When General Longstreet had made his assault against the Union left the day before he had commented that he hated going in with out his favorite division commander, General George E. Pickett. “It’s like going into battle with one boot off” he had quipped to an aide. That day Pickett had arrived on the field four miles west of Gettysburg at 1800, and had sent word to Gen. Lee that although his Virginians were tired from the long march they were ready to join the fight. Lee had replied that he did not want him that evening and to have his men rest, they would be needed the next day.
Gen. Lee formulated his plan of attack that morning. The previous day’s assaults had been poorly coordinated and overly complex. Lee himself had contributed to the poor coordination by issuing vague, verbal orders. He had issued only one written order the entire day and had failed to utilize couriers at all, instead wasting precious time riding to his various commanders positions to issue his orders in person. Lee’s off behavior was later attributed to a bout of illness, most probably the heart condition that would eventually take his life shortly after the war.
For his part, Meade had thus far performed magnificently, skillfully shifting units from one hot spot on the field to the next, often times with only minutes to spare. With his short lines and compact position every area of the battlefield could be reached in a maximum of 20 minutes at the double quick and Meade had exploited the advantage to its utmost.
But Lee reasoned that Meade could not be strong everywhere. He knew that the Yankees had been hit hard and felt that one big push could dislodge them and leave him in command of the field yet again. Meade had been hit on the flanks and had reinforced there, he must be weak in the center.
And he was. Cemetery Ridge was manned by only two divisions of Hancock’s II Corps and part of Doubleday’s division from I Corps, a little over 5,700 men in total to defend a front of a half mile. With Pickett’s fresh division Lee was confident that he could pierce Meade’s line here.
Once more he turned to his “Old Warhorse” Gen. Longstreet and told him that his corps would make the assault. Longstreet again suggested that the way to the north was still open and that the army should slip around behind Meade and interpose themselves between him and Washington. But Lee again refused to hear it. “The enemy is there, and there I shall strike him.”
Lee’s orders were that Pickett, McLaws and Hood would charge the mile and a half across the Emmitsburg Road and would guide on a small clump of trees in the center of the otherwise bare crest of Cemetery Ridge. The full weight of Longstreet’s corps would fall on this one tiny spot and punch through the Federal center.
Longstreet however protested that McLaws and Hood had been badly mangled the day before and were in no condition to launch such an ambitious charge. Lee agreed and offered Longstreet the division of Henry Heth, now under Pettigrew’s command, and a composite force of four brigades from Pender and Anderson’s divisions commanded by Trimble, to join Pickett. When Longstreet asked how many men he would have at his disposal Lee estimated 15,000. Longstreet stared at Cemetery Ridge and knew what was going to happen. His brigades would have to cross an open space of nearly a mile, under long range artillery fire the entire way. Once they reached the Emmitsburg Pike the formations would break apart as they crossed the fence and reformed on the other side, now under short range artillery and aimed rifle fire. The men who made it that far would then have to charge the final deadly space into prepared defenses that would have been reinforced by that point. Canister shot would tear huge swaths through the ranks and the butternut wave would smash against the wall that ran the length of the crest in a bloody tempest of fire and steel.
“General Lee, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions and armies, and should know as well as anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position. “
But Lee would not relent, the charge would happen, and the Army of Northern Virginia would carry the day. The attack must succeed.
By 0900 the infantry brigades were forming their lines in the woods to the northwest of the Peach Orchard. Colonel E. Porter Alexander, in charge of Longstreet’s artillery, assembled over 170 guns to blast the way for the infantry. It would be the largest cannonade ever on the American continent, a cacophony so loud it was heard in Philadelphia over 100 miles away.
At precisely 1300 a single cannon boomed, its bark breaking the oppressive silence that had settled over the field after the fighting at Culp’s Hill had subsided several hours earlier. Several seconds of tense quiet followed, then suddenly a massive barrage of artillery erupted all along the Confederate line. Shell and shot slammed into the Federal line in a murderous wall of iron.
Federal batteries on Cemetery Ridge responded and a massive artillery duel began. For two hours the guns of Col. Alexander pounded away at the smoke and haze shrouded Federal positions. Union batteries returned their murderous attention. Caissons were shattered, gun carriages smashed, men fell decapitated by solid shot, and limbs were torn from bodies. The scene was worse than anything from Dante’s literary Inferno, a true Hell on Earth.
