The night of July 2nd into the 3rd Meade held a counsel of war with his generals in the tiny two-room farmhouse of the widow Leister on the eastern slope of Cemetery Ridge that served as his headquarters. Crammed in her tiny parlor, their bearded and grimy faces glowing with the light of a single lantern, the Union generals reviewed the past two days’ fighting and discussed what to do tomorrow should Lee once again offer battle. Given the heavy casualties, it was decided to stay on the defensive for now. Based on prisoners taken, it was apparent that Lee had committed every unit he had to the engagement except one—George Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s 1st Corps. If Lee’s losses were as severe as his, Meade reasoned, then the smaller Army of Northern Virginia was nearing the end of its tether. If the fight resumed, so long as they committed no blunders, the Union men felt they would carry the day. Hancock summed it up: “We’ve got ‘em nicked!”
Meade fully anticipated another attack. He knew Lee was committed now. He also figured that since both flank attacks had failed, Lee might strike his center on Cemetery Ridge, held by Hancock’s II Corps; Meade made plans to have reserves ready to meet him if needed. The next day would be the decisive day.
The contrast between Meade’s relationship with his senior generals and Lee’s by this point is telling. Whereas Meade gathered them all together to hear them out and formulate a cohesive strategy to which all were committed, Lee never even bothered to summon Longstreet before issuing orders for the coming attack. “The plans have not changed,” was all Lee had to say that night, by courier, to his second in command. For his part, Longstreet was equally stubborn and made no call to Lee’s headquarters.
The one senior officer Lee did meet with, in private, was his long-lost cavalry commander Jeb Stuart, who finally rode into camp just before Longstreet’s offensive began with his complement of exhausted horse soldiers due to arrive that night. His ride around the Union army had become an albatross around his neck. He had nothing to show for it but 140 captured wagons—hardly a good trade for the intelligence black-out his raid created. Deprived of any reliable information at the most crucial moment of the campaign, Lee was in a foul mood when the flamboyant Stuart, with his thick beard, plumed hat, and rattling sabre, rode into camp. No one knows what was said between them. Lee was certainly upset with Stuart for leaving him blind in enemy country. But, to be fair, Lee had approved the raid. Like everything else, it seemed Lee’s grand battle was slipping out of his control. Stuart was a personification of this deteriorating state of affairs.
July 3 did not start off well for the Confederates. At first light, Genl. Slocum’s Union XII Corps troops on Culp’s Hill opened up with artillery, then leapt over their ramparts to drive away any Rebels who might have gained a toehold on the position during the previous evening’s fighting. By 11 a.m. the third struggle for Culp’s Hill was over; it was obvious now that the hills on the hook and barb of Meade’s fishhook would never be taken.
All hope now rested on the mass attack on the center. Lee was going “all in” to finish this, the image of Anderson’s lone brigade briefly piercing the Union line on Cemetery Ridge fresh in his mind.
Finally, in the morning Lee gathered his senior officers, including corps commanders Longstreet, Hill, Ewell and Stuart, and their division commanders, to give them their orders for the day. They would attack again. This time they would hit the enemy’s center. Ewell would continue to demonstrate on the Union right to keep Meade guessing and pin down any Yankee reinforcements. Stuart, meanwhile, would ride around the Union position and strike it from the rear, cutting off the Baltimore Pike, which was the Army of the Potomac’s key supply line, and link up with the infantry which would be attacking from the west.
The main attack was to be a grand assault. The dapper and perfumed George Pickett’s fresh 1st Corps division of mostly Virginians would lead the charge. They would be supported by two of A.P. Hill’s depleted divisions that fought on July 1: the wounded Heth’s, now commanded by Pettigrew, and the dying Pender’s, now under Maj. Genl. Isaac Trimble. This would be a formation of 15,000 men (actually 13,000). They were to march from Seminary Ridge, across a mile of open ground, to hit Cemetery Ridge and break through the Union center to link up with the cavalry. Their aiming point would be the copse of trees clearly visible along the ridgeline in the distance.
