Battle of Gettysburg: Day Three - Triumph and Tragedy
On Friday, July 3, 1863, General Robert E. Lee aimed to finish off the Army of the Potomac, once and for all. After two days of furious fighting at Gettysburg, Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia had come close to wining its greatest glory. With one more forceful push, Lee believed that his invincible soldiers would finish the job, just like they had always done. In the words of the great Civil War historian Bruce Catton, it was “time for this bloody business to come to its climax.”
As Union Major General George Gordon Meade had predicted, Lee’s main effort on July 3 was focused on breaking through the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. After all, Lee reasoned that the Confederate onslaught of July 2 had forced his adversary in blue to strengthen his flanks, thereby weakening his center. Although the Confederate assaults had been uncoordinated and disjointed the day before, Lee reasoned that they still had nearly succeeded. With “proper concert of action,” Lee believed that on the renewed day of battle, his forces would deliver a final knockout blow against the Army of the Potomac.
Using Major General George Pickett’s fresh division as a spearhead, historian James M. McPherson writes that “Lee would send three divisions preceded by an artillery barrage against that weakened center on July 3.” Major General J. E. B. Stuart’s three cavalry brigades had also finally arrived and were to circle around the Union rear. Lieutenant General Richard S. Ewell’s assignment was to hit the Federal right flank, clamping “the pincers when Pickett broke through the front,” as McPherson explains. No matter how well Lee tried to lay out his plans for July 3, however, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac refused to abide by his script and took fate into their own hands.
On July 2, Federal units from Major General Henry Slocum’s Twelfth Corps had been shifted from Culp’s Hill to help overcome the crisis on the Union left. That night, those outfit’s returned to their positions on the Union right. Determined to regain their abandoned trenches that had been captured by Ewell’s troops the previous evening, the returning Union soldiers renewed the action on Culp’s Hill at 4:30 a.m. on July 3. In a fight that raged for nearly seven hours, the Federals were locked in a fierce struggle against Ewell’s troops, but the men in blue won back their trenches and forced the Confederates to pull back. The successful Federal defense of Culp’s Hill against Ewell’s corps that morning “dimmed Lee’s chances for turning the Union right simultaneously with the planned piercing of the center,” as cited by McPherson.
The Union breastworks on Culp's Hill on the morning of July 3, 1863. (Photo Credit: Library of Congress)
Major General Jeb Stuart commanded the Army of Northern Virginia’s cavalry corps. Serving as the “eyes” of Lee’s army, Stuart had proven himself a master of reconnaissance throughout the war, but the dashing Virginia cavalier let Lee down when he was needed most at Gettysburg. According to the American Battlefield Trust, “Stuart’s cavalry fell out of touch with headquarters in the days leading up to Gettysburg, and left Lee and his fellow commanding officers with little to no intelligence in unfamiliar enemy territory.” Stuart finally reached the field late on July 2 and was eager to redeem himself through action the following day.
On the morning of July 3, General Stuart led his 6,000 men east from Gettysburg. As McPherson writes, “He intended to circle south about three miles east of Gettysburg, and then turn west to come in on the Union rear along Cemetery Ridge.” Shortly after 1:00 p.m.-around the same time that Lee’s planned artillery barrage began back at Gettysburg-Stuart’s men ran into three brigades of about 5,000 Federal cavalry under Brigadier General David M. Gregg. In the fight that ensued, George Armstrong Custer, who had been jumped several grades to brigadier general only four days earlier, especially distinguished himself leading his Michigan brigade. The blue and gray horsemen battled back and forth for two hours, but the Confederates failed to break through. Ultimately forced to withdraw, Stuart was denied his chance at redemption.
Monument to Custer's Michigan Cavalry Brigade on East Cavalry Battlefield, located three miles east of Gettysburg. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
General Lee turned to his “Old War Horse,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet to command the grand assault against the Union center. As he had done the previous day, Longstreet tried to convince Lee not to attack the Union line head-on, telling him shortly after dawn, “General, I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent chance to move around to the left of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.” Lee had refused to do just that yesterday and he continued to stand his ground on July 3. “The enemy is there,” Lee said while pointing to the Union line, and “I am going to take them where they are.” Lee’s mind was made up and he ordered his most senior corps commander to prepare the assault force.
