George Meade met with his generals on the night of July 2 pleased with the day’s outcome. Although the loss had been terrible, the line had held, and he had a whole corps worth of fresh troops to use for tomorrow – the VI Corps, the largest in the army. Prisoners interrogated by the Bureau of Military Information revealed that during the course of the previous two days the Rebels had engaged every single division of every corps of their army, save only George Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps. Meade had more fresh troops and a better position, and was ready to stand on the defensive until an opportunity presented itself.
Lee, (accurately) convinced that his men had very nearly broken the Union line the previous day, expected that Meade would reinforce his flanks, drawing troops away from the center of his line. Thus, a massive assault at that point should be able to break through and send the Yankees flying. He would have his best general, Longstreet, attack with his whole corps, preceding the attack with massed artillery fire to further weaken the Yankees and protect the charge.
This plan would have to change. Pickett was fresh, but the divisions of Hood and McLaws had fought desperately the previous day, taking many casualties and losing many commanders. Hood himself had been badly wounded in the arm, and would lose the use of it. In addition, the Army of the Potomac had reinforced that end of the line, and if those two divisions were used for an assault, there would be no forces to prevent a flank attack by the Union. Lee decided to add parts of two divisions from A.P. Hill’s corps: Heth’s division, commanded by Johnston Pettigrew because a bullet had concussed Heth on the first day, and Pender’s division, commanded by Isaac Trimble since Pender had been mortally wounded.
Again, Longstreet disagreed with Lee’s tactics. He reported himself to have said:
General, 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.
Longstreet again agitated for a move to the right, but this was not a serious possibility. If nothing else, the awkward position of Ewell’s Corps, far out on the left and in plain view of the Yankee troops on the high hills, made it impossible to perform such a maneuver with the main body of the army. Lee would not be swayed. He determined to attack.
The charge was doomed from the beginning. Lee meant for demonstrations by Ewell and J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry out on the far right to draw the attention of the army, but the XII Corps under Slocum attacked Ewell early in the morning, and Stuart ran into Union cavalry almost as soon as he got into position. Bloody and desperate fighting took place in the entrenchments on Culp’s Hill, but it never drew any troops away from the Cemetery Ridge line.
The grand cannonade that Lee had planned similarly ran into difficulties. Some of these were beyond Lee’s control – Confederate ammunition, for instance, was notoriously unreliable and often exploded too early or too late. The smoke of the artillery duel between the armies rapidly made it difficult for the Rebels to check their aim. Some of the Union artillery and infantry positions had defilade and could not be seen by the Confederates. These were the practical problems.
There was a larger, organizational problem as well. Porter Alexander, who had worked the artillery so effectively at Chancellorsville and Fredericksburg, had been given command of the artillery barrage. However, he did not have the authority to command all the artillery. The artillery of the Army of Northern Virginia was nominally under the command of William Pendelton, but he was a staff officer who exerted no direct control. This meant that the artillery batteries were essentially commanded by generals leading infantry corps and divisions, with the result that Alexander was not able to compel the obedience of batteries outside of the First Corps. As a result, ammunition was squandered in fruitless duels, and guns he’d expected to use in supporting the assault disappeared. Worse, Pendleton had failed at one of his few real duties – the amount of ammunition available was not equal to the demands of the attack.
In contrast, the Union artillery was all under the direct command of the magnificently efficient Henry Hunt, who had been carefully seeing to the position, sighting, and supply of the Union guns since the first day of the battle. Hunt and Meade both suspected that Lee would attack the center of the line, and prepared their artillery to meet the threat. The whole of the Union artillery would be coordinated to deal with the crisis.
The cannonade began around 1 in the afternoon, all the Confederate fire converging on the center of the Union line. Hunt insisted that his artillery respond in a restrained manner, so as to preserve their ammunition for the charge they knew was coming. The seemingly lackadaisical response infuriated Hancock, but did not result in much retreating from the line. Due to the bad ammunition and difficulty aiming, the shells from the Rebel guns flew long and exploded late, doing their worst damage behind the Union line. Perversely, the artillery fire compelled the Yankee soldiers to remain in place.
Eventually Hunt and some of his subordinates came up with the idea that if they withdrew some of their cannon they might tempt the Rebels into attacking prematurely. The gambit worked, although it certainly didn’t hurt that Alexander had been running low on ammunition. Longstreet had shamefully tried to pin the decision for the charge on Alexander, who gave his best analysis without claiming authority. Some of the enemy guns had been withdrawn, and if Pickett didn’t start soon, the artillery wouldn’t be able to support the charge.
At about 3 PM, the Confederate soldiers marched off towards the Union lines, with Pickett’s men on the right and the Pettigrew-Trimble group on the left. They were soon under artillery fire from all over the field. Guns as far away as Little Round Top enfiladed the brigades, sending shell and solid shot bouncing down the lines of men. Infantry and artillery flanked the assault and poured fire into the Rebels, routing some of Pettigrew’s brigades almost as soon as the charge began. The brigade holding Pickett’s right flank was cut down harshly.
Pettigrew and Trimble never made it to the Union line. Massed fire from the Yankees and a troublesome fence along the Emmitsburg pike kept them pinned down until they decided it was hopeless and withdrew. Lew Armistead’s brigade from Pickett’s division made it up to and over the low stone wall the Yankees had been using for cover, but the attacking force was barely a company at that point. They were repulsed in a counterattack, and Armistead fell mortally wounded among the Union cannon, at the high-water mark of the Confederacy.
The misadventure earned the name “Pickett’s Charge”, although Pickett commanded only a part of it and could not have done anything to save the day. He lost all of his brigade commanders and nearly all of his regimental officers. The attack had suffered 50% casualties, losing more than 6,000 men (Union casualties in the attack were about 1500).
The armies would sit staring at each other for another day before the Rebels retreated, but by sundown on July 3, the fighting was through. Casualties for the whole battle exceeded 46,000, with the Confederacy suffering slightly more than the Union. The battle was not a decisive defeat for the Confederacy – the Army of Northern Virginia had, overall, given as well as it got, and had succeeded in its strategic goal of obtaining provisions in Pennsylvania. The victory Lee needed eluded him, however, and as the armies waited on July 4, John Pemberton surrendered Vicksburg to Ulysses S. Grant, giving the Union control of the Mississippi. The war had turned against the Confederacy, and it would never recover.