Following his success at Chancellorsville, Confederate General Robert E. Lee decided to push his Army of Northern Virginia as far into the North as possible.  He was looking not only for a military advantage wherever he could find it but also for a “psychological” victory.  So much of the war to date had been fought on territory in the South; Lee wanted to impress upon Northerners that he could take the battle to them.1  Unfortunately for Lee, near the end of the Battle of Chancellorsville, one of his closest associates and strategists Lieutenant General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson had been killed by his own soldiers while conducting a personal scouting mission in an incident of what we now call “friendly fire.”2  The presence of Jackson would very likely have changed the Battle of Gettysburg that was to come.  As it was, Lee would feel Jackson’s absence throughout the rest of the war.

During June of 1863, Lee began to assemble his army for a thrust into Pennsylvania.  Meanwhile, Union General Joseph Hooker was trying to determine where the main force of Lee’s army lay and what the Confederate general might have in mind.3  Both men had wished to avoid any kind of major conflict until each could assemble their entire fighting force.  Throughout that month, Confederate Calvary General J.E.B. Stuart, Jackson's replacement, was operating on loose orders issued by Lee to disrupt the Army of the Potomac and keep it away from Lee’s army.4  He was generally successful in this endeavor, to the point of hubris, and stayed too far away to be of use to Lee in scouting for the enemy.  Meanwhile, the Confederates were seizing supplies and food from local farms.5  They would also take as prisoners any free black men they came across, sending them to the South to be sold as slaves.6 

By late June, a nervous and frustrated President Abraham Lincoln found himself again questioning the leadership of his generals.  He felt that Joe Hooker, following the losses at Chancellorsville, was not seriously trying to engage Lee.  When Hooker offered a pro forma resignation based upon the perceived mis-assignment of some troops at Harpers Ferry, Lincoln readily accepted the excuse to remove him.  Thus, on June 28, then-Brigadier General George Meade was installed as commander of the Army of the Potomac.  Meade had only been a brigade commander for about 6 months.7

On the first day of battle, July 1, both the Union and the Confederates came together at Gettysburg almost accidentally while scouting for supplies.  Neither had intended to fight there. Ultimately, 95,000 Union soldiers and 72,000 Confederates would converge at Gettysburg.  It would become the single bloodiest battle of the entire Civil War.

Town of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Geographically, Gettysburg is located in the center-south of the commonwealth of Pennsylvania, just a few miles north of its border with the state of Maryland.  It is about 40 miles southwest of the state capital of Harrisburg.

Gettysburg was a small town in 1863, with just 2,500 residents. The area was mostly agricultural but there were several factories there.  Most notably, Gettysburg lies at the center of an assembly of about 10 roads, arriving from all points of the compass, which come together like the spokes of a wagon wheel.  Most of the three day battle was fought to the south of the town itself.  On the west and southwestern edges of the town were largely open farm fields and occasional hills.  A line of hills runs along the east and southeasterly edge of Gettysburg which were to figure prominently in the battle, beginning on the northern end with Culp’s Hill, then west to Cemetery Hill, south along Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top and finally (Big) Round Top.

Despite the thousands of fighting men at Gettysburg, only one civilian was killed there:  20-year old Virginia “Ginnie” Wade, who was baking bread at her sister’s home on July 3rd when an errant Confederate bullet passed through the kitchen door, striking her in the back and killing her instantly.8

On June 30, Union troops were spotted coming into the town by Confederate scouts.9  They were thought to be some Pennsylvanian militia with whom the Rebels had been skirmishing.  Although Lee had ordered his generals not to engage Union troops until his army could be fully assembled, the decision was made to enter Gettysburg the next day to determine their numbers and to re-supply.  The Union troops that had been seen were those of General John Buford, head of the cavalry for the Army of the Potomac.10  He scouted out the area and determined that he should delay the Confederate forces on the north end of town the following day as they arrived from the northwest.  The longer he could hold them, the more time it would afford other Union troops to assemble from the south.11

Wednesday, July 1, 1863

In the early morning, two brigades of Confederates headed into Gettysburg along the Chambersburg Pike Road.  They met Union cavalry on the outskirts of town and the battle began, the first shot being fired by a Union soldier at about 7:30 a.m.12  The Confederates quickly realized that they were dealing with a significant force of the Union army.  Word was sent straightaway to General Lee who reluctantly ordered the remainder of his army towards Gettysburg.  Unfortunately for Lee, J.E.B. Stuart had not found his way there yet, depriving Lee of important intelligence about the area, reconnaissance being one of the main duties of a cavalry.13  In many ways, the Confederates were initially “blind” to the area on that first day.