Composed of Pickett’s fresh division of Longstreet’s corps and six brigades from Major General Henry Heth’s and Major General Dorsey Pender’s divisions of A.P. Hill’s corps, the attack against the Union center would be made by approximately 12,500 Confederates. After a massive artillery bombardment against the target area, those men would have “to advance three-quarters of a mile across open fields and assault dug-in infantry supported by ample artillery,” as noted by McPherson. Support would also come from brigades from Major General Richard Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps, but the task facing the Rebels was still daunting. Heth and Pender had been wounded on July 1 and Brigadier Generals James Johnston Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble would step in for them. The divisions of the wounded generals had also been hit hard on that first day of battle. For example, the Twenty-sixth North Carolina Infantry Regiment had carried nearly 800 men into battle on July 1 and “suffered 588 dead and wounded-a casualty rate of more than 73 percent,” as reported by historian Rod Gragg. Now, the survivors of the Twenty-sixth North Carolina and many others would go forward once again.
Calculating that he had about 15,000 men or less to make the assault, “Longstreet did not believe this would be enough to do the job Lee had in mind,” explained the late Civil War historian Shelby Foote. “General Lee,” Longstreet said in one final plea hoping to change his commander’s mind, “I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know as well as anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” Maintaining his unwavering belief in the invincibility of his soldiers, Lee fired back, saying that the army had overcome great odds before and would do so again. Despite Longstreet’s persistent reluctance, the attack remained his to command. “My heart was heavy,” Longstreet later reflected. “I could see the desperate and hopeless nature of the charge and the cruel slaughter it would cause. That day at Gettysburg was the saddest of my life.”
Generals Lee and Longstreet at Gettysburg. (Photo Credit: Gainesvilletimes.com)
At approximately 1:07 p.m., nearly 150 Confederate guns opened fire, targeting a copse of umbrella-shaped trees on Cemetery Ridge. This was the target that Lee had selected for the infantry assault. For the attacking force to be successful, the Rebel artillery would have to do great damage to the Union guns and soldiers defending the center. For some two hours on that day of ninety-degree heat, more than 250 cannons across both sides exchanged thunderous blows of fire. As one Union officer in the thick of the action described it, “To say that it was like a summer storm, with the crash of thunder, the glare of lightning, the shrieking of the wind, and the clatter of hailstones, would be weak.”
The artillery bombardment was so intense that even some people in the Pittsburg area, 150 miles to the west, could hear the cacophony of destruction at Gettysburg. With so much smoke from the guns clouding the battlefield, it became difficult for the Confederate artillerymen to get a clear view of the target. Most of the Rebel gunners fired too high, and while their shells caused havoc in the Union rear, the Federal troops and artillery along the center largely avoided major harm. In an effort to conserve ammunition for the upcoming infantry assault and to convince the enemy that they had disabled the Federal guns, the Union Chief of artillery, Brigadier General Henry J. Hunt, ordered his side to cease firing and even had some batteries withdrawn. The ruse would have devastating consequences for the Rebels. When the sea of Confederate gray and butternut brown flowed towards the Union center, waves of Rebels would crash into a death-dealing wall of fire.
The copse of trees along the Union center today at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
“For God’s sake come quick,” read a note to Pickett from Longstreet’s artillery commander, Colonel E. Porter Alexander. Recording his observation that some of the Union “guns have gone,” Alexander added, “Come quick or my ammunition will not let me support you properly.” With that note in hand, Pickett rode over to Longstreet and handed him the message. Sitting on a snake rail fence, Foote reports that Longstreet “read it deliberately, but said nothing.” In a plea to his commander, Pickett asked, “General, shall I advance?” Unable to produce a sound, Longstreet nodded. As he later explained, “My feelings had so overcome me that I could not speak, for the fear of betraying my want of confidence.” Pickett replied, “I am going to move forward, sir,” and followed up with a salute before riding back to his men who were about to spearhead the Army of Northern Virginia’s final fury at the Battle of Gettysburg.
Gazing out across the open fields that they would have to cross while under heavy enemy fire nearly every step of the way, Brigadier Generals Richard B. Garnett and Lewis A. Armistead of Pickett’s division understood the grim challenge before them. As Garnett admitted, “This is a desperate thing to attempt.” “It is,” said Armistead. “But the issue is with the Almighty, and we must leave it in his hands.” The infantrymen also had no illusions about what awaited them. When a rabbit darted out of some bushes and made a dash for the rear, one man apparently called out, “Run, old hare,” confessing, “If I was a old hare, I’d run too.” Yet run away the men in gray did not.
“Up men, and to your posts!” Pickett told his soldiers. “Don’t forget today that you are from old Virginia.” At around 3:00 p.m., the Confederates steeled themselves and went forward together. As McPherson writes, “With parade-ground precision, Pickett’s three brigades moved out joined by six more from Hill’s division on their left and two others in reserve. It was a magnificent mile-wide spectacle,” and a breathtaking image of mass gallantry that few on either side would ever forget.
Awaiting the Rebel horde on Cemetery Ridge were units from Major General Winfield S. Hancock’s tough Second Corps. Commanding Battery A, Fourth United States artillery and positioned at the apex of the enemy’s planned assault was First Lieutenant Alonzo H. Cushing. As the Confederates streamed forward with the dream of breaking the center of the Union line and achieving a war-winning victory, the steely-eyed 22-year-old Wisconsinite gave every ounce of his devotion to the defense of the threatened Federal position. Struck by a searing hot piece of shrapnel during the Confederate artillery barrage, both Cushing’s thighs and his stomach were ripped open. With all of his officers dead and only two of his guns still operational, the first lieutenant did not waver, holding his belly to keep his entrails from spilling out and continuing to perform his duty. As other artillery units withdrew from the ridge, Cushing ordered his remaining guns moved up to the stone wall at "the Angle," north of the copse of trees, to meet the enemy onslaught head-on.
Monument to Alonzo Cushing at "the Angle." Behind the monument is another marker indicating the position of Cushing's battery during the Rebel assault against the Union center. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
Despite pleas from his subordinates urging him to go to the rear for medical treatment, Lieutenant Cushing remained firm: “No, I stay right here and fight it out or die in the attempt.” With the Confederates less than 100 yards away, Cushing grasped the lanyard that fired his gun and shouted, “I will give them one more shot!” As his weapon roared one last time, the young artilleryman was shot in the head and he fell dead beside his gun. Giving his all in defense of the Union center, Alonzo Cushing played an unforgettable role in the resistance that broke the back of the Army of Northern Virginia on July 3.
The Confederate assault force was pummeled by Union artillery as they advanced forward. As the Rebels got closer, Federal artillerymen switched to canister shot, a tin can filled with iron balls that sprayed out of a cannon like a giant shotgun. “When these guns were fired, men who saw it all said that the advancing Confederates disappeared in a boiling cloud of dust and smoke, in which knapsacks and muskets and horrible fragments of human bodies were tossed high in the air,” as noted by Bruce Catton. Union infantrymen began to unleash devastating volleys as the enemy closed to within 200 yards. Firing from the left and right, Federal regiments from Vermont, Ohio, and New York raked both flanks of the Confederate line. McPherson writes that the “assault collapsed under this unbearable pressure from front and flanks.”
General Lewis Armistead and some two or three hundred Virginians and Tennesseans managed to breach the wall where Alonzo Cushing fell, but Union soldiers rushed in and overwhelmed them. As McPherson brilliantly writes, Armistead, a dear friend of General Winfield Hancock, “was mortally wounded with his hand on a Yankee cannon and his followers fell like leaves in an autumn wind."
