Battle of Gettysburg Day 2: Union Army pushed to the brink

Key locations:

Cemetery Hill, Culp's Hill, Devil's Den, Cemetery Ridge, Little Round Top, Peach Orchard, The Wheatfield

Key figures:

James Longstreet, Winfield Scott Hancock, Strong Vincent, Jubal Early

Memorable line:

"The Army of the Potomac has done enough retreating. Let this be our last retreat," Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock after five of the seven army corps of the Union Army had been decimated by Confederate attacks on July 2, 1863.

Key moments:

With momentum on his side, Robert E. Lee launched a dramatic march around the south end of the Union position along Cemetery Ridge. Under the direction of James Longstreet, Confederate forces advanced to the heart of the Union line on Cemetery Hill, catching Union generals off guard.

Allen Guelzo, author of "Gettysburg: The Last Invasion," says the surprise attack would have worked if not for a flurry of desperate actions by low-level Union soldiers who kept the Confederates at bay. Those acts of heroism included a last-minute bayonet charge by the 20th Maine volunteers to hold Little Round Top; a suicidal charge by the 1st Minnesota volunteers that thwarted two Confederate brigades; and a last-minute rush by a brigade of Ohioans, Indianans and West Virginia volunteers that saved Cemetery Hill.

"That's the real story of the July 2nd fighting and, in some senses, the real story of Gettysburg itself," Guelzo said. "The (second day of battle) was decided not by the genius of great generals but by the initiative of some very ordinary but some extraordinarily well positioned individuals who on their own initiative did the right thing."

Longstreet's attack came within inches of succeeding and even though Union forces held, by nightfall five of the seven corps of the Army of the Potomac were decimated. The Union Army's overall commander, George Gordon Made, held a late-night meeting to discuss whether it was time to retreat.

"The Army of the Potomac has done enough retreating," replied one of his generals, Winfield Scott Hancock. "Let this be our last retreat."

  • Stephen Smith

    Stephen Smith is a senior editor for