One hundred and fifty-five years ago today, at about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, Confederate forces near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania began to advance toward Union forces perched on Cemetery Ridge. It was a hot day, with temperatures in the upper 80s, and the troops on both sides were fatigued from two prior days of desperate battle.
Except, that is, for the Confederate division commanded by Major General George Pickett. His division had just arrived at the battle, which is why rebel commander Robert E. Lee selected Pickett’s forces to lead the advance. Lee hoped that the Confederate forces, which greatly outnumbered the Union troops that were defending Cemetery Ridge, could break the Union line and win the battle of Gettysburg. Confederate general James Longstreet surveyed the ground where the rebel forces would make the advance — about three-quarters of a mile of open ground, broken up by fences, would need to be covered before the entrenched Union forces could be reached — and thought the troops would be slaughtered by cannon fire and massed rifle fire from the Union defenders. But Lee’s order was obeyed anyway.
Longstreet was right — the assault was devastating to the Confederate forces. The rebels were mowed down by the Union forces in appalling numbers. It is estimated that the rebels sustained about 6,000 casualties in the space of about 30 minutes, before they finally retreated. The disastrous attack became known as Pickett’s Charge, and some historians believe that it marked a crucial turning point of the Civil War. It not only ended the battle of Gettysburg, it also ended Lee’s second, and last, attempt to invade the North — which he hoped would convince the Union side to negotiate a peace agreement. It dealt Lee, who had enjoyed success after success against a revolving door of Union commanding generals, a clear defeat, and it put the rebel forces on the defensive. Although nearly two years of hard fighting still remained before the Civil War would finally end, after the battle of Gettysburg, and the Union victory at Vicksburg in the western theater that happened one day later, on July 4, 1863 — the Union side had the initiative.
The news of the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg, and the Union capture of Vicksburg made July 4, 1863 — the day after Pickett’s forces were bloodily repulsed — a very memorable Independence Day.