The Battle of Gettysburg: Day Three

General Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had bested Major-General George G. Meade’s Federal Army of the Potomac in two days of horrible fighting south of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. But the Federals had fallen back behind their defenses, and their lines remained intact. In fact, Meade strengthened his defenses even more in preparation for another Confederate attack expected on this day.

Maj Gen G.G. Meade | Image Credit:

Meade also received good news from the Bureau of Military Intelligence: intercepted messages between Lee and President Jefferson Davis indicated that the Confederates would not be getting any reinforcements. The BMI also accurately reported that Lee’s army had no more reserves, while Meade still had 20,000 men in reserve. Meade would not only have the advantage of fighting on the defensive, but his army outnumbered Lee’s.

During the night, Major-General Henry W. Slocum’s Twelfth Corps returned to Culp’s Hill on the extreme Federal right after being transferred to support the left the previous day. The Confederates had blown a gap in the Federal line there which, if penetrated, could threaten the Federal lines of supply and possible retreat. Slocum directed his men to build defenses and plug the gap.

The third day of fighting began when Lieutenant-General Richard Ewell’s Confederate Second Corps attacked Culp’s Hill at 4 a.m. Meade wrote his wife, “At it again, with what result remains to be seen. Army in fine spirits and everyone determined to do or die.” Waves of Confederates surged against the Federals for over six hours before finally falling back, unable to break the strong Federal lines. The fighting ended around 10:30 a.m., and an eerie quiet fell upon the battlefield.

As Meade guessed, Lee planned to shift his focus to the center of the Federal line at Cemetery Ridge. Lee reconnoitered the position with Lieutenant-General James Longstreet, commanding the First Corps, and assigned him to direct the assault. Longstreet said:

“Look, General Lee, at the insurmountable difficulties between our line and that of the Yankees: the steep hills, the tiers of artillery, the fences, the heavy skirmish line and then we’ll have to fight our infantry against their batteries. Look at the ground we’ll have to charge over, nearly a mile of that open ground there under the rain of their canister and shrapnel.”

Longstreet again urged Lee to move around Meade’s left flank and interpose his army between the Federals and Washington. Lee insisted that Federal morale was low, Confederate strength was at its peak, and one more assault would break the Federal army. “The enemy is there, General Longstreet,” Lee said, “and I am going to strike him.”

Under Lee’s plan, a heavy artillery bombardment would soften the Federal defenses. Then three divisions (15,000 men in nine brigades) would march across the open ground from Seminary Ridge and attack. The divisions consisted of:

  • Two brigades under Major-General Isaac Trimble, replacing the mortally wounded Major-General William D. Pender, of Lieutenant-General A.P. Hill’s Third Corps
  • The four brigades under Brigadier-General James J. Pettigrew, replacing the wounded Major-General Henry Heth, of Hill’s corps
  • The three brigades under Major-General George Pickett, of Longstreet’s corps
Confederate Lt Gen James Longstreet | Image Credit:

This would become known as “Pickett’s Charge,” even though Pickett’s division was just one of the three participating. Longstreet would be the overall commander, even though only one of the divisions belonged to him. Two of the divisions would be led by men who had never held divisional commands before. One division, Pettigrew’s, had already been decimated in the first day of fighting.

Longstreet said, “General Lee, there never was a body of 15,000 men who could make that attack successfully.” But Lee would not relent. He had initially hoped that Longstreet’s attack would be coordinated with Ewell’s on Culp’s Hill, but Ewell had already been defeated. Now Lee hoped that Major-General Jeb Stuart’s Confederate cavalry could attack the Federal rear to divert attention from Longstreet’s impending attack.

Meanwhile, Federals strengthened their defenses along Cemetery Ridge, sensing that Lee would attack that sector of the line after attacking both flanks. The defenders consisted mostly of Major-General Winfield Scott Hancock’s Second Corps, led by the divisions of Major-Generals John Gibbon and Alexander Hays. They could see the Confederates unlimbering their cannon a mile west.

