Robert E. Lee, who enjoyed tremendous success on the first day of the battle of Gettysburg and witnessed his troops almost attain complete victory on the second, concluded that triumph would be his on the third.
His plan for an all-out assault on the center of the Union’s line – the famed “Pickett’s Charge” – is well remembered, but what is frequently misunderstood is that assault was only part of his plan. Lee’s orders for the third day called for coordinated attacks on each flank, an artillery barrage of the center, a cavalry raid on the back of the Union line, and finally a march against the center. No part of his strategy ultimately went according to plan.
J.E.B. Stuart, who had finally arrived on the afternoon of the second day, was sent out with his cavalry to strike at the Union rear. Nothing came of these efforts for George Armstrong Custer quickly spotted Stuart and countered him with his Michigan Wolverines. At the point of the hook on the Union right, Northern troops struck the Confederates first by shelling them from high atop Culp’s Hill. By late morning, the Union had retaken ground lost on the second day and secured their right flank. Confederate efforts on the Union left amounted to little as poor communication and spent troops precluded coordinated attacks. Smoke, angles, and glare made the effectiveness of Lee’s artillery barrage, one of the largest in the war, impossible to measure, but the blood of his troops would shortly confirm its futility.
Lee had brought the sulking Longstreet from the Confederate right to the center in order to have his First Corps lead the final assault. With him came George Pickett and his newly arrived Virginians. On their effort, the battle and perhaps war ultimately hinged.
Pickett’s men stepped out of the tree line just past 2:00 in the afternoon and headed for a copse of trees at the center of the Union lines. The ground seemed designed for defending as the nearly mile of ground they traversed sloped gently up to the Union artillery whose guns were measured and ready. As they marched under a withering cannonade, the Confederates met two fence rows that further broke up and slowed their progress. Still they came only to be met at Cemetery Ridge by Union troops nestled three and four rows deeps behind a stonewall. Once the Confederates were within range, the Yankees opened up with deadly rifled musket fire in their enemies’ face and flanks.
Some 13,000 men made that charge but probably only a few hundred reached the top of the hill that they were unable to hold. Suffering a 50% casualty rate, the Confederates limped back to their lines as the Union soldiers let out an avenging cry of “Fredericksburg!” Lee rode out to meet his broken men and declared, “It is all my fault.”
“The highpoint of the Confederacy,” the closest the South came to winning its independence, had come and gone, but tragically the war did not end. Meade opted not to follow up his third day victory by attacking on the fourth. Thereby, the Confederates retreated into Virginia and the war would go on for another incredibly bloody year and a half at the cost of tens of thousands of American lives.
Debated now for 150 years, the meaning of the war will always be contested. But, looking back on particularly this sweltering third day of July, perhaps the most valuable lesson is frequently missed. For easily lost among the academics’ fixation on slavery, the armchair generals’ second guessing battle tactics, and the young’s prideful proclamations of cowardice when students’ declare that “that was stupid” or “I wouldn’t have done that,” is an appreciation for what was truly on display – the human recognition that there are things in life worth dying for.
And, lest the point be obscured by sectional blindness, let me make clear that throughout the war this life lesson was not demonstrated by Southerners alone. Fredericksburg and Cold Harbor are just two of many instances that witnessed Union troops ignore instinct and march determinedly into the dripping jaws of death.
So, this July 3, think back to the men willing to give the last full measure of their devotion and ask “for what or whom would I make that march?”
Then, be truly grateful for every item on your list.
Read the Rest of Jason R. Edwards’s Four-Part Series on the Battle of Gettysburg Below: