(Hey guys, I’ve been massively busy with overwhelmingly time-consuming year-end projects at my day job over the last two weeks, plus I’ve been copyediting my new book and was also laid out sick for like five days with some horrific post-ComicCon illness. I’ll be back in the swing of things next week, but for now I’d like to recognize the 150th Anniversary of General Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox by publishing my chapter on the Battle of Gettysburg from my book Badass: Ultimate Deathmatch. I should also mention that you should check out my book on the Civil War, Guts & Glory: The American Civil War, because it’s awesome.)
The first two years of the American Civil War of Northern Aggression Between the States are basically the story of Confederate General Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia more or less kicking the unholy ballsack off of a seemingly brain-dead succession of increasingly-less-competent Union commanders until such point that nearly every person north of the Mason-Dixon line was wondering why the hell they were being led into combat by a bunch of assclowns who were unfit to serve as cast members on Sesame Street. Despite constantly being outnumbered by better-equipped Federal Armies with almost unlimited resources, manpower, and weaponry, Lee somehow repeatedly overcame ridiculous odds, won battle after battle against the Yanks, and kicked their asses up and down Northern Virginia in a display of raw asskicking prowess that has never been seen again on American soil.
By July of 1863 Lee was getting a little bored of repeatedly bludgeoning his enemies to death with their own incompetence on his own turf, so he opted for a change of scenery and decided to invade the North instead, taking the fight to the enemy. He marched his men through Maryland and Pennsylvania with a simple plan – wreak havoc, capture Union supply depots, cut Yankee railroad ties to the Western front (where a Union General named Ulysses S. Grant was doing a far superior job of stomping out Rebel sedition), encircle Washington, DC, and deal the North a crushing blow that would destroy their will to fight once and for all.
Lee wasn't really looking for a fight in the quiet Pennsylvania town of Gettysburg. The Southern commander was flying a little blind, since his master cavalry commander J.E.B. Stuart was out raiding enemy depots instead of providing basic reconnaissance, so when Lee dispatched elements of A.P. Hill's Corps to Gettysburg to execute a raid on a shoe factory (many of the badly-undersupplied rebs had marched all the way from Richmond to Pennsylvania barefoot... not exactly ideal conditions when you're looking at 20-mile hikes every day for a week), he didn't realize that he'd be kicking off the largest and most epic battle ever fought in the Western hemisphere.
Defending Gettysburg on June 1, 1863 were the troopers of General John Buford's 1st U.S. Cavalry. Buford was a tough-as-nails old soldier with a bushy Sam Elliot mustache who'd leveled up his stats fighting the Sioux Indians out west, and when this saw rebel troops heading into his town he immediately ordered his men to dismount, take cover behind a stone wall, and open fire. He was badly outnumbered, sure, but Buford 's weaponry helped level the playing field a little – the First Cav was armed with breech-loading rifles that allowed them to fire almost twice as fast as the standard infantryman, and his fearless men immediately started laying down a field of death on the advancing enemy. It took the Confederates a few minutes to regroup and mount a more organized attack, buying Buford a little time for reinforcements to arrive. He was reinforced by a division commanded by John Reynolds, a guy who was shot to death immediately upon arriving at the battlefield and was subsequently succeeded by Abner Doubleday, the dude who invented baseball. But Doubleday was only a stopgap middle-reliever, and when Confederate reinforcements continued to roll in he was forced to retreat and take positions just outside the town at a place appropriately known as Cemetery Ridge. He'd eventually be pulled in favor of the right-hander from Pennsylvania, Winfield Scott Hancock.
With elements of their forces now committed, the two armies – who were a hell of a lot closer to each other than either had previously realized – converged on Gettysburg, and before you know it a dispute over Reeboks suddenly became an epic battle involving 150,000 men in a timeless struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of tasteful footwear.
On the morning of the battle's second day the U.S. forces were deployed along Cemetery Ridge, entrenched behind a stone wall on an embankment that overlooked about a mile of open field. The ridge was anchored by large hills on either side – Culp's Hill to the right, and Little Round Top to the left. Lee had ordered one of his Corps commanders, "Old Baldy" Richard Ewell to take Culp's Hill on the night of the first day, but Ewell didn't really feel like it so he sat back and let the Union dig fortifications there instead. Ewell had recently taken over for the amazingly-hardcore General Stonewall Jackson, a seemingly-invincible Virginian who was so good at killing Yankees that the only way he could be stopped was when some of his own men accidentally shot him to death. Having Ewell filling in for Stonewall at Gettysburg was kind of like bringing Ryan Leaf into an overtime playoff game after Peyton Manning goes down with a season-ending musketball-related injury. Meanwhile, as a side note, "Old Baldy" was also the name of Union Commander George Meade's horse, a beast that was arguably about as effective an officer as Ewell during this battle.
