On July 2, the day of the Battle of Gettysburg’s Peach Orchard conflict, Army of the Potomac commander Maj. Gen. George Meade had inspected the ground on his army’s left flank at dawn, and ordered Maj. Gen. Daniel Sickles to hold the southernmost end of Cemetery Ridge with his III Corps. Yet ridge was a misnomer for the ground that Meade ordered Sickles to defend. In some places it was not a ridge at all. Indeed, its southern end was commanded by Little Round Top to the south and even by a low ridge due west on the near side of Emmitsburg Road.
Sickles fumed over the injustice of Meade’s decision. At 11 am he rode to Meade’s headquarters and complained about his poor position. Meade stifled the anger he felt at Sickles’ objections and reiterated his orders. Sickles was bound and determined, though, to have his way. He believed that Meade’s orders put his troops in peril. He also believed they would be crushed in the near-certain Confederate attack against that sector of the field.
For that reason, Sickles advanced his two divisions 1,500 yards west of the line on Cemetery Ridge that he had been instructed to hold. The new position his troops occupied was a low ridge where farmer Joseph Sherfy’s Peach Orchard was located. Events would prove that Sickles was right about the Confederate attack but wrong regarding the best position to receive such an attack. His understrength corps, comprised of just two divisions, did not have enough troops to adequately defend his new position. Sickles, a headstrong politician who lacked West Point training, deployed his troops in a sharp angle, known as a salient, which was difficult to defend in the face of a determined attack.
600 Yards Swarming with Yankees: a Failure of Confederate Reconnaissance
Arriving at the edge of the woods on Seminary Ridge on the west side of Emmitsburg Road at mid-afternoon that day, Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws was astonished at what he saw. The Georgia-born general saw just 600 yards of ground swarming with Yankees. He had been told by his scouts that there were no large bodies of Union troops in the area. Indeed, a Confederate reconnaissance at dawn had revealed that only one regiment of Union infantry and one battery was positioned on Emmitsburg Road in front of McLaws’ path of attack.
Both Maj. Gen. John Bell Hood’s division on the extreme Confederate right and McLaws’ division to his left awaited orders to attack in the late afternoon from First Corps commander Lt. Gen. James Longstreet. Confederate Army of North Virginia commander General Robert E. Lee had ordered Longstreet to roll up the Union left flank using his two divisions on hand.
Lee had even gone so far as to inform McLaws that he should place his troops perpendicular to the Emmitsburg Road and to attack north along its axis. Lee’s orders were that McLaws was to attack first followed by Hood. Based on what he saw to his front, McLaws believed Sickles’ new position threatened to derail his attack.
Twice a staff officer dispatched by Longstreet arrived to ask McLaws why he had not begun his attack. McLaws said that he needed to destroy the enemy’s batteries with his own artillery before sending his infantry forward. When he received a third order stating that he was to attack immediately, McLaws told the aide-de-camp that he would attack within five minutes.
Before the five minutes had elapsed, though, McLaws received orders from Longstreet that Hood would attack first. The change in plans was both a blessing and a curse. It gave McLaws more time to plan how he would attack the Union III Corps, but it also robbed him of the element of surprise. Once Hood advanced, the Yankees would know that other Confederates on Seminary Ridge were likely to attack as well.
Precursor to Gettysburg: Lee Reorganizes the Army of Northern Virginia
After the Confederate victory at Chancellorsville, Lee decided to invade the North a second time. In the wake of the death of Lt. Gen. Thomas J. “Stonewall” Jackson on May 10, Lee reorganized the Army of Northern Virginia. Longstreet retained the I Corps. Lieutenant generals Richard Ewell and A.P. Hill would command, respectively, the newly created II and III Corps.
The Confederates crossed the Potomac on June 15 and headed for Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. But on June 28 Lee ordered his dispersed army to concentrate at Gettysburg to deal with the threat posed by Maj. Gen. George Meade’s Army of the Potomac whose lead elements had reached Frederick, Maryland.
