the sun began to dip toward the

western horizon, the fifth general to assume command of the Federal forces

arrived: Major General Winfield Hancock, known to his men and to history as

“Hancock the Superb.” Arguably the best Corps commander in the AOP, his first

task was to tactfully assume command from Howard, who was technically senior

to Hancock by virtue of obtaining the rank of Major General first. Howard

protested on these grounds, but Meade had specifically placed Hancock in

command until the army commander himself could arrive, and with good reason.

The newly arrived Hancock quickly ordered the critically important Culps Hill, the

extreme right of the Federal line, to be reinforced before the Confederates could

mount an attack. Hancock’s commanding presence rallied the nearly spent

bluecoats, and a defensive line on Cemetery Hill, including Culps Hill was

secured. The AOP (or at least the portion that was currently on the field) had

fought better than they had ever fought before. This record was short-lived

however, for on Day 2 uncommonly desperate fighting would be commonplace.

Meade himself arrived at the battle a few minutes after midnight, July 2. This sixth

and final commander of Union forces at Gettysburg would rely upon his valiant

men, both the officers and the men in the ranks, to hold back the demonic fury

about to descend upon them. Tens of thousands of pages have been written on

this epic battle, and Day 2 may be the recipient of the lion’s share of this

attention. On a day when leadership and bravery was everywhere along the

Federal line, it is perhaps unfair to single out one man’s action in saving the

Union on July 2. Yet, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren did save the day for

the North. Noticing that Little Round Top held the key that would unlock the

security of the Federal line if taken by the Rebels, and noticing that the hill was

literally undefended, Warren, on his own initiative, frantically searched for

reinforcements. Even Major General George Sykes, whose nickname was “Tardy

George” because he moved so slowly, reacted quickly to Warren’s appeal on this

all-important day. He ordered a brigade from his V Corps to rush to Little Round

Top. The brigade turned out to be that of Colonel Strong Vincent, who took it on

his own initiative (Brigadier General James Barnes, the division commander,

could not be found) to rush his men into position. He got them there with ten

minutes to spare. Any hesitation on the part of Warren, or Sykes, or Vincent,

could very well have meant disaster for the AOP–every minute counted. Vincent

would pay for his initiative with his life, and one of his regimental commanders,

Colonel Joshua Chamberlain, would earn the Medal of Honor for holding the

Union left flank. Some of the greatest heroes of the War, Chamberlain and his

men simply refused to succumb to repeated and determined attacks. The famous

1st Minnesota bought their fame with blood, incurring the highest casualty rate of

any Union regiment during the War. A Confederate brigade was coming

disastrously close to piercing the Union line when Hancock desperately looked for

men to plug the gap. He found the 1st Minnesota. With only 262 men in their

ranks, they charged the Confederate brigade, gaining precious time for other blue

units to fill the gap. But it cost the valiant unit 200 casualties in only 15 minutes.

The third and final day saw more of the carnage, and more of the bravery so ably

displayed on July 1 and 2. Many people now view the repulsed “Pickett’s Charge”

as a foregone conclusion, but desperate fighting, and superior leadership, was

needed to repel the gray attack. Hancock was seriously wounded on this day, but

he refused to leave the field until he knew the charge was repelled. Artillery work

from Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing and Captain Andrew Cowan devastated the

Confederate lines as they approached the stone fence that marked the blue line.

Brigadier General Alexander Webb furiously tried to rally beaten Yanks while

Colonel Arthur Devereux led a decisive counterattack against the few Rebels that

penetrated the Federal line. These are only a few of the heroes of Gettysburg.

Many, many pages would be required to list all the men that performed great

deeds on July 1, 2, and 3. The men of the Army of the Potomac had always

known they could fight, if properly led. At Gettysburg, they were, and they did.

From Meade, to virtually all of the Corps commanders, to divisions and brigades,

to regiments and companies, and to individuals who fought the fight of their lives,

goes the credit for saving the Union at Gettysburg. Decisive, and correct,

decisions were made and properly executed throughout the three days. When

events looked bleakest, it was Federal skill and daring that saved the day, and

the country. The Army of Northern Virginia did not lose the momentous Battle of

Gettysburg. The Army of the Potomac won it.