At the center of the Federal line General Winfield S. Hancock, the beloved and respected commander of II Corps sat ramrod straight astride his horse. He knew the debilitating affect artillery bombardment could have on exposed infantry and he was determined that every man in his command would know that their General was “behind him in the storm”. He rode up and down his line under the fluttering blue banner of his Corps flag; carried by a single orderly, while “missiles from a hundred pieces of artillery tore up the ground around him.” An officer approached and grabbed the reins of Hancock’s horse, yelling “General, the Corps commander ought not risk his life this way.”
Hancock replied “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not matter.”
On Seminary Ridge Col. Alexander was growing convinced that he was on the losing side of the artillery battle. Yankee shells were decimating the infantry in the woods behind his artillery line and he could not seem to dislodge the Federal guns from the ridge. But then he noticed that the Union guns had fallen silent and he saw that at least one battery was withdrawing, while several smashed guns from Cushing’s battery were being pushed to the rear.
The cessation of fire from the Yankee gun line was on purpose. The Union Chief of Artillery, General Hunt, and the commander of XXI Corps artillery had felt that Gen. Meade was actually anxious to have the Confederate infantry attack. They had decided to cease fire to lull the Rebs into believing that the Federal center had been cleared of artillery. The ruse worked and at 1500 Alexander sent word to Gen. Pickett; “Federal guns have been driven off. For God’s sake, come quick or we cannot support you, ammunition nearly out.”
General Pickett rode to Longstreet; “General, shall I advance?” Longstreet was so overcome with emotion that he could not reply and merely bowed his head. “I shall lead my division forward sir.” Pickett said and rode off to the fame that he felt had eluded him for so long.
Riding in front of his division Pickett ordered them forward;”Up men and to your posts! Charge the enemy and remember old Virginia!”
The three divisions of determined Confederates advanced in an eerie silence under their regimental standards and divisional battle colors. Longstreet could only sit and watch them go.
In Pickett’s division the brigades of Kemper and Garnett led, with General Lewis Armistead in support. To their left advanced the divisions of Pettigrew and Trimble. To the Federal infantrymen crouched behind the low wall running the crest of Cemetery Ridge the oncoming wall of gray seemed irresistible. Union guns from all over the field opened up on the mass of men, a formation so large that they “could not help but hit with every shot”. Dozens of men were felled at a time by the burst of a single shot. The Confederates stepped over their dead and wounded, closed ranks and continued the march. With parade like precision that awed the watching Federals they repeatedly closed the gaps blasted through their ranks, re-dressed their lines and stepped off, an unstoppable steamroller of butternut and gray.
On Pettigrew’s left the brigade of Col. Robert Mayo was being pummeled by artillery fire from Cemetery Hill. Unknown to them the 8th Ohio was positioned jus to their left, placed just west of the Emmitsburg road the day before to serve as skirmishers. Their commanding officer, Col. Franklin Sawyer had been ordered to stand his ground by his brigade commander, Colonel Samuel Carroll, who had then left to join the fighting at Culp’s Hill. And there the 8th Ohio had remained, and as far as Sawyer was concerned Carroll’s order was still in effect. They could have maintained their position and allowed Mayo’s brigade, which outnumbered them 5 to 1, to pass to their south. But instead Sawyer ordered his men to face to south and at a range of 100 yards delivered a volley into Mayo’s flank. Already shaken by the intense artillery fire they broke and ran towards Seminary Ridge. Sawyer’s men charged and captured 200 men.
To the south Mayo’s rout exposed Davis’ brigade to a murderous cross fire. The Mississippians began to crumble.
The remainder of Pettigrew’s men continued to advance despite the murderous artillery and rifle fire. Pickett’s left flank joined up with Pettigrew’s right after they crossed the Emmitsburg Pike and a solid wall of Confederates began the march up the slope of Cemetery Ridge. On the left Pettigrew’s brigades approached the stone wall under terrible fire. Col. Birkett Fry’s brigade became entangled in a stout fence 200 yards short of the wall when General Hays ordered his Yankees to fire. In a single violent thunderclap 1,700 rifles and 11 cannons blazed. Fry’s brigade was immediately transformed. They were instantly engulfed in a wall of dust and smoke; arms, rifles and backpacks flew into the air. A collective moan from the dying and wounded was heard even over the din of battle.
Still the Confederates pushed on to the wall. Fry crossed it carrying his brigade colors and immediately went down with a wound to his thigh. Col. Marshall was shot dead from his horse and Pettigrew’s hand was smashed.
