This year marks the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg. From July 1 – July 3, 1863 the bloodiest battle in the entire American Civil War waged around Gettysburg, Pennsylvania between Union Major General George Gordon Meade’s Army of the Potomac and Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. This is Day 3 of the Battle of Gettysburg.
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 1
Battle of Gettysburg – Day 2
“We gained nothing but glory, and lost our bravest men.”
– Lt. John T. James, the 11th Virginia Infantry, Pickett’s Division
Preparing for BattleThe third and last day of the Battle of Gettysburg was the hottest yet. Fighting went late into the night and neither army had any reprieve. While their armies were fighting, General Lee and General Meade began planning for the next day. Meade called “a council of war” at his headquarters at the Lydia Leister house to hear the opinions of some of his corps and divisional commanders. Figuring Lee would probably make a move at the Union’s center line to weaken and divide them, Meade told General John Gibbon (commanding the area in the middle of the line), “Gibbon, if Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front.” Lee’s plan was to do exactly that.
While the North’s main plan was to take a defensive position and let Lee attack first, Lee decided on a three element plan. According to the Gettysburg National Park Service, Lee’s plan was for “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.”
Lee’s proposed plan failed for two reasons. Firstly, he did not met with his men the night before as Meade had, so there was a breakdown in communication that led to confusion. Secondly, while most of Meade’s plan centered on being ready for Lee in a defensive position, he also did not keep all his troops merely standing around – which is what Lee thought. Meade made the first move on the third and last day.
The Fighting Begins
Gunshots began early on July 3, 1863 as Union troops tried to take back areas they lost in the previous days of fighting. The specific point of contention was the lower slopes on Culp’s Hill. The 12th Corps batteries launched a full bombardment where the Confederates were on the hill. When Lee wanted to start his offensive (at the center of the Union line), Longstreet was not ready and had doubts about the entire plan. Pickett’s men were not even on the field yet. Ewell was engaged already in a bitter battle over Culp’s Hill. Around 11 a.m. and after seven hours of fighting, the second battle on Culp’s Hill ended. The Union lines were still strongly intact.
Meanwhile, Stuart’s cavalry marched east of Gettysburg to begin their assult. Their movement was seen by the Union who quickly order their own cavalry under Brig. Gen. David M. Gregg to cover the right flank. The opposing forces made contact in mid-afternoon. They traded artillery fire, sent in soldiers and mounted forces before it all resulted in a draw. Gregg and the Union were successful in squashing the Confederacy’s attempt at stationing themselves at both the front and rear of the Union. So far two of Lee’s three elements had failed. Their last attempt would become the “symbol of Southern courage.”
Like a grey wave washing over almost a mile of open and exposed field slopes, 12,500 Confederates marched in line towards Union defense. The men were initiating Lee’s last attempt of getting a foothold in the enemy’s defenses. Longstreet lead the massive infantry assault from Seminary Ridge. The soliders were from 10 brigades, including those under the command of Maj. Gen. George Pickett. They carried bright regimental flags as their lines were blasted by double canister shells and Union riflemen and sharpshooters.
Before the men marched onto the field, the Confederates launched a massive bombardment. Most of it missed its mark and their artillery reserve dwindled. At 3:00 p.m. the 12,500 began marching across three-quarters of a mile of open field – a suicide march. As they neared, the Southerns began to run with Picket reportedly shouing, “Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia!”
Those who got through the field were met with small arms fire from well protected infantrymen. Gaps within the Union’s line began to emerge near the Corpse of Trees and The Angle. The Confederates took that opportunity to break through and engage in hand-to-hand combat. It was short-lived but the spot is known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” A mixture of exhaustion and not enough men caused the remaining rebels to retreat back across the field, the Union continued to fire at them.
Over 6,000 Confederate soldiers were killed, wounded or taken prisoner. Pickett’s Charge was named after Maj. Gen. Pickett – much to his dismay. Pickett’s division lost 26 o the 40 field grade officers, all three of its brigade commanders and suffered 2,655 casualties. After their retreat, Pickett was said to have been inconsolable. He blamed Lee for the disaster and, when asked by Lee to prepare his division in case the Union countered, Pickett replied, “General Lee, I have no division.”
Old Friends: Hancock & Armistead
Union Maj. Gen. Winfield Hancock and Confederate Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead both commanded their forces during Pickett’s Charge, were wounded and were old friends. They had served together in southern California and in the Mexican War. When the Civil War broke out, Hancock stayed with the United States Army while Armistead joined the Confederate States Army. At the farewell party before leaving, Armistead reportedly told Hancock, “Goodbye, you can never know what this has cost me.” Armistead also gave Hancock’s wife a prayer book in which he had “Trust In God And Fear Nothing” inscribed in it.
During Pickett’s Charge Armistead led his brigade at the front. After noticing the regiment’s colors were down, he waved his hat from his saber’s tip shouting “Come on, boys, give them the cold steel! Who will follow me?” His brigade got the farthest hitting what is known as the “high water mark of the Confederacy.” Union forces launched a counterattack and Armistead was shot three times crossing the wall.
Meanwhile, Hancock led his troops similar to Armistead but on a horse. Throughout the three days of fighting, and especially during Pickett’s Charge, he would ride up and down the line encouraging his troops and double-checking for weaknesses. He and his men were in the thick of it and a bullet struck the pommel of his saddle. It entered his inner right thigh, embedding wood fragments and a bent large nail.
As Armistead lay bleeding, he asked about Hancock. They told him that his friend was also badly wounded to which Armistead cried, “Not both of us on the same day!” The story goes that he turned to Hancock’s aide Capt. Henry Bingham and said, “Tell General Hancock, from me, that I have done him and you all a grave injustice.”
Armistead’s injury was quite severe and he died two days later. Hancock could not go to his friend because of his own injury. One of Armistead’s dying wishes was that his personal effects and Bible be given to Hancock.
Born May 21, 1843, Ginnie Wade lived in Gettysburg at her family home. She worked with her mother as a seamstress and, to make ends meet, they also cared for a little boy. When the fight first broke out on July 1, her family fled to her sister’s house on Baltimore Street. During the first day, Ginnie distributed bread and water to Union soldiers. They spend the next day preparing bread and giving it out.
Many of Gettysburg’s civilians did similar things. Here is where her story greatly, and sadly, differs. On July 3, 1863 around 7 a.m., Confederate sharpshooters began firing through the north windows of the house. An hour later, Ginnie began making biscuits even though bullets ricocheted through the house. A half an hour later, a bullet hit her while she was kneading dough. Ginnie was killed instantly after it struck her back. She was the only civilian killed during the Battle of Gettysburg.
At the time of her death, Ginnie was engaged to Gettysburg local Corp. Johnston “Jack” Skelly. Two weeks before she was killed, Jack was mortally wounded fighting for the Union at the Battle of Winchester. Private Wesley Culp, another Gettysburg native who went to school with both of them and was fighting for the Confederacy, stumbled upon Jack in a field hospital. Jack knew he would not survived and gave Wesley a note to give to Ginnie.
Wesley, still carrying the note, died during the Battle of Gettysburg – the same day Ginnie was killed. Worse yet, Wesley Culp was killed near his uncle’s farm at Culp’s Hill. William Culp, Wesley’s brother, fought for the Union as an officer. William survived the war and reportedly thought his brother was a traitor for fighting for the Confederacy against Pennsylvania. The story goes that William never spoke of Wesley again.
Jack succumbed to his injuries on July 12. Jack and Ginnie were buried close to each other at Gettysburg’s Evergreen Cemetery. An executive order was issued to allow a flag to fly at her grave 24 hours a day. Ginnie Wade and Betsy Ross are the only women in the United States that were given this executive order.
Aftermath & the Gettysburg Address
Lee was unsuccessful at gaining the upper hand or the upper land at Gettysburg. They were low on many things – most importantly they were low on morale. The Confederate Army lost a staggering 28,000 of the 75,000 men – a 38 percent casualty rate. There was no choice but to retreat. Lee’s second attempt at a Northern invasion failed as well as the hope of winning the war.
Meade’s forces numbered around 97,000 before Gettysburg. After the three days of fight, the Union army was 23,000 less. As the South retreated and the North followed but heavy rain and Confederate rear guards made their efforts ineffective.
As the armies moved out of Gettysburg they left behind thousands and thousands of dead and wounded soldiers. Surgeons and medical personnel from both sides stayed back to tend to the wounded. Local citizens also helped by bringing clothing, food and water. They created temporary shelters and helped with the wounded. The battlefields still held the bodies of the fallen. African American laborers were given the task of burying the dead. In the three days of fighting, as many as 51,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or missing. It was said that the rivers and streams ran red with all the blood that was shed.
Four months after the Battle of Gettysburg, on November 19th, President Lincoln traveled to the town to dedicate the Soldiers National Cemetery which honored the killed Union soldiers. His physical features were described by an observer:
“[Lincoln’s] face, lined and sad, bore traces of tremendous worry the ordeal of war had brought to him. His expression was benign and kindly, and the strength of his character seemed to be evidenced in the pronounced features; a high forehead, a prominent nose and a decided chin jutting below firmly-set lips. His countenance seemed to reflect the tragedy of war and the significance of his visit to Gettysburg on that day.”
Lincoln was not the principal speaker that day and was only invited as a formality. His address was only 10 sentences long and lasted for 2 minutes. Not everyone in the audience could hear him but his message became immortalized in the history books. A message proclaiming that even hope could arise from war’s sacrifices and that the Civil War was a struggle for the principle of human equality.
The Great Reunion of 1913
After the Civil War’s guns became silent and the smoke cleared the battlefields, the country began to heal. The war pitted brother against brother, neighbor against neighbor and countryman against countryman. No one knew that better than those who fought it. Veterans from both sides periodically visited Gettysburg and the graves of fallen friends, family and comrades to reflect, heal and find peace.
In 1913 a formal reunion was organized to honor the 50th Anniversary. More than 50,000 attended including President Woodrow Wilson who stated: “These venerable men crowding here to this famous field have set us a great example of devotion and utter sacrifice. They were willing to die that people might live. But their task is done. Their day is turned into evening. They look to us to perfect what they have established. Their work is handed unto us, to be done in another way but not in another spirit. Our day is not over, it is upon us to full tide.”
John MacDonald, The Historical Atlas of the Civil War, New York: Chartwell Books, Inc., 2009.
John Keegan, The American Civil War: A Military History, New York: Alfred A. Knoff, 2009.
Glenn W. LaFantasie, “How Lincoln Won and Lost at Gettysburg,” Papers of the Ninth Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg National Military Park, 195-209, 2002.
Anthony M. Nicastro, “Why Gettysburg?: An Analysis of the Command Decisions and Intelligence Failures That Led to Gettysburg,” Papers of the Tenth Gettysburg National Military Park Seminar, Gettysburg, PA: Gettysburg National Military Park, 143-153, 2005.
Civil War Trust
National Park Service