Longstreet worked with Colonel E. Porter Alexander, his chief artillerist, to ensure that the upcoming bombardment, according to Alexander, “was not meant simply to make a noise, but to try and cripple him–to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible.” Longstreet then rode off to assemble the infantry. Pickett later wrote of Longstreet:

“I found him like a great lion at bay. I have never seen him so grave and troubled. For several minutes after I had saluted him he looked at me without speaking. Then in an agonized voice he said: ‘Pickett, I am being crucified at the thought of the sacrifice of life which this attack will make. I have instructed Alexander to watch the effect of our fire upon the enemy, and when it begins to tell he must take the responsibility and give you orders, for I can’t.’”

Alexander received a message from Longstreet around 11 a.m.: “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him, so as to make our efforts pretty certain, I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.” Alexander, knowing he could not accurately determine what effect his guns would have on hidden troops, replied, “If there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire.”

Around noon, Stuart’s cavalry set out to attack the Federal rear and divert attention from Cemetery Ridge, when about 4,500 Federal horsemen under Brigadier-General David Gregg rode up to oppose them. A vicious fight ensued, featuring charges and countercharges with rifles and sabers among mounted and dismounted troopers.

Federal guns came up in support, and the Confederates were driven off. They lost 181 men, while the Federals lost 254. Stuart’s planned assault on the Federal rear was aborted, making this a Federal victory. A Federal brigade under Brigadier-General George A. Custer particularly distinguished itself.

At 1:07 p.m., Confederates opened 140 guns on Cemetery Ridge. This was intended to weaken the defenses before the infantry assault. Nobody, even the most seasoned veterans, had ever experienced such a horrific barrage before. However, most of the guns were aimed too high, so the shells screamed past the Federals and crashed harmlessly beyond the ridge. The Federals slowly responded with 100 guns of their own, and this soon became the largest artillery duel of the war. The booming could be heard in Pittsburgh, nearly 200 miles away.

Hancock rode out to watch the bombardment when an officer told him, “General, the corps commander ought not to risk his life in that way.” Hancock replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”

The Federal guns eventually stopped firing, leading the Confederates to believe they had run out of ammunition. But the Federals were simply trying to lure the Confederates into the open. Alexander sent a message to Pickett: “For God’s sake come quick. Come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you properly.” Pickett rode to Longstreet, showed him Alexander’s message and asked, “General, shall I advance?” According to Pickett:

“Longstreet looked at me for a moment, then held out his hand. Presently clasping his other hand over mine, without speaking, he bowed his head upon his breast. I shall never forget the look in his face nor the clasp of his hand when I said, ‘Then, General, I shall lead my division on.’ My brave boys were full of hope and confident of victory as I led them forth, forming them in column of attack though officers and men alike knew what was before them. Over on Cemetery Ridge the Federals beheld an army forming in line of battle in full view, under their very eyes.”

Longstreet met with Alexander, who explained that he could not support the infantry because his ammunition train was too far in the rear. Longstreet said, “Go and halt Pickett right where he is and replenish your ammunition.” But Alexander said that by the time it was replenished, the Federal lines would be strengthened to the point that neither artillery nor infantry could break them. Longstreet said, “I don’t want to make this attack. I believe it will fail. I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” Alexander said nothing.

“Pickett’s Charge” at Gettysburg | Image Credit: Wikimedia

The Confederate infantry advance began at 3 p.m. The men marched as if on parade, with flags waving in the breeze. Hancock reported, “The enemy’s lines were formed with a precision and steadiness that extorted the admiration of the witnesses of that memorable scene.” An officer of Hancock’s corps recalled:

“More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the army of 18,000 men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on the move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”

Federal artillerists waited until the troops came within range and then opened fire with deadly accuracy. An artillerist firing from Little Round Top wrote, “I watched Pickett’s men advance, and opened on them with an oblique fire, and ended with a terrible enfilading fire… Many times a single percussion shell would cut out several files, and then explode in their ranks; several times almost a company would disappear, as the shell would rip from the right to the left among them.”

Guns also opened from Cemetery Hill, to the Confederates’ left. A Federal officer wrote, “They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were thrown and tossed in to the clear air… A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the roar of battle, but on they went, too much enveloped in smoke and dust now to permit us to distinguish their lines of movement, for the mass appeared more like a cloud of moving smoke and dust than a column of troops.”

