July 1-3, 1863. In wilting heat and humidity outside of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, two great armies fought desperately and suffered terrible casualties.
Little Round Top at Gettysburg — The army that controls the high ground on the battle field has great advantages; it can see what the enemy is doing, it can use artillery effectively, and its position is easier to defend. At Gettysburg, Union forces just barely beat Confederate forces to the top of Little Round Top, a hill at the extreme southern end of the Union line. The Union forces took defensive positions, piling up rocks and making breastworks, and, under the command of Joshua Chamberlain, held off numerous Confederate attacks. They were virtually out of ammunition, and the Confederates were about to attack again. Chamberlain ordered that when the Confederate troops charged up the hill again, the Union soldiers were to get up from their defensive positions at the hilltop, and charge downhill in a line toward the Confederate troops yelling for all they were worth. They did, their bold action stopped the Confederate charge and resulted in the capture of Confederate soldiers. Little did the Rebels know that many of the Union soldiers who held them at gunpoint had no bullets in their weapons. Chamberlain was awarded the Medal of Honor, and went on to distinguish himself further in the war. After the war, Chamberlain would become president of Bowdoin College in his home state of Maine.
On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate infantry crossed open ground in the face of withering fire and tried to capture the high ground occupied by Union forces on Cemetery Ridge. Pickett’s Charge came close to succeeding, but the Confederate forces were compelled to retreat. Where their attack stalled on that low-angle slope has been called the high watermark of the Confederacy.
The Union army suffered 23,000 casualties at Gettysburg, the Confederacy 28,000. Heavy rains made it impossible for Lee to beat a hasty retreat back into Virginia, but like McClellan after bloody Antietam, Meade delayed before pursuing Lee; thus the Union missed yet another chance to destroy Lee’s army.
“Why did the Confederates Lose at Gettysburg?”
July 3, 1863. Historian James M. McPherson writes, “Several million words, or so it sometimes seems, have been written about which Confederate general was responsible for losing the battle: Lee because of overconfidence, aggressive tactics, or mismanagement; Stuart because of his absence; Ewell because of his failure to attack Cemetery Hill on July 1; or Longstreet for his lack of enthusiasm and promptness in the attacks on July 2 and 3. It was left to George Pickett to fill the void left by these various interpretations. When someone thought to ask Pickett after the war who he thought was responsible for the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, he reflected for a moment before replying, ‘I’ve always thought the Yankees had something to do with it.'”
James. M. McPherson “Failed Southern Strategies” in With My Face to the Enemy: Perspectives on the Civil War, Robert Cowley, ed., 86.
Mrs. Lincoln Injured in Carriage Crash
On July 2, 1863, while returning the three miles back to the White House from the Lincoln’s retreat at the Soldiers Home, Mary Todd Lincoln’s carriage crashed, throwing her from the carriage and causing her to hit her head hard on a rock and cutting her badly. Years later, son Robert would say that she was never the same after the accident.
Vicksburg Surrenders: “The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”
July 4, 1863. Just one day after the Confederates’ important defeat at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, Vicksburg, on the Mississippi River, surrendered to General Grant after a six-week siege. Vicksburg was important because Confederate guns on the bluffs above the river could shell any passing ships, effectively closing the river. When Port Hudson, Louisiana surrendered five days later, the Union controlled the entire Mississippi River, and, moreover, the Confederacy was effectively split in two east-west. Lincoln said that now “The Father of Waters flows unvexed to the sea.”
The dual victories at Gettysburg in Pennsylvania and Vicksburg, Mississippi made it highly unlikely that England or other European nation would formally recognize the Confederacy.
All three pieces in this edition of the Civil War Book of Days were submitted by Peter A. Gilbert, executive director, Vermont Humanities Council