The Battle of Gettysburg

More of this Feature

• Part 2: The Importance of the High Ground
• Part 3: Pickett's Charge and Aftermath

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Part 3: Pickett's Charge and Aftermath

On July 3, Lee ordered another attack on Culp's Hill. Before this attack could commence, however, Union artillery opened fire on the part of the hill they had lost. An infantry skirmish followed, and Union troops regained full possession of Culp's Hill, about 11 a.m. Seeing this, Lee decided on a direct frontal assault on the Union positions on Cemetery Ridge. After a massive artillery barrage on the Union position, Maj. Gen. George Pickett was to lead 12,500 troops in a straight march across open ground three-quarters of a mile into the teeth of the reinforced Union positions on Cemetery Ridge.

Lee counted on a few things to go in his favor:

  • He believed that the combination of this artillery barrage and the fighting earlier in the day and on the day before would have weakened the Union defenders to the point of exhaustion.
  • He believed that the Union artillery, in firing a counter-barrage, would run out of ammunition.
  • He believed that his troops would be able to overcome the sort of fierce odds they were facing as they had before, at Chancellorsville and elsewhere.

None of these things happened.

At least 150 Confederate artillery opened fire about 1 p.m. Union artillery waited a quarter of an hour, then returned fire but at a lesser rate. After a couple of hours, the Confederate big guns stopped. The Union big guns had stopped before that, at Meade's direction, to conserve ammunition and to lull the Confederate forces into thinking that no further firing from the Union big guns was possible.

About 3 p.m., Pickett and his men began what has come to be known as "Pickett's Charge." They marched in formation at first, crossing the open ground and aiming to do what their fellow soldiers had not done the day before, seize Cemetery Ridge. When the Union troops arrayed around the open ground opened fire, the "Charge" quickened into a forced march and then a run. As Pickett and his men approached, the Union artillery, which had conserved its ammunition, opened up in a withering barrage. Caught on three sides by enemy fire, the Confederate troops (the ones who weren't killed or wounded) still advanced. Some even reached the walls behind which Union troops crouched. At one location, hand-to-hand combat ensued. But Pickett's force was decimated. Pickett survived, making it back to his own lines, but he didn't bring a whole lot of his men with him. The advance turned into disaster and ended in retreat.

The fighting done for the day, both armies stood fast. The following day, July 4, neither side ordered an attack. Both commanders were waiting for the other to make the first move. Meade, with all of the advantages of superior manpower and positioning, was not about to change the odds that were currently in his favor. Lee, his army blown apart by the three days of fierce fighting, opted for retreat from the field of battle.

The Army of Northern Virginia lost about 28,000 men during the three-day battle of Gettysburg. It was one-third of the force with which they had left Virginia. They also lost prestige and, as it turned out, any opportunity for recognition by foreign powers. If Britain or France were serious about entering the war on the Southern side, the Union victory at Gettysburg convinced them not to. Lee led his army back to Virginia, there to fight another day.

The Army of the Potomac lost about 23,000 men at Gettysburg, or less than one-quarter of the army. Meade, knowing how exhausted his own men were and how dangerously low on ammunition they also were, opted not to harass Lee's retreat. The Civil War continued for nearly two years after the Battle of Gettysburg, but never again would Southern troops enter the North. In fact, the Union overall position was considerably strengthened on July 4, 1863, because Union troops under Gen. Ulysses S. Grant had also won a strategic victory at Vicksburg.

Four months later, President Abraham Lincoln visited the battlefield as part of a dedication ceremony for a newly constructed cemetery. At this dedication, Lincoln gave one of history's most famous speeches, the Gettysburg Address.

First page > The Battle Takes Shape > Page 1, 2, 3

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