The two armies met outside of Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. During the battle's first day, Lee's seventy-five thousand-troop force pushed hard against Meade's defensive lines. But Meade had selected his position well, and Lee's forces were unable to dislodge the Federal Army. The following day, Lee launched a second major assault on the Army of the Potomac in hopes of breaking Meade's army and moving deeper into Union territory. Once again, however, the Army of the Potomac held its ground, delivering punishing blows of its own on the rebel army.
On July 3, the fighting resumed. As the battle wore on, it became clear to Lee that he would not be able to defeat Meade using ordinary measures. He gambled that a full frontal assault on the center of the Union's defenses might cripple the Northern army. He ordered fifteen thousand troops 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. Some of Lee's officers urged him to abandon the plan, but the Confederate general refused to change his strategy.
This assault on Cemetery Ridge—commonly known as "Pickett's Charge"—ended in disaster for Lee's army. As Pettigrew and Pickett urged their troops on across the open ground that separated the two armies, Union artillery destroyed the advance with deadly cannon fire. Stunned by this disastrous turn of events, Lee gathered his battered army together and retreated back to Virginia.
The Battle of Gettysburg took a terrible 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. Meade's triumph ended Lee's dreams of forcing a peace treaty and showed the North that the Confederate general could be defeated. As Northern writer George Templeton Strong exclaimed, "The results of this victory are priceless. . . . The charm of Robert Lee's invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac has at last found a general that can handle it, and has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long disheartening list of hard-fought failures. . . . Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad."
Everyone in the North reacted with excitement to news of Meade's great victory. But his cautious pursuit of Lee's bloodied army disappointed some observers, including Lincoln. These critics felt that if Meade had acted aggressively, he might have been able to destroy the Army of Northern Virginia completely and bring the war to an end. Today, some historians continue to criticize Meade for letting Lee get away. But others point out that a continuation of the fighting might not have ended in a Union victory, for Lee still had thousands of veteran troops at his disposal. "A heavy load of responsibility weighed on Meade's shoulders [at Gettysburg]," explained James M. McPherson in Battle Cry of Freedom. "He had been in command only six days. For three of them his army had been fighting for the nation's life, as he saw the matter, and had narrowly saved it. Meade could not yet know how badly the enemy was hurt, or that their artillery was low on ammunition."
Major General George G. Meade stands in front of his tent in June 1864.
(Reproduced by permission of the National Portrait Gallery.)
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