Gettysburg Day: The Third Day, July 3, 1863

On the afternoon of July 3, 1863, 15,000 men of General George Pickett’s division sheltered behind McPherson’s Wood during the fiercest artillery bombardment of the war.  Ninety minutes later, when the cannons fell silent, they passed through the wood and and marched over a mile of open ground to attack the Union center.

Numbers identify trees the War Dept. has identified as survivors of the battle

As you stand beneath the boughs of the trees, and gaze at the stone wall marking the Union position, it is almost beyond imagining what those men were feeling as they formed their ranks.  They were all veterans.  They probably knew what would happen as well as their commander, General James Longstreet, who did his best to talk Robert E. Lee out of the attack.  Lee would not budge.  His men had repeatedly done the impossible; maybe they would do it again at Gettysburg.

Where some of the generals wore plumes in their hats, talked of the bravery of southern manhood, and thought in terms of Napoleonic tactics, Longstreet was a pragmatist who knew that warfare had changed.  He had already invented a new kind of trench, anticipating the tactics of WWI.  He knew that bravery wouldn’t keep you alive when facing the fire of rifled muskets that were lethal at half a mile or when charging into cannons loaded with ball bearings.  He told Lee that no 15,000 men ever assembled could take the ridge, but he was overruled.  When Pickett asked, “Shall I go,” Longstreet could not even answer; all he could do was nod his head.

In one of the most tragic events of the Civil War, the men of Pickett’s division formed their ranks and moved over the fields in lines the northern men found stunningly beautiful, even as they fired their cannons and blew them apart.

Pickett’s 15,000 men suffered 60% casualties that afternoon.  As the survivors staggered back to the woods, Lee met them.  “It is all my fault,” he told the troops.  “All my fault.”  The south never had another chance to win the war.

The only brigade to reach the wall was led by General Lewis “Lo” Armistead.  His story illustrates the brother-against-brother tragedy of the Civil War.  Armistead and Union General John Hancock were close friends during the Mexican War and later in California.  On the night before they took separate trains to join opposing armies, they gathered with other officers to drink and sing and make tearful toasts to each other.  Armistead said, “May God strike me dead if I ever lift a hand against you.”  When he learned that he would have to march against Hancock, who commanded the Union center, Armistead did not think he would survive; he sent his family bible to Myra Hancock, his old friend’s wife.

Armistead was shot three times as he crossed the wall.  As union solders gathered around him, he said, “Tell General Hancock that General Armistead is so very sorry.”

This clip from Gettysburg is one of the most moving of the film and represents one of the saddest events in American history.  It is Armistead who gives the order to March.  It is worth noting that this scene, like most in the movie, was filmed on the Gettysburg battlefield, with the help of thousands of Civil War re-enactors who bring tremendous realism into all of the scenes involving the armies.

On the next day,  July 4, the Confederates reformed their lines as driving rain fell.  Lee hoped Meade would attack, mirroring his own mistake of the day before, but no attack came.  That night, the southern troops left the field and started their march back to Virginia.  Meade pursued the retreating Confederates, but half-heartedly, allowing the remnants of Lee’s army to escape.  WIth vigorous action, he might have ended the war – instead it dragged on for another two years.

Gettysburg: The Second Day, July 2, 1863

By the morning of July 2, both armies were in place on ridges facing each other about a mile apart, but the Union forces, arranged in the shape of a fishhook, had the advantage of easily defensible terrain and ease of communication.  The Confederate line was five miles long and messages were harder to transmit.

Lee planned a series of coordinated, “en echelon” attacks on both flanks.  Timing was critical.  One attack was to follow another, to confuse the enemy and prevent men from reinforcing other parts of the line.  The distance worked against Lee.  So did his unfamiliarity with the terrain.

