The sun rose on 2 July 1863 with the Army of the Potomac on the high ground south and east of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A good stroke of fortune had allowed Union commanders to find this ground before the conflict began, and the bulk of the previous day’s fight had been devoted to holding off the Army of Northern Virginia until the bulk of their forces could arrive.
Now US Maj. Gen. George G. Meade’s forces formed a fishhook-shaped line starting at Spangler’s Spring and Culp’s Hill to the southeast, running north to the northernmost point of Cemetery Ridge, then falling back south along the line of the ridge to fetch up against Little Round Top. This gave Meade the advantage not only of visibility and artillery range but also of interior lines, which allowed him to move units and materiel to reinforce any part of his line without exposing the reinforcements to enemy fire. By contrast, while the Confederates could move units out of the Federals’ range, the length of their lines, which roughly paralleled the Federals’, meant reinforcement could be a slow, time-consuming business.
Most of the morning was consumed in consolidating the lines, as the bulk of both armies arrived on the field. On the positive, from Lee’s side, was the arrival of Lt. Gen. James “Pete” Longstreet and his First Corps. Moody, taciturn and profane, Longstreet was a competent, occasionally brilliant, tactician who became Lee’s right hand after the death of Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson. However, his corps was missing Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division, which would not arrive until after the day’s action. Even more disturbing was the absence of Maj. Gen. Jeb Stuart’s cavalry; without their eyes, Lee’s knowledge of the Union dispositions was imprecise. Stuart finally arrived around noon, but played no part in the day’s action.
Believing the Federal left to lie along Emmetsburg Road, Lee ordered Longstreet’s corps to flank them en echelon, a maneuver in which succeeding units attack in intervals to prevent the enemy from shifting reinforcements. Longstreet disagreed; an advocate of defensive warfare, he argued that Lee should swing the ANV to Meade’s south, cut the Federals’ lines and force them to fight on grounds of Lee’s own choosing. But Lee was determined to fight and defeat Meade where they were; Longstreet, a career soldier who had served with distinction in Mexico, eventually accepted his orders.
Lee had left the timing of the attack to Longstreet’s discretion, which was just as well; as the First Corps was moving into place, they stumbled upon a Union signal station in their path which could have blown the plan open. Nor could the soldiers simply about-face and march to the rear; to preserve the order of attack, the line had to double back on itself. Not until late afternoon, between 4 and 5 p.m., were the two divisions in place to attack.
In the meantime, US Maj. Gen. Daniel E. Sickles, commanding III Corps, decided that he didn’t like his position, which didn’t offer much work for his artillery. So, without orders and without notifying Meade’s headquarters, he shifted his divisions to the higher ground across Taneytown Road. This shift created a salient in the Federal line with its angle at a peach orchard, inviting attack from two directions; worse, the gap between the peach orchard and Little Round Top was greater frontage than Maj. Gen. David B. Birney’s division could usefully cover, while Maj. Gen. Andrew Humphrey’s division’s right flank was “in the air” — unconnected to the rest of the Union line. Before Meade could order Sickles’ corps back into line, Longstreet’s corps was in position and ready to attack.
Furious, Meade ordered over 20,000 men — V Corps, plus elements of II, VI and XII Corps — into the breach. Lee had ordered Ewell’s Second Corps to support the assault with a demonstration against the Union right, turning it into a full-scale attack if the opportunity presented itself, but it didn’t come off on time. This was fortunate, because Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum, the commander of XII Corps, had left only a single brigade to hold Culp’s Hill; Brig. Gen. George S. Green, though, had time to put up strong defensive works. Meanwhile, V Corps commander Maj. Gen. George Sykes had just enough time to anchor the Federal left more firmly to Little Round Top with a brigade under Col. Strong Vincent before CS Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s right flank slammed into them.
The fight was particularly vicious in the area of a boulder-strewn hilltop (later known as “the Devil’s Den”) and the Peach Orchard which marked the angle of Sickle’s salient. Sickles himself was knocked out of the fight when a cannonball smashed his leg, and his relatively small corps was torn to pieces. Hood was also wounded early in the attack; while he kept his left arm, he lost the use of it. (A few months later, Hood would lose his right leg just below the hip after the Battle of Chickamauga; amazingly, he survived the war.) Vincent’s brigade withstood three blistering assaults, especially the 20th Maine, which was the regiment at the furthest end of the line and had come into the fight severely under strength — a mere 358 men in a unit normally comprising 1,000.
Despite the reinforcements, the Union line was eventually pushed back to Cemetery Ridge before the Confederate advance petered out, exhausted and almost bled white. But the en echelon attack didn’t fulfill its main objective, the turning of the Union left flank. Vincent’s brigade had held Little Round Top, thrusting back each attack; when the commander of the 20th Maine, a young but brilliant professor from Bowdoin College named Col. Joshua L. Chamberlain, determined that his men were almost out of bullets, he ordered them to fix bayonets, and led them in a charge while executing a right wheel (a difficult maneuver on a level parade ground, let alone down a tree-covered slope) that caught the Confederates by surprise and sent them running away.
It was then that Ewell launched his much-belated diversionary attack on Meade’s right flank. However, Ewell was only able to secure the areas that XII Corps had left; Green held off encroachment on his area until reinforcements came from II Corps, while XI Corps bloodied Maj. Gen. Jubal Early’s attack on East Cemetery Ridge. Ewell dropped the attack unceremoniously; both the hour and the effort were too late.
Despite the horrendous cost of the day, Lee was convinced that a further attack could carry the ANV through the center of Meade’s lines; the arrival of Pickett’s division on the field added fuel to his conviction. Across the field, behind the fence-rail breastworks, Meade had come to a similar conclusion. Uncertain in a command he had never sought, he called a council of war to seek consensus among his commanders. They all agreed: the Army of the Potomac would hold its ground, and wait for Bobby Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia to come to them.