July 3, 1863 (Friday)
The craggy rocks and boulders grinned menacingly from atop Culp’s Hill like scores of broken teeth in the moonlight. Even after Confederate General Jubal Early’s unsupported assault against adjacent East Cemetery Hill had failed in all its bloody horror, those same devilish stones and enemy breastworks silhouetted against the darkened sky warned the exhausted Rebels from Allegheny Johnson’s Division that come dawn, the terrible conflict would be renewed.
As the Southern men lay prostrate against the slopes, they could hear the enemy gathering strength; the spade and shovel digging them in. The Federal XII Corps, commanded by Henry Slocum, had fully returned. The previous night, only one division had staved off repeated Confederate attacks, losing a series of works in the process. Before the sun could peer over the eastern horizon, a gap large enough for an entire brigade had opened all the way to the Baltimore Pike – the main Union artery for supply and retreat, should the next day turn sour for the North.
“Drive them out at daylight,” came General Slocum’s order, referring to the Rebels who had taken his breastworks. More simple words could never describe so difficult a task. The planning began at once. “We will hold the position we now have until morning,” whispered a Union general through the blackness. “Then, from those hills back of us, we will shell the hell out of them.”
Perhaps an hour before first light, the Union artillery echoed through the saddle of Culp’s Hill. The “hills back of us” roared from across the Baltimore Pike, filling that vacant gap with the iron and explosions of twenty-six canons. While some of the Rebels had taken shelter in the captured enemy breastworks, others were naked to the blaze and suffering.
Allegheny Johnson, commanding the Confederate troops along Culp’s Hill had, like General Slocum, planned to attack at dawn. Though the Federal artillery hardly foiled his machinations, the Union troops struck first. One regiment, and then another, attacked across that open space, trying desperately and fruitlessly to move around the Confederate left. Both were met with a staggering fire and fell back.
But with a resupply of ammunition, the entire Federal line had woken with the sun, greeting their Southern guests with volley upon volley of lead. It was through this hail that Allegheny Johnson’s men attacked. More than anything, it was a renewal of the previous day’s action. They had gained ground and it made enough sense that with more troops, perhaps the line could be pierced and Culp’s Hill captured. If such was the case, Cemetery Hill and the Baltimore Pike could no longer remain in Federal hands. The fighting was vicious and unceasing.
General Richard Ewell, the Confederate corps commander who was overseeing this attack, had been informed by General Lee that James Longstreet would renew his own attack at dawn. But as the sun swam over Cemetery Ridge, Longstreet’s attack did not. General Lee found Longstreet on the extreme right of the army. Searching for some way to get around the Union flank near the Round Tops, Longstreet had more or less ignored Lee’s wishes.
When he saw Lee ride up, he proposed the idea of turning the Federal left. Lee would have none of it, once again reiterating his desire for Longstreet to attack Cemetery Hill. Longstreet countered that he had been examining the ground near the Round Tops and believed it to be the better way. “No,” Lee replied (according to Longstreet), “I am going to take them where they are on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s Division and make the attack.” Raising his fist and pointing it in that direction, he closed, “The enemy is there, and I am going to strike him.” According to Lee himself, “The general plan was unchanged” from the previous day. Longstreet was to again attack Cemetery Hill.
But Longstreet would not have to make these sunrise attacks alone. Ewell had been likewise ordered to continue his assault upon Culp’s Hill. This would create, Lee believed, a perfect battlefield upon which one enemy flank could not reinforce the other. But come the dawn, when Ewell ordered Allegheny Johnson to strike, Longstreet was far from ready.
Longstreet’s assault was to begin with a great barrage of artillery, and before the dawn E. Porter Alexander, his chief artillerist, was at work placing his batteries. In all, 163 Rebel guns were pointed in the direction of Cemetery Hill. While that took time, placing the infantry for the assault took longer. Though the charge would be remembered in Pickett’s name, it was actually comprised of three different divisions, two of which were from A.P. Hill’s Corps holding the Confederate center. Two additional brigades (also from Hill’s Corps) were to support the attack.
This all took time – much more time than anyone expected. General Ewell, still pushing Johnson’s men against Culp’s Hill was informed an hour after he started his attack that Longstreet wouldn’t begin his assault until 9am. Even by such an early hour, Lee’s plan for the day had already unraveled. Johnson’s Rebels poured everything they had into the Slocum’s XII Corps troops, who returned in kind.
By the middle of morning, Johnson had been in this sustained cacophony for over five hours. Twice had they made charges against the Federal positions and twice had they been driven back. General Ewell, still trying to hold onto his momentum until Longstreet could finally launch his assault, ordered Johnston to try it again.
