The Battle of Gettysburg consisted of three days of some of the toughest fighting in the American Civil War. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia had traveled north in order to earn a respite for Virginia, which had been hard-hit in the first two years of the war, and to threaten a march on Washington that could force the Federal Government to accede in the independence of the South. The first day of fighting had won control of the town of Gettysburg for the Confederates, but the Union Army had taken up strong positions south of the town, and on the second day, heavy attacks at both flanks had failed to dislodge Union forces. Lee had concluded that the solution to this tactical problem was to attack the Federal line in the center, destroying the entire position.
Lee’s conviction was dubious from the start. He believed that the Union position on Cemetery Ridge had depleted the forces in the center in order to reinforce the wings; to the extent that this was true, there was nothing to prevent the reverse from happening when an attack came toward the center. The Union position benefited from internal lines of communication, a military term that means, essentially, that the defender is able to shift forces from quiet sectors to threatened sectors faster and more easily under fire than an attacker can shift from a strongly-defended sector to a weaker sector. There was likely an element of wishful thinking in Lee’s belief that two and a half divisions could march quickly enough across the ground in question, and retain enough battlefield cohesion, to break through the line before the Union could reinforce it.
It is worth observing, however, that Lee would not have been the commander that he was if he had not clung to this kind of faith in his men. A more prudent commander might have avoided his mistakes at Gettysburg, but it is equally likely that such a commander would never have made it to Gettysburg in the first place. Lee’s successes had been the result of the same audacity and the same confidence in his men; in part, his judgment was impaired by a failure of battlefield intelligence that characterized the Gettysburg campaign, but it might also be fair to suggest in part that his luck failed him at Gettysburg.
Lee and his opponent, George Meade, had roughly the same number of men in the field at the beginning of the battle, although Lee’s forces were organized into three large corps, while Meade’s forces were divided among seven. The Corps under Hill and Ewell had seen very difficult fighting during the first two days; only the last-arriving Corps, that of Longstreet, had any fresh elements, and so this was selected by Lee to be the nucleus of the third day’s attack. It is an irony of history that timing ensured that Lee’s most defensively-minded subordinate should be the one tasked to plan his most audacious attack.
General George Pickett’s division, commanded by his subordinates Armistead, Garrett and Kemper, was the central force, but it needed support, and after the second day’s fighting, the rest of Longstreet’s Corps could not provide it. Lee attached to Longstreet’s command a division and a half from Hill’s Corps, with generals Pettigrew and Trimble in command; Pickett’s fresh forces, however, were the primary focus. To ensure success, Lee pledged the complete support of the entire Confederate artillery. When the time came for the men to march, the enemy would be too stunned to make a proper defense.
Longstreet devised a plan that arranged for the attacking forces to converge on a small copse of trees near the center of the line after a series of diversionary turns. Pettigrew and Trimble were largely supporting Pickett; the brigades of Garrett and Kemper were expected to breach the line just north of the trees, and then Armistead’s brigade would follow up the attack and exploit the breakthrough.
It was imperative for the artillery to do its job if the plan was to succeed: the Confederate attackers were expected to leave the cover of the trees along Seminary Ridge and march across a mile of open ground before climbing the slope of Cemetery Ridge. If the defense remained cohesive, and if Federal artillery remained in place, the Confederate attack could not succeed. Longstreet was painfully aware of the contingencies in place, and he may even have delayed the attack willfully.
The artillery attack opened at 1 pm, with 150 Confederate guns firing on the Union center. They were quickly answered by some 80 Union guns. The Union had fewer pieces in play, but again the interior lines proved useful: Union ammunition could be stored in relative safety beyond the ridge, while Confederate caissons were dangerously exposed. Soon the Confederate rate of fire declined as ammunition stores were removed to relative safety, and batteries had to be replenished from a greater distance. Union gunners, too, slowed their fire to hold more ammunition in reserve for the anticipated attack.
At 3 pm, the order was given for the infantry to break cover. Union artillery resumed fire, now focusing converging fire on the infantry formations approaching the center. Bravely the attackers pressed on, but not without losing much of their unit cohesion. The brigades merged into an undifferentiated mass of men, further robbing the attack of momentum. The initial wave of the attack never really struck home; it was only the support brigade of Lewis Armistead that truly engaged the defensive line, and since it had no support forces behind it, there was no one to follow up their success when they, briefly, breached the line. Instead, Union reinforcements filled it in, taking many prisoners in the process, including the mortally wounded General Armistead.
The attack had clearly failed; many survived to retreat to Confederate lines, but total casualties on the southern side amounted to some 7,000 in this action alone. Lee called an end to the attack, claiming sole responsibility for the failure; his men retained surprisingly high morale in the face of defeat and were prepared to carry out an organized defense the next day, if an attack had come. There was no mistaking the fact that the Army of Northern Virginia had finally been defeated, however.
The Confederates had begun the Battle of Gettysburg confident of a decisive victory; they expected not only to defeat the Union Army, but also to compel the Union acceptance of Secession. Their failure was equally momentous. Not only did the Army of Northern Virginia suffer a loss from which it never fully recovered, but Lee was also forced to give up all offensive options. Henceforth, fighting would be resumed in Virginia, with Lee struggling to defend against a Union assault. The Confederates retained their fighting spirit for nearly another two years, but the defeat at Gettysburg forced them to accept the defensive, reactive role that Lee always understood they could not maintain indefinitely. Pickett’s Charge had been the last-ditch effort intended to forestall that future, but its failure only hastened it.
Coddington, Edwin B. The Gettysburg Campaign: A Study in Command. Simon & Schuster, 1979.
Katcher, Philip. The Complete Civil War. Cassell, 1992.
Macdonald, John. Great Battles of the Civil War. Macmillan, 1988.
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