Yeah, I know.
Faced with this situation Lee decided that rather than marching across the open field like a dumbass he'd launch a two-pronged attack on Culp's Hill and Little Round Top, hitting both sides simultaneously while keeping A.P. Hill's Corps back to ensure the Union didn't send too many men to reinforce their flanks. If the operation was executed quickly, and was done right, it could theoretically have flanked the Federal Army, driven them from the field, and left nothing standing between the Army of Northern Virginia and a running groin-kick of Abraham Lincoln's Oval Office.
The hardest fighting on the second day took place on the Little Round Top side of the field. It started when an overly-ambitious Union General named Dan "The Man" Sickles saw the Confederates advancing on him, disobeyed orders, and moved his troops forward, taking up positions in a wheatfield with a peach orchard anchoring one flank and a large group of rocks known as Devil's Den on the other. In some of the most brutal fighting of the entire war, the rebs threw everything they had at Sickles' troops. For several hours men from Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina, Texas and Arkansas hurled themselves against men from New York, Pennsylvania, and Vermont, fighting, attacking, capturing the enemy positions, then being driven back by counterattacks. The battle was so gruesome that at one point the 1st Minnesota suffered 82% casualties when they attacked a force twice their size to prevent the position being overrun. Sickles got his leg blown off by a cannonball, and his Corps was shattered by relentless attacks forcing Sickles to eventually pull back to Cemetery Ridge. Awesomely enough, Sickles limped over to his blown-off leg, picked it up, and now you can see it and the cannonball that demolished it in the National Museum of Health and Medicine in Washington DC. So, yeah!
While all that was going on, some Rebel troops under General Evander Laws swung around Sickles' flank, captured Devil's Den, and then surprisingly noticed that when Sickles had moved up he'd unwittingly left Little Round Top completely undefended. Since LRT overlooked the entire Union Army it was a pretty bitchin' place to set up cannons, so Laws logically ordered his men on an all-out charge to take the hill. Union commander George Meade noticed this unfortunate development at almost exactly the same moment as Laws, and sent five regiments from his reserves running off on a King of the Hill race to the top.
The Union troops got there first, and they had roughly ten seconds to prepare for the onslaught. On the extreme flank of the Union Army was the 20th Maine Infantry – some 360 men under the command of schoolteacher Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain who now had almost instantaneously gone from chilling out in the back of the battle to holding the line against a force that outnumbered them almost ten to one.
Chamberlain ordered his men to take cover behind boulders and pile up rocks where they could, but within minutes a terrifying Rebel Yell came up through the woods as Laws' Alabama boys appeared through the brush. The 20th Maine fired everything they had into the onslaught as the Rebels scrambled over boulders, racing up the hill into the teeth of withering fire, charging full-speed towards the 20th Maine like an army of hard-charging SEC linebackers looking to decapitate an unsuspecting QB and then do a hilarious sack dance over his headless corpse.
At first, the Alabama boys were pushed back by the unexpectedly-strong resistance – after whupping up on the bluebellies for the last two years they didn't actually have any respect for the Yankees' fighting spirit and were caught off guard, but it was going to take more than that to keep those dudes down. Four more times the exhausted-yet-determined rebels charged up the steep hill, straight into the enemy, firing their rifles and shrieking like wildmen. On a couple occasions, the Alabamans crashed into the Union lines, but on all occasions were thrown back by fierce hand to hand combat as men swung fists, bayonets, car batteries, tin pots and rifle butts in a desperate attempt to club their hated enemies into bone dust.
After an hour and a half of non-stop asskickings all around on Little Round Top, things really weren't looking great for Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain – half his men were dead, the other half was wounded, and those survivors still in fighting shape were so low on bullets that they were taking rounds off of dead soldiers. What's worse was that somewhere unseen at the bottom of the hill, the rebels were re-organizing for yet another attack, one designed to break the line and possible end the war in one push. The 20th Maine was brave, but they knew they weren't going to be able to hold off another charge like the ones they'd just miraculously survived.
So Colonel Chamberlain, a schoolteacher in his regular life (kind of like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan), completely out of ammo and with the entire fate of the Civil War hinging on his ability to hold the flank, ordered the most kickass thing he could think of – he told his men to fix bayonets and prepare to stab their way into American history.
