Four Days in July: Gettysburg Day 2

As the first day at Gettysburg slipped into the second Lee faced a challenge of sorts from James Longstreet.

Longstreet did not like the terrain at all.  In truth it’s extremely hard to disagree.  The Union held the best terrain in the area and would soon hold the advantage in numbers.  The rest of the infantry corps in the Army of the Potomac had straggled in over the course of the night and were busy getting plugged in to the line.

There was a position the Confederacy could exploit, as the defenses on the Union left were compromised from the start.  III Corps, under a political general named Dan Sickles, pushed forward from the end of the line, across the Wheatfield and into the Peach Orchard, creating a salient in the Union line at the point where the defensive terrain was the worst of any along the Union lines.  It would put Sickles square in the line of Longstreet’s attack.

Lee did not know this.  He still had no idea of the extent of the Union lines and thought they terminated at the southern tip of Cemetery Ridge.  His plan was to put Longstreet’s Corps across the left flank of the Union position while Anderson’s Division of Hill’s Corps would make a head-on assault at the correct moment.

Longstreet, meanwhile, had two of his three divisions on hand.  He was to send Lafayette McLaws’ Division straight up the Emmitsburg Road while Hood’s Division went up and over Little Round Top and sweptin to the Union rear.  On paper it was a devastating plan.  Unfortunately for Lee the Union didn’t cooperate.

Sickle’s maneuver put his III Corps squarely across McLaws’ line of advance.  The two sides stumbled upon each other and ended up slugging it out for most of the afternoon.  Hood asked Longstreet to let him slide further around Little Round Top and try to strike from even farther to the Union left, but Longstreet would not allow it.  He didn’t think there was enough time.

There may well have not been enough time, but Hood’s instincts were good.  He ended up sending Law’s Alabama Brigade against the extreme left end of the Union line.  The only thing that stood between Longstreet’s Corps and a successful flanking maneuver was the 385 man 20th Maine Regiment under Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain.

The hill was almost empty as Hood approached. Gouverneur K. Warren, Meade’s chief engineer, was dispatched to see about the situation and just happened to catch the glint of sunlight off of Longstreet’s advancing infantry.  The only Union forces on the hill were an observation group from the Signal Corps.

Meade’s old V Corps, now under General George Sykes, was the closest command.  Warren filled Sykes in on the situation and the latter immediately dispatched a messenger to his First Division commander, James Barnes.

The messenger ran in to Barnes’ third brigade commander, Col. Strong Vincent, before he reached Barnes himself.  Vincent seized the initiative and ordered his four regiments to the top of the hill before taking off to evaluate the terrain for himself.  He set his forces. From right to left they were the tiny 16th Michigan (only 263 men at the outset of the battle), the 44th New York, the 83rd Pennsylvania, and the 20th Maine.

Law’s Brigade charged up Little Round Top, joined by the 4th and 5th Texas after some mistaken maneuvering.  The 20th Maine repulsed the Alabamans on the left.  Law’s Brigade regrouped and came again, this time slightly farther off to the right.  Chamberlain extended his line and repulsed another attack.  His men were now single file as a third and fourth assault arrived, stretching more and more to the right.  Chamberlain refused the line, which bent his regiment back at a ninety degree angle.

Then the 20th Maine ran out of ammunition.  As Laws’ right flank rallied for one more assault, Chamberlain ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge.  The line snapped straight again and the 20th took off down the hill, clearing not only its own front, but part of the 83rd Pennsylvania’s.

During the battle Strong Vincent was hit by a bullet and died on July 7th.  On July 3rd George Meade promoted him to the rank of Brigadier General for his actions.  Two months later his widowed wife gave birth to a daughter who didn’t make it through her first year of life.

Chamberlain lived another 51 years after Gettysburg.  He rose to the rank of Brevet Major General, was wounded six times, had six horses shot out from under him, was pronounced dead at Petersburg, accepted the surrender of Lee’s army at Appomattox, was elected governor of Maine 4 times, spent twenty-two years as the President of Bowdoin College, helped arrange the fiftieth anniversary celebration of Gettysburg, and was the last Civil War veteran to die of his wounds just four months before the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand kicked off World War I. In 1893 he received the Congressional Medal of Honor for the actions of his unit on the afternoon of July 2, 1863. His charge at Little Round Top was the moment that brought him lasting fame but was only one moment in a long, eventful life.

The actions of the 20th Maine were far from the only moments of bravery that afternoon.

As Chamberlain was clearing Vincent’s left flank the brigade’s right flank was on the verge of collapse.  The misdirected Texas regiments were pounding the tiny 16th Michigan and it began to crumble.  At the last moment the 140th New York under Col. Patrick “Paddy” O’Rorke roared in to the gap and pushed the Texans back.  O’Rorke and his New Yorkers had no business being on Little Round Top.  They were at the rear of Weed’s Brigade of the Second Division of V Corps when Warren, still desperately searching for troops, found him and sent him up the hill.  O’Rorke was killed on Little Round Top, but his men saved the day.

There was one more brave charge on that day.

Sickles’ Salient was gradually collapsing under the pressure of McLaws’ and Hood’s grinding assault. Had Sickles not pushed forward the Confederate forces moving up the Emmitsburg Road expecting to flank the Union left would have found themselves the victims of enfilade fire.  Instead they ended up attacking Sickles from two directions at once. Sickles’ III Corps pulled to the east and north, leaving the II Corps left flank uncovered.

Barksdale’s Mississippi Brigade of McLaws’ Division approached II Corps from the left at the same time Anderson’s Division of Hill’s Corps launched its frontal assault on Cemetery Ridge.  Hancock, who was now in charge of the entire left wing of the Army of the Potomac, personally led Willard’s Brigade to counter Barksdale, then returned to the north in time to see Cadmus M. Wilcox’s Alabama Brigade advancing on a section of the Union line held only by a single artillery battery and the 330 man 1st Minnesota Regiment.

In that desperate moment there was only one order Hancock could give.  He told the 1st Minnesota to charge.  Somehow the tiny regiment checked Wilcox’s Brigade.

The day was still far from secure, however.  Farther up to the north Wright’s Brigade actually managed to push through the Union lines, which at the time Wright hit were only occupied by Meade and his staff, and nearly reach the Taneytown Road.  Wright was ultimately forced to withdraw.  The Union counterattacked and Wright found he had no support.  Carnot Posey’s Brigade, which was supposed to be on Wright’s left, never made it as far as the Emmitsburg Road.  William Mahone, on Posey’s left, never actually started moving.

Ewell launched a few attacks against Cemetery and Culp’s Hills, but the attacks were never meant to be anything more than demonstrations and accomplished little.  He did manage to occupy some XII Corps positions after Meade pulled those forces off the right flank to support the left, but the gains were minor and nothing was done to exploit them.  Ewell held his attacks until after Anderson’s assault on the center.  Had Ewell moved more quickly he might have been able to crush XII Corps and move in to the Union rear.  As it was Meade had just enough time to reinforce his right.

Day 2 at Gettysburg was a close fought thing.  The Union left nearly disintegrated, but ultimately held due to the quick thinking of Warren and Strong and the bravery of Chamberlain and O’Rorke.  The center similarly held only because of the actions of Hancock and the seemingly hopeless charge of the 1st Minnesota as well as the failure of Anderson’s left flank to capitalize on Wright’s penetration of the Union position.

In 1870 a paper written by Confederate General Jubal A. Early kicked off what is known as the Lost Cause Myth.  The Lost Cause Myth can be considered analogous to some of the ideas raised about the American loss in Vietnam.  The Lost Cause held that generals like Lee and Jackson embodied the nobility of the South while the Northerners were mostly men of low moral standards.  They pointed to William Tecumseh Sherman’s Atlanta Campaign and March to the Sea, Philip Sheridan’s burning of the Shenandoah Valley, and Grant’s reputation as a butcher for proof.  It’s still possible to tell where a person writing about the Civil War’s sympathies lie, as those from the north tend to call it the Civil War while those from the south call it the War Between the States or, more on the nose, the War of Northern Aggression.  This difference in naming highlights one of the main myths perpetrated by the believers in the Lost Cause.

It is a commonly held view in the South that the war was fought entirely in defense of state’s rights.  This view holds that the preservation of slavery wasn’t the key point of all the political fighting in the decades leading up to the Civil War, nor was it the immediate cause of secession.  It holds that the slaves were little more than farm animals rescued from the dark wilds of Africa and put happily to work under benevolent slave masters in a benign, mutually beneficial relationship.

The Lost Cause Myth led to the KKK and, after the end of Reconstruction, the Jim Crow Laws.  The Ku Klux Klan was started and promoted by former Confederate soldiers, chief among them Generals George Gordon and Nathan Bedford Forrest.  It was a homegrown terrorist organization with the express goal of keeping freed slaves in their place and scaring carpetbaggers and scalawags.

In a strange way the supporters of the Lost Cause Myth nearly ended up winning the war.  The state flags of Mississippi, Georgia, Alabama, and Florida still contain Confederate-inspired designs.  Georgia’s flag had one until 2001.  In 2002 there was a controversy about the flying of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse. It was finally taken down in 2015. Whenever the message sent by these images are brought up the challenges are brushed off with the response that the Confederate flag represents a proud, noble tradition and the ideals of freedom and self-determination.

The very idea that it’s actually a reminder of a horrible time when men held other men as property because of the color of their skin and the idea that some men are made inferior by god is laughed off.  The fact that Confederate service and symbols inspired the Ku Klux Klan and Jim Crow and the men who would hold the freed slaves to the position as second-class citizens for another century is ignored.  The idea that the Confederate flag should be relegated to the dustbin of history and only pulled out as a reminder of the darkest days of the American nation is met with confusion and anger by those who wish to bring back the good old days when blacks and women knew their place and the southern states of a country built on freedom and equality were ruled by an aristocracy that had the audacity to call the defense of upper class privilege a defense of their own unalienable rights.  Some causes should be lost.

Much as those infected with Vietnam Syndrome turned the Democrats into their scapegoats the proponents of the Lost Cause Myth needed someone to blame for their own failure. They could not blame Lee, who enjoyed an unassailable position in American lore that even he did not think was deserved. Lee accepted full blame for every one of his losses and refused to blame his subordinates or his army.  Much like the rest of the Lost Cause Myth this evaluation of Lee lasted far too long and resulted in a negative opinion of the general most associated with the southern failure: James Longstreet.  After the war Longstreet became a scalawag, a Southerner who worked with the Union. He re-started his friendship with Ulysses Grant and applied for amnesty, only to find out that he was one of three Confederates deemed too untrustworthy. The other two were Lee and Jefferson Davis. The Union should have looked more closely at Nathan Bedford Forrest, Jubal A. Early, and George Gordon and left Longstreet alone.

Longstreet was given his citizenship back in 1868 as part of the general amnesty.  He campaigned for Grant in the Presidential elections of 1868 and served as the adjutant general of the Louisiana militia, surveyor of customs of New Orleans, postmaster of Gainesville, Georgia, Ambassador to the Ottoman Empire, U.S. Commissioner of Railroads, and was nearly appointed Secretary of the Navy under Hayes. Longstreet was the very model of the reconstructed rebel.  For this he had to leave New Orleans under the real possibility of injury or death when he was pulled off his horse by a mob while trying to stop a riot in 1874 and his reputation as a general suffered for about a century.

Jubal Early was the first to blame Longstreet and he pointed to Day 2 at Gettysburg for his primary argument.  Early believed that Longstreet intentionally moved slowly that day and intentionally undermined Lee and the southerners looking for someone to blame bought his arguments.  In truth, Longstreet was the victim of circumstance.  His divisions were late moving into line, the Union left extended much farther south than anyone expected, Anderson failed to exploit the Union center, and in most of the places where the battle was in the balance and only luck and circumstance the deciding factor between victory and defeat Lady Luck smiled on the Union side.  Lee regarded Longstreet as his “Old War Horse” and Longstreet, too, was diminished by the loss of Stonewall Jackson.  Much like Lee and Jackson complemented each other, Longstreet and Jackson were the perfect pair as commanders of the Army of Northern Virginia’s wings.  Jackson was an offense-minded risk taker while Longstreet was a cautious defender.  He didn’t like the field at Gettysburg, but he did everything he could to carry the day for the Confederate side.  On some level he still might have done too good a job even in losing.

The near victory at the Union center convinced Lee that the Army of the Potomac had spread its forces to the flanks and was paper thin in the middle.  This opened the possibility of a direct assault on the Union center in his mind.

Meanwhile, on the Union side of the line George Meade called a council of war.  At the end he pulled aside General John Gibbon, one of Winfield Scott Hancock’s division commanders, and said he believed Lee would strike at the center of the line the next day. The stage was now set for the climactic third day at Gettysburg.

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