By July 3, 1863, the battle in and around the town of Gettysburg had been raging for two days. 

Casualties on both sides were high. After the Confederates had driven the Union out of the town on July 1, the Union occupied the high ground and withheld attacks on its right flank. July 2, was marked by intense fighting on the left flank as the Union troops defended Little Round Top.

The third day would see General Robert E. Lee and the Confederate troops, about 12,500 strong, assault across a mile of open terrain to the gently upslope position of the Union forces in the center.

The assault became known as Pickett’s Charge, although General George Pickett actually commanded just three of the 11 brigades involved in the charge.

The crushing defeat of Pickett’s charge marked the end of the battle and the Confederacy’s offensive warfare. Never again would the Confederacy attack in Union territory. On the same day, Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg, essentially splitting the Confederacy in two and taking control of the Mississippi River. The tide of the Civil War turned in a single day.

Lee’s Plan

By July 3, Lee’s troops had attacked the left and right flanks the first two days. He reasoned that the Union lines were weakest in the center. 

Lee’s military secretary, A H. Long wrote about Lee’s assessment of the battle as follows:

“There was… a weak point… where [Cemetery Ridge], sloping westward, formed the depression through which the Emmitsburg road passes. Perceiving that by forcing the [Union] lines at that point and turning toward Cemetery Hill [Hays’s Division] would be taken in flank and the remainder would be neutralized…. Lee determined to attack at that point, and the execution was assigned to Longstreet.”