At dawn on July 2, 1863 the battle of Gettysburg entered its second day. General Robert E. Lee had not wanted to bring on a general engagement until the widely dispersed elements of his army could be concentrated, but July 1 had been a success for Confederate arms and he was eager to follow up with a decisive blow against the Federal forces occupying Cemetery Hill.
At Fredericksburg Lee had said, "It is well war is so frightful, otherwise we should become too fond of it." General James Longstreet, commanding the Army of Northern Virginia's 1st Corps, was criticized after the war for stating that at Gettysburg Lee's "blood was up", intimating that Lee did not properly appreciate the strength of the Union position and the cost involved in its taking. What Longstreet failed to understand was that for the ANV to win, Lee knew the enemy had to be hit hard and fast before a strong position became an impregnable one. Toward that end, he had consulted with his 2nd Corps commander, General Richard Ewell, on whether he could take Culp's Hill and swing around and flank the Federal right on Cemetery Hill. Ewell begged off, noting the losses he had sustained in the battle of the day before, but he was willing to support any attack launched by the as yet un-bloodied 1st Corps.
Perhaps anticipating Ewell's reluctance, Lee had already set in motion a plan of attack on the enemy's left. A reconnaissance party had set out earlier to determine where the Union left terminated and, when it returned at about 8:00 am, Lee got the information he was looking for. According to Captain Johnston, there were no Union troops on the high hill (Little Round Top) seen off in the distance, nor were there any Federal troops in the area except a small cavalry patrol seen riding up the Emmitsburg road.
Gathered around a map depicting the terrain and road network of the area, Generals Longstreet and Lafayette McLaws listened as General Lee described how he wanted the attack to proceed. General Richard Anderson's Division of General A. P. Hill's Corps was to extend the present Confederate line south and Longstreet's two Divisions (McLaws' and Hood's) was to move even farther south beyond the end of the Union line (thought to be at a Peach Orchard at the intersection of the Emmitsburg and Millerstown roads). McLaws' Division was to then turn up the Emmitsburg road and drive north by north- east, rolling up the left flank of the enemy's line. The Divisions of Generals Anderson and Dorsey Pender of Hill's Corps would fall in behind Mclaws and Hood in support.
Unfortunately for the Confederacy, Lee's plan was doomed from the start. He was relying on a report that was, when he received it, about two hours old. And, before the attack could reasonably be expected to start, another four hours at least would be consumed in getting the troops into position, providing there were no delays. But there would be delays.
Anderson's shift to the right was completed at about 1:00 pm, but he didn't have to contend with a Union signal station on Little Round Top observing his movements. Longstreet's Divisions, on the other hand, were forced to countermarch and seek an alternate route when it was discovered that the original route chosen would expose to that signal station his attempt to secretly gain the Union left flank.
The problem was, of course, that without General Jeb Stuart's cavalry, Lee was militarily blind. Had his flamboyant paladin not allowed his cavalry to be inexcusably separated from the Army's main body, Lee would have known that the Union line did not end at the Peach Orchard. He might also have been apprised of the fact that the Army of the Potomac's 2nd Corps was bivouacked just south of Round Top.
While Captain Johnston was reporting his findings to General Lee, General Winfield Scott Hancock's 2nd Corps had broken bivouac and proceeded up the Taneytown road to take up an initial position east of that road before crossing over to stack arms on Cemetery Ridge. Also undetected by Captain Johnston, the two Divisions of General Daniel Sickles' 3rd Corps (each minus a brigade) were still massed just north of Little Round Top. Additionally, two brigades of General Henry Slocum's 12th Corps had also been in the area during Captain Johnston's reconnaissance, but had moved out at about 5:00 am to reinforce Culp's Hill.
It should be noted that Anderson's deployment did not go entirely unobserved. Just as his last brigade, General Cadmus Wilcox's Alabamians, was going into position, a Federal reconnaissance-in-force, made up of Colonel Hiram Berdan's Sharpshooters and supported by the 3rd Maine, surprised the unsuspecting Confederates with a deadly volley that stopped them cold. Wilcox was able to quickly regain the advantage and drive the Federals back across the Emmitsburg road, but the damage had been done. This firefight occurred at 11:45 am according to the message sent to General George G. Meade's headquarters by the signalers on Little Round Top.
General Sickles, under whose orders the Sharpshooters and 3rd Maine had been sent out, was not happy with his commanding general's seeming indifference to what he believed was happening to his front. The sortie confirmed Sickles' suspicion that Lee was going to attack and that the weight of that attack would fall on his command. Three quarters of a mile to his front the elevated ground at the Peach Orchard beckoned.
Culp's Hill is really two hills; the higher one (by about 200 feet) is separated from its southern sibling by a distamce of about a thousand feet. The northwestern face of the higher hill had been occupied the evening before by elements of the 1st Corps. Early on July 2, two brigades of General Slocum's 12th Corps joined them there; the brigades of General George Greene and Colonel Charles Candy promptly threw up breastworks linking both hills. Lee's plan had also called for General Ewell to demonstrate against East Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill once he heard the sound of Longstreet's guns opening the attack on the right. This was to dissuade Meade from shifting troops from his right to assist those under attack on his left.
