The Great Battle of Gettysburg
As Gettysburg hits 150, a detailed account of the nation’s greatest battle.


Mackubin Thomas Owens

While it seems to violate the principle of mass by attacking piecemeal, an echelon attack is designed to force the defender into mistakes by getting him to create gaps in his line while trying to plug others. Thus Longstreet was to take advantage of any opportunities to unhinge the entire Union position on Cemetery Ridge. 

It took Longstreet some time to reach his line of departure. Accordingly, his attack did not begin until about 4:00 p.m. Just as Longstreet was about to initiate his assault, Hood informed him that the way was open to the Union rear if he could swing his division farther to the south. Although Longstreet had advocated such a move, he demurred because of the additional time it would take to execute it. “General Lee has ordered me to attack along the Emmitsburg Road,” he said, “and that is what I will do.”

Longstreet now initiated his echelon attack by releasing his rightmost division under Hood against the Union left. Major General George Sykes’s V Corps was just now arriving on the battlefield, and a brigade was rushed forward to occupy Little Round Top and a jumble of rocks known as Devil’s Den in order to secure the Union left. The leftmost regiment of the brigade was Colonel Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, whose desperate defense of Little Round Top is immortalized in Michael Shaara’s historical novel Killer Angels and in the film Gettysburg, which is based on the novel. 

While Hood was attacking Little Round Top and wresting Devil’s Den from the Yankees, Longstreet launched the second phase of his echelon attack by releasing the right wing of McLaws’s division. As McLaws’s brigades advanced toward Cemetery Ridge, they encountered Major General Daniel “Democrat Dan” Sickles’s III Corps in a wheat field and peach orchard just east of the Emmitsburg Road. Earlier in the day, Sickles, dissatisfied with his position at the base of Cemetery Ridge, had advanced without orders to this location. In so doing, he not only formed a salient but also created a gap between his right and Hancock’s II Corps to his north. This was exactly the sort of mistake that an echelon attack was designed to exploit. 

The fighting was brutal, but McLaws’s attack eventually unhinged the Union salient by sweeping the peach orchard and the wheat field. Meade and Hancock tried to stem the Confederate tide by feeding troops into the gap created by the destruction of Sickles’s corps, but they created weaknesses elsewhere in the Union line. The echelon attack was on the cusp of success when it broke down, just as Major General William Pender’s division from Hill’s corps was to take it up. For some reason, his rightmost brigade refused the order to advance. Despite what Longstreet called “the best three hours’ fighting done by any troops on any battlefield,” the attack ground to a halt.

One episode stands out on the second day at Gettysburg. At the height of the fighting, Cadmus Wilcox’s fresh Alabama brigade of 1,500 men, pursuing the shattered remnants of Sickles’s corps, was on the verge of penetrating the Union defenses on Cemetery Ridge. Union commanders including Hancock rushed reinforcements forward to plug the gap, but at a critical juncture, the only available troops were eight companies — 262 men — of the First Minnesota Volunteers. Pointing to the Alabamans’ battle flags, Hancock shouted to the regiment’s colonel, “Do you see those colors? Take them.”  

As the First Minnesota’s colonel later related, “Every man realized in an instant what that order meant — death or wounds to us all; the sacrifice of the regiment to gain a few minutes’ time and save the position, and probably the battlefield — and every man saw and accepted the necessity for the sacrifice.”  

The Minnesotans did not capture the colors of the Alabama brigade, but the shock of their attack broke the Confederates’ momentum and bought critical time — at the cost of 215 killed and wounded, including the colonel and all but three of his officers. The position was held, but in short order the First Minnesota ceased to exist, suffering a casualty rate of 82 percent, the highest of the war for any Union regiment in a single engagement. All told, some 9,000 troops on each side became casualties on July 2.

That evening, Meade called his corps commanders to his headquarters and polled them regarding a possible pull back to the Pipe Creek line. Meade seems to have preferred withdrawal but most of his commanders favored standing and fighting. “Let us have no more retreats,” advised Hancock. 

The Third Day: “Pickett’s Charge”

In 1877, a former Confederate colonel in the Army of Northern Virginia, Armistead Lindsay Long, wrote that “the attack of Pickett’s division on the third [of July] has been more criticized, and is still less understood, than any other act of the Gettysburg drama.” What was true then remains true today. Why did Lee launch an attack that today seems to be nothing short of a senseless waste of life?

First, Lee had a great deal of confidence in the offensive power and élan of the Army of Northern Virginia. As Napoleon observed, “In war, moral considerations account for three-quarters, the balance of actual forces only for the other quarter.” And as Henry Heth, the only officer in the army whom Lee addressed by his surname, later wrote, “The fact is, General Lee believed the Army of Northern Virginia, as it then existed, could accomplish anything.” 

Critics then and now have contended that Lee failed to recognize the power of the defense. But in fact, the relationship between the offense and the defense depends a great deal on the élan and striking power of the attackers. Hooker, who as both a corps commander and an army commander had experienced the offensive prowess of the Army of Northern Virginia, remarked that Lee’s army did not merely attack but struck with “blows.” “The shock seemed to make the earth tremble on which we stood,” he observed. The remarkable offensive striking power of Lee’s army resulted from its outstanding regimental-level leadership and morale, which translated into very high volumes of fire in the attack.