“General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments and armies, and I should know . . what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” – James Longstreet
I do not think the thought of leaving the battlefield after July 2 ever occurred to Robert E. Lee. It should have. Had Lee left, his men could have lived to fight another battle at full strength. That could have been the battle. Instead, Lee, partly guided by hubris, his own self-confidence, and his own distaste for his opponent, never thought he could be beaten. Lee never imagined that Meade, only 5 days on the job could best him on a field of battle. Time and again throughout two year old war, Lee had put on one of the greatest military displays in history. Many historians, including myself, consider him America’s greatest general. That distinction, however, does not mean he was without fault. He was. And on July 3, 1863, one error to stand and fight ultimately marked the high water mark for his army and the Confederacy.
For Abraham Lincoln, the Battle of Gettysburg was different than most previous battles. Throughout the war, Lincoln was kept abreast of the day’s events through telegraph communiques. Ironically, the President had used the telegraph to issue orders to commanders in the field. This time, it would not be so.
Lee’s plan for battle had three parts. Part one included an assault on Culp’s Hill in the morning. It was hoped the Army of Northern Virginia could take the hill and the control the battlefield. If it failed, Lee had two additional parts. The second part was made possible the arrival the day before of the cavalry under the command of J.E.B. Stuart. Stuart was to swing wide and attack the Union from the rear on the east. The third part of the plan was to be an afternoon assault on the Union center near Cemetery Ridge. An artillery barrage would commence aimed at two points. The center would be targeted as well the woods behind where Lee believed Meade would hold his reserves to reinforce positions up and down the line. The brigades of Pickett and Heth then would converge on the point (Called The Angle) like a funnel, break through the Union lines, and divide the Union in two with Stuart attacking the same point from the east. Some of Lee’s generals did not like the plan but James Longstreet was the most vocal. Longstreet felt that the Union had two whole days to reinforce those heights. It is what Longstreet would have done had he been in command of Union forces.
Meade’s plan was based on the Council of War held the night before. Up to this point, what had allowed the Union to hold the lines was that Meade had used his reserves to reinforce key positions depending on the point of attack. For the third day, Meade would have no reserves other than cavalry. So, rather keep them in the woods behind the lines, Meade shifted them east to reinforce the right flank. In addition, Meade reinforced Culp’s Hill with units from two divisions.
Part 1 – Culp’s Hill
The attack on Culp’s Hill began early in the morning on July 3. It did not go well for the Confederates. With the extra men, the Union held position on the hill. By 11 a.m. the fighting on the hill ceased. The failures to take the Hill lead Lee to implement the final two parts to win.
Part Two – Stuart and the Cavalry
J.E.B. Stuart and his cavalry swung wide east of Gettysburg to swing around and flank the Union forces. Unable to reconnoiter the day before, Stuart found himself staring face to face with the 3rd Division commanded by 23 year old George Armstrong Custer and the 2nd Division commanded by David Greeg. Though neither side had a tactical advantage, the Union despite having fewer forces was able to thwart and repel Stuart. When the Union forces slammed into the Confederate Cavalry line, the line stopped creating a traffic jam of Confederate cavalry.
Part Three – Pickett’s Charge
At 1:07 p.m., 150 Confederate guns opened up on what Lee thought were Union positions at Union artillery in the center along with troops positioned there, and at positions behind the front line where Lee thought Meade held his reinforcements. After two hours, the barrage ceased. Emerging from the woods along Seminary Ridge, 13,000 – 15,000 Confederate soldiers lined up to begin their march toward the Union Center. Led by General George Pickett, the line stretched almost a mile long.
Silently, on an 81 degree summer afternoon, the march began across open field in the face of the enemy. The Union held their artillery to make the Confederates think the barrage had taken out the guns. Without sound, the Confederates made their way across the field until a fence line appeared near the Emmitsburg Road. The soldiers increased in height to near 10 feet while climbing the fence. The Union opened fire on soldiers crossing the field. At this point, Union artillery opened fire at point blank range decimating Pickett’s and Pettigrew’s forces as they neared the wall. But it did not stop the Confederates from coming.
