It was the Glorious Fourth, but to the soldiers of both armies it was just the fourth day of a brutal, bloody battle. The fighting had stopped, but the terrible signs of the battle were all around them: the bodies of dead and dying soldiers, the desperate cries of the wounded, the carcasses of horses, fields littered with bodies and debris, trees clipped and gouged and splintered by minie balls and cannon shot.
On the Confederate side, commander Robert E. Lee was beset by regret about the decimation of Pickett’s brigade during the charge that Lee had ordered — but Lee could not waste time in recrimination. Having made the gamble to invade the North, Lee faced the predicament of extricating his army from hostile territory and retreating in the face of a victorious enemy.
Lee’s problems were intensified by the enormity of the Confederate casualties. The retreat was not merely a matter of ordering able-bodied soldiers to march; the Confederates had thousands of wounded to attend to, and every expectation that the Army of the Potomac would attack their retreating army as it fled southward. Lee gave orders that the train of wagons and wounded had to move at a steady pace and, if a breakdown occurred, the vehicle must simply be abandoned at the side of the road. The retreating Confederate column reportedly was 14 miles long as it headed first west, and then south, to cross the Potomac River and return to Virginia.
On the Union side, the Army of the Potomac celebrated their victory over the rebel forces — but also had to attend to thousands of its own dead and wounded. In the North, the Fourth of July was celebrated with special zeal that year, as newspapers reported both Lee’s retreat from Gettysburg and the surrender of long-besieged Confederate stronghold Vicksburg to Union forces far to the west.
After more than two years of hard, bloody fighting, the news finally was good for the North: a rebel invasion has been repulsed, and with the fall of Vicksburg the entirety of the Mississippi River was under Union control. Northerners could be forgiven if they hoped that the good news on July 4, 1863 meant that the war would soon be over — but it was not to be. Almost two more years of blood and death lay ahead.