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Gettysburg Seminar Papers

THE THIRD DAY:
The Fate Of A Nation
 

The Third Day at Gettysburg
July 3, 1863

Lieutenant Frank Haskell, aide de camp to Union Brigadier General John Gibbon was sleeping soundly at 4 a.m. on the fateful morning of July 3 when he felt his chief pulling on his foot. "Come, don't you hear that," he heard Gibbon saying. Recalled Haskell:

I sprang up to my feet. Where was I? A moment and my dead senses, and my memory were alive again, and the sound of brisk firing of musketry to the front and right of the 2nd Corps, and over at the extreme right of our line, where we heard it last, in the night, brought all back to my memory. We surely were on the field of battle; and there were palpable evidences to my senses, that to-day was to be another of blood. [1]

It would indeed and it would prove to be a decisive day in the outcome of the Battle of Gettysburg. After the battle of July 2 both army commanders weighed their options. Meade called a meeting of his corps commanders at his headquarters at the Lydia Leister house. His army had suffered heavy casualties in the two days of fighting yet it still held all the key terrain of the Gettysburg position. But could the army stand another day of pounding? Meade needed to hear from his corps commanders. They assured him that morale was good and the army still in condition to continue the fight. And all concurred with the opinion expressed by General Henry Slocum, commanding the army's right wing, for the army to "stay and fight it out" in their current position.

Lee called no meeting of his corps commanders that July 2 night, which in retrospect was a mistake, but it reflected his confidence. From all indicators he was winning the battle. On July 1 his army had defeated and badly damaged two Union army corps. On July 2 they had driven in the Union left more than one-half mile — although he did not know that the Union left had been advanced that distance without orders — seized a lodgment on the Union right at Culp's Hill, and again inflicted heavy losses on the Federals. In two days of combat Lee's forces had captured over 5,000 prisoners. On both days he believed his army had confirmed its superiority over the Army of the Potomac and surely shaken its morale. He faced a commander who had led the Federal army for only five days, and was its fifth commander in just a year. Lee sensed that victory in Pennsylvania, with all its political and military consequences, was in his grasp. July 3 would be the decisive day. He would attack.

The major shortcoming of Confederate operations on July 2 had been a lack of coordination between the army corps, and sometimes between divisions. "With proper concert of action, and with the increased support that the positions gained on the right would enable the artillery to render the assaulting columns," Lee was confident his army would prevail on July 3. Verbal orders were delivered to renew the battle at daylight. Lee's plan had three elements. Longstreet's First Corps, reinforced by the fresh infantry division of Major General George E. Pickett, would assault the Union left, while Ewell's Second Corps assailed the Federal right flank at Culp's Hill. Major General James E. B. Stuart's cavalry would support the infantry effort by maneuvering east of Gettysburg where they both posed a threat to the Union rear and would be in an ideal position to pursue and harass a retreating Army of the Potomac. [2]

The "proper concert of action" Lee planned collapsed before the day's offensive began. Part of the fault was communications, or lack thereof. The failure to meet with Longstreet the night before bred confusion. Lee also seemed to expect Meade to passively await the Confederate onslaught. He did not. Meade approved a proposal by Slocum to drive the Confederates from their lodgment on Culp's Hill in the morning. During the night acting 12th Corps commanders Brigadier General Alpheus Williams and his subordinates arranged their infantry and supporting artillery. At daylight the 12th Corps batteries opened a furious bombardment of the Confederates on the hill. The opposing infantry were in close proximity to one another and the Federal bombardment seemed a signal to renew the battle. The battle for Culp's Hill was on.

On Longstreet's front quiet reigned. In his last official report of the campaign Lee charitably recorded that "General Longstreet's dispositions were not completed as early as was expected." In truth, other than repositioning his artillery, Longstreet had made no preparations to mount the assault Lee expected. Pickett's division was not even on the field at daylight. Precisely what went wrong may never be known, but evidence implies that Longstreet had little confidence in a renewed frontal attack on his corps line and during the night had cast about for an alternative. In his report he relates that he had developed a plan "with a view to pass around the hill occupied by the enemy on his left [Little Round Top], and to gain it by flank and reverse attack." This may well have been Longstreet's idea, but the plan was never communicated to any subordinate officer and the First Corps was unready to attack at the hour Lee had appointed for the offensive to start. Lee discovered this when he rode up to learn the cause of the silence along the First Corps line. [3]

Longstreet's plan was at cross purposes with the plan Lee had communicated to the rest of the army and whatever its possible merits, was now impossible to adopt. But Lee also confronted the dilemma that Longstreet's lack of preparation had seriously compromised the coordinated attack he had planned. Ewell's battle raged on while Longstreet's brigades stood idle. Lee's battle plan had collapsed around him like a castle of sand struck by a wave. Yet the idea of disengaging and maneuvering to another battlefield did not occur to him, or if it did there is no record of it. He would not, could not, let this opportunity pass to strike the enemy a crippling blow on northern soil. Victory dangled before him. He well understood the costs and the difficulty his army had endured to come this far. To march away was an admission of defeat and neither Lee nor his army were defeated. The pressing question was how quickly Longstreet's corps could be readied to attack. Longstreet thought he could be ready by 10 A.M. A courier was sent speeding to Ewell with this news, but the Second Corps was too closely engaged to disengage and wait until this time to renew its attack.