Some Confederates breached the wall near the Angle. Some Union forces retreated in fear only to be rounded up and returned to fight the Confederates. When artillery used at short range began pummeling Confederates at short range, a full on retreat began. No one is sure to this day who ordered the retreat. When the Confederates reached Seminary Ridge, Lee tried to reform his lines for another attack. When Pickett appeared in front of Lee, Lee told him to reform his brigade. He told Lee his division was gone. Only 5,000 – 6,000 of the assault force returned to Seminary Ridge. Pickett’s Charge had been a disaster.
For most, this is where the fighting ended. Lee would reform for an attack from Meade that never came. On July 4, 1863, the rains come. And with that rain, Lee and the Army of Northern Virginia began the long sulk back to Virginia. The invasion was over. The Union had won the battle. Combined with the victory at Victory at Vicksburg, it was a great day. But not for President Lincoln. When informed of the victory, Lincoln was ecstatic. When informed that Meade let Lee limp away, Lincoln was furious with the decision. Meade, according to Lincoln had a chance to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia, wipe it out, and this end the war in the Eastern Theater. It was not to be. Like previous commanders of the Army of Potomac, Meade erred on the side of caution. In other words, he erred. It would soon cost him command.
Soon after the battle, photographers made their way to Gettysburg and images from the conflict made their way into newspapers. These images shocked the nation to the ultimate price both sides paid. Later, the ground would be consecrated with a national cemetery for it was truly hallowed ground.
It easy to sit here 150 years later and second guess Lee and Meade and their decisions. At the time, reports by both generals conveyed their own assessments of the battle and their determination that their efforts were right. Lee, for example, still was throwing J.E.B. Stuart under the proverbial bus.
About 1 p.m., at a given signal, a heavy cannonade was opened, and continued for about two hours with marked effect upon the enemy. His batteries replied vigorously at first, but toward the close their fire slackened perceptibly, and General Longstreet ordered forward the column of attack, consisting of Pickett’s and Heth’s divisions, in two lines, Pickett on the right. Wilcox’s brigade, marched in rear of Pickett’s right, to guard that flank, and Heth’s was supported by Lane’s and Scales’ brigades’ under General Trimble. The troops moved steadily on, under a heavy fire of musketry and artillery, the main attack being directed against the enemy’s left center. His batteries reopened as soon as they appeared. Our own having nearly exhausted their ammunition in the protracted cannonade that preceded the advance of the infantry, were unable to reply, or render the necessary support to the attacking party. Owing to this fact, which was unknown to me when the assault took place, the enemy was enabled to throw a strong force of infantry against our left, already wavering under a concentrated fire of artillery from the ridge in front, and from Cemetery Hill, on the left. It finally gave way, and the right, after penetrating the enemy’s lines, entering his advanced works, and capturing some of his artillery was attacked simultaneously in front and on both flanks, and driven back with heavy loss. The troops were rallied and reformed, but the enemy did not pursue. A large number of brave officers and men fell or were captured on this occasion. Of Pickett’s three brigade commanders, Generals Armistead and [R.B.] Garnett were killed, and General Kemper dangerously wounded. Major-General Trimble and Brigadier-General Pettigrew were also wounded, the former severely.
The result of the campaign may be briefly stated in the defeat of the enemy at Gettysburg, his compulsory evacuation of Pennsylvania and Maryland, and withdrawal from the upper valley of the Shenandoah, and in the capture of 3 guns, 41 standards, and 13,621 prisoners; 24,978 small-arms were collected on the battle-field. Our own losses were very severe, amounting, as will be seen, by the accompanying return, to 2,834 killed, 13,709 [13,713] wounded, and 6,643 missing; in all, 23,186 [23,190]. It is impossible in a report of this nature to enumerate all the instances of gallantry and good conduct which distinguished such a hard-fought field as Gettysburg. The reports of corps commanders and their subordinates, herewith submitted, will furnish all information upon this subject. I will only add my tribute to the heroic bravery of the whole army, officers and men, which, under the blessing of Divine Providence, enabled a crowning victory to be obtained, which I feel confident the country will never cease to bear in grateful remembrance.
Regardless of their opinions in their reports, the fact remains that the Battle of Gettysburg extremely weakened Lee’s future attempts to attack. He would now fight a war of defense while the Union was still up in the air as to what it would do. Meade would stay in command for the fall. No other major battle was fought in the eastern theater that fall. Come spring of 1864, a new Union general would be given the charge of destroying the Army of Northern Virginia.
In the end, Henry Kaiser’s diary entry for July 4, 1863 says it all:
“All is quiet along the line this morning.”