“This has been all my fault,” Lee admitted about his failed July 3 assault at Gettysburg, adding that “it is a sad, sad day for us.” But Lee did not have time to wallow. In the aftermath of the disaster that would go down in history as “Pickett’s Charge,” it was now time to assess the situation and make decisions. It soon became apparent that Meade was not going to counter-attack. But it was obvious to Lee that, with so many wounded and dead, with so many of his best field officers lost, with ammunition reserves dangerously depleted, and with a supply line stretched to the limit in the face of a numerically superior and well-supplied Army of the Potomac, he had to get his damaged army back to Virginia and quickly. His great gamble had failed. It was time to go home.
The bright sunshine and stifling heat broke on July 4 when a torrential downpour swept over the field littered with the bloating bodies of a combined 8,000 Union and Confederates killed outright and tens of thousands more wounded, many still being located. (The bodies of 1,800 slain horses added to the stench). Although victorious, Meade felt that the Army of the Potomac—battered, bloodied and exhausted from the long marching and then three days of intense fighting, with three of its corps severely damaged, so many officers down including five generals killed or mortally wounded—was in no condition to strike back at a Confederate army waiting to exact revenge from its still strong position on Seminary Ridge. And so the two armies spent Independence Day either savoring victory or licking the wounds of defeat…all the while being pelted by a pouring rain that made the ground beneath their feet run red with rivulets of blood being washed away from the field.
On July 5th the Army of Northern Virginia began its tormented nine-day retreat through the intermittent rain, the heat, and harassing Union cavalry back to Virginia. Meade has been criticized for letting Lee escape—Lincoln privately agonized over his not destroying the Army of Northern Virginia. But these criticisms came from politicians and generals far removed from the scene. To bona fide heroes of the battle like Warren, Hancock, and Hunt, Meade’s conduct was exceptional, especially considering he had been in command less than a week. The fact is George Meade, in his first battle as Army Commander, beat Robert E. Lee at Gettysburg and handed the legendary Southern captain his first defeat. A defeat made painfully evident by a miserable seventeen-mile long wagon train of wounded Rebels headed back to Virginia along with the remainder of Lee’s once invincible army.
Lee’s foray into Pennsylvania—which included smaller battles along the route in Virginia at Brandy Station and Winchester and then culminating in the three-day blood-letting at Gettysburg, plus a sharp rear guard engagement at Falling Waters, MD (where Johnston Pettigrew, who’d survived so much, was killed)—had cost the Confederacy a staggering 27,000 men killed, wounded, missing or captured out of the 77,000 he took north, including six generals killed in action or mortally wounded and two captured. These losses were magnified by occurring in enemy territory, which meant that any wounded men who could not be evacuated would end up as prisoners and lost forever to the rolls. For a fledgling Confederate nation of just 5.5 million whites (Blacks were not permitted to serve until a month before the war ended) such casualties represented a much more severe blow than did the 23,000 casualties suffered by Meade, who could draw from the Union’s population of 22.5 million for quick replacements.
The blame for the Army of Northern Virginia’s first defeat would come in time and be a source of much debate among contemporaries and then military historians to the present day. On the Confederate side there was certainly plenty of blame to go around: Stuart's ill-fated ride, Lee's overconfidence, Ewell's failure to take Culp's Hill, Longstreet's foot-dragging, and Hill's illness are among the most common culprits mentioned in Civil War round tables. But this puts forth a narrative that the South lost the battle rather than the North won it. Certainly mistakes were made on both sides as always happens in war. It's how a commander handles inevitable missteps, be they failure to take key high ground (Ewell) or leaving your main line of defense wide open to attack (Sickles), and makes adjustments to unfolding events so as to avoid disaster that makes the difference. In this capacity, on this battlefield, Meade prevailed.
Ultimately, though, it is the men on the ground—exhausted, hungry, sleep-deprived, covered in grime, terrified out of their wits, slugging it out in the dirt, the filth, and the blood—who win battles. For the first time in its checkered past the Army of the Potomac was properly led by a competent officer corps and thus finally able to show its true mettle. George Pickett himself had the best explanation of all for why the South was defeated at Gettysburg: "I think the Union army had something to do with it."
The Civil War was far from over after Gettysburg. It would last another twenty-one months until April 1865—and some of the heaviest fighting was still ahead. But with the surrender of the Southern fortress city of Vicksburg 1,000 miles to the west on the Mississippi on that same Independence Day that Lee mapped out his retreat from Pennsylvania, the fate of the self-described “Slave-Holding Confederacy” was sealed. The Yankee general who captured Vicksburg, effectively cutting the South in two and bringing the entire Mississippi River under Union control, would be brought east by Lincoln and placed in overall command Union forces, east and west. He would then co-ordinate an all-out blitz of the South that would destroy the armies of the rebellion and then burn out the civilian economies that supported them once and for all. The Union man’s name was Lieutenant General Ulysses S. Grant. After Gettysburg, total war would come to the South.
In November 1863, President Lincoln was invited to the dedication of the military cemetery set atop Cemetery Hill to inter and honor the Union dead at Gettysburg. The keynote speaker for the ceremony was the noted orator Edward Everett, who would give a two-hour allocution. The president was asked, almost as an afterthought, to say “a few appropriate remarks.” When Lincoln concluded his mere 268-word reflection on the meaning of the Republic, the trial it was enduring, and the “new birth of freedom” that a Union victory promised, he sat down to a smattering of polite applause. He thought his speech a failure. (The anti-Lincoln Chicago Times berated him for his “silly, flat, dishwatery utterances.”) Only later would his words be pondered, read and re-read, and eventually exalted for their eloquence and extraordinary insight and power. Edward Everett himself said it best in a note he sent to Lincoln aptly praising his address: “I should be glad if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
In case one wonders what the dead, the wounded, the suffering all meant, not just at Gettysburg but at all the 6,221 recorded engagements of our costliest war, I offer President Lincoln’s “few appropriate remarks” below as a reminder:
Gettysburg Address, November 19, 1863
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow -- this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom -- and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.