This too failed, though it took two long and deathly hours to do so. Federal artillery tore ranks to pieces and sent the Rebels reeling back to their works. Believing they were more victorious than was true, the Federals counter attacked across an open field in an attempt to retake a stonewall, but were overwhelmed and slaughtered. Through this, however, the Rebels abandoned the Union works they had taken the night before. In the end, each side held much the same ground as when the fight for Culp’s Hill began the previous day. Nothing was gained and thousands had fallen. Most importantly, at least as far as General Lee’s plan was concerned, the fighting upon Culp’s Hill had quieted before Longstreet had begun his attack. The whole affair was maddeningly pointless.
As Ewell’s attacks were failing, General Longstreet was discussing the opening artillery barrage with E. Porter Alexander. Most of the fire was to be directed at the batteries on Cemetery Hill. “It was not meant simply to make a noise,” wrote Alexander, “but to try and cripple him – to tear him limbless, as it were, if possible….” By 11am, he informed Longstreet that the artillery was in position.
Longstreet was to signal Alexander when the bombardment was to begin and, in turn, Alexander was to determine when his artillery had done all it could to “tear him limbless.” One of General Pickett’s couriers was with Alexander and would carry the message.
Not long later, Alexander received a strange note from General Longstreet. “If the artillery fire does not have the effect to drive off the enemy, or greatly demoralize him,so as to make our efforts pretty certain,” wrote Longstreet, “I would prefer that you should not advise Gen. Pickett to make the charge.”
This came as quite a shock. There was no way for Alexander to tell the effects his fire had upon the enemy infantry as they were all well hidden from view. “If,” he replied, “there is any alternative to this attack it should be carefully considered before opening our fire….”
Longstreet soon replied with a basic restatement of his first message. It would be in Alexander’s hands. Believing that General Lee had all of this in control, that “he intended to march every man he had upon that cemetery hill that day,” Alexander gave in. “When our artillery fire is at its best,” concluded Alexander, “I shall order Gen. Pickett to charge.”
Having no real way of telling when would be best, Alexander decided that after a barrage of twenty minutes, he would tell Pickett to advance.
General Longstreet had signaled the bombardment by ordering two distinct rounds fired by the Washington Artillery. Their sounds split the humid silence and the thunder of 160 guns exploded.
Almost immediately, the Federals responded. This shook Alexander to the core. After but ten minutes, he had “recognized a force of artillery at work on the enemy’s line which I thought it madness to send a storming column out in the face of, for so long a charge under a mid-day July sun.” Caught up in the fury of it all, Alexander became determined to drive this force of artillery from Cemetery Hill. Fifteen minutes elapsed, and then twenty, all the while Confederate and Federal gunners loaded and fired as quickly as they could.
After twenty-five minutes – longer than Alexander had wanted to wait – he sent to General Pickett a message: “If you are coming at all you must come at once, or I cannot give you proper support, but the enemy’s fire has not slacked at all. At least 18 guns are still firing from the cemetery itself [Alexander meant Cemetery Ridge].”
But just as he sent the message, he noticed through his field glass that several enemy batteries were limbering up and driving off. Alexander believed that they were merely replacing exhausted batteries with fresh ones. “If they do not put fresh batteries there in five minutes,” Alexander postulated, “this will be our fight.”
Those five minutes passed like years, but at their end, Alexander determined that he had done his job. “For God’s sake come quick,” he wrote to Pickett. “The 18 guns are gone. Come quick or I can’t support you.”
The next five minutes passed even slower. At each moment, Alexander expected to see the men of Longstreet’s assault filing out of the woods behind him. Upon receiving the message, General Pickett rode to Longstreet, finding him seated upon a rail fence. “General,” he spoke, “shall I advance?”
Longstreet did not answer. He could not answer. He had never wanted this attack, this battle. As far back as April, he had never wanted this campaign. But now it came down to this. He was being asked to order an attack that he was convinced would fail. Such is the absurdity of duty. Unable to answer, he simply looked away from Pickett. “I am going to move forward, Sir,” said Pickett breaking the stillness before riding away to send his men and the others towards Cemetery Hill.
Longstreet then rode to Alexander’s position to get a clear view of what he had just done. Alexander explained that the enemy had removed eighteen guns, but that Pickett was lagging. Additionally, he added that due to some missing guns and the ammunition train that had been moved too far out of range, he was unsure how much actual support his artillery could give to the assault.
