Second, although he had come close on the two previous days, Lee had not yet achieved his objective of destroying the Army of the Potomac, the reason he had invaded Pennsylvania to begin with. Third, Lee faced a logistics problem – a shortage of forage for the army’s animals as local supplies dried up. Two stationary armies quickly strip an area bare. Lee could not afford to remain in place for any length of time.
Finally, Lee believed he had inflicted a great deal of damage on the Army of the Potomac. Indeed he had. He had shattered three Union corps — Doubleday’s I, Sickles’s III, and Howard’s XI — and mauled many other regiments. On July 2, his forces had penetrated the Union line at several points. As Scott Bowden and Bill Ward observe in their excellent treatment of Gettysburg, Last Chance for Victory: Robert E. Lee and the Gettysburg Campaign — a book that has greatly influenced my understanding of Lee’s invasion of Pennsylvania –“only a breakdown in the [July 2] echelon attack’s execution had spared Meade a disastrous nighttime retreat and defeat.”
In addition, Lee had received fresh troops during the evening of July 2: Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps had arrived, and Jeb Stuart’s cavalry had finally been able to rejoin the army. Lee believed that Meade had weakened his center to reinforce his flanks. Under the circumstances, Lee believed, not unreasonably, that a concerted infantry attack, led by his ablest corps commander, and preceded by a massive artillery bombardment, could crack the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. Lee had seen his soldiers accomplish such a feat — without artillery support — during the Seven Days’ Battles of June 1862, when the Confederates cracked a strong Union position at Gaines’s Mill.
Lee’s plan for July 3 called for demonstrations against the Union flanks, the main attack to be made by Pickett’s fresh division and brigades for two of Hill’s divisions against the “hinge” in the Federal line on Cemetery Ridge. Although there is no hard evidence to suggest that Lee was familiar with it, Napoleon III’s victory against the Austrians at Solforino in 1859 constituted a precedent.
Two events created problems for Lee. First, Meade preempted Lee’s attack just before dawn on July 3 by launching an attack to dislodge those elements of Ewell’s corps that had gained a foothold on Culp’s Hill. Second, Longstreet had planned a maneuver that did not conform to Lee’s orders to him concerning the plan of attack on July 3. Longstreet was planning to “pass around [Round Top] and to gain [the Federal position] by flank and reverse attack.” But two brigades of Sedgwick’s VI Corps were already in position across the Taneytown Road to prevent just such a maneuver.
This was part of Longstreet’s grand vision for the Pennsylvania invasion. Indeed, Longstreet had proposed that, once in Pennsylvania, Lee should maneuver his army in order to find and occupy a strong defensive position that would require Meade to attack Lee. But this was never a serious option. While Lee knew northern Virginia like the back of his hand, he was unfamiliar with the military geography of Pennsylvania. He had to avoid cutting himself off from the Cumberland Valley, which constituted his only line of communication and supply back to Virginia.
Although it has gone down in history as “Pickett’s Charge,” the attackers on July 3 included elements of two divisions from Hill’s corps — those of Major General Isaac Trimble and of Brigadier General J. J. Pettigrew, who had replaced the wounded Henry Heth. Indeed, Pickett’s Virginians provided only three of the nine brigades that made the assault. The attackers would have to cross nearly 2,000 yards under enemy fire. They would have to climb over a rail fence along the Emmitsburg Road, an obstacle that would break the momentum of the attack. From that point, depending on where they crossed the Emmitsburg Road, the attacking Confederates would have to advance another 200 to 500 yards to reach the Union position. As they advanced, their ranks would be ripped apart by musket fire and artillery.
As we know, the attack failed. As had been the case the previous day, Ewell was effectively AWOL. A weak cavalry demonstration against the Union rear was beaten back. And the main attack on Cemetery Ridge was repulsed, with staggering losses for the Confederates. Nonetheless, a small number of Rebels led by one of Pickett’s brigade commanders, Lewis Armistead, penetrated the Union line. By this time, the attack had lost momentum and lacked any support, so the survivors withdrew, leaving behind the mortally wounded Armistead. Nearly 5,600 of the 12,000 attackers became casualties.
Gettysburg remains the greatest battle ever to occur on the North American continent. Meade suffered some 23,000 casualties over the course of the battle, while Lee lost between 20,000 and 25,000 of his irreplaceable soldiers. On July 5, Lee moved south. Meade did not pursue the Rebels, much to the consternation of President Lincoln. But Meade was in no condition to pursue. The Army of the Potomac was only in marginally better shape than the Army of Northern Virginia. As the Duke of Wellington observed, “The only thing worse than a battle won is a battle lost.”
— Mackubin Thomas Owens is a professor of national security at the Naval War College in Newport, R.I., and teaches American history and government at Ashland University in Ohio.