The Battle of Gettysburg: Overview of the Second Day

This entry is part 10 of 27 in the series The Gettysburg Campaign

The Battle of Gettysburg is the one battle that most American’s recognize for its importance to both sides. The Second Day at Gettysburg is filled with end to end fighting, literally. On the Second Day at Gettysburg, General Robert E. Lee fashioned a battle plan that deatured attacks on both flanks of the Union defensive lines.

By the morning of July 2, 1863, 6 of the 7 Union corps had arrived on the field. The I Corps, now commanded by Maj. Gen. John Newton, replacing Abner Doubleday and the XI Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard, had fought hard on the first day and had been severely tested.

Gettysburg, Overview of Day TwoThey were joined that evening by the XII Corps, commanded by Maj. Gen. Henry W. SlocumIII Corps, under Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, and II Corps, led by Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock. On the morning of July 2 by the V Corps , commanded by Maj. Gen. George Sykes). The VI Corps, under Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick was still 30 miles away in Manchester, Maryland, on morning of July 2nd.

Click Map to enlarge.

The Union forces were positioned in a fish hook shaped defensive line that started at Culp’s Hill in the north, to Cemetary Hill and then down Cemetary Ridge. The Union line was about 3 miles long from end to end.

The Army of Northern Virginia had taken positions that mirrored Meade’s defensive positions. The Second Corps of Lt. Gen. Richard S. Ewell was opposite the Union positions at Culp’s Hill. The Third Corps of Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill was positioned opposite Cemetary Hill and part of the way down Cemetary Ridge. The First Corps of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet was at the extreme right or southern end of the Confederate line. Longstreet only had the divisions of Maj. Gens. Lafayette McLaws and John Bell Hood available as Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett‘s Virginians had not yet arrived.

The previous evening General Lee had ordered Ewell to occupy Culp’s Hill or Cemetery Hill “if practicable”. Ewell had done neither and he missed a huge opportunity to take the high ground. The Union forces did not miss the opportunity and immediately began to fortify both positions.

Meanwhile, Longstreet who was Lee’s senior corps commander suggested a different tactical approach. Rather than assault the strong Union defensive lines, he proposed that the Confederate army move to the right and cut off the Army of the Potomac from Washington. Meade would then be forced to come after them and fight the Confederates in a location of their choosing. Longstreet proposed to turn a Confederate battle of offense into one of defending.

This philosophy went against everything that General Lee believed in. After Chancellorsville, and despite Stonewall Jackson’s accidental death, Lee felt that his army was invincible and capable of any offensive action that he asked of them. He consulted with other army commanders who felt thatGettysburg, Lee's Plan for Day Two it would be bad for the morale of the troops to withdraw from Gettysburg after their victory on the First Day of the battle. Lee determined that their best course was to attack on July 2nd.

Click Map to enlarge.

The Battle of Gettysburg is principally a battle for the high ground. On the morning of July 2nd, that high ground was occupied by Union troops. Lee knew that he had to secure the high ground on either flank of the Union position or lose the fight.

Initially, Lee proposed that Longstreet attack up the Emmitsburg Road, supported by Ewell’s Corps. Longstreet pointed out that Hood’s entire division had not yet arrived and Pickett’s Division was still on the roads to the south. Ewell felt that withdrawing his troops from positions that they had fought so hard for would demoralize them.

Lee compromised with his two corps commanders. Ewell would demonstrate against Culp’s Hill to draw off Union troops. If the opportunity presented itself, he would turn the minor attack into a full-scale assault.

Longstreet was ordered to advance up the Emmitsburg Road in what is know as an oblique attack. Hood’s Division would be on the eastern side of the road while McLaw’s Division would be on the western side. The objective of this attack was to strike the end of the Union line at an angle, flank the left end of their line and roll up their position to Cemetary Hill. Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson‘s Division from A.P. Hill’s Corps would support the attack with a straight assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetary Ridge.

Lee based his entire attack plan for the Second Day of the battle on faulty intelligence. Maj. Gen. J.E.B. Stuart‘s cavalry was still making its way to the Confederate lines and without his “eyes and ears” Lee had incomplete information on the Union dispositions.  He believed that the left flank of the Union army was on Cemetery Ridge and an early-morning scouting expedition seemed to confirm that. However, he did not account for the initiative of Union Gen. Sickles.

General Daniel E. SicklesMaj. Gen. Daniel Sickles was a flamboyant, New York lawyer and politician. He had killed his wife’s lover, Philip Barton Key II, son of Francis Scott Key but he was acquitted with the first use of temporary insanity as a legal defense in U.S. history. He was one of the first ‘political’ generals appointed by Lincoln.

Meade had assigned his III Corps that linked up with the II Corps on his right and anchored his left on Little Round Top. Sickles became concerned about a piece of high ground about 1,100 yards to his front. He vividly remembered how the Confederates had positioned artillery at “Hazel Grove”, ground that he had been forced to give up. It had proved to be deadly for his men.

Without consulting Meade, Sickles advanced his corps to the high ground, a Peach Orchard, owned by the Sherfy family. His movement had several negative consequences. It formed a salient that allowed his men to be attacked on three sides. The length of the defensive line was too long for his two-division corps to defend.

It did surprise Longstreet when he realized that there was a Union corps directly in front of his line of attack on the Emmitsburg Road. Sickles’ advance to the Peach Orchard would have a profound effect on Longstreet’s assault. Partly due to Sickles, Longstreet’s assault did not proceed according to Lee’s plan.

Instead of wheeling left to join a simultaneous two-division push on either side of the Emmitsburg Road, Hood’s division attacked in a more easterly direction than intended, and McLaws’s and Anderson’s divisions deployed brigade by brigade, in an en echelon style of attack, also heading more to the east than the intended northeast.

Sickles’ decision to advance to the Peach Orchard would change the entire course of the fighting on the Second Day of the Battle of Gettysburg.




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