The Union cavalry held the Rebel infantry brigades in check for the greater part of the morning.  Buford’s roughly 3000 men eventually faced an enemy force of about 8000.  A corps of infantrymen arrived to support Buford later that morning and then another from the south by afternoon.14  Nevertheless, more Confederates were constantly arriving and the Union line was eventually broken.15  They began a rapid, fighting retreat from the northwest to the south through the town, settling at last on the high ground of Cemetery Hill.16  As evening approached, General Lee, not yet on the field of battle, authorized his General Richard Ewell to attack that position “if practical.”  Ewell chose not to attack, which afforded Union forces a considerable amount of time to reinforce their position as even more troops arrived during the night.17

Thursday, July 2, 1863

By the morning of the second day, the Union line along the high ground had taken the shape of an upside down “fishhook.”18  The “hook” started in the northeast on Culp’s Hill, then went west to Cemetery Hill, south following the heights along Cemetery Ridge and eventually ended at Little Round Top and (Big) Round Top. [Note: (Big) Round Top was not to figure prominently in the battle as it was completely covered with trees, making it impractical to use readily for artillery.  However, the west facing side of Little Round Top had been clear-cut of timber by a local men providing a piece of high ground desirous to both sides.]

General Lee took quite a bit of time that morning devising a plan of battle for the day.  Some of his commanders were against using this area for a battle as the Union held the high ground of Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. That opinion included Lieutenant General James Longstreet, his second in command.  Nevertheless, Lee was convinced that his soldiers would prevail.  And so, he directed a reticent General Longstreet to sweep up from the southeast along the Union left flank, pushing them north from below Little Round Top along the Cemetery Ridge line until they could take the high ground of Cemetery Hill. Almost simultaneously, General Ewell would conduct a “demonstration” against the Union right flank atop Culp’s Hill in the northeast.  Lee meant for this limited action to discourage General Meade from committing these troops to reinforce the action further south.19 

On the Union side, General Meade had ordered General Daniel Sickles’ Third Corps to defend the left flank along Cemetery Ridge.  From there, Sickles could see a small section of high ground less than a mile to his west (an area known as the “Peach Orchard”) and decided, without orders, to send men out to that point.  Doing this now meant that these men there were separated from the main body of Sickles’ corps and could be attacked from three sides without protection of topography, such as hill or rocks.20  Upon hearing this, General Meade was furious but did not himself inspect this position in time before the Confederates began their attack that afternoon.21

Longstreet had been awaiting the arrival of additional troops and so it wasn’t until nearly 4 p.m. that he began his assault.  In vicious fighting over the next several hours, Confederate troops swept up from the southwest into the Peach Orchard and the “Wheatfield.”   They also overran the area of the “Devil’s Den” (a large collection of massive boulders) at the foot of Little Round Top.  The “Bloody Wheatfield,” as it came to be known, changed hands several times in fierce hand-to-hand combat before being lost to the Confederates, as was the Peach Orchard.  Eventually, the Rebels also took the “Devil’s Den” area and attempted assaults on Little Round Top.  These attempts were repeated repulsed.  One of the more famous confrontations of this day occurred between the Confederate 15th Alabama Infantry and the Union 20th Maine Infantry, facing each other along the very end of the Union left flank on Little Round Top.  Nearing the end of his ammunition and with no reinforcements available, Colonel Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine ordered his men to “fix bayonets” and charge down the hill into the enemy.  The surprise offensive was successful and many of the Alabamans surrendered on the spot.22

On the northeast edge of the battlefield, at Culp’s Hill, Confederate General Ewell moved from the initial “demonstration” that had been ordered by Lee, concurrent with Longstreet’s offensive, to full scale attack.  Unbeknownst to Ewell, five of the six brigades of the Union Twelfth Corps stationed on the hill had been ordered away by General Meade towards Longstreet’s assault (including the 2nd Massachusetts Infantry regiment).  On top of the hill, Union Brigadier General George Greene, who had been a civilian engineer, had had his men spend the day building a long line of “breastworks”23 down the side of the hill.  And now, as dusk approached about 7:30 p.m., Greene’s men used those breastworks to successfully repel assault after assault, holding the Union right flank.  Hearing that the lower part of Culp’s Hill was under attack, the five brigades were ordered to return to their original positions.  However, they were to discover that Confederate soldiers were now behind the very breastworks that they themselves had built earlier.24


Union breastworks

By the end of the second day of fighting, the Union line had held.  But Lee was still convinced that his army was invincible and would prevail, almost regardless of the circumstances.  He felt that his attacks on the Union flanks had been correct.  Therefore, he determined to press along those same fronts the next day.

Friday, July 3, 1863

It was early in the morning of July 3 that Confederate General Richard Ewell was to continue what he started the day before with another brutal offensive on Culp’s Hill.  However, Union forces struck first at dawn with an extensive artillery bombardment from Cemetery Ridge, striving to drive the Rebels from their breastworks below.  Despite intense fighting, Ewell was unable to break the forces of Union General Greene defending the hill.  By 11 a.m., Ewell had withdrawn his men completely from the immediate area.25

Note: it was during the early morning assault that the 2nd Massachusetts was to receive orders to attack Confederates at the foot of Culp’s Hill and disloge them from their entrenched positions.

Following this turn of the tide, Lee decided to amend his battle plan.  Instead of having Longstreet once again sweep up from the south, he reasoned that the Union line must be weak in the middle.  It was there he would strike with his remaining, considerable forces.  Unfortunately for Lee, General Meade had already come to the same conclusion.

