Pickett's Charge and the Aftermath of the Battle of Gettysburg
On July 3, 1863, the Battle of Gettysburg entered its third and final day. After the first day, Confederate General Robert E. Lee looked poised for another major victory. On the second day, Union forces managed to hold their lines against Lee’s attacks. After failing to break the left and right of the Union position, General Lee ordered a final attack on the Union Center. During the last day of fighting at Gettysburg, a 15,000-man strong Confederate column of troops under General George Pickett was entrusted with attacking the Union Center.
Pickett’s forces had to cross the distance of one mile to reach the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. To clear the way for the infantry, General Lee ordered a massive bombardment with his 160 cannons. They formed a line of artillery almost two miles long. Union troops on Cemetery Ridge answered with 100 cannons of their own. Artillery on both sides traded blows for more than an hour. This was one of the heaviest cannonades of the entire Civil War.
The first few minutes of this YouTube video discusses the cannonade during the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. (Video: YouTube User- Bobblehead George)
After the bombardment, Pickett’s troops advanced through the open field and quickly learned the harsh reality that their cannon fire had not exhausted the Union position. The trek to Cemetery Ridge was arduous. Union artillery caused massive damage to the advancing Confederate lines. As history.com writes, “Only a few hundred Virginians reached the Union line, and within minutes, they all were dead, dying, or captured.” In less than an hour, nearly 7,000 Confederate troops had been killed or wounded during what has become forever remembered as “Pickett’s Charge.”
A depiction of the fighting between Union and Confederate troops during Pickett's Charge. Canvas by Mort Kunstler. (Photo: Pinterest.com)
This failure spelled the end for Lee’s campaign in Gettysburg. On the night of July 4, he was forced to withdraw his troops back towards Virginia. Many historians consider this battle to be the turning point in the Civil War for the Union. After Gettysburg, Lee would never be able to invade the North again.
Confederate General Robert E. Lee and his defeated troops after failing to break the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. (Photo: Pinterest.com)
In the battle’s aftermath, the Union had suffered around 23,000 killed, wounded, or missing. The Confederates lost around 25,000 casualties of their own. The Battle of Gettysburg was the costliest battle of the entire Civil War.
I visited Gettysburg for the first time when I was eight years old. Even at that young age, I could feel something incredibly special about these grounds. In the picture above, I am standing at the monument to Union General Winfield S. Hancock in the Southeast of Gettysburg on Cemetery Hill. Hancock conducted himself brilliantly over the course of the three-day battle. His corps is credited with thwarting Pickett’s Charge at Cemetery Ridge. During this critical engagement, Hancock personally conducted the Union defense on horseback while under heavy fire. His men worried that he was unnecessarily risking his life in this manner, to which he replied, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.” Hancock was eventually wounded after a bullet struck his saddle and bounced into his thigh, but he refused to leave the field until the battle was decided. General Hancock’s leadership was instrumental to the Union’s victory on the third day of Gettysburg.
I hope that men like Hancock are smiling down on us from heaven as they see how we honor their sacrifices to our country. We will never forget what they did for all of us during three of the most important days in American history.