On that summer-hot afternoon at Gettysburg, after two days of fighting in the summer-lush Pennsylvania countryside, the fate of two nations still hung in the balance. General Robert E. Lee intended to tip the scales.
Just before 3 o’clock on the morning of July 3, 1863, Robert E. Lee rose by starlight, ate a spartan breakfast with his staff, and mounted his famous gray horse, Traveller, for the ride up Seminary Ridge at Gettysburg. He went in search of his ‘Old War Horse,’ Lieutenant General James Longstreet, commander of I Corps, Army of Northern Virginia. After two days of fighting in the summer-lush Pennsylvania countryside, the largest battle of the Civil War still hung in the balance. With Longstreet’s help, Lee intended to tip the scales.
As Traveller carried the hope of the Confederacy eastward on his broad, strong back, the pre-dawn stillness was shattered by the boom of cannon fire. Lee halted, looked to the northeast, and saw muzzle flashes dance across the horizon. He had no way of knowing if the staff officer he had sent in search of Lt. Gen. Richard Ewell had reached the II Corps commander with Lee’s instructions to renew the attack on the Confederate left, or if—instead—the Federal Army was assaulting his lines.
Either way, Lee’s carefully worked out plan for a synchronized attack along both flanks had already gone awry. Whatever happened today, the Southern assaults would be ‘isolated affairs.’ It was not an auspicious start to the most important day of the war.
After two bloody but indecisive days of fighting around the obscure crossroads village of Gettysburg, Robert E. Lee had awakened with the knowledge that, one way or another, the third day of battle would be pivotal. He had made his plans accordingly. Major General George Pickett’s division, 4,500 men strong, had arrived late in the afternoon on July 2. Rather than rushing him into battle, Lee had ordered Pickett to stay where he was. His fresh division would spearhead the next day’s assault on the Union left, while Ewell stove in the Union right. That at any rate, was Lee’s plan.
Now, as fighting flared at the north end of his line, a determined Lee pondered a change in those plans. Meanwhile, across the way on Cemetery Ridge, the men in Union Maj. Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock’s II Corps solemnly ate their hardtack and watched as Confederate artillery moved southward in a seemingly unending procession along Seminary Ridge. Whether by prescience or sheer hard experience, the II Corps veterans knew that whatever Lee had in mind for the Army of the Potomac, it would be directed at their position. A purposeful silence filled the air.
Shortly before dawn, Lee found Longstreet encamped west of the hilly mass of rocks known as Devil’s Den, which battle-hardened Confederates had wrested from the enemy the day before. The Georgia-born Longstreet again tried to persuade Lee, as he had done two days before, to swing south around the Union left and get between the Yankees and Washington. Then, on ground of Lee’s own choosing, they could meet the inevitable enemy counterattack. Again, Lee demurred. ‘The enemy is there,’ he said, pointing in the direction of Cemetery Hill, ‘and I am going to attack him there.’ He ignored Longstreet’s repeated suggestion and informed him that I Corps would be assaulting the Union left as soon as Pickett’s division marched down Seminary Ridge and got into position.
‘General,’ said Longstreet, ‘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 anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.’ Unconvinced, Lee told him to summon Pickett.
Because of a change in the units that were to participate in the planned attack, Lee decided to switch the point of assault northward. The target now was a small clump of trees just under a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. Lee’s plan remained simple: a tremendous bombardment by all available Confederate artillery was to sweep the Union line around the trees, while Southern infantry would remain behind Seminary Ridge, out of sight of the enemy. As soon as the artillery was finished, the infantry would march down the hill, across the valley and break the Federal line, splitting the Army of the Potomac in half.
Pickett’s division was brought up and placed in line of battle. On his right were brigades commanded by Brig. Gen. Cadmus Wilcox and Colonel David Lang. On Pickett’s left, Maj. Gen. Henry Heth’s division, now commanded by Brig. Gen. Johnston Pettigrew (Heth had been wounded the first day of the battle), fell into line. To Pettigrew’s rear, two brigades from Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender’s division assembled. In all, something less than 15,000 effective now were gathered to deliver the crowning blow for Southern independence. Fifty Confederate battle flags were to be presented to the enemy along a mile-long front. They were tough, proud men, the best their nation had to offer.