Fifty years after the guns had ceased firing at Gettysburg, Daniel Sickles was still defending the course of action he took early on that afternoon of July 2. Detaching his Corps from Meade's line of battle, he advanced his troops five thousand feet forward to occupy a new line stretching along the Emmitsburg road to the Peach Orchard and then back to a nightmare of boulders and crevasses known as the Devil's Den, located just west of Little Round Top.
Little more than an hour later, Longstreet's favorite artillerist, Colonel E. P. Alexander, would start to rain shells on the Peach Orchard salient preliminary to the infantry's advance. General Meade was conferring with Sickles at that moment on how the 3rd Corps commander was to move his troops back to the main line when the conversation was suddenly interrupted. "Too late now, you'll have to fight it out here. I'll send up the 5th Corps in support!" was all Meade was able to shout over the din before the skittish mount he had borrowed carried him away from the inferno. Alexander would soon add more guns west and north of the Peach Orchard until he had a perfect crossfire on that unfortunate piece of real estate.
At 4:00 pm the sound of these additional guns had carried to the ears of General Ewell and the command was given for his artillery to open on Cemetery Hill. It was an uneven contest, but it continued for two hours before the Confederate guns were forced to withdraw. The number of guns the Union artillerists could bring to bear on young Major Latimer's batteries and their superior accuracy was decisive.
Unknown to General Lee, his plan had been almost immediately scrapped by his subordinate commanders who were facing a tactical reality far different from the one he believed to be true. Because of the countermarch, Hood's Division had taken the lead and now General Evander Law's brigade of that Division led the attack. Federal Sharpshooters to Law's front and right flank proved too much of an annoyance for the Alabamian to leave in his rear, so instead of turning north he continued to move straight ahead. Eventually, his two right regiments would pursue the green garbed Sharpshooters all the way to the summit of Round Top. His other regiments would skirt the western base of Round Top and attempt to climb to the crest of Little Round Top.
They would not get there. A Federal brigade led by Colonel Strong Vincent had, only minutes before, taken up position and was able to turn back all efforts to drive him off. A final desperate bayonet attack ordered by Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine ended all further Confederate attempts, but only after Vincent was killed and the ebb and flow of battle had so mixed the Maine and Alabamian dead that it was difficult to identify where the Union line had been.
General Longstreet had determined, now that the grand sweep up the Emmitsburg road was no longer an option, upon an echelon order of attack. He would feed his brigades in slowly, fighting them almost to the point of exhaustion because he knew the defenders would be constantly calling for reinforcements, and to satisfy those demands the enemy would draw troops from other parts of his line.
As his attack progressed from south to north, the Devil's Den fell to rebel arms and Sickles' 3rd Corps was driven out of the Wheatfield and from the Rose woods on its northern border. Earlier, Meade had sent the 5th Corps to secure the left of his line; General Stephen Weed's brigade to Little Round Top and Colonels William Tilton's and Jacob Sweitzer's brigades to a stony hill just west of the Wheatfield. In addition, General John Caldwell's Division of Hancock's 2nd Corps was sent to shore up Sickles' crumbling line. Initially successful, these Federal troops were thrown into confusion and suffered heavy losses when the Peach Orchard was crushed by General William Barksdale's Mississippi brigade. Exploiting the breech, General William Wofford's brigade descended on their exposed flanks unopposed.
At the same time Wofford's brigade was entering the Wheatfield and sweeping all before it, General A. P. Hill's brigades of Wilcox, Lang and Wright had crossed the Emmitsburg road and were driving Sickles remaining regiments back toward Cemetery ridge. However, unlike Longstreet's sledgehammer like attack, Hill's brigades were not supported; there were no fresh brigades in their rear to follow through on their success.
As the sun finally dropped behind South Mountain, the Confederate high tide begn to recede. The gap created by the absence of Caldwell's Division had indeed allowed General Ambrose Wright's Georgians to gain a foothold on Cemetery ridge, but they could not stay. On their right, Colonel David Lang's Florida brigade and Wilcox's Alabamians were forced back by withering artillery fire as well as by the stand of the 19th Maine and a heroic charge by the 1st Minnesota. Barksdale's brigade was stopped by a 2nd Corp Brigade that Hancock had personally moved from the right of his line to counter such an eventuality.
Ironically, just as Wright's brigade started to fall back, a sudden outburst of musketry and rifle-fire was heard coming from Culp's Hill. Ewell's infantry had crossed Rock Creek and were attacking Meade's right flank. Simultaneously, two rebel brigades launched an attack on East Cemetery Hill. The attack on East Cemetery Hill would be quickly thrown back, but the Confederates were able to gain lodgment on Culp's Hill because most of the breastworks there had been abandoned, except for a portion guarded by a 12th Corp brigade left on the higher elevation. The rest of Slocum's troops had been sent to support Meade's left, needlessly as it turned out. The Confederates would be expelled after hard fighting the next morning, but the sacrifices offered there by both sides would be eclipsed in memory by the final assault on Meade's line that July 3rd afternoon.
But for July 2, the day had ended in deep disappointment for General Lee; as observed by his biographer, Douglas S. Freeman, his army had slipped back a year. For General Meade, his resolve had been strengthened; no one could doubt that the Army of the Potomac had won the day and that he was firmly in command.