On July 3, the battle resumed, as Lee made one final attempt to grasp the big victory that he so desperately wanted. As the clash spilled into the afternoon, Lee ordered a risky assault on the center of the Union's defenses. Lee's plan called for fifteen thousand men under the command of James J. Pettigrew (1828-1863) and George E.
Pickett (1825-1875) to rush Cemetery Ridge, the heart of the Northern defenses. Noting that these divisions would have to cross a mile of open ground to reach the Union line, Longstreet repeatedly urged Lee to reconsider his plan. But the Confederate general refused to change his strategy, and at 3 p.m. Longstreet reluctantly relayed Lee's order to attack.
In the hours prior to the attack, Confederate artillery units had directed a torrent of shellfire at Union positions in hopes of knocking out Federal cannons. Lee knew that if those weapons were disabled, it would be much easier for his troops to reach Cemetery Ridge. At first, the Union had responded to the South's bombardment with a major artillery attack of its own. As time passed, however, most of the Union guns fell silent. Lee hoped that their silence meant that they had been knocked out of action. But as Pickett and Petti-grew launched their assault—which came to be known as "Pickett's Charge"—the Union cannons came to life once again, repeatedly hitting the advancing rebel soldiers with a hail of deadly fire.
Pickett and Pettigrew pushed their troops forward, but as they rushed over the unprotected hillside toward Cemetery Ridge, Northern cannons and gunfire took a fearsome toll. By the time the first Confederate soldiers reached the low walls of Cemetery Ridge, several of the attacking rebel divisions had been destroyed. Union troops easily disposed of the few hundred soldiers who reached the wall. The other remnants of the assault force limped back to Confederate positions.
Lee's decision to attack the center of the Union's defenses had resulted in disaster. Of the fifteen thousand troops who had taken part in Pickett's Charge, only half returned. Pickett's division suffered particularly heavy losses. He lost two-thirds of his men in the attack, and only one of his thirty-five officers escaped the charge without being killed or wounded. Horrified by his misjudgment, Lee admitted to the survivors that he was to blame. He then gathered his bloodied troops together and retreated back to Virginia, haunted by the knowledge that his invasion of the North had ended in failure.
The Battle of Gettysburg took an awful toll on both armies. Meade's Army of the Potomac sustained more than twenty-three thousand casualties in the three days of fighting, while the Confederates lost approximately twenty-eight thousand troops. But while both sides suffered enormous losses in the clash, it was clear that the Union had won a major victory. Gettysburg had reduced the size of Lee's Army of Northern Virginia by one-third at a time when Confederate efforts to recruit new soldiers were faltering. Moreover, the battle had driven the Confederates out of the North. Finally, Meade's victory showed Northern soldiers and civilians alike that Lee could be beaten on the field of battle.
Key moments in the Union's attempt to gain total control of the Mississippi River. (Illustration by XNR Productions. Reproduced by permission of The Gale Group.)
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