Just after noon, two of Pickett’s brigade commanders, Brig. Gens. Richard Garnett and Lewis Armistead, made their way to the top of Seminary Ridge and looked across the valley to the heights held by the enemy. Garnett was well aware that this was a perfect opportunity to erase the stigma he believed still marked him as a result of having been relieved of command by Stonewall Jackson after the Battle of Kernstown the previous year. Lee had seen to it that court-martial charges against Garnett were dropped and that he was given a brigade under Pickett. Now, Garnett intended to win back his spurs.
His companion, ‘Lo’ Armistead, had served in the old army with Union General Hancock, who now was waiting directly across from them in the valley. When the war broke out, Armistead had come east with Albert Sidney Johnston and his wife. The Johnstons had given a going-away party the night before they left. As the party was breaking up, Armistead shook hands with his old friend Hancock, and said, with tears in his eyes, ‘Hancock, goodbye. You can never know what this has cost me.’ For a moment, Garnett and Armistead stood staring across the valley. Then Garnett turned to Armistead and said, in an even, steady tone, ‘This is a desperate thing to attempt.’ Armistead agreed. ‘Yes it is,’ he said. ‘But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in His hands.’
While the two brigadiers were making their solemn reconnaissance of the enemy lines, their commanding general and his staff were riding through the now assembled units in the rear of Seminary Ridge. Lee noticed that very few of the field officers were familiar to him. ‘I miss,’ he murmured, ‘the faces of many dear friends.’
Under orders to maintain strict silence so as not to arouse the suspicions of the enemy, the soldiers would rise to their feet as Lee rode by and remove their caps in silent salute to the general. Lee in turn would touch his hat. He saw, with dismay, that many of the soldiers were sporting bandages. ‘Many of these poor boys should go to the rear,’ he said. ‘They are not able for duty.’ But none left; to a man, they stayed with their regiments.
It had now become apparent to Lee what the previous two days of slaughter had done to his command. In the assault column now forming, two division commanders were wounded and unable to take the field; four out of six brigadiers were either dead or wounded, too, and had been replaced by senior regimental commanders, most of whom had no experience at that level. In many instances, the effective fighting strength of the units in question was below 50 percent.
As the time drew near for the planned artillery bombardment, Longstreet sent a hurried message to Colonel E.P. Alexander, the artillery chief: ‘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 General Pickett to make the charge. I shall rely a great deal on your judgment to determine the matter, and shall expect you to let General Pickett know when the moment offers.’
The 28-year-old Alexander was unsettled by the message. He wrote back to Longstreet: ‘General, I will only be able to judge of the effect of our fire on the enemy by his return fire, for his infantry is but little exposed to view and the smoke will obscure the whole field. If, as I infer from your note, there is any alternative to this attack, it should be carefully considered before opening our fire…even if this is entirely successful it can only be so at a very bloody cost.’ Additional clarifying messages passed between the two. Finally, Longstreet ordered: ‘Let the batteries open. Order great care and precision in firing.’ At precisely 1:07 p.m., according to a civilian mathematics professor in Gettysburg, the first Rebel signal gun was fired. For a brief moment, time stood still as the blue-gray puff of smoke rose eerily over the valley. Then the massed batteries, firing by salvos, began raining death and destruction onto their enemy.
Hancock was issuing orders concerning the disbursement of the corps’ beef ration when there came from across the valley the familiar ‘pop’ of a brass 12-pounder. A moment later another cannon fired. Hancock, already looking in the direction of the sound, saw smoke from the cannon rising upward.
‘Down, down! Take cover!’ came the shouts of the infantrymen as the roar of the Rebel cannonade opened. Shells burst in groups of four and five, cutting down anything standing. ‘Nothing above four feet could live,’ one survivor later recalled. To add to the hellish roar and whine of the missiles, the smoke from the bombardment soon enveloped the entire valley. The firing continued, from north to south, in a repeated cycle of death. Union artillery chief of staff, Brig. Gen. Henry Hunt, was inspecting the section of guns on Little Round Top when the Rebels opened fire. With a keen professional eye, he reported that the enemy barrage was ‘indescribably grand.’
