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.
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.”
That same night, Union General Meade met with his officers just a few miles away. He came to the conclusion that Lee’s attack will come at the center of the line. So, the Union moved reinforced its center.
The three Confederate divisions under Pickett, Trimble, and Pettigrew were to attack the center of the Union line defended by Hancock’s Corps. Simultaneously, Anderson’s division of A.P. Hill’s Corps was to attack the Union right flank. Lee sent the Cavalry under J.E.B. Stuart around the Union’s right flank, to attack the rear and support the troops along the Baltimore Pike when they achieved their breakthrough in the center.
The focus point, the “small copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge” was only 10 feet tall in 1863. Lee’s target was probably Ziegler’s Grove on Cemetery Hill about 300 yards behind the copse.
The assault was to proceed after a two-hour bombardment from the massed Confederate artillery.
Everything depended on timing and the timing went awry from the outset. The infantry troops were slow to arrive at the jumpoff point. Despite Lee’s orders for the attack to proceed at first light, it wouldn’t begin until several hours later.
Elsewhere the attack on the right flank raged all morning. It was beset by poor coordination as most of the attacks were piecemeal and not en masse. The Confederate troops under MG Edward “Allegheny” Johnson were thrown back and their assaults, supposedly timed to coincide with the main assault, were over before Pickett’s troops started moving into position and just as the artillery barrage began.
The Assault Across Open Terrain
The battle in the center began with the Confederate artillery opening fire and trying to silence the Union guns. Approximately 300 cannons between the opposing forces fired for nearly two hours against each other.
However, a common problem that befell the Confederate artillery for most of the war raised its ugly head in Gettysburg. The artillery fired far too long and the vast majority of their barrage went over the Union artillery and troops.
Union General Henry Hunt tried to lull the Confederates into a false sense of security by gradually reducing his return fire to give the impression they were being neutralized. As the masses of troops were preparing to advance from the woods, Longstreet, who was not in favor of this action, tried to convince Lee to call it off.
He wrote after the battle that he had told Lee just prior to the charge:
“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as anyone, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”
The commander of the Confederate artillery, his ammunition running critically low, sent a message to Pickett, “If you are coming at all, come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slackened at all. At least 18 guns are still firing from the cemetery itself.”
Pickett asked Longstreet, “Shall I advance?” Overcome with emotion, Longstreet couldn’t answer and instead just nodded his head. The three Confederate divisions stepped out of the woods a mile away at 2 p.m. They were aligned with Pettigrew and Trimble to the left and Pickett’s division on the right. Their line of troops was stretched a mile long (1600 meters).
They marched in formation at a quick step, they actually wouldn’t “charge” until they crossed the Emmitsburg Pike and got within 300 meters of the Union lines. Before they had advanced a quarter of the way, they came under murderous artillery fire. Union artillery high up past Little Round Top ripped into their right flank, while concentrated artillery fire from Culp’s Hill poured into their left.
There were numerous fences that had to be crossed and the advance was at a slight uphill angle which slowed the advance — but not the incoming artillery. The shells were then changed to canister charges as the troops neared the Union lines. Canister charges were a closed metal cartridge, usually tin, that was tightly packed with smaller projectiles. After firing, the canister disintegrates and its projectiles spread out in a conical formation, causing a wide swath of destruction, much like a shotgun. Union troops would use “double-canister” firing two shots from a single charge at troops in close proximity to their lines.
The Union artillery tore huge gaps in the attacking line that the troops had to close by shortening their frontline. By the time the divisions reached the Emmitsburg Pike, their mile-long front had been cut in half to just 800 meters.
As the musket and cannon fire tore into the Confederate ranks, one Union officer, Lt. Col. Franklin Sawyer, 8th Ohio wrote,
“They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns, and knapsacks were thrown and tossed into the clear air… A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle.”
Pickett’s division moved up on the right flank in good order, despite the heavy artillery. Marching in two lines, the brigade of BG James L. Kemper was lined up on the right and BG Richard B. Garnett on the left; BG Lewis A. Armistead’s brigade followed closely behind in reserve. Prior to the charge, Garnett and Armistead spoke about how difficult this would be. “This is a desperate thing to attempt.” Garnett had said, to which Armistead had added his prediction that “the slaughter will be terrible.”
After crossing the road, they wheeled slightly left. This half-turn left their flanks open to withering fire from artillery on Cemetery Ridge. In front of them lay the Union troops commanded by Abner Doubleday (the inventor of baseball).
In the center of the Union line, Hancock was at the front rallying his troops when he was seriously wounded. A Rebel bullet pierced the pommel of his saddle and passed through and into his inner thigh along with several wood fragments and a nail.
In danger of bleeding to death, his aides fashioned a tourniquet on his leg as he refused to be moved off the field until the battle was decided.
Pickett’s men advanced to a right turn in the stone wall behind, called “The Angle.” The wall was defended by the Philadelphia Brigade commanded by Alexander Webb.
The Confederates found a gap in the Union line where a unit (71st Pennsylvania) had mistakenly withdrawn from the Angle. Another unit, the 59th New York, had also withdrawn. Sensing a breakthrough, the Confederate infantry rushed into the gap. But an alert artillery officer had five cannons drop their muzzles and fire point-blank with loads of double canister. It obliterated the Confederate troops at the front.
Armistead’s troops rushed the stone wall and crossed it. They penetrated inside the Union line, captured two cannons, and tried to turn them back on their former owners. But they were out of ammunition. Yet, fresh Union troops poured into the gap and the Confederates were forced to pull back or were captured in the wild melee. Armistead was wounded twice and would die two days later. He asked that his personal effects, including his Bible, be sent to Almira Hancock, General Hancock’s wife. The two officers were very close friends and had served in California together before the war started.
Jeb Stuart’s cavalry, which had looked upon their northern cavalry opponents with derision early in the war, was thwarted in the north as well. For the first time, the Union cavalry showed themselves to be equal to their Confederate foes. One young officer who stood out was a young brigadier from Michigan, George Armstrong Custer.
Pickett’s division was shattered. All of his brigade commanders had fallen. Kemper was wounded, captured, only to be rescued afterward. Garnett already had had a wound and couldn’t walk. So he rode his horse into battle knowing he’d be a huge target. He was shot through the head just 20 yards short of the Angle while waving his hat to encourage his men. Of the 40 field grade officers in Pickett’s division, 26 were casualties. Overall, of the 12,500 men in the assault, 6,555 were casualties.
Lee feared that Meade would counterattack across the Confederate line’s shattered front. He tried to rally the men to prepare for an assault. When saying to Pickett to look after his division, Pickett famously replied, “General Lee, I have no division.”
The Aftermath of the Battle
Meade wouldn’t attack Lee as the Union Army was as beat up as the Confederates were. The two sides enjoyed a quiet truce on July 4 to gather the dead and wounded. That night, Lee quietly slipped away back into Virginia. The battle of Gettysburg was over and it was a crushing defeat for Lee and the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia.
Casualties were appalling for both sides. The Union suffered 23,049 dead, wounded, or missing. The Army of Northern Virginia suffered 28,000. It was the costliest battle in U.S. history.
Never again would the Confederates venture into Northern territory. From this point, until the war’s end, they’d be fighting a defensive war. Coupled with General Grant’s victory at Vicksburg the same day, it was a war they could not win. Yet, the conflict dragged out almost for another two years with thousands of losses on both sides.
Some good books on the Civil War era:
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era
The War That Forged a Nation: Why the Civil War Still Matters
The Civil War: A Narrative: Volume 1: Fort Sumter to Perryville (Vintage Civil War Library)