It was the night of the second day of Gettysburg. Thousands of men had died on both sides. Lee needed a victory, and the Union Army was dug in on the hills. Lee could not just retreat intact. He needed to win, preferably big. The war had been going on for three years, and from a strong beginning marked by remarkable victories, the Confederacy was now being ground down. Much of the West had been lost and Vicksburg, the South’s last bastion on the Mississippi, was under siege. The Union blockade had isolated the rebels from Europe and the European powers. France and England were anxious to support the Southern cause, but not until it was shown that the Confederacy would survive. Just defending was not enough. There was no hope of winning a battle of attrition against the more populous and prosperous North. A victory over the Union in Pennsylvania would show that no part of the North was safe. It would prove that the Southern cause was able to defend itself, and a victory might put enough pressure on Lincoln that he would have to accept a separate peace. Then France and England would have a reason to recognize the Confederacy, and their navies would open the blockaded ports. With European weapons and financial support, the tide of victory would again favor the South. As an added bonus, a big win would likely mean defeat for their most hated enemy, President Abraham Lincoln, in the fall election.
Lee had led his army into Pennsylvania to find just that victory. He had planned to fight a defensive battle following the classic strategy of threatening the enemy in their own land and then forcing them to attack you to drive you out. Lee had scouted a perfect defensive position near the town of Cashtown. But this was not to happen: Both armies had stumbled into each other two days earlier near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Beginning as a meeting engagement by a few units, it had escalated until both entire armies now faced each other.
The Union had stood to the defensive. In other times Robert E. Lee would have moved around it or withdrawn, but he needed to win. He was confident as well; in three years, the men of the Army of Virginia had worked miracles defeating larger armies time after time. He was counting on the high morale of his soldiers and the brittle morale the Union troops had so often shown to give him his victory. But times had changed, and the Army of the Potomac had matured. Its veteran corps were no longer prone to run when charged, and the firepower of its artillery was much more deadly than it had been even a year before.
Lee could sense a victory was possible. Stuart had returned, and the Union forces had been battered. Lee’s losses were also large, but the morale of those left and their faith in him were high. As he rode along the Seminary Ridge, Lee described his plan for that morning. It would be a massive charge of the entire line against what he felt was a weakened Union Army that was just barely holding on. That was his first mistake. He had fought on his home ground too long. Men fight better in defense of their homes. It had given him an edge in Virginia, but now it was the Union soldiers who were defending their homes. This day they would not panic and break at the sound of the rebel yell.
Longstreet pointed out to Lee that three of his divisions had attacked the day before and lost half their numbers. They simply were not going to be effective in another such attack. Lee had to agree, but in spite of that warning, he ordered the remaining six divisions to prepare to attack. But the commander of half the remaining soldiers jumped the gun. Confederate general Richard Ewell, whose corps on the first day of the three-day battle had driven back both the Yankee First and XI Corps, led his three divisions in an attack on the highly fortified Union position on Culp’s Hill hours before he was supposed to. If he had taken the hill, that might have allowed him to roll up the Union line or break through. The position was much too strong, and all Ewell took was a lot of casualties. His divisions were too damaged and disrupted to attack again that day.
The Battle of Gettysburg
The need for a victory remained and Lee, having broken the center of the Union’s position in the past, was determined to do it again. Even though he was diminished by two-thirds, he ordered Pickett’s Charge to continue. Part of Lee’s hope lay in the massed battery he had gathered. Ammunition for the cannons was limited, and all that remained was to be used for a grand barrage that would terrify and defeat the Union troops in front of General Pickett’s three divisions before their attack even began.
Because they were firing mostly muzzle-loading cannons up a hill with direct fire, hitting a single thin line of Yankees behind a stone fence was difficult at best. The Confederate artillerists fired and endured counter battery fire until their ammunition ran low. But unfortunately for the men who were about to charge, almost all of their cannonballs flew high over the fence line, where the Union infantry waited in the rear. Horses and ammunition wagons were punished but not the men who would meet the attack.
Lee also had a hidden card he was counting on. He had sent the recently returned J. E. B. Stuart to make an end run around the Union Army and attack the same part of the line as Pickett was, but from behind. If attacked from the front and the rear, there was no question that the Union line would shatter. With the Union Army split, it would turn and run as it had done so many times before. He would have the victory he needed.
As the column of Confederate horsemen approached the back of the Union position, they were attacked by a regiment of Michigan cavalry led by the aggressive young general George Armstrong Custer. The Michigan unit was not large enough to defeat five times their number of horsemen, but they could delay them. Then more Union riders arrived, and it soon became clear to Stuart that he could advance no farther. He withdrew. There would be no attack from the rear to support Pickett’s division.
When the artillery stopped firing, the order was given, reluctantly, by James Longstreet, for the charge. More than 10,000 men, virtually the last intact divisions in Lee’s armies, moved out. The First Artillery began to punish the neatly formed lines, then musket fire from the front and flanks. The entire charge started just before 4:00 PM and was over in less than an hour. Southern soldiers fell in droves and yet many came on, a handful reaching the stone fences that sheltered the Union infantry. Those few too died quickly or were captured. Only remnants of those brave divisions stumbled back. Pickett lost half of his men and all fifteen of his regimental commanders. Barely a quarter of those who had charged were able to return to the ranks. As Pickett’s men retreated, Lee ordered General Pickett to re-form his division. Pickett is said to have replied that he had no division left.
In a desperate effort to win, Lee had expended his last reserve and fought a most uncharacteristic offensive, frontal battle and lost it. There was nothing left to do but retreat. Lee’s mistake cost the Confederacy its last chance at foreign intervention and independence. Perhaps he was just too confident that the soldiers who had given him miracle victories before would do so again. Most certainly, Robert E. Lee’s most dramatic and final mistake, on the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, was to order Pickett’s Charge. The dramatic end result proved what Lee should have known all along: It never had a chance of success to begin with. With its failure, the Army of Virginia was never again able to take the offensive.