July 3, 1863 dawned hot in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. The soldiers of the two huge armies groaned in the stifling overnight heat, and then Union forces began another day of fighting with an artillery barrage that started at 4:30 a.m. The rebel forces responded by attacking, and the sound of battle drifted over the countryside.
Confederate commander Robert E. Lee had spent the night reflecting on the day before, when the rebels had come close to breaking the Union lines and winning a devastating victory. Lee concluded that another assault on the Army of the Potomac might produce a breakthrough. This time, he planned on a direct attack on the center of the Union position.
Lieutenant General Longstreet, whose troops were to carry out the assault, adamantly opposed Lee’s announced plan. Longstreet believed that no forces, however capable, could successfully carry out a direct attack on the prepared enemy positions. But Lee was not to be dissuaded, and the duty to carry out the assault was given to Confederate General George Pickett and his fresh force of Virginians.
At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery began shelling the Union positions along Cemetery Ridge, hoping the soften the lines so that Pickett could break through. But the barrage was ineffective, and when Pickett’s 12,000 men began their famous charge across the field toward Cemetery Ridge later that afternoon the Union forces were ready. The Federals poured cannon fire and rifle volleys into Pickett’s troops, tearing huge holes in their lines and leaving thousands dead and dying.
Amazingly, some rebel troops reached the Union lines, and the soldiers fought hand to hand. Union reinforcements soon appeared, and ultimately the rebel losses proved to be too great. The Confederates recognized that the charge could not succeed, and then the living remnants of Pickett’s decimated brigade retreated over the bloody ground.
Lee knew that he had blundered and accepted full blame for the carnage inflicted on Pickett’s brigade. But the tide had turned, and the die had been cast. The fighting ended, with the Southern forces suffering 28,000 dead, wounded, and missing over the three days of clashes compared to 23,000 casualties for the Army of the Potomac.
The numbers, however, did not tell the full story. The Confederate invasion of the North had been repulsed, and the Army of the Potomac had finally won a real victory against the seemingly unbeatable Robert E. Lee. Rather than inflicting a blow that might cause the North to sue for peace, Lee’s plan had given the Union a great, if bloody, victory that stiffened its resolve to fight on.