Finding the Federals in possession of Gettysburg, the Confederates attacked with their II and III Corps on July 1. The day went well for the Confederates, but the Union Army withdrew to strong positions atop Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill just below the town. Arriving late in the day, Meade noted that Cemetery Ridge and the two Round Tops east of Emmitsburg Road also would make fine defensive positions. He therefore decided to stay and fight at Gettysburg.
In his meeting with Lee on the night of July 1, Longstreet said he was against an assault against Union forces on Cemetery Ridge; instead, he favored seeking a better ground to fight in another location. Lee disagreed. “If the enemy is there tomorrow, we must attack him,” said Lee.
By 12 pm on July 2 the majority of the Army of the Potomac had arrived. Meade’s forces were arrayed in a fishhook-shaped position. The Union defense began at the two Round Tops and ran north along Cemetery Ridge to the edge of town. From the town it curved east toward Culp’s Hill to form the hook. Meade would benefit from interior lines. This meant he required fewer troops to man his line than Lee and could shift troops faster than Lee.
Anchoring Culp’s Hill was Maj. Gen. Henry Slocum’s XII Corps. Adjacent to it to the west was the I Corps. Following the death of Maj. Gen. John Reynolds on July 1 in Herbst Woods, command of the corps had devolved to Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday. Holding Cemetery Hill was Maj. Gen. Oliver O. Howard’s XI Corps. The northern end of Cemetery Ridge was held by Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock’s II Corps, and the southern end by Sickles’ III Corps. Maj. Gen. George Sykes’ V Corps formed the Union Army’s reserve. Maj. Gen. John Sedgwick’s VI Corps was en route to Gettysburg. It was expected to arrive late on July 2.
While the Union corps commanders organized their respective positions on the morning of July 2, Lee dispatched several scouting parties. Lee directed Captain Samuel Johnston, an engineer on his staff, and Major John Clarke, an engineer on Longstreet’s staff, to reconnoiter the Union left.
While awaiting the scouting parties’ return, Lee met again with Longstreet near the Lutheran Seminary Building on Seminary Ridge shortly after sunrise on July 2. The I Corps consisted of three divisions: Maj. Gen. John Hood’s division, Maj. Gen. Lafayette McLaws’ division, and Maj. Gen. George Pickett’s division. Pickett’s division was not on hand and did not arrive until the night of July 2.
Joseph Sherfy’s Peach Orchard
While they were discussing the plan of attack for the day, Hood joined the conference. “The enemy is here, and if we do not whip him, he will whip us,” said Lee, pointing at a map. Longstreet was reluctant to attack without all three of his divisions present. “I never like to go into battle with one boot off,” Longstreet said to Hood. To compensate for this, Lee ordered Maj. Gen. Richard Anderson’s division of the III Corps to go into action on McLaws’ left.
Johnston returned in mid-morning to find Lee, Longstreet, and Hill sitting on a log. Johnston told Lee that he had scouted south along the west side of Seminary Ridge where he had reconnoitered Sherfy’s Peach Orchard. He also had scouted Little Round Top. He told Lee that there were no large Union formations in that area. This gave Lee the impression that the Federal left was exposed and that Longstreet would be able to roll up the Union left flank. Unfortunately, Johnston’s report was grossly inaccurate.
McLaws arrived to meet with Lee. The Confederate commander pointed on a map to a location along Emmitsburg Road near the Peach Orchard. “I wish you to place your division across this road, and I wish you to get there if possible without being seen by the enemy,” Lee told the Georgian.
Once McLaws and Hood had placed their divisions in position southwest of Cemetery Hill, they were to attack north along the Emmitsburg Road, driving the enemy before them. As their attack progressed, they were to clear the Federals from Cemetery Ridge and, if possible, from Cemetery Hill. Anderson’s corps was to help clear the Federals from Cemetery Ridge. To pin down the forces on the Federal right wing, Lee ordered Ewell to launch a diversionary attack against Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill.