Gettysburg, July 3, 1863

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.

Gettysburg, July 2, 1863

As the second day of the battle dawned, the Army of the Potomac held the high ground south of the little Pennsylvania town — but its hold was precarious, and Confederate General Robert E. Lee was determined to dislodge the Union forces and win another stunning victory over the beleaguered Northern army.

Lee decided to swing a mighty hook at the Union left flank.  The attack would be led by his dependable “War Horse,” Lieutenant General James Longstreet, while the rest of the rebel army would pin the Union center and launch diversionary attacks at the Union right to prevent reinforcements.  Lee hoped Longstreet would be able to turn the flank and roll up the Union forces, crushing them between his men and the remainder of the Confederate Army.  On the Union side, commanders were frantically moving into position, seeking to plug holes in the line to deal with the attack they knew was coming.  After two years of fighting, the Northerners knew that General Lee would be aggressive.

It was a brutally hot and humid July day.  The Confederate attack took time to develop, but by late afternoon it looked like Lee’s plan had, again, succeeded.  Longstreet had smashed into the Union left, sending soldiers scattering through a bloody wheat field, and Lee ordered a further attack on the Union left, hoping to deliver the coup de grace that would send the entire Army of the Potomac into another disorganized, embarrassing retreat.  The rebels attacked, shouting their eerie rebel yell, but the Union forces refused to buckle and sent fusillades of artillery into the attacking Confederates.  Attacks were launched and repelled at murderous cost, and the bodies of dead and wounded soldiers from both armies lay baking in the sun.

It was the day that would make Joshua Chamberlain immortal.  On the far point of the Union left, on Little Round Top, Chamberlain was a colonel in the 20th Maine.  The Men of Maine rebuffed several attacks by the 15th Alabama infantry until they ran low on ammunition.  At that point, Chamberlain ordered his men to attack with bayonets and the Mainers swept down the hillside, sending the Confederates fleeing and securing the Union flank.

As the day ended, both sides had suffered devastating casualties.  The Confederate attack had almost succeeded, but the Army of the Potomac had held for another day.  General Lee considered whether another assault the next day might win the battle, and Union commanders weighed how to prepare.  The common soldiers in both armies, on the other hand, found it difficult to sleep in the sweltering heat, as they listened to the screams of injured horses and wounded men and thought about the battle that lay ahead.