If this was to be the high water mark of the Confederacy, it saw also the most startling defeat and the biggest loss of life. Lee had visualized Gettysburg as his opportunity to defeat the Army of the Potomac on its own territory. This would force the Northern forces to agree to a negotiated truce betwen the original United States of America and the new Confederate States of America. For this reason, many refer to the civil war as the War Between the States —not meaning individual states, but the United States against the Confederate States.
General Meade seized the high ground around Gettysburg which gave the Union forces a definite advantage against the Army of Northern Virginia. It was an uneven battle at best, and destiny would see an uneven result.
If the heroic battles on July 2 around Little Round Top centered around the actions of Union General Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain and his Maine troops, another heroic battle would occur on July3 with the so-called Pickett’s Charge. The latter would be a major tactical error and produce the massacre of more Southerners than any army could handle.
If is difficult for people today to grasp the concept of close-order, face to face combat of the type that took place on that day. It seemed from the beginning to be pure suicide, and in many ways it was just that.
About 1:30 in the afternoon, some 12,500 to 14,000 Confederate soldiers advanced in closely formed lines of attack, spread out across the field. At the same time, the Union artillerists were readying for the fray, replacing their solid ammunition with canisters, shot containing iron balls packed into the cans. Upon being fired, they burst apart, which sprayed the fields with hundreds of the deadliest of projectiles. One was no match for the other.
The other error was their leader. George Pickett was a courageous and sometime high spirited leader from Old Virginia, but he lacked the skill and abilities of others in Lee’s command. In addition, he commanded only three of the nine brigades. Only 15,000 men in total were prepared for the attack. General James Pettigrew and General Ridgeway Trimble led the rest.
If one can consider the cliche, “like shooting fish in a barrel” to apply to a military maneuver, it might be accurate here. The ranks of competent, disciplined soldiers proceeding in battle ranks across an open field on a hot, sultry day, facing a large contingent of Union soldiers, dug in the relatively secure areas of Cemetery Ridge a mile away. In one of the rare duels of cannon, 150 Confederate cannon kept up a barrage onto the ridge, and were answered by heavy fire from the Union artillery from above.
The result was that three of Pickett’s brigadier generals fell almost immediately, with the third gravely wounded. In fact, all 15 regimental commanders were killed or wounded. If you have ever walked the battlefield, you will remember the bloody Angle, where 150 men under the command of Brig. Gen. Lewis Armistead succeeded in raising the Confederate flag above Cemetery Ridge. It was short lived, they were soon cut down or captured, along with the flag.
Approximately 12,500 men had charged Cemetery Ridge following the Rebel flag. Only 5,000 returned to Seminary Ridge when it was all over.
Pickett would forever live with the deaths of those men hanging over his head, and “Pickett’s Charge” became a negative synonym for a failed effort. General Pickett would continue to state that “that old man had my division massacred.” The “old man,” General Robert E. Lee, was quick to take the blame on himself. Getting the men ready for the retreat from Gettysburg,he said to Longstreet, “It was all my fault; get together, and let us do the best we can toard saving [that] which is left us.”
It is said that Lee’s defeat at Gettysburg meant the war’s outcome was turned irrevocably against the South. Others felt that by allowing Lee’s surviving troops to escape, the war was actually made longer.
Shortly after the war, the citizens of Gettysburg searched for all of the bodies of Union men on the field of the 3,000 acre battle ground which were exhumed and buried in the new National Cemetery. The bodies of the dead Confederates would lie unclaimed for several years; finally some 3,320 of them were removed and carried South for burial. In later years, bones were still being discovered among the rocks and stumps of the field.
The deathly totals for the third and final day were 3,450 for the Union and 7,000 for the Confederates. The Battle of Gettysburgh had passed into history.