By July 3, in the summer of 1863, the battle in and around of Gettysburg had been raging for two days. Casualties on both sides were high. The third day saw the Confederate troops, about 12,500 strong assault across a mile of open terrain to a gently upslope position of the Union forces.
While it is widely known as Pickett’s Charge, George Pickett actually commanded just three of the 11 brigades involved in the assault. His division was joined by Issac Trimble’s and Johnston Pettigrew’s division of North Carolinians.
Their crushing defeat marked the end of the battle and the end of Confederate offensive warfare. Never again would the Confederacy attack in Union territory and the next day, July 4th they withdrew back into Virginia. In the west Ulysses S. Grant captured Vicksburg on the same day, essentially splitting the Confederacy in two and taking control of the Mississippi River. The tide of the Civil War turned in a single day.
Opening Moves: On the first day Confederate forces under General Henry Heth bulled their way thru the town of Gettysburg, but a delaying action fought by BG John Buford’s cavalry delayed the Confederates long enough for John Reynolds’ Corps to come up and slow the advance long enough for the rest of the Army of the Potomac under the command of General George Meade to secure the high ground on Cemetery Ridge, Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, south of town.
Reynolds was killed early in the fight and General Meade still some miles from Gettysburg ordered General Winfield Scott Hancock to take charge of the battlefield until he (Meade) arrived and to determine if the ground was suitable for a major engagement. Neither army had fully deployed to the battle yet and things were just beginning to shape up.
On Day 2, Robert E. Lee’s troops under General Longstreet attacked the Union left flank with concentrated assaults on Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den. Other Confederate divisions under Longstreet attacked across the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard where the fighting was so fierce the ground changed hands several times.
On the right flank, General Ewell assaulted Union positions on East Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. But all of the Confederate assaults were repulsed, with awful casualties on both sides. The Union III Corps, doing the brunt of the fighting on the left flank, practically ceased to exist after heavy casualties.
The Plan: Lee’s troops had attacked the left and right flanks and he reasoned that the Federal lines were weakest in the center. Longstreet argued for an increased move around the left flank of the Union troops.
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 Federal lines at that point and turning toward Cemetery Hill [Hays’ 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, Meade was meeting with his officers just a few miles away. And he came to the same conclusion, that Lee’s attack will come at the center of the line. The Union moved reinforcements to the center of the line.
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 right flank of the Union, to attack the rear and support the troops along the Baltimore Pike when they achieved their breakthrough in the center.
The focus point was the “small copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge” that is often used as the focal point 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 an hour or two bombardment from the massed Confederate artillery commanded by Colonel Porter Alexander. Everything depended upon the 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.
The attack on the right flank, the assault on Culp’s Hill raged all morning and 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 the troops of Pickett started and just as the artillery barrage began.
Assault across Open Terrain: The battle in the center began with the Confederate artillery opening fire and trying to silence the Union guns in the center. Approximately 300 cannons between the two opposing forces fired for nearly two hours on one another.
However, a common problem that befell the Confederate artillery for most of the war raised its ugly head in Gettysburg. Their artillery fired far too long and the vast majority of their barrage went over the Union artillery and troops in the center and fell behind them.
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 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 any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.
Alexander, by now 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 eighteen 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, numbering 12,500 men 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 with 300 meters of the Union lines. Before they had advanced a quarter of the way, the troops came under murderous artillery fire. Union artillery high up past Little Round Top ripped into the right flank, while concentrated artillery fire from Culp’s Hill poured into the 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 cannister as the troops neared the Union lines. The Union artillery tore huge gaps in the attacking line, where the troops had to fill in the gaps. By the time the divisions reached the Emmitsburg Pike, their mile-long front had been cut in half to just 800 meters.
The concentrated artillery fire from Culp’s Hill and musket fire on their flank decimated Pettigrew’s division so that they never advanced much farther than the Pike.
Trimble’s division fared little better. They too were under murderous fire and didn’t advance beyond the road as the Union troops from the 8th Ohio poured fire into their ranks. As the musket and cannon fire tore into their 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: 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 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 (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 thru 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 which the Union troops defended. This was called the “Angle”. There, the Philadelphia Brigade, commanded by Alexander Webb defended it against the attack.
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 also withdrew. 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 to the front.
Armistead’s troops rushed the stone wall and crossed it, they penetrated inside the Union line and captured two cannons and tried to turn them back on their former owners. But they were out of ammunition. Armistead’s troops had what was termed as the “high water” mark of the Confederacy. But fresh Union troops poured into the gap and the Confederates were forced to pull back or got captured in the wild melee in the Angle. 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 served in California together before the war started.
Jeb Stuart’s cavalry was thwarted in the north as well. For the first time, the Union cavalry showed themselves to be the equal of 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 fell, Kemper was wounded, captured and then rescued. Dick Garnett had a wound and couldn’t walk, so he rode his horse into battle, knowing he’d be a huge target. He was killed. Of the 40 field grade officers in his division, 26 were casualties. Overall, of the 12,500 men in the assault, 6555 were casualties.
Lee feared that Meade would counterattack across the shattered front of the Confederate line. He tried to rally the men to prepare for an assault. He said to Pickett, that he must look after his division. Pickett in his now famous reply, “General Lee, I have no division.”
Aftermath: Meade wasn’t attacking Lee, the Union Army was as beat up as badly as the Confederates were. The two sides enjoyed a quiet truce on the 4th of July, 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 the Confederate Army of Northern Virginia and for Lee.
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, 21 months later, they’d be fighting a defensive war, a war they could not win.