As men fell, the others closed ranks and continued forward. They moved into the open ground, with Pickett’s Virginians leading, toward a copse of trees in the middle of the Federal line. The troops stopped at the Emmitsburg road to dress their line, having already sustained heavy losses. A Federal soldier wrote, “How that short march was made I don’t know. The air was all murderous iron; it seemed as if there couldn’t be room for any soldier upright and in motion.”

As the Confederates entered rifle range, Federal infantry along Cemetery Ridge began pouring their fire into them. Men fell in heaps, but the Confederates still pushed forward. Just a small fraction of the attacking force reached the ridge. A soldier recalled, “Men fire into each other’s faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet-thrusts, sabre-strokes, pistol-shots;… men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping up blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of dead men…”

Those Confederates who reached the ridge were enfiladed on both sides by overwhelming Federal numbers. Nevertheless, a group of 150 men led by Brigadier-General Lewis Armistead of Pickett’s division penetrated the Federal line at what became known as the Angle. This was the closest the Confederate army ever came to military victory on northern soil.

Armistead’s men were met by a Pennsylvania brigade of the Second Corps led by Brigadier-General Alexander S. Webb, who surged forward to seal the gap and force the surviving Confederates to either surrender or retreat. Armistead was killed and Webb was wounded; Webb later earned the Medal of Honor for his action.

The Federals ultimately held firm, as artillery and reinforcements massed to repel the Confederate attackers. Federal troops who remembered their horrible defeat at Fredericksburg in December shouted, “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” to the withdrawing Confederates. Hancock was wounded but, as he reported, “I did not leave the field so long as a Rebel was to be seen upright.” The carnage on the field prompted a soldier to compare it to “a square mile of Tophet.”

The climactic battle of the Eastern Theater ended with the Army of the Potomac scoring its first decisive victory since Malvern Hill, over a year ago. Hancock told Meade, “I have never seen a more formidable attack, with worse troops I should certainly have lost the day.” Meade proudly wrote his wife, “The men behaved splendidly–I really think they are becoming soldiers… The army are in the highest spirits, and of course I am a great man but in my own heart I would thank God if I was relieved tomorrow and permitted to return home and live in peace and quiet.”

Gen Robert E. Lee | Image Credit:

Only about half the Confederate attackers returned to their lines on Seminary Ridge. As they came, Lee rode among them saying, “It’s all my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” The troops implored Lee to give them another chance, but Lee would not. He issued orders to prepare defenses against a potential Federal counterattack.

Ewell’s corps was pulled out of Gettysburg. By day’s end, Lee told a subordinate, “We must now return to Virginia.” He planned to retreat as soon as the wagon trains and ambulances filled with the wounded could be put in motion. He told Colonel Arthur Fremantle, a military observer traveling with the Confederate army on behalf of Great Britain: “This has been a sad day for us, Colonel–a sad day; but we can’t expect always to gain victories.”

In the horrific three-day struggle, the Federals sustained 23,049 casualties (3,155 killed, 14,529 wounded, and 5,365 missing). Lee reported his losses to be 20,451 (2,592 killed, 12,709 wounded, and 5,150 missing), but historians have estimated that he lost as many as 28,000. The Confederate losses were especially crippling because the South lacked the manpower to replace them. Pickett’s division alone lost more than half its men, including every regimental commander, two brigadier-generals, and six colonels. The 43,500 total casualties made this the costliest battle ever fought in American history.

The performance of Lee’s commanders contributed to the defeat. Ewell had been reluctant to attack, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s strategy, Hill was sick and thus not fully involved, and Stuart had deprived Lee of vital intelligence before the battle. Lee himself bore some responsibility for not properly coordinating his attacks, for issuing vague orders, and for rejecting Longstreet’s advice to move around the Federal left.

Some commanders, including the wounded Hancock, urged Meade to use his 20,000 reserves to counterattack and finish Lee off. But Meade, having been army commander for just six days, three of which were spent fighting the largest battle of the war, was satisfied to have repelled Lee’s attacks for now. Meade believed that Lee “was in a strong position, awaiting my attack, which I declined to make, in consequence of the bad example he had set…” Unaware that his men had just destroyed about a third of Lee’s army and left him crippled in enemy territory, Meade said, “We have done well enough.”


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