The American Civil War Battles: Gettysburg -- Third Day (July 3, 1863)

Figure 1.--This painting by Keith Rocco is entitled 'Hell for Glory: Pickett's Charge'. It captures the momment that Garnett's Brigade (Pickett's Division, I Corps), having cleared the fences along the Emmitsburg Road, broke into a double-quick time advance. Canister and shrapnel from Cowan's and Cushing's Federal artillery batteries ripped through the ranks of Garnett's men. Moments later Garnett was struck, killed instantly by a bullet through the brain. The Brigade pressed on until they carried a piece of the stone wall held by Federal troops before being forced back.

The principal action on the third day was fought at the Federal Center. And the importance of this action have mdeant that action elsewhere has been neglected. There weas an important cavalry action before Lee turned General Pickett's Divion loose on the Federal Center which coild have affted Pickett's Charge. Federal cavalry commanded by Brig, Gen. David M. Gregg met Confederate calvalry units commanded by J.E.B. Stuart on what came to be known as East Cavalry Field. Gregg's division had fought off Stonewall's Brigade at Brinkerhoff Ridge the previous day. This left Gregg's troopers in control of the key Hanover and Low Dutch Road intersection. This protected the Federal Center from a Confederate Calvalry attack from the rear. If Stuart could dislodged Gregg's troