The Battle of Gettysburg – Day Two: Holding the Line

When the fighting of the first day ended, the Confederates were ready for a great victory on Union soil. If Lee could whip Meade, there would be little to stand between Lee and the capital. When the first day of battle ended, the Confederates had taken the town while the Union army had scattered to the hills south of town. Lee, who had arrived at 1 p.m. on the first day of battle tried to convince Richard Ewell to take Culp’s Hill, “if practicable.” To Ewell, those last two words deemed it an option. Lee did not mean it that way. Robert E. Lee knew if he did not have the high ground, victory could be elusive.

Arriving to aid Lee was General James Longstreet and his division. J.E.B. Stuart was still missing but he would arrive later in the day. The Union began to reinforce its positions as well. The fighting would not begin in earnest until noon. Reconnaissance had to take place. The next 6 hours would give hope to a Confederacy, while Union tried to find hope in any form. By the end of the day, names like Little Round Top, Devil’s Den, Culp’s Hill, Cemetery Ridge, the Peach Orchard and the Wheatfield became part of the American Lexicon.

Day Two Positions

Day Two Positions

The weather was mild on July 2, 1863. The sun shone and there were no overcast skies. Temperatures were in the middle 70s. Meade really had no plan other than to defend the high points. Meade planned to use the roads between the hills to shift reinforcements back and forth. Lee, on the other hand, was going to try and take three hills, Culp’s Hill, Round Top and Little Round Top. From his vantage point on Seminary Ridge Lee knew if controlled those hills, the battle would be won. Much of the fighting on day two would take place on the Union’s northern flank, closest to town.

The fighting that afternoon was fierce. The Union line ebbed and flowed after each Confederate wave from Longstreet, Ewell, and AP Hill. Meade, however, kept the Union line in attack through by reinforcing weak points in the line. IF Hill of Longstreet had broken through, the Union army would have split in two. But the “bend but don’t break” strategy succeeded for the Union that day. But, it did not feel like a victory. In fact, Lee thought that one more attack on July 3 fighting would win the day. Lee’s subordinates did not. Most notably, Longstreet was not in favor of attacking the high ground.

Action on Little Round resulted in the Union solidifying its position thanks to a downhill bayonet charge by the 20th Maine led by Joshua Chamberlain. The result was the capture of many in the 15th Alabama. The result was a southern flank that could not be taken. Attacks on Culp’s Hill failed. Dan Sickles tried to take on Confederate troops near the Emmitsburg Road by leaving his position in the hills. Meade, furious, filled the lines and Sickle would later retreat back to his origin. The Confederates had taken much of the low ground at Devil’s Den, the Wheatfield, and The Peach Orchard.

Joshua Chamberlain

Joshua Chamberlain

Charles Potts of the 115th Pennsylvania briefly summed up the day’s events:

Placed in field about one mile northwest of town. Rebs held in check, but think they will be able to drive our men on the morrow. Guarded by the 17th Va. Infantry, commanded by Col. French. Well treated, and find an old Colonel a gentleman, but no provisions

Lee, however, saw this point of view:

The result of this day’s operations induced the belief that, with proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render the assaulting columns, we should ultimately succeed, and it was accordingly determined to continue the attack. The general plan was unchanged. Longstreet, re-enforced by Pickett’s three brigades, which arrived near the battle-field during the afternoon of the 2d, was ordered to attack the next morning, and General Ewell was directed to assail the enemy’s right at the same time. The latter, during the night, re- enforced General Johnson with two brigades from Rodes’ and one from Early ‘s division.

As confident as Lee was, Meade, on the other hand, came across differently. The night of July 2 saw Meade hold his infamous Council of War. In this council, Meade met with his corps commanders to determine the course of action for the next day. The choices were to stay and defend, or to leave the field and regroup at another position. The unanimous decision was to stay and fight. Meade has been criticized for holding the council. It could be viewed as a sign of weakness. Then again, consensus was built and the fortitude inherent in the unanimous declaration may have swayed the next day.

This was certain – July 3, 1863 would decide the battle. What was not known was whether it would decide the war.


The artifacts page I give students to analyze

The artifacts page I give students to analyze. Click to Enlarge.

The Battle of Gettysburg is one topic in which students are rapt and engaged. However, it is also one in which students can get easily lost and disengage. I learned several years ago in my early teaching that kids want to learn about the Civil War in great detail. They do not want to sit and watch three hours of Gettysburg or watch 2 hours of some History Channel documentary replete with GCI special effects.

The Battle of Gettysburg is a transformative event in American history. To try to cover it in one day would be inefficient. I do several things to engage students when it comes to Day Two. I use two strategy simulations (one from each side), some map work, and a few journals.

There is more to being a soldier than just shooting weapons. There are the hours spent not fighting – which tend to drastically outnumber the hours spent in combat. My most favorite part of the whole Civil War Unit is I give students pictures of 20 objects and the students have to figure out what they were used for in camp. The artifact pictures come from the Gettysburg National Military Park:

It is interesting to hear what students think the soldiers used the items for in camp. The website has a variety of topic and sub topic pages. Click on each picture and you get an in-depth description of the artifact.

The website of the Gettysburg National Military Park I use to get the artifacts

The website of the Gettysburg National Military Park I used to get the artifacts


See also: