Battle of Gettysburg - Day 3

July 1 - 3, 1863


Gen. George G. Meade's Union Army of the Potomac held a position atop Cemetery Ridge outside Gettysburg, Pa. The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia's I Corps commander, Gen. James Longstreet, tried to dissuade Lee from attacking Meade's position on July 3, 1863; "General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments and armies, and I should know . . what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position."

The courageous men who braved a storm of shot and shell while advancing under their red battleflags across a mile of open farmland on that hot summer afternoon were amassed from various units in the Confederate army and were all under the command of Longstreet. What has become known as Pickett's Charge might be better named Pickett, Pettigrew, and Trimble's Charge or simply Longstreet's Advance.

Gen. George E. Pickett's three Virginia brigades spearheaded the assault. They were fresh, having not taken part in the first two days of the battle. Gen. James Johnston Pettigrew formed his division of four brigades, one each from Tennessee, North Carolina, Mississippi, and Virginia, on Pickett's left. In Pettigrew's rear, Gen. Isaac R. Trimble commanded two North Carolina brigades from Gen. William D. Pender's division. Advancing in support of these nine brigades were an Alabama brigade and a small Florida brigade from Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division.

As the units approached the Union line, they contracted and converged on a narrow front, and the handful of men that pierced the line disappeared under a wave of Union reinforcements. North Carolinians on the Rebel left are said to have penetrated the farthest. Said Lee in he report, "The conduct of the troops was all that I could desire or expect, and they deserve success so far as it can be deserved by heroic valor and fortitude."

At 3:00 P.M. on July 3, 1863, 11,000 steady and disciplined Confederate soldiers emerged from the trees on Seminary Ridge and formed perfectly aligned battle ranks facing the Union position a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. For two days, Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's Army of Northern Virginia had bested Maj. Gen. George G. Meade's Union Army of the Potomac in heavy fighting in and around Gettysburg, Pa. But Meade's troops still occupied a defensive position south of town, and Lee was determined to attack him there.

Three of the nine brigades in the attacking Confederate force were commanded by Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett, a 38 year old career soldier from Virginia. Pickett's division spearheaded the assault, advancing with parade precision. Almost immediately, gaps were blown in the Confederate lines from Union artillery positions. Under orders not to fire and not to let loose their Rebel Yell, the Confederates closed the gaps in their lines and kept advancing. Union artillery changed from shells to canister -- tin cans packed with iron balls that made giant shotguns of the cannon -- and mowed great swaths through the Confederate ranks. As the attackers continued to close, Union infantry sent volleys of minie balls into the still-ordered Southern troops.

Surviving Rebels returned fire and charged the Union line. Desperate hand-to-hand fighting ensued as the Union line was penetrated, but there were not enough Confederates left after the charge to hold the line. The Confederates' only choice was to surrender or to go back across the mile of open ground.

Almost 4,000 Confederate soldiers were captured. General Pickett's division lost 70% of its men. The Union forces, just half as numerous as the Rebel attackers, suffered only 1,500 casualties -- only one-fifth of the number they inflicted. Gen. Robert E. Lee had thought his army was invincible. The proof to the contrary was a blow from which it would never recover.

More than 50,000 men had fallen in the war's bloodiest battle. The country had never before and would never again see such carnage. Of the 82,000 Union soldiers engaged, 3,155 were killed, 14,329 were wounded, and 5,365 were missing. The 75,000 Confederates suffered 3,903 killed, 18,735 wounded, and 5,425 missing.