The High Water Mark by Don Troiani, depicting General Armistead leading his men over the stone wall at "the Angle." (Photo Credit: Don Troiani)
By 4:00 p.m., it was all over for the Confederates. “We gained nothing but glory,” a Virginia captain wrote home, “and lost our bravest men.” Barley half of those who made the attack survived. Losing two-thirds of his men, Pickett’s division was thoroughly decimated. As McPherson reports, “All fifteen regimental commanders in Pickett’s division went down; nine of them were killed.” His three Brigadier Generals, Lewis Armistead, Richard Garnett, and James Kemper were all killed or wounded. As Robert E. Lee was preparing a defense for an expected Union counterattack, he told Pickett, “place your division in the rear of this hill, and be ready to repel the advance of the enemy should they follow up their advantage.” “General Lee,” replied an utterly defeated Pickett, “I have no division now.”
Whether wounded physically or in spirit, the survivors of the assault lagged back to the Confederate lines. Lee rode among them, reportedly saying, “It’s all my fault,” and “It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can. All good men must rally.” A large-scale Union counterattack did not come, but the damage to Lee’s army had been done.
It's All My Fault, by Mort Künstler, depicting Robert E. Lee after the repulse of his men on the afternoon of July 3, 1863. (Photo Credit: Mort Künstler)
Over the three days of fighting at Gettysburg, the Army of Northern Virginia ultimately lost between 23,000 and 28,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured. Lee’s army had entered the battle at the peak of its strength. On the verge of a war-winning victory, his soldiers had gone forward with the utmost confidence. Time after time, the Army of Northern Virginia had whipped the Army of the Potomac. Now, Robert E. Lee and his faithful soldiers had suffered their greatest tragedy. “It’s all my fault. I thought my men were invincible,” said Lee to Longstreet. Shrouded by pouring rain, Lee’s army began the painful retreat back to Virginia on the evening of Saturday, July 4, 1863. As Confederate Ordinance Chief Josiah Gorgas would write later that month, “Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success-today absolute ruin seems to be our portion.”
“Thank God,” said General Meade as he reached the Union center and learned that his men had repulsed the enemy. As McPherson writes, Meade “had been in command for only six days, three of them fighting for his army’s survival.” With the fate of America’s future resting on his shoulders, George Gordon Meade proved that the Army of the Potomac finally had the right man. Guided by a commander who kept his composure against Robert E. Lee and who skillfully parried and countered the Army of Northern Virginia’s mightiest efforts, the soldiers of the Army of the Potomac had won their greatest triumph. The price of this victory was high, costing the Federals approximately 23,000 killed, wounded, missing and captured. Although Meade did not launch a heavy counterattack after the Confederates had been repulsed on July 3, it is believed that he was prepared to strike the next day, but heavy rain on the 4th prevented him from doing so.
Monument to General George G. Meade at Gettysburg National Military Park. (Photo Credit: Joe Archino)
Lee and his bloodied army would escape back to Virginia, but as the people of the North knew, the Army of the Potomac’s success at Gettysburg was a major turning point. As the New York diarist George Templeton Strong recorded, “the results of this victory are priceless. The charm of Robert Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures.”
With an estimated 51,000 casualties across both sides, the three-day struggle at Gettysburg was the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. Combined with Major General Ulysses S. Grant’s capture of the Confederate stronghold of Vicksburg, Mississippi on July 4, 1863, Meade’s triumph over Lee at Gettysburg helped to turn the tide of the war toward ultimate victory for the Union. The war would rage on for another 21 months, and while both sides would continue to fight tooth and nail, the losses at Gettysburg and Vicksburg proved to be deathblows for the Confederacy.
As President Abraham Lincoln said in his address at the dedication of the cemetery for Union soldiers killed in the Battle of Gettysburg, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here.” Those who “gave the last full measure of devotion” on this great battlefield safeguarded the Union when its fate was in extreme peril. By their deeds, America would experience a “new birth of freedom,” and through their immortal sacrifices, it was determined that “government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
American Battlefield Trust: Alonzo H. Cushing.
American Battlefield Trust: J. E. B. Stuart.
Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era by James M. McPherson.
Gettysburg: The Final Fury by Bruce Catton.
National Park Service: Lt. Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg.
Stars in Their Courses: The Gettysburg Campaign, June-July 1863 by Shelby Foote.