Preceding the attack would be a massive artillery barrage to hammer the Union positions and soften it up for the charge. The bombardment would begin at 1:00 p.m. The infantry attack would follow when it was determined they’d damaged the Yankees enough to move forward. Although Hill’s corps was committing two of the three divisions to the attack, Lee wanted Longstreet to be in charge. All differences aside, Lee still knew who was his best general.
But Longstreet was horrified. Staring at the solid blue wall of men and guns that awaited them on the high ground across the broad exposed valley, then peering at the batteries glaring down on them in from the flanks on Little Round Top and Cemetery Hill, he tried one last time to convince his commander to reconsider his plans: “General,” he said earnestly, “I have been a soldier all my life…and I 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.” But Lee’s mind was set in stone at this point. He believed if any men could take that position, it was his. He’d come to see his veteran troops as almost super-human given their record of victory upon victory. This catalogue of unbroken success ironically would pave the way for ultimate defeat.
The men themselves understood the risks. “This is a desperate thing to attempt,” commented one of Pickett’s brigade commanders, Brig. Genl. Richard Garnett. One of Garnett’s men added: “This is going to be a heller! Prepare for the worst!” A member of Anderson’s division which had fought its way up to Cemetery Ridge the day before cautioned the troops waiting in defilade before the attack: “Boys that’s a hot place. We were there yesterday!”
At 1:00p.m., the peace of the oppressively hot July afternoon was shattered by the roar of over 150 Confederate cannons lined from Seminary ridge in a sweeping three-mile arc to the heights north of Gettysburg opposite Culp’s Hill opening fire on the center of Meade’s line. The air was thick with projectiles whistling toward the startled Union men stationed along Cemetery Ridge. A shell tore through Meade’s headquarters, ripping an orderly in two. Men dove to the ground or crawled under wagons, against fence rails, behind barns, anywhere to find shelter from the storm. Ammunition caissons exploded, terrified horses broke their harnesses galloping off in all directions, many a man and animal fell prey to the indiscriminant solid shot bounding through the lines or shrapnel lashing down from above. Hancock, in an incredible display of bravery, sought to embolden his prone men by remaining on horseback throughout the barrage. When a staffer pleaded with him to take cover, Hancock replied: “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count!”
The cannonade was continuous, and the noise so voluminous it could be heard resembling a distant thunderstorm as far away as Harrisburg thirty-seven miles distant. But impressive as the deafening display of power was, the grand barrage was mostly ineffective. The Union lines were soon obscured with smoke preventing the Confederate gunners from following where their rounds were hitting. They therefore could not tell their aim was, in fact, too high, and though the shells played havoc with the Union rear, the front lines remained intact. Union guns on Cemetery Ridge that had been firing back in reply slowly stopped shooting, giving the Rebel artillerists across the smoky valley the false impression that these batteries had been put out of action. But the Union Chief of Artillery, the coldly calculating Maj. Genl. Henry Hunt, had ordered them to go silent, both to lure the Rebels in and, more important, conserve ammunition for the infantry he knew would be upon them directly.
With their own artillery ammunition running low, it was time for the Confederate attack to commence. Pickett, thrilled to finally be in the fight, galloped up to Longstreet requesting permission to advance. Longstreet, convinced the charge was folly, was unable to bring himself to speak the order. He only nodded.
Pickett then rode to his men and roused them to their feet: “Up men and to your posts! Let no man forget today that you are from Old Virginia!” The time had come.
At about 2:00 p.m. the weary Union men rose up from the ground, brushed themselves off, their ears still ringing, and gazed across the mile-wide valley at a sight that would take their breath away. As the bombardment ceased, the smoke cleared to reveal a magnificent formation of infantry crowded shoulder-to-shoulder in a martial scene reminiscent of Napoleonic days emerging from the woods that covered Seminary Ridge. vThe mass of men in grey and homespun butternut marching silently in parade ground precision, their battle flags snapping in the warm summer breeze, formed a line of attack over a mile wide and many ranks deep. It was what one Union observer on Cemetery Ridge called “an ocean of armed men sweeping upon us!”