‘Murderous iron’ and ‘pandemonium’ were two differing descriptions given by the soldiers on the receiving end of the fire. The largest concentration of artillery in the nation’s history tore into its victims with predictable effect. Horses and cannoneers were horribly wounded and killed as the Rebel gunners ‘walked’ their salvos from the crest of the ridge eastward, toward the area where the ambulance, ordnance trains and reserve artillery were parked. Commanding Maj. Gen. George Meade’s headquarters was being hit six times a minute, one observer noted, driving the general and his staff outside — only to find their horses dead and mangled, still hitched to a fence rail.
Hancock’s infantry, posted along the crest of Cemetery Ridge, noticed that with the exception of short rounds, the incoming shells were bursting well to their rear. Although the intense heat and humidity, along with the shell smoke and lack of water, made conditions exceedingly uncomfortable, actual casualties caused by the barrage were negligible. In fact, newly commissioned Brig. Gen. Alexander Webb, commanding a brigade in the II Corps, casually sat within the ‘little copse of trees’ the Rebels had chosen as their main target, lit his pipe, and watched the shelling with a certain disdain.
Hunt ordered the Federal gunners to save their ammunition and not to respond to the enemy fire. Hancock, however, was quick to override Hunt’s order. He wanted his infantry to know they were being supported. The counterfire passed over the Rebel batteries and began falling among the infantry staging areas on the west side of Seminary Ridge. The fire was so galling, in fact, that Longstreet, Pickett and Armistead felt compelled to ride among the troops in a show of disdain. Similarly, Hancock rode along the front of his corps, showing the II Corps’ distinctive swallow-tailed guidon to the troops.
As Longstreet and Pickett watched the cannonade from the south end of Seminary Ridge, a messenger galloped up from Alexander. ‘If you are coming at all you must come immediately or I cannot give you proper support,’ Alexander had written. Slowly and carefully, Longstreet read the message. ‘General, shall I advance?’ Pickett asked.
Longstreet gave no reply; he simply nodded his head and looked away.
‘I shall lead my division forward, sir,’ Pickett responded. Wordlessly, Longstreet turned away and mounted his horse. ‘I do not want to make this charge,’ he told Alexander a few minutes later. ‘I do not see how it can succeed. I would not make it now but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.’
For several moments, both men stood in silence, finally broken by the advance of Garnett’s brigade down the east side of Seminary Ridge. Brigadier General James Kemper’s brigade came up on Garnett’s right, followed by Armistead’s brigade. Pettigrew’s division came up on the left, followed by Pender’s division on the right. Wilcox and Lang moved up and halted to the rear of Pickett’s men. Then, as if on dress parade, the entire command — three full divisions — dressed its lines. Fifty stands of colors were unfurled to the enemy.
Ahead lay four-fifths of a mile of prime Pennsylvania farmland, interwoven with fences, that rose gradually to the crest of the ridge. Centered on the ridge was the famous clump of trees. Those about to witness the coming charge would have the vision etched in their minds for the rest of their lives.
Armistead turned to the color-bearer of the 53rd Virginia. ‘Sergeant,’ he asked, ‘are you going to put those colors on the enemy’s works today?’
‘I will try, sir, and if mortal man can do it, it shall be done!’
Kemper called out to Armistead, ‘Hurry up, I am going to charge those heights and carry them, and I want you to support me.’
‘I’ll do it,’ Armistead answered. ‘Look at my line; it never looked better on dress parade.’
‘Up, men, and to your posts!’ cried Pickett. ‘Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia!’
On the north end of the assault formation, Pettigrew called out to one of his regimental commanders, ‘Now, colonel, for the honor of the good old North State, forward!’
Eastward from the base of Seminary Ridge they marched, at the regulated pace of 100 yards a minute. Those Union batteries that still had shells to fire opened as soon as the Confederates started toward them. Hancock’s waiting infantry watched in silent admiration. The Rebel alignment was quickly torn apart by the shells, but just as quickly the gaps were filled — the price they had to pay for Southern independence.
Despite Meade’s premonition that Lee would attack the center of his line, the Union commander had made no additional troops available to Hancock. Facing the 12,000 Rebels now steadily approaching Emmitsburg Road, midway between the two armies, Hancock had only six brigades — about 6,000 effective. But they were tough, hard men. ‘Come on, Johnny. Keep on coming!’ they shouted across the line.