With the sounds of Ewell's fight at Culp's Hill roaring on Lee and Longstreet discussed the First Corps attack. Longstreet successfully argued that he needed to keep McLaws' and Hood's (now Law's) divisions in position on the army's right to protect the flank. But he was unsuccessful in deterring Lee from ordering a frontal attack upon the Union position. Lee shifted the focus of the attack northward. Pickett's division formed the fresh element of the assault force. To this Lee added Heth's division, now commanded by Brigadier General James J. Pettigrew, and two brigades of Pender's division, now commanded by Major General Isaac Trimble. Two brigades of Major General Richard Anderson's Third Corps division were also added a support, a total force of slightly over 13,000. With eight of the eleven brigades committed to the effort coming from the Third Corps, Longstreet suggested that Third Corps commander, Lt. General A. P. Hill should command the assault. Reflecting his confidence in Longstreet as a tactical commander Lee made no change.

The assault would be preceded by an artillery bombardment or cannonade as it was called then. The Confederates massed the largest concentration of artillery yet seen in a battle in the eastern theater of war along a nearly three mile front. Their mission was to silence the Union artillery and demoralize the defending infantry along Cemetery Ridge.

The preparations for the grand assault consumed the morning while Ewell's men bled themselves on the slopes of Culp's Hill. 10 A.M. came and went. By 11 A.M. Ewell broke off the action. His men had failed to penetrate the Union defenses at any point and had suffered heavy losses. The first element of Lee's plan had failed.

Meanwhile, east of Gettysburg, "Jeb" Stuart's cavalry was observed in its march east of Gettysburg and Federal cavalry under Brigadier General David M. Gregg, positioned to cover their army's right flank near the intersection of the Hanover and Low Dutch roads, were alerted. In the mid-afternoon the opposing forces made contact, trading artillery fire and sparring with dismounted skirmishers. Stuart eventually committed mounted forces to turn the tide, and Gregg countered with his own. The fighting resulted in a draw but Gregg succeeded in neutralizing Stuart's threat. The second element of Lee's plan had failed.

The high hopes of Lee's entire campaign into Pennsylvania came down to Longstreet's grand assault upon the Union center. The story of Pickett's Charge, as it became known in popular history, is too well known to repeat in any detail here. The great bombardment effectively destroyed the Union 2nd Corps Artillery Brigade, but it inflicted little damage to the infantry or to the artillery that stood ready to savage the flanks of the assaulting Confederate infantry. The infantry of Pickett, Pettigrew and Trimble advanced with sublime courage into the teeth of Union shell, shrapnel and canister, then minie balls from thousands of rifle-muskets which mowed men down by the hundreds. The Union soldiers along Cemetery Ridge met their attackers with equal courage, and when the Confederates managed to achieve a penetration in their line, they rallied, counterattacked and crushed the breakthrough. By 4 P.M., an hour after the grand assault had stepped off, the survivors were streaming back across the open fields in full retreat toward the cover of Seminary Ridge. Nearly 5,600 Confederate soldiers were dead, wounded, or prisoners.

Lee's great gambit for victory in Pennsylvania had failed. His army's offensive power was spent. And, in the minutes after the grand assault's failure there was concern about a Union counterattack. Meade considered the possibility of mounting an attack from his left flank, but his forces were better arranged to defend than they were to attack and no more than a reconnaissance in force was mounted.

Late in the afternoon action flared on the Confederate right when Union General Judson Kilpatrick sent Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth's cavalry brigade forward in an ill-advised attack against Hood's division. Farnsworth lost his life and his mounted force was easily repulsed.

The last combat of the day resulted from Meade's reconnaissance in force, which set out in the early evening. Colonel William McCandless's brigade of Pennsylvania Reserves advanced across the Wheatfield into Rose's Woods where they managed to inflict heavy losses on the 15th Georgia, who, in the confusion that attended the withdrawal of Hood's and McLaws' divisions back to Warfield Ridge, were left alone and unsupported.

As night settled across the fields the consequences of this terrible day were not yet fully comprehended by the combatants. That the Army of the Potomac had triumphed this day was evident to all but few fathomed the battle was over. "We all knew the day had gone against us, but the full extent of the disaster was only known in high quarters," wrote Confederate Brigadier General John Imboden. Lee knew. Imboden recalled when he met with the general late that night; "I shall never forget his language, his manner, and his appearance of mental suffering. Lee understood that the battle, and all the dazzling prospects the invasion of Pennsylvania offered, were lost. He issued orders for his army to take up defensive positions along Seminary and Warfield ridges, not so much to offer a defensive battle as much as to position the army to prepare for retreat to Virginia. [4]

Behind Union lines the Army of the Potomac realized that it had repulsed one of the largest attacks ever mustered by the Army of Northern Virginia. This inspired confidence but few believed that the battle was won. In a dispatch to the army general-in-chief, Major General Henry Halleck, General Meade breathed not a word of victory. He merely reported that they had repulsed a heavy enemy attack and that the army was in fine spirits. [5]

Perhaps it was the terrible price paid in blood that tempered the army's elation over the day's events. As Frank Haskell made his way through the rear of the army that night he encountered everywhere evidence of the day's frightful human cost.

Of, sorrowful was the sight to see so many wounded! The whole neighborhood in rear of the field became one vast hospital, of miles in extent . . . At every house and barn, and shed the wounded were; by many a cooling brook, or many a shady slope, or grassy glade the red flags beckoned them to their tented asylums; and there they gathered, in numbers a great army, a mutilated, bruised mass of humanity. [6]

Notes

1. Frank L. Byrne and Andrew T. Weaver, eds., Haskell of Gettysburg: His Life and Civil War Papers, (Madison: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1970), 136.

2. U.S. War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1889), v. 27, (2), 320.

3. OR, 27, (2), 359.

4. John D. Imboden, “The Confederate Retreat from Gettysburg.” Clarence Buel and John Underwood, eds., Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, (Secaucus, NJ: Castle Books, n.d.), 420-421.

5. Meade to Halleck, 8:35 P.M., July 3, 1863, OR, 27 (1):74-75.

6. Byrne & Weaver, Haskell of Gettysburg, 190.

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