The events leading up to the battle of Gettysburg on the 1st July 1863 were certainly in favour of the Confederate cause. After Charles Lee, the commander of the Confederate forces, was victorious at Chancellorsville he launched a new offensive on the North through Pennsylvania.
There were three crucial events in the preliminary stages of the campaign. The death of Southern General Thomas Jackson led Lee to promote Generals Ewell and Hill. Neither man had ever held such responsibility. Then prior to the initial skirmishes, Lee decided to allow his Cavalry commander, General Stuart, to lead three brigades of the elite division consisting of 5,000 men around the East flank of the Union forces meaning they missed the first two days of the battle.
These culminated in the third event that was effectively the beginning of the conflict. Hill, having been told that there were Federal forces on the outskirts of Gettysburg, sent two brigades on a reconnaissance mission to assess the size of the force. Hill was under express orders not to engage the enemy. The impromptu nature of the beginning of the battle meant that neither force was prepared, but especially not the Confederates. The Federal commander, General Meade, had only been appointed after the dismissal of General Hooker two days before the battle.
The first day began with Union General Buford deploying his small division on three ridges north of the town; these were held temporarily to give the main army time to assemble on Cemetery hill, south of the town. There were initial successes by the Southern forces and by the end of the first day the Confederates had pushed back the Union troops to Cemetery hill. Lee ordered Ewell ‘if practicable’ to assault the hill but Ewell decided against it; a great opportunity missed.
The second day saw the Confederates attacking Cemetery Hill from three sides. Lee’s plan was to engage the Union army on two fronts, led by Hill and Ewell, and then use Longstreet’s division to roll up the Federal line from the South West, whilst they were being engaged by Hill’s line. However, this failed due to the absence of Stuart’s cavalry. Lee believed the Union forces to be further east; so instead of attacking the Federal line side on, they were in direct line of fire and suffered heavy casualties. Once the attack was verified, Meade sent 20,000 reserves to bolster the left flank that secured it.
On the final day, Lee used the same strategy; Ewell’s division was to attack from the East and Longstreet and Hill were to attack from the West. However it became clear that Ewell’s offensive was repulsed, Lee ordered Longstreet to attempt to punch through the Union’s left flank in the centre on Cemetery Ridge. After ordering the largest artillery bombardment of the war known as ‘Pickett’s Charge’ where 12,500 Confederate troops charged at the left flank of the Federal line. This was the decisive event of the battle. The charge was met with flanking artillery fire from both the South and the North and from the centre where Meade had positioned the central battery. Meade had correctly guessed that Lee would attempt a charge and made sure not to deplete his artillery in case of such an attack.
If Lee had Stuart’s three brigades he would have used them to determine the size of the force he was up against, but his information on troop positions and numbers grew more outdated with every passing hour. If Lee had known the meagre size of Buford’s division he may have been able to press the offensive and gain Cemetery Hill; greatly altering the outcome of the battle and even the war. This cannot be deemed a tactical error because neither side anticipated the battle to occur when it did; nevertheless it was as significant as Napoleon’s decision to send General Grouchy after the Prussians prior to the Battle of Waterloo.
The aftermath of the battle is justly the reason why it was considered the turning point in the war. From a military perspective, the South had lost over 23,000 men and Lee had lost over a third of his General officers; this had the effect of disorganisation and loss of morale. From a political point of view, the defeat at Gettysburg proved enough evidence for the European powers not to invest in the rebellion. Had the South won the battle European intervention could have replaced Lincoln’s government with that of Jefferson Davis and the Union would have been no more than a footnote in history.