The tree line west of the Union center ran parallel to it for a distance of over a mile.  Between the two was open farm land for a distance of nearly 1000 yards, over ½ mile.  A few minutes after 1 p.m., over 150 Confederate cannons began a bombardment of the Union center that was to last 2 hours.26  Waiting for 15 minutes before returning fire in order to save ammunition for the infantry assault that would undoubtedly follow, 80 Union cannons responded from the center.  Approximately 3 p.m., the cannon fire ended and roughly 12,500 Rebel soldiers walked onto the open field in marching formation in what has become known as “Pickett’s Charge.”  Union cannon fire began again, with devastating results: almost 6000 Confederate soldiers were either killed or wounded, never to reach the other side. 

The Rebels had been directed to converge across the battlefield using a “copse” (i.e. group of trees) as the center point of the Union army.  Having crossed the entire battlefield to reach this point, a knot of 200 or so Confederate soldiers were able to breach, for just a few yards, a low stone wall just north of the copse (at a point called “the Angle”) before being stricken down and repulsed in fierce hand-to-hand combat.  This action is often referred to as the “high water mark of the Confederacy,” as it symbolically represents the furthest incursion of the South into northern territory during the Civil War.27

Following this failed offensive of less than an hour, the Confederates slowly quit the battlefield and returned to the tree line.28  Fearing to face enemy cannons delivering the same horrific carnage as his own had just delivered, General Meade did not launch his own counterattack.29  As the long, bloody day turned to night, the remainder of each great army tended to their own wounded and dying across the vast battlefield.  Lee formally offered to exchange prisoners but Meade refused. Meade reasoned that it would be a grave mistake to give the Confederates back hundreds of whole and healthy soldiers who would simply return to fight again.30

Aftermath

July 4th was a day of heavy rain beginning after noon.  While both armies remained on their own halves of the battlefield during the day, no significant hostilities occurred and Lee evntually withdrew his army under cover of darkness and rain.  Meade made a belated attempt to pursue Lee, despite orders and entreaties from President Lincoln to do so with fervor.  Lincoln believed that Meade could end the war by crushing Lee immediately.  But Meade wouldn’t do it.  Once again, Lincoln had been failed by yet another general.31 The "great war" was to continue another two bloody years.

The losses at Gettysburg were astounding.  Over 4,000 Confederates were killed, 13,000 wounded and over 5,000 captured/missing.  The Union suffered almost 3,200 killed, nearly 14,000 wounded and over 5,000 captured/missing. The total killed, wounded or captured/missing for the 3-day battle was nearly 46,000 men. There were also in excess of 3,000 horses killed which were later burned and buried by the local townspeople32

In the months following the battle, local attorney David Wills began a private initiative to create a “national cemetery” at Gettysburg to contain the remains of Union soldiers who fell there.33  A dedication ceremony was subsequently scheduled for November 19, 1863. A famous orator of the day, Edward Everett, was asked to deliver a speech befitting the importance of such an event.  A number of contemporary poets were asked to speak as well but none could attend. And so, almost as an afterthough, an invitation to speak was extended to President Abraham Lincoln.  Everett’s speech that day lasted over 2 hours, comparing this civil war to those of ancient Greece, and was generally accepted to have fulfilled its purpose.  Lincoln intended to offer just “a few appropriate remarks.”  In doing so, he delivered one of the most famous and moving speeches ever written by a President of the United States: the “Gettysburg Address.”  It consists of just ten sentences:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.

Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.

But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.

Mr. Everett wrote the President following the event and offered his own humbled assessment: "I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion in two hours, as you did in two minutes."

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1 Sears, Gettysburg, 14-15.
2 Sears, Chancellorsville, 292-297.
3 Sears, Gettysburg, 59-61.
4 Sears, 64.
5 Sears, 107-109.
6 Sears, 111-112.
7 Sears, 120-123.
8 Sears, 391.
9 Sears, 137.
10 Sears, 143.
11 Sears, 157.
12 Sears, 162.
13 Sears, 140-141.
14 Sears, 165; 181.
15 Sears, 216.
16 Sears, 221.
17 Sears, 227-228.
18 Sears, 256.
19 Sears, 252-257.
20 Sears, 250; 252.
21 Sears, 262-263.
22 Sears, 294-297
23 “Breastworks” were a line of barriers formed from cut-down trees and gathered rocks and dirt, behind which the soldiers were protected from enemy fire.
24 Sears, Gettysburg, 325-331.
25 Sears, 371.
26 Sears, 396.
27 Sears, 443-454
28 Sears, 454-458.
29 Sears, 464-465.
30 Sears, 474.
31 Sears, 478-492.
32 Website: http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/gettysburg/getty4.aspx.
33 Sears, Gettysburg, 511-514.


Bibliography

1) Sears, Stephen W., Chancellorsville. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1996.
2) Sears, Stephen W., Gettysburg. New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2003.

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Richard Goodhind in the Civil War
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Listing of Enlisted Men in 2nd Mass (last name starting with a "G")
Richard Goodhind - Prisoner of War
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