This was exactly what Longstreet wanted to hear. “Go and halt Pickett right where he is and replenish your ammunition,” said Longstreet. But Alexander could do no such thing. It would take an hour or two to replenish the caissons, if they could even be filled at all. In that time, the firing would have to drop off and the enemy would bolster their lines.
“I don’t want to make this attack,” spat Longstreet, peering through his field glasses. “I believe it will fail. I would not make it even now, but that General Lee has ordered it and expects it.” Alexander believed that all he had to do to stop the attack was give Longstreet even the slightest hint of support. But this was not his place. This was not actually his assault – it was Longstreet’s and it was Lee’s.
While this was or was not being decided, Longstreet’s men appeared in long gray lines from the trees. It was near 3pm and the artillery had slackened and then stopped. It has begun.
From across the half mile space, the Federal soldiers could see what was about to transpire. General Frank Haskell of the II Corps, about to receive the brunt of the Rebel attack, described shortly after the battle what they witnessed:
More than half a mile their front extends; more than a thousand yards the dull gray masses deploy, man touching man, rank pressing rank, and line supporting line. The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down; the army of eighteen thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on the move, as with one soul, in perfect order, without impediment of ditch, or wall or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.
Scores of books have been written that describe the fighting, the movement of brigades and regiments, the deaths of companies, the falling of colonels and generals. Their deeds and their sufferings fill volumes and can hardly be related here.
It was a terrible battle. The resolve of the Rebels was as cold and bitter as the Union steel so deadly in the hands of their enemy crouched silently behind a far away stone wall. Past swales and over fences they marched unstoppable in their resolve, eyes focused upon the blue foe before them.
As soon as the Confederate soldiers reached the rail fences lining either side of the Emmitsburg Road, the host of Northerners rose up against them, sending a shower of lead into their ranks. The artillery, now loaded with the macabre cannister fired double as they approached. On the Rebel flanks cries rang out and Yankees came ravening upon the already stricken legions of Rebels.
And closer they came, now a mass, heedless of order with rank and designation forgotten. Their yells were deafening and the grass, the wall and even the sky were stained with their blood. Panic came for some and they fell back, away from the stonewall, away from their enemies. Before the wall, both sides were piled in heaps until the ground was black with death and dying.
There were breaks in the Union line and what Confederates that could streamed through recklessly. “See ’em! See ’em!” Cried artillery commander Henry Hunt maniacally firing his sidearm and lost in the swirling crescendo. “See ’em!” For each side victory and defeat seemed close at hand. But soon there were fewer and fewer Rebels behind the Federal lines. Soon the attackers were attacked, hemmed all about by Northern reinforcements, renewed with redoubled force. The Rebels were being slowly beaten down and back and soon it would be over.
Those who were left, melted west into the fields and woods from where they came. The cries of “Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!” sounded from the Federal lines and before long a string of blue skirmishers followed the retreating Confederates.
But they came no farther and in no greater numbers. Generals Lee and Longstreet, the authors of their own army’s slaughter, prepared for a counterattack that would never materialize. They had lost the last day they could stand to lose, and there was not another day they had to fight. They were alone in what they now saw as a foreign country, and somehow they would have to return home. There would be other days, but not for a long, long time.
This fact was unknown in the Federal ranks. Though they could tell that Lee had perhaps done his worst, they did not know that he had given everything to this charge. Fully thirty-five percent of the Confederates making Longstreet’s Assault were either dead, wounded or captured.
Throughout the three days of carnage, each side lost upwards of 23,000. Meade suffered 3,155 killed, 14,531 wounded with 5,369 captured or missing. The Confederates, who had invaded with just over 70,000 men could hardly afford to sustain 4,708 killed, 12,693 wounded and 5,830 captured or missing.
That night, Lee pulled his troops back to their positions held just before the assaults of the second day. General Ewell’s troops were ordered back even farther, holding Seminary Ridge on the first day’s battlefield and abandoning the town. In all likelihood, before the night was over, General Lee, while preparing to receive a counterattack that never materialized, made plans to remove his army back into Virginia.
Lee’s dreams of capturing Harrisburg, Philadelphia and Baltimore lay in bloody, twisted heaps upon the fields west and south of Gettysburg.1
- Sources: Gettysburg, Culp’s Hill & Cemetery Hill by Harry Pfanz; The Gettysburg Campaign by Edwin Coddington; Gettysburg by Stephen Sears; Gettysburg by Noah Andre Trudeau; Fighting for the Confederacy by E. Porter Alexander; as well as a bit of inspiration from J.R.R. Tolkien for good measure. [↩]