The last day of battle. Pickett's Charge. Historians and Civil War enthusiasts have hotly debated this last day, the decisions that were made by Lee in the early morning hours, and the actual charge by Pickett's Division. A recent book, Lost Triumph: Lee's Real Plan at Gettysburg--And Why It Failed by Tom Carhart, postulates that the attack upon the Union center was part of a coordinated, three-pronged attack. The plan included a frontal assault against the Union right on Culp's Hill and, most critically, a rear assault on Union lines led by Jeb Stuart's cavalry. Of course, both of these attacks failed, dooming the third prong. In this reinterpretation, the real "hero" of Gettysburg was the oft-maligned "boy general" George Armstrong Custer, who thwarted Stuart with repeated gallant charges. You may find the book at the link below:
The final day at Gettysburg has morphed from historical fact into part legend and part folklore. It was indeed the highwater mark for the Confederacy and for the Union Army in the East a sorely needed battlefield morale boost--though at a horrible price of human life.
Here is the timeline:
Friday, July 3, about 3:45 A.M. - Lee's timetable was undermined as Union cannons pounded the Rebels holding a lodgement at the lower end of Culp's Hill to drive them from the trenches. The Rebels did not withdraw, but instead attacked the Federals around 8 A.M. Thus began a vicious three hour struggle with the Rebels charging time after time up the hill only to be beaten back. The Federals finally counter attacked and drove the Rebels off the hill and east across Rock Creek. Around 11 A.M. the fighting on Culp's Hill stopped.
Throughout the morning and early afternoon amid 90° heat and stifling humidity the Rebels moved into position in the woods opposite Cemetery Ridge for the coming charge. Some Union troops were moved away from Cemetery Ridge on Meade's orders because he thought Lee would attack again in the south. At the conference the night before, Meade had correctly predicted Lee would attack the center, but now thought otherwise. He had left only 5,700 infantrymen stretched out along the half-mile front to initially face the 12,500 man Rebel charge centered on the fresh troops of General George Pickett's Virginians.
1:07 P.M. - 140 Confederate cannons -- the greatest concentration of artillery ever assembled for one purpose in North America -- opened fire on the Union position at the center of Cemetery Ridge. It was "indescribably grand. All the batteries were soon covered with smoke, through which the flames were incessant, whilst the air seemed filled with shells, whose sharp exlosions, with the hurtling of their fragments, formed a running accompaniment to the deep roar of the guns." On the recieving end, it was "the most infernal pandemonium it has ever been my fortune to look upon." Amid all this, Union General Hancock, his orderly displaying the Corps guidon, slowly rode the full length of the line under the hail of shells. His men cheered him lustily from behind whatever cover they had found.
Around 2:45 P.M. the Federal artillery slowed their return fire, then ceased, to conserve ammunition and to fool the Rebels into thinking the cannons were knocked out. The ruse worked. 3:00 P.M. - "Up,men, and to your posts! Don't forget today that you are from Old Virginia!" yelled Pickett as the Rebels formed an orderly line that stretched a mile from flank to flank. In deliberate silence and with military pageantry, they slowly headed toward the Union Army a mile away on Cemetery Ridge. Within minutes, the Federal artillery was back in action, tearing great gaps in the Confederate line. The Rebels advanced at about a hundred yards a minute and, as they got within closer range, Federal cannons switched to using grapeshot, a shell containing iron balls that flew apart when fired. The Federal Infantry ripped into the Rebels with deadly accurate rifle volleys killing many and wounding more.The fierce battle raged for an hour with much brutal hand to hand fighting, shooting at close range and stabbing with bayonets.
For a brief moment, the Rebels nearly had their chosen objective, a small clump of oak trees atop Cemetery Ridge. Some of the attackers had made a small penetration there and just to the south, a Mississippi regiment managed to take it's colors to within arms reach of the Union line. A North Carolina sergeant and color-bearer actually stepped over the wall -- the only two of that entire regiment to make it that far. But Union reinforcements and regrouped Union infantry units swarmed in and opened fire on the Rebel ranks.
4:00 P.M. - The battered, outnumbered Rebels finally began to give way and this great human wave that had been Pickett's Charge began to recede, leaving 7,500 men lying on the field of battle. The Union troops chanted "Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg, Fredericksburg" in a taunt reminding the Confederates of the failed Federal charge at Fredericksburg, VA the previous winter. As the tattered survivors reached the Confederate line Lee rode out to meet them. He took all the blame for the failed attack and rallied and reassured them. "All this has been my fault. It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out the best way you can."
Saturday, July 4 - Confederate wounded were loaded aboard wagons to begin the journey back toward the South in a long slow withdrawal of the army back to Virginia. Union commander Meade, out of fatigue and caution, did not immediately pursue Lee.
July 10 - Meade pins Lee in his defensive works along the crossing point on the rain-swollen Potomac, but does not immediately attack him. By July 14, the Army of Northern Virginia is back across the river. Meade crossed on July 17 - 19.
August 4 - Both armies are back at the original starting point where the campaign had begun sixty days before.
November 19 - President Lincoln went to the battlefield to dedicate it as a military cemetery. Confederate causalities in dead, wounded and missing were 28,000 out of 75,000. Union casualties were 23,000 out of 88,000. It was the most costly battle ever fought in the United States. For the remainder of the war the South will not have the strength to mount another offensive into the North.