The battle of Gettysburg was entering the final phase when General Lee ordered the troops under George Pickett, J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Isaac R. Trimble to assault the center of the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge. Their target was a small copse of trees where the line was supposedly the weakest. This charge would decide the fate of the battle, both the Federal and Confederate Armies, and most importantly the fate of the Union. On this hot summer day in July 1863 one of the most memorable charges in the history of America was made and the tide of the war turned.
The third day of fighting began at daybreak on the morning of the 3rd. Ewell’s corp was camped at the foot of Culp’s Hill. The Federals were entrenched on the crest of the hill. Ewell renewed his attack from the previous day at dawn. The Federal troops on Culp’s Hill had been reinforced during the night. The fighting raged from 4 a.m to 11 a.m. David Howard a private in the 1st Maryland Battalion (CSA) said that during the fighting “It appeared to me as if the whole of my company was being swept away”. By 11 o’clock the Confederates had retreated and reached their main line on the plain below. The plan for Ewell’s corp was to keep the Federal forces occupied until Longstreet could begin his attack on the Union center, but Ewell’s men were worn out and unable to continue the attack.
The fighting had cost Ewell’s corps 1800 men. All fighting on the Union right wing was over, in fact the fighting on both wings was over. The Federal commander on the hill, General Greene, had beaten back the first Confederate onslaught of the day, the Union had won another victory on the battlefields at Gettysburg.
Earlier in the day General Longstreet had tried to convince General Lee of the futility of the pending attack. He told Lee ” In my opinion no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.”. Lee did not heed the advice of Longstreet.. Longstreet said after the war “Never was I so depressed as on that day. I felt that my men were to be sacrificed, and that I should have to order them to make a hopeless charge.”
Some experts attribute Lee’s stubbornness to a heart condition called Angina Pectoris in laymans terms Lee suffered from heart attacks. In my opinion the Lord hardened his heart towards Longstreet and towards all logical reasoning. The Lord had it in His divine plan that the Confederacy should not be victorious. What might have happened had he softened his heart to the Lord and listened to Longstreets proposed plan of moving off behind the Union lines between Washington and the Federals? That is another is another what if of the Civil War. Something I don’t wish to delve into at this moment.
By Noon on the third day Lee had his artillery in place to bombard the Union position on a scale never before seen or matched in North America. The bombardment was immense. It until sometime around 2:30 p.m. It was ferocious tearing up the land behind the Union lines. Lee’s Artillery commander, E. Porter Alexander sent exploding shot over the lines that landed in the hills beyond and sent fragments of rock into the low-lying soldiers killing many. The purpose of the great letting-loose of the artillery was to soften up the Union defenses. It didn’t work.
Col. Alexander began to run short of ammunition around 3:00 p.m. Pickett sent a message to Longstreet saying “General shall I advance?”. Longstreet was so filled with remorse that all he could do was nod his head. Just befor going into battle Pickett wrote his Fiancé “My brave Virginians are to attack in front. Oh, may God in mercy help me as He never helped before!”
The greatest charge in Confederate history now began. The lines slowly started to roll out of the trees across the wide-open plain towards Cemetery Ridge and General Hancock’s waiting troops. The line was a mile long. General Pickett was posted on the right, General Pettigrew in the center, and General Trimble on the left. General Pettigrew’s men took brunt of the artillery fire at first. He would not be the only one to lose men to artillery fire. “Through our field glasses we could distinguish the gaps torn in their ranks, and the ground dotted with dark spots-their dead and wounded but the brave rebels promptly filled the gaps from behind or by closing up on their colors, and unshaken and unhesitatingly they continued their onward march.” said Union Major General Carl Schurz of Howard’s Corps. This denotes how bad the casualties were inflicted upon the Confederates by the Northern artillery.
The great juggernaut of the men involved in Pickett’s Charge continued forward. Targeted towards what was known as the Angle. An angled spot in the Federal line. They soon came to a snake-rail fence and the Emmitsburg turnpike. The fence they had to dismantle in order to pass it. This cost the Confederates precious time and even more precious then time was the lives lost.
The Confederates finally reached the hill. They began to be racked by enfilading fire from muskets and cannister fire. The battlefield now became a smoke-filled field. All that Lee could see from his vantage point in the Western Woods was a swirling, confused mass with red battle flags poking up every now and then.
A few hundred men led by General Lewis Armistead reached the wall where the Federals were entrenched at the Angle. General Armistead famously stuck his hat on his sword and yelled “Come on, boys we must give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” The Confederates fought furiously with elements of the Iron Brigade and Hancock’s Corpse. The Confederates were swallowed up when Federal reenforcements came and attacked the helpless few rebels from all sides, completely engulfing them. Armistead himself was killed with his hands on a Federal cannon.
When the smoke cleared all that could be seen were those wounded soldiers able to limp their way back to the main body of the Confederates and a few stragglers. With that the Battle of Gettysburg was over. The battle was over but the war was not, there followed two more years of bloody warfare, forever changed by this battle.