Another Union soldier would simply remember it as “the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen.” But Mars is not an aesthetic god. General Hunt waited patiently until the enemy formations were within range of his guns. And then the cannons the Rebels thought were silenced unleashed a torrent of deadly iron into the packed formations. Shells came screaming at them from three sides—from Cemetery Hill to their left, Little Round Top on their right and Cemetery Ridge straight ahead. Great gaps were torn through Pickett’s, Pettigrew’s and Trimble’s ranks. Whole companies seemed to melt into the high grass. Soon the smoking field was littered with dead and wounded. Some artillery rounds took out a dozen men at a clip. With incredible discipline the Rebels would then re-form to fill the gaping holes and keep marching… forward…forward…covering one hundred yards a minute…forward…forward. Entire regiments were quickly annihilated. Yet forward…forward…they marched, shoulders hunched and heads turned to the side like men breasting a hailstorm. Forward…forward…”Right on they came,” observed a mesmerized Union officer, “as if with one soul.”
When the Confederates reached the Emmitsburg Road, which ran parallel to and roughly two hundred yards from the crest of Cemetery Ridge, the Union infantry raised their muskets and began blasting away. Rebels, either caught out in the open or exposed as they tried to climb the fences that lined the road, were shot down by the hundreds. Now at close range, the Union gunners switched to double charges of canister and raked the ground with deadly hissing balls, sending wooden fence post splinters and body parts spiraling high into the air. General Garnett was gone…his body was never identified. The attack began to stall in the face of the murderous sheet of Union lead and iron and most of the men not already cut down in the firestorm turned back. It was not cowardice that compelled them to withdraw. These were tough veterans of many battlefields. It was experience telling them this attack was doomed.
In a forlorn act of poetic gallantry, one of Pickett’s brigadiers, General Lewis Armistead, placed his hat on the tip of his sword, held it high above his head, and urged a handful of men over the fences and toward the Union line shouting “For your home, your friends, your sweethearts!” Only a few hundred men managed to follow Armistead the last two hundred punishing yards and actually penetrate the Yankee positions. They managed to get past some Union guns but the blue troops soon overwhelmed them and they were all killed or captured. In retrospect they would reach farther than any other Confederate units, the place where they fell to be remembered as the “High Water Mark of the Confederacy.” Armistead was mortally wounded. Dying, he summoned for Hancock, his dearest friend from the happy pre-war army days, to be by his side…but a sympathetic Union officer informed him that General Hancock too was down, shot through the groin, though he would survive his wound. Those Rebels who were not casualties eventually made their way back in small groups or one by one, helping along wounded comrades as they retraced their long bloody steps to their starting point.
The attack was over in an hour. It had been a Southern catastrophe. Lee had lost another 6,600 irreplaceable men. When he advised a dismayed George Pickett to re-form his division in case of a Union counter-attack, Pickett replied grimly, all previous hunger for glory washed away in the reality of what just happened to him: “General Lee…I have no division!” (Pickett never forgave Lee. Years later he would say bitterly: “That old man had my division slaughtered.”)
As if to compound Lee’s failure, Stuart’s flank attack got nowhere. It was in part thwarted by a series of aggressive charges led by a brash young Union cavalryman, 23-year-old Brig. Genl. George Armstrong Custer.
As the ear-splitting noise of battle faded, and yet more cries and moans of another day’s reaping echoed over the valley, from the crest of Cemetery Ridge—clearly audible to Longstreet—could be heard the victorious Union soldiers chanting in a moment of sweet revenge: “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” The battle had unfolded just as Longstreet feared.
“That day,” he would later write, “was the saddest day of my life.”
[Next Segment: Retreat – July 4…“A New Birth Of Freedom”]