The Battle of Gettysburg, The Final Day; July 3, 1863
After failing to take Culp’s Hill in the north, and Little Round Top in the south, General Robert E. Lee was more determined than before to take these positions.
Major General J.E.B. Stuart had finally arrived with his cavalry the day before (his role was limited), and Major General George Pickett arrived with his division of Virginians to reinforce Longstreet.
Lee attacked Culp’s Hill again, but the fight was short lived, with the Union position being intact and stronger than the previous day. General Meade had decided to reinforce his flanks, since that’s where the confederates had been attacking.
Lee then switched tactics and decided to attack the Union center, on Cemetery Ridge. Leading this assault would be Pickett’s Division. The assault would cover nearly a mile in wide open ground across a field. Longstreet was against this move, realizing that such a move would expose the men to murderous fire, not just from rifle fire, but artillery fire.
Lee gave Longstreet his orders, despite his protests, and Longstreet, being the dutiful soldier that he was, carried them out.
Pickett was eager to get into the fight, and even though Longstreet shared his misgivings, Pickett told Longstreet that they would carry the day.
That afternoon, almost 200 confederate guns opened up on the Federal positions, perhaps the largest artillery barrage of the war. The bombardment lasted two hours, with the Federal position unaffected. Return fire by the Union artillery was limited, as they were conserving ammunition for the infantry attack they knew was coming.
After the bombardment was lifted, the Virginians stepped off. Almost immediately, they were taking cannon fire from Cemetery Ridge, and an area just north of Little Round Top. For three quarters of a mile, they marched straight towards a little jog in the Union lines that would become known as the “Bloody Angle”. Across the field and over fences under murderous fire, until they came within range of the Union rifles.
Still, the confederates reached the Bloody Angle and breached the Union lines.
Reserves were rushed into the breach, and the confederate strength ebbed. Pickett’s division began to fall back. Less than half his division made it back to confederate lines. Over 12,000 men started Pickett’s Charge; 6555 did not make it back. That number is not just from Pickett’s division, but everyone who participated in the charge; Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew’s division, and Major General Issac R. Trimble’s two brigades, both of whom were wounded during the charge.
Picket was devastated and inconsolable. He never forgave Lee for ordering the charge.
When Lee ordered Picket to rally his division, Pickett is alleged to have said “General, I have no division.”
As the men were returning, General Lee told all of them that the loss was all his fault. He had fallen victim to the human flaw of starting to believe his own press that he was invincible.
After the battle, bloodied and exhausted, the Army of Northern Virginia began the long retreat back to Virginia. Lee tried to keep them organized, expecting Meade to chase him back to Virginia or launch a counter offensive.
The truth is, the Army of the Potomac was just as exhausted, just as bloodied, and just as damaged as the Army of Northern Virginia. General Meade was content to just hold the field.
About 51,000 men fell that day, with at least 7000 dead. It was one of the bloodiest battles of the war. Never again would Lee attempt to invade the Union, and the life was beginning ebb from the Confederacy. General Lee and the confederacy would fight for nearly two more years before the conflict would be resolved.
President Abraham Lincoln would visit the battlefield four months later in November to dedicate the Gettysburg National Cemetery. There, he gave a hastily written speech that became one of the best known speeches in American history.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate, we can not consecrate, we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom—and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.