Battle lines on the afternoon of July 2

The assault was supposed to begin in the morning, but it took Longstreet longer than expected to position his men.  At one point the column came into view of the Union troops, and to preserve the element of surprise, they doubled back and  took a roundabout way to reach their objective.  The assault did not launch until 4:00pm, and Ewell’s planned diversionary attack on the right did not begin start 7:00pm, too late to confuse the northern forces.  To make things worse for Longstreet, his commanders were not in position to roll up the Union flank as Lee had expected.  Instead, the ground before them was well defended.

In the course of the bloody afternoon, both sides realized the hill called Little Round Top was undefended.  Union commanders rushed Joshua Chamberlain’s 20th Maine, including the 114 former-mutineers, into position, with orders to “hold to the last.”

Some historians now dispute the assertion that the Union army would have fallen if Little Round Top was lost, but everyone who ought for the hill that day believed it.  Chamberlain’s men repulsed repeated assaults.  They started the battle with 60 rounds each, but even taking the cartridges of the fallen, they ran out of ammunition before the battle was over.  Under orders not to retreat, but with his men unable to shoot, Chamberlain ordered a bayonet charge, a tactic from the books of military history he had studied.

The Confederates were exhausted.  The day was hot, and many of them had been fighting all afternoon with empty canteens.  When the Union forces came charging downhill out of the trees, many gave up the fight and surrendered.  The others fled.

Chamberlain was wounded in the foot that day, one of six wounds he would receive in the course of the war.  One, in 1864, was so serious he was promoted to brigadier general where he was fallen, since no one believed he would survive the day.  He recovered and his regiment was chosen by Grant as the honor guard at Appomattox when Lee surrendered.

Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain served four terms as Governor of Maine, and thirty years after his stand on Little Round Top, he received the Congressional Medal of Honor.  After retiring from politics, Chamberlain became president of Bowdoin College.  He died in 1914, a few months before the guns of August signaled the world’s descent into another round of the folly he had survived.

Gettysburg: The First Day, July 1, 1863

By the summer of 1863, Major General John Reynolds was regarded by officers of both north and south as the best general in the Union army.  In a confidential meeting on June 2, Lincoln is said to have offered Reynolds command of all northern forces.  Reynolds supposedly said he would only accept if he could have free rein and be shielded from Washington politics, conditions Lincoln could not meet.  This left Reynolds at front of the Union army when Buford sent urgent messages requesting assistance in holding a strong field position against vastly superior forces.  Where many other northern generals would have dithered and delayed, Reynolds understood the gravity of the situation and moved his troops forward with all possible haste.

Gen. John Reynolds. Public domain

He arrived just in time.  After repeated assaults, Buford’s line was ready to break when Reynolds arrived with two corps to counterattack.  Buford and Reynolds’s bold moves preserved the Union position on the heights, which in the end decided the battle.  Reynolds bought the advantage at the cost of his life, for as he urged his men forward, he was shot through the neck and died instantly.

About the time that Reynolds fell, Confederate General Richard Ewell’s troops arrived from the north.  Attacked on two sides, the Union forces fell back through the town and reformed on Cemetery Hill.  When Lee arrived on the field, he ordered Ewell, who commanded Stonewall Jackson’s old brigade, to take the hill, “if practical.”  Jackson undoubtedly would have found it practical.  Ewell did not, and also did not send troops to neighboring Culp’s hill, which the northern forces occupied under the cover of darkness.

The vision and courage of Union generals Buford and Reynolds, combined with the hesitation of Ewell, gave the northern army a huge advantage in field position after the first day of fighting.

John Buford died in December, 1863, in part from the effects of old wounds.  On the last day of his life, Lincoln promoted him to Major General in recognition of his service at Gettysburg.  Buford asked, “Does he mean it?” and when assured that he did, he said, “It’s too late now.  I wish that I could live.”  He died in the arms of fellow cavalry officer, Miles Keogh, who would later ride with Custer to his death on the Little Bighorn.

John Buford monument at Gettysburg

To be Continued