At a prearranged signal, Pickett ordered, ‘Left oblique,’ and the 4,500 men in his division responded. Across the valley, the Federals marveled at the Rebels’ coolness. They were a ‘damned brave set of fellows,’ one Union veteran conceded later. It took Pickett’s division two or three minutes to complete the change of direction, and all that time the shells kept falling. An officer in Garnett’s command reported seeing as many as 10 men killed or wounded by a single shellburst. When the command to halt was given, the Confederate lines dressed and realigned under fire, much to the astonishment of the Union defenders.
Re-formed, the charge started forward again. Just as the Confederate left reached Emmitsburg Road, the 8th Ohio fired a volley into the unprotected flanks of Colonel Joseph Mayo’s 3rd Virginia. No sooner had the Ohioans hit the enemy brigades than a Union battery on Cemetery Hill fired a 29-gun salvo that staggered and demoralized the Confederate left.
Like a fighter hit with a one-two punch, Mayo’s men broke and ran, battle flags and all. Four regiments, fully one-fourth of Pettigrew’s division, skedaddled. The entire left gave indications of suddenly collapsing. But cool-headed officers settled the troops and the charge continued. The advancing Confederate line, 1 1/2 miles long, veered slightly southwest, still holding formation. It was 400 yards away from the crest of Cemetery Ridge.
Union batteries now punished Pickett’s right. Kemper’s troops did not break, like those on the other end of the line, but packed into the center, trying to find relief from shot and shell. No relief came, however — the bunched ranks made the cannoneers’ job of sighting that much easier. The flanks were being mauled, and the center, now about 500 yards wide and wedge-shaped, began to lose formation as Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s men became intermingled.
The right wing of the advancing column — the brigades of Kemper, Garnett, Armistead, Colonels Birkett Fry and W. Lee Lowrance — was now within 300 yards of the little copse of trees. In front of the trees was a stone wall that ran due north for 100 yards, turned east for 80 yards, and then traveled north again until it stopped at Ziegler’s Grove. Behind the stone wall, at the angle where it turned north, were the 69th and 71st Pennsylvania regiments. A hundred yards to the rear, the 72nd and 106th Pennsylvania formed a second line of defense. A Vermont brigade took up position on the Keystone Staters’ left.
Three hundred yards to go. Pickett sent a courier to Longstreet asking for support on his right — it looked like the division would make it to the Union lines. The Pennsylvanians opened fire as Confederate battle flags began to fall. Across the line of attackers the Rebel yell went up, barely heard over the roar of cannon and musketry. Garnett, given permission to ride because of illness, called out: ‘Make ready. Take good aim. Fire low. Fire!’ Rebel Minie bullets swept the Union line.
Garnett and his horse were struck in return, the general dead before he hit the ground. Kernstown was forgotten, his battle spurs won. Kemper took a groin wound and fell nearly at the same time Garnett went down. Only Armistead, hat placed on the end of his sword, acting as his own brigade guidon, continued forward.
On Pickett’s left, Pettigrew’s division, minus Mayo’s four regiments, kept pace. While crossing Emmitsburg Road, Pettigrew was dismounted by shell fire. He ordered Maj. Gen. Isaac Trimble to bring up his two brigades. Meanwhile, Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, commanding on Hancock’s right, ordered two 12-pounders pulled up to the line, double-shotted and fired by salvo into the mass of humanity not 100 yards away.
The Union infantry on Pettigrew’s flank had formed a line four deep. On command, 400 rounds of .58-caliber slugs slammed into the attackers, dropping hundreds. An audible groan arose from the Confederate ranks, loud enough to be heard over the battle noise. Pettigrew’s left flinched and responded to the withering fire by packing into the center, much as Pickett’s right had done.
Battle smoke totally covered the field. Targets were difficult to make out. Union artillery swept Trimble’s command; Trimble himself was struck by shrapnel in the leg and knocked down. Another salvo and the Confederate line began to waver and buckle; well-aimed musketry from a thousand rifles shattered Pettigrew’s support.
Pettigrew’s left charged just north of the ‘Angle.’ There, the men had an additional 80 yards farther to cover; they never got there. Union defenders were shouting, ‘Fredericksburg!’ their taunts delivered between volleys. A Mississippi regiment, the University Greys, took 100 percent casualties and never even reached the Union line. North of the Angle, no Rebel — except the few who were permitted to surrender — penetrated the enemy defense.