As the bloodied men from Alabama reformed their lines and began making their sixth full-speed charge up Little Round Top, they were greeted by the last thing they thought they'd ever see – 100 guys from Maine running screaming towards them in a makeshift battle line, hollering like madmen, bayonet points glinting in the afternoon sun. This was the last straw for the Alabama boys – these exhausted warriors had already marched 24 miles that morning, reaching G'burg just in time to be sent straight into the battle and charge up a damned mountain five times in a row while guys shot bullets in their faces, and the sight of 100 bayonet points was enough to break their spirits. The entire 15th Alabama was killed or captured on the slopes of Little Round Top.
Old Baldy, meanwhile (the man, not the horse), didn't even get going on his end of the pincer attack at Culp's Hill until 6:30pm, well after the fighting was over on Little Round Top and the fate of the day had been decided.
On the third day of the battle, Robert E. Lee made the biggest tactical mistake of his otherwise-untarnished career. Lee, who may or may not been having a stroke at the time of the battle, decided that if the Union was as strong on the wings as they seemed, they had to be soft in the middle like an Everlasting Gobstopper, so he reasoned that a full-on attack by three divisions of infantry launched at the dead-center of the Union lines would split their forces and pulverize the Yankees once and for all. So, after a two-hour artillery barrage by 143 Confederate guns did its best to dislodge the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge, Lee ordered 15,000 troops from Virginia and North Carolina to form a battle line a mile long, fix bayonets, and march a mile and a half across open ground towards hardened enemy infantry and artillery positions. Along the way, they could expect to be fired on not only by the 20,000 troops across from them, but also to be hit with cannon fire from Little Round Top. Every man out there knew casualties would be high, but that victory in the war would depend on their success here.
With the battle cry, "Up men and to your posts – Don't forget that you are from Old Virginia!", General George E. Pickett assembled his troops.
At three PM on July 3, 1863, a sea of gray marched out from the woods and began its 1.5-mile suicide charge towards a wall of blue-clad guys with heavy rifles. Marching in total silence, staying in lock-step with parade-ground precision, their battle flags waving in the breeze and bayonets shining in the hot Pennsylvania sun, the brave men of the Army of Northern Virginia looked out at an immovable wall of blue uniforms across the battlefield.
At 600 yards the Union artillery opened up, ripping the Confederate troops with giant cannonballs from Cemetery Ridge and Little Round Top. The Confederates closed their gaps, men stepping up to take the place of their fallen comrades.
At 300 yards, Union riflemen – stacked six ranks deep – stood up as one from behind the stone wall on Cemetery Ridge and opened fire in one hellacious volley. They were joined by more cannons, this time firing canister shot, which is basically the cannon equivalent of a shotgun blast. Entire companies of men disappeared, but the Confederates still pressed on.
At 200 yards, the rebels picked up the pace, their badly-mauled units determined to charge the length of two football fields right into the teeth of withering fire and cannons capable of spraying dozens of fist-sized pellets with every blast from their muzzles.
The Confederates only reached the wall in one place – a small clump of trees known as The Angle. Led by daring Virginia general Lewis Armistead, who personally charged up the hill at the head of his men, rallying his troops by placing his hat on the end of his sword and holding it high above him, the rebels crashed into the Yankee lines, desperately fighting with sabers, pistols, bayonets, punches, and point-blank rifle shots to the face. The Union troops fell back under this unremitting onslaught, as the furious rebels battled to avenge the horrific destruction they'd just marched through. The front rank of Union infantry fell beneath their attack, as did an artillery battery, but despite their bravery it was too little too late –Union gunfire had crippled Pickett's Charge, and there were no Confederate reinforcements left to help Armistead exploit the breach. Armistead's men were counter-attacked by the 72nd Pennsylvania, 19th Mass, and 42nd New York (marking the first and only time in history that people from Massachusetts, New York, and Pennsylvania ever agreed on anything), Armistead was shot as he was trying to turn the captured union cannons around, and his entire force was wiped out or captured.
There were no Confederate officers left to order a retreat – every brigade and regimental commander involved in Pickett's Charge was dead, dying, or captured. Of the 15,000 men who marched out, only 5,000 stragglers returned, most of them badly wounded. The hardened core of the Army of Northern Virginia had been completely wiped out. As the shattered units limped back to Confederate lines, Lee himself rode out to meet them, telling his men, "It's all my fault."
Despite this brave yet horrific death charge, the casualty numbers at the Battle of Gettysburg are actually somewhat comparable – 23,000 U.S. to 28,000 Confederate. But, much like the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra, the Southern states were so badly hurting for manpower (there were 13 million more people living in the North than the South) that they simply could not afford to take losses on that scale. Pickett's Charge would be the Confederate Crecy – their losses were too great to replace, and, while the war would go on for three more years, the South would never have a chance of invading the North again. The tide of the war – and U.S. history -- had dramatically shifted.