I have always thought that the second day of the battle was the most significant. Though most historians look to the third day, and try to answer the daunting question why Confederate General Lee ordered General Longstreet's division under General Pickett to attack the Union center, I would rather look to the second day. It is not because of the famous 20th Maine and its stand on Little Round Top, though to be sure this was very important. Rather, I look to that second day, as the maturing of the Union officer corps. It is most unfortunate (this happened in many wars in the nineteenth century) that the Union Army suffered two years under inadeqate leadership. I single out no individual general, this is only a broad statement, but it underlines the fact that by the summer of 1863, the soldiers of the Union Army, fighting in the east, primarily in Virginia, had had enough.
Gettysburg was the battle that saw tactical minds, now in higher leadership positions, affect change. Iniative, a word needed and wished by Union soldier and President Lincoln alike since the start of the war; an action that Southern soldiers had not lacked, finally settle among the Union officer corps. Like Generals Buford and Reynolds on July 1st, General Sickles and Colonels Vance and Chamberlain took the iniative, defined the fight on that second day and wrote their name into the legend books. In short, if the Union Army's commanding generals did not wish to seize the iniative, Union soldiers: privates to Colonels decided they would. Thus, on that second day of battle, the Confederate Army witnessed first hand, the advent of their battlefield equal.
Here is the timeline:
Thursday, July 2 - 1 A.M. - Meade and his staff ride through the moonlit night the twelve miles to Gettysburg, arriving at 3 A.M. just as Lee, across the way, is rising from a three hour nap and having breakfast in the dark.
9 A. M. - Lee has worked out the overall plan for the attack that day. Gen. Longstreet was ordered by Lee to attack at the left of the Union line. Meanwhile Ewell was to threaten the other end of the line on Culp's Hill. But, when Lee returned to headquarters at 11 A.M. Longstreet had still not moved into position. Lee ordered him to move forward but Longstreet was too slow in getting his troops into position and didn't attack until 4 p.m. giving the Union Army even more time to strengthen its position.
3:00 P.M. - Union General Sickles advances his Corps a half a mile or more in front of the main line into the Peach Orchard and smack in the line of Longstreet's attack. Some of the most bitter fighting of the Civil War now erupted at places that are part of American military folklore -- the Peach Orchard, Devil's Den, the Wheat Field and Little Round Top.
J.E.B. Stuart at long last reports to Lee. "General Stuart, where have you been?" Lee asked. "I have not heard a word from you in days, and you are the eyes and ears of my army."
4:00 P.M. - Just as Longstreet's attack finally gets underway an officer on Meade's staff inspects Little Round Top. Meade at last orders Union troops to the unoccupied hill. A brigade of Sykes Corps, including 20th Maine, arrive on the heights barely fifteen minutes before the Texans and Alabamians came howling up the slope. The fighting was especially heavy on the far left of the line where the 20th Maine, under a former minister and college professor Joshua Chamberlain, opposed the 15th Alabama. Under no less than five charges "the edge of the fight swayed back and forward like a wave." Losses were heavy on both sides, particularly among Federal officers. One recalled later that "The blood stood in puddles in some places on the rocks." Finally, exausted and nearly out of amunition, Chamberlain led his men in a bayonet attack that drove the Confederates from the hill.
7:00 P.M. - General Ewell attacked the Union line from the north and east at Cemetery Hill and Culp's Hill. Since Meade had been shifting units to meet the threat on the left and center, Ewell's attack had a chance for success. Despite fierce fighting at close range, the final Confederate attack of that second day was repulsed as the battlefield slipped into the uneasy quiet of darkness. The Federals had lost some ground during the Rebel onslaughts but still held a strong defensive position along Cemetery Ridge.10:30 P.M. - As the day's fighting came to an end Lee decided to gamble to win the Battle of Gettysburg and in effect win the Civil War. He would attack the next day at the center of the Union line along Cemetery Ridge where it would be least expected. Lee thought the battered Union soldiers were nearly beaten and would collapse under one final push. His plan for tomorrow completed, Lee finally retired for some sleep at midnight. At the same time Meade's council of war with his Corps commanders was breaking up. The Federals would fight it out where they stood.