The color-bearer and sergeant of one North Carolina regiment kept marching until they reached the stone wall; the Federal defenders did not have the heart to shoot them down. For a moment, Rebel and Yankee stood staring at each other across the stone wall. Finally, a Union soldier called out, ‘Come over to this side of the Lord!’ The two Confederates surrendered, having discharged their duty to the utmost.
While the charge on the left was breaking up, Pettigrew’s right joined the survivors of Pickett’s charge to overwhelm the front-line Union position at the copse of trees. Armistead was the last brigadier standing and he allowed the command a few brief moments at the stone wall in order to collect their breath.
Hancock came riding down from the right as Armistead, his hat now pushed down to the hilt of his sword, ordered his men forward again. Colonel Arthur Devereux of the 19th Massachusetts ran up to Hancock, shouting: ‘They have broken through; the colors are coming over the stone wall! Let me in there!’ Hancock did not mince words. ‘Go in there pretty quick,’ he said.
By the time Devereux got his regiment moving forward, he had been joined by troops from the 42nd New York Volunteers. The fighting grew ever more desperate. The Confederates, with Armistead still leading the way, lurched forward. With his sword held high, Armistead commanded: ‘Come on, boys! Give them the cold steel!’ He reached out to touch a nearby Union cannon, and a volley of fire cut him down.
Into the sanguinary Angle, Devereux’s regiments charged, heads down, bayonets extended. Fighting was frenzied — no control over the troops, on either side, was possible. Individually, in packs of five or 10, Union and Confederate troops wrestled, kicked, butted, bayoneted, knifed and punched each other. It was all primordial reflex now, no cause or politics, not even hatred or revenge. It was simply kill or die.
Hancock watched as the battle moved slowly across the crest of the ridge. A shot struck his saddle and drove into his leg. Cooly and sarcastically, Hancock pulled a saddle nail out of his thigh and wondered ‘what kind of ammunition’ the Rebs were using. A tourniquet was applied to the general’s wound, but he refused all requests to leave the field.
Over the crest of Cemetery Ridge two more Union brigades came on the run. Men from Maine, Massachusetts, New York and Minnesota now entered the fray. The fight became even more fearful. One participant later recalled ‘a strange and terrible sound, from the throats of thousands of human beings, echoed across the ridge.’ Confederate artillery reopened from across the valley. The shells fell indiscriminately, killing and maiming without regard to army or rank.
The added weight of the two new brigades began to bowl over the Confederate right. Twelve stands of Union colors, scattered irregularly across the Angle, began to move westward. The Rebel charge had been halted.
The Southern survivors hurried to take up defensive positions on the western side of the stone wall. Then, looking around, they became aware for the first time that there was no support. No one was coming to help. Some of the men broke and ran, others stayed and fought until they were cut down. The rest surrendered, sharing the sentiments of a fellow lieutenant who ‘felt that after all we were not disgraced.’
Of those Confederate troops who actually seized and held the Angle for a brief time, the casualty rate was 70 percent. In all, 4,900 Southerners had been killed, wounded or captured. A Virginia captain would write, a few days later, ‘We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men.’
Across the valley, Robert E. Lee received his beaten soldiers. ‘All this will come right in the end,’ he consoled them. ‘We’ll talk it over afterwards. But in the meantime all good men must rally. We want all good and true men just now.’ Few of his soldiers, badly mauled as they were, failed to respond to his words.
Just then Pickett rode up. ‘General Pickett,’ said Lee, ‘place your division in the rear of this hill and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.’
‘General Lee,’ said Pickett, crying, ‘I have no division now. Armistead is down, Garnett is down, and Kemper is mortally wounded — ‘
‘Come, General Pickett,’ Lee interrupted. ‘This has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame. The men and officers of your command have written the name of Virginia as high today as it has ever been written before. Your men have done all that men can do. The fault is entirely my own.’
Later, he would tell Longstreet, who had opposed the charge from the first: ‘It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible.’ On that summer-hot afternoon at Gettysburg, while the fate of two nations hung in the balance, he had very nearly been right.
This essay originally appeared here in June 2013.
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The featured image is an engraving of Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg by Alfred Swinton after Alfred Waud. This image was taken from Flickr‘s The Commons. The uploading organization may have various reasons for determining that no known copyright restrictions exist. It appears here courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.