20th Maine division, Alfred Waud, Battlelines: Gettysburg, Culp's Hill, Edwin Forbes, George Meade, Gettysburg, Gouverneur Warren, Harper's Weekly, James Longstreet, Joshua Chamberlain, Little Round Top, Robert E. Lee, sketch artists, video
Note: The annual anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is this weekend. To commemorate that, we are posting, with permission, excerpts from Battlelines: Gettysburg that describe aspects of the battle. Battlelines: Gettysburg contains the battlefield drawings of Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, the only two artists who witnessed the battle.
Lee kept his army at Gettysburg because he believed he could win. The first day of the battle had been a good one for the Confederates, and Lee’s experience had been that given the right amount of pressure at the right time, Union forces would collapse. He believed that a second day of battle with the Confederates hitting hard at the Union lines could make that happen again.
Lee had developed a special relationship with his battlefield commanders, people like James Longstreet, Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill. His orders to them were often general and sometimes vague – deliberately so, because he want to give them room to make their own decisions and because he believed they could understand his purposes.
But this method of command put enormous pressure on these generals to understand Lee and carry out his vague plans. It also assumed that when the actions of these general had to be coordinated, they would work together in a mutually cooperative way.
But that didn’t happen.
More often than not, Lee’s generals thoroughly disliked one another. They carried on jealous feuds and rivalries and lacked the basic element of trust in each other. When Lee gave vague outlines of what he wanted done, each commander tended to interpret Lee’s words to his own purposes and often failed to support what the others had to so.
Lee’s plan for the second day of battle was to attack both flanks of the Union line. Early morning intelligence had come to Lee that to the south of the Federal lines were two unoccupied hills, Round Top and Little Round Top. Longstreet was to move his army toward those positions, occupy them and attack the left flank of the Union line. Ewell was to move north and show the beginnings of an attack on the Union right at Culp’s Hill. Whether or not he mounted a full scale attack was up to him.
It took all morning and a good part of the afternoon for Longstreet to get into position. By that time, the Union lines had shifted, and Longstreet’s army encountered new opportunities and obstacles. The main change was that the Union General Gouverneur Warren spotted the exposed position at Little Round Top and realized the danger to the Union line. He rushed troops into that position, and the end of the line was held by the famous 20th Maine division led by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain.
Longstreet’s troops hit the Union line hard at various points throughout the afternoon, and vicious fighting ensued all along the lines. The battle became a noisy, bloody dynamic with a life of its own.
The Confederates gained ground but failed to dislodge the Union troops and failed to collapse any significant portion of their line. As the fighting on the south of the lines subsided, Ewell launched a full-scale attack from the town of Gettysburg to Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill. The fighting there was fierce, as it had been elsewhere, but the result was basically the same: Confederates gains but Union lines in tact.
The first two days of fighting had cost the Confederates more than 15,000 casualties (killed, wounded, missing and captured). These were losses that the Army of Northern Virginia could ill afford, but Lee was committed to the battle. The army had made gains, and his experience told him that another day of fighting could be enough to knock the enemy out. In addition, Jeb Stuart had finally arrived with his cavalry, and that gave Lee an additional card to play.
Lee would not hear of any advice to withdraw, choose a different ground, and fight another day.
On the other side of the line, Meade also saw no reason to withdraw. The fighting had been intense, and the Union forces had suffered 18,000 casualties. But the lines had held, and the positions of the troops gave them a natural advantage. If Lee were to continue the battle, he would have to attack. Meade reasoned that since the second day’s attack had come on his flanks, the third day would see an attack on the center of his line. He set about preparing for such an attack.
He was right to do so.
Battlelines: Gettysburg displays many never-before-published drawings of the professional artists who saw the war as eye-witnesses — the sketch artists known as Specials by publications of the time, such as Harper’s Weekly. Almost nowhere among the vast array of photographs related to the Civil War is a picture of a battle. That’s because, of course, photography at the time was limited to that which was stationary. Civil War sketch artists had no such limitation. They could move quickly, go to the scene of the action, draw and interpret of what they, and communicate that to their viewers. They provided an important and vital record of what happened on and off the battlefields of the conflict. Yet the work of these men — about 30 in all — has been largely ignored for the past century and a half. We are familiar with few of their names, and we rarely see their original work. This series, Battlelines, hopes to correct that. More importantly, we have produced this series with the hope of bringing the interested reader fresh insights into America’s defining conflict.
Previously from Battlelines: