By Richard Young
Herald Page Designer
It was planned to end the war, and it did.
For two days Robert E. Lee and his soldiers had been slamming away at the Union troops at
Gettysburg in a battle he had to improvise. He had not wanted to fight there and not at that time. But his army had been surprised and made to give battle on ground that was not of his choosing.
On the first day the Army of Northern Virginia fought its way through Gettysburg, but not before the Army of the Potomac secured a ridge of defendable high ground outside of town. On the second day Lee had his men attack both ends of the Union line to find a way around it and crush it. But at both places the Confederates were stopped, at Culp’s Hill to the north and Little Round Top to the south.
On this day the rebels were positioned along a tree line on Seminary Ridge. Directly opposite and parallel to them the Union army stood on Cemetery Ridge. Between them was nearly a mile of open fields and orchards, with the Emmittsburg Road running through the middle. The two forces were now watching one another in a standoff.
Despite having driven and pressed the enemy it to its limit Lee had not accomplished the objective that brought him to Pennsylvania, to destroy the Federal army and sue for peace. Now he was running short of men, munitions and options. Leaving the field to the enemy would gain nothing at great cost. He was determined stay and win a complete victory.
His plan was for a massive assault on the center of the Union line. A prolonged artillery barrage would weaken the enemy’s defense, then a charge of three infantry divisions, 13,000 men, would break it in two. If he asked it of his soldiers, they would do it for him, as they had so often before.
If carried through, he reasoned, the plan would end the war.
Lee’s most trusted lieutenant, Gen. James Longstreet, reasoned differently. He argued such a force could not possibly break the defense the Union had made: massed men and artillery behind a stone wall at the end of a long slope of open ground. Longstreet knew this scenario; he had seen it before the previous December in Virginia, when his men defended a hillside from behind a stone wall and mowed down advancing Federals at Fredericksburg.
Lee wouldn’t be swayed. Longstreet reluctantly consented. Gen. George Pickett’s division of Virginians would lead the way.
That afternoon, 13,000 men advanced from a tree line and stepped off into history.
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(July 3, 1863)
One survivor would later say it was as if heaven and Earth collided.
At 1 p.m. two cannon shots sounded from the Confederate line as signals. Then 140 more guns opened up.
Iron rained into the Union line, sending troops scrambling. Gunners manned their 80 cannon on the ridge and returned the fire. The deafening cannonade would last for two hours.
Almost 6,500 Union infantrymen, many of whom had not eaten since the battle began two days earlier, readied their positions behind the stone wall. Many hugged the trembling ground while the cannon behind them roared over their heads.
The Confederate bombardment did not have its intended effect. Many of the shells sailed high in the air and over Cemetery Ridge and spared the hunkered-down Yankees.
In some places they were six rows deep, waiting for an assault that was sure to come. Before the end of the barrage, union artillerymen slowed their fire to conserve ammunition. It would be needed.
The firing slowed on the Confederate line as well for supply was running low. If an attack were to be made, it had to be soon if cannon were to support it.
At 3 p.m. Pickett approached Longstreet and asked if he should send his men forward. Longstreet was convinced the attack was folly and couldn’t speak the order. He simply nodded and looked away.
Picket was a showy cavalier who wore perfume and ringlets of hair, and he was eager for the glory.
“Up men and to your posts, and let no man forget today you are from old Virginia!”
With that order, a line of gray and butternut more than half a mile wide set off silently across the hot, open space.
The Union men waiting on Cemetery Ridge were silent too, awestruck by the spectacle. Lt. Frank Haskell recorded the moment:
“Every eye could see the enemy’s legions, an overwhelming resistless tide of an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us. Regiment after regiment and brigade after brigade move from the woods and rapidly take their places in a line forming the assault. ... 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. ... Barrel and bayonet gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move, as with one soul.”
The Confederates traversed the level ground quickly at a steady step. Their guiding point was a clump of tall trees that stood in the center of the Federal line. They could not fire until they came within range of the enemy, more than half way across the mile-long the field. Before they reached that point Union artillery resumed its work.
Cannon from Cemetery Ridge and from the crest of Little Round Top a mile away to the south fired upon the massed Confederates and couldn’t miss them. As many as 10 men at a time fell at each shot. Amid the storm of shell a junior officer reminded his men why they were moving forward: “Home boys, home. Remember home is beyond those hills.”
As the rebels staggered ahead the Union command sent regiments forward at either end of the line: Vermonters to the left, Ohioans to the right. They would turn inward and form perpendicular to the main line to send a raking crossfire into the field. The Confederates were walking into a three-sided box while waiting Federals began chanting “Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg.”
When Confederates approached the Emmittsburg Road, Union gunners switched their ammunition from case shot to canister and turned their cannons into giant shotguns. At that point the Union infantry rose up from behind the stone wall and delivered a massive volley. The amount of smoke produced that day blinded the aim of the defending Federals. They would merely point their muskets and fire into the white cloud before them.
The rebel formation began to crumble at its sides. The divisions that had supported Pickett were weakened, separated and turned. His own division had lost two brigade commanders and much of its men. Now they were slowed by a post-and-rail fence along the Emmittsburg Road and exposed to withering fire.
Pickett’s remaining brigade commander, Gen. Lewis Armistead, rushed his men forward up the last slope to the Union line. He placed this hat on the point of his sword and lifted it for them to follow.
The Confederates reached where the stone wall made a sharp bend, The Angle, and poured over it. Federal defenders wavered at that point and fell back. Armistead rallied his men and captured a Union battery before he was shot down. His best friend from before the war, Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock, was wounded a few hundred yards from him.
Union reinforcements swarmed back to The Angle in fighting that would become hand-to-hand. The struggle would prove too much for the rebels who would turn and retreat. Every Confederate soldier who had crossed the stone wall was either killed or captured.
Pickett’s Charge had failed.
The remnants of the great assault staggered back to the trees at Seminary Ridge while a cheer echoed all along the Union line. Lee rode out to meet his shattered men and assured them that all had been his fault.
Of the 13,000 men who marched across the field that day, 6,500 were killed wounded or missing. Pickett’s division was decimated. The center of the Union line held while suffering 1,500 casualties. One Yankee survivor said of the scene that he could have walked ahead to the Emmittsburg Road several hundred yards away without touching the ground.
The failed attack effectively lost the war for the Confederacy. Although fighting dragged on for nearly two more years, the rebel army could never again mount such a bold campaign as it had into Pennsylvania. The South learned at Gettysburg it could not defeat the North militarily; Union strength and industrial support was too great. At best it would wage a prolonged defensive war in hopes that the North would grow tired of fighting and that a change of its administration would bring a call for peace. Neither happened.
Lee led his army in retreat through a driving thunderstorm along roads that had brought him north. A line of ambulance wagons bearing his wounded stretched for 17 miles.
The next day at Gettysburg, July 4th dawned with a renewed sense of independence.
Herald Page Designer Richard Young of Jamestown is a Civil War re-enactor who is spending the anniversary week in Gettysburg doing just that.