Hays, sensing an opportunity presented by the rout of Mayo and the devastation of Fry, pushed 400 men of the 126th New York and two cannons forward and flanked Pettigrew on the left. On Pickett’s right General George Stannards’s Vermont brigade had pushed out to a small knoll forward of the Federal line and was now flanking Kemper’s brigade. General Hancock watched as every infantryman’s dream, a double envelopment, raked the Confederate line with a devastating fire.
Kemper’s men edged to their left and began to become jumbled into Garnett and Armistead’s brigades. Kemper desperately tried to straighten his men out and rode forward yelling “There are the guns boys! Go get them!” He then fell paralyzed from a bullet that shattered his spine.
The Confederates merged towards the center into a mingled mass of men, thirty deep. General Garnett rode to and fro, trying to restore order when he disappeared in the smoke and flame of the Federal fire. General Armistead watched as Garnett’s blood covered and wound crazed horse galloped to the rear. Garnett was never seen again.
At the Bloody Angle Colonel James Hodge’s 14th Virginia surged to the wall. General Hunt fired his revolver into the Virginians swarming over the wall until his horse was shot out from under him. Cowan screamed “Fire!” and his artillery unleashed double canister at a range of 10 yards. Huge swaths of Confederates simply disappeared in the thunderous muzzle blast of his five bronze Napoleon guns. When the smoke cleared not a single Virginian remained standing, their shattered and mutilated bodies lay stacked three deep in front of Cowan’s guns.
A shell fragment had torn into Cushing’s groin. As he was placing his only remaining serviceable gun a bullet tore into his open mouth. Confederates swarmed over the wall and Cushing’s remaining cannoneers abandoned their position.
The Confederates stood on the precipice of victory. Despite their horrific losses and terrible carnage they had reached the wall. But they were disorganized and on the verge of breaking in the face of the furious Federal fire. Gen. Lewis Armistead, holding aloft his hat atop the tip of his saber yelled “C’mon boys, who will follow me? Give them the cold steel!” and leapt atop the wall. Behind him the fearsome Rebel Yell erupted and sent shivers down the spines of the Federals, themselves on the verge of breaking, as hundreds of Confederates jumped over the wall and smashed into the 71st Pennsylvania who broke and ran for the safety of the rear. Armistead grabbed the barrel of one of Cushing’s guns and as he told his men “Turn the guns on them, turn the guns!” a minie ball smashed into his chest. His men surged past him and ran down the 69th Pennsylvania.
Their moment of victory was cut short by a murderous volley from the 72nd Pennsylvania of General Alexander Webb’s brigade. The Confederate momentum was blunted and they took shelter behind the west face of the stone wall to return fire. Webb ordered the 72nd to charge but they refused to move. Screaming in rage he tried to wrestle the regimental colors away from the bearer, but he refused to let it go. Disgusted, Webb walked forward to urge on his 69th Pennsylvania. Webb later wrote that after his 71st had broken and his 72nd had refused to advance, he “almost wished to be killed.” He would receive the Medal of Honor for his bravery in the Bloody Angle that day.
More Federal troops were rushing forward now. The 19th Massachusetts and 42nd New York charged into the Confederate mass within the Angle and the two forces smashed together with a violent shock which caused both sides to recoil. The fight degraded into a bloody melee of butt stocks, bayonets, knives and fists. The living combatants trampled over the dead and dying. Drenched in sweat, black with powder and drenched in blood men slaughtered each other face to face, eye to eye.
Within a few minutes every Confederate inside the angle was dead, wounded or captured. Totally spent, the surviving Rebels turned and in twos, threes, dozens and hundreds simply turned their backs on the Federals and walked back toward Seminary Ridge. The charge that would forever after bear General George C. Pickett’s name was over, as was the high tide of the Confederacy. The Battle of Gettysburg, the bloodiest in America’s history, had ended. Over 8,000 men lay dead on the field. Another 27,000 were wounded, and 11,000 were missing.
General Pickett had watched the destruction of his division from the Codori farm just east of the Emmitsburg Pike. Over half of his men were dead or wounded. Every one of his 15 regimental commanders were lost, as were 16 of his 17 field officers. Two brigadier generals and six colonels were dead. As Pickett rode to the rear General Lee spotted him and rode up. Noticing Pickett’s shell shocked state Lee tried to snap him back to reality. “General Pickett, you must see to your division.”
“General Lee… I. Have. No. Division.”
Pickett would grieve his lost men for the rest of his life, and would blame Lee for it. After the war he and John Mosby visited Lee at his home in Richmond. The meeting was tense, a courtesy call dictated by the standards of conduct of the day.
After leaving a bitter Pickett lamented “That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg.”
“Well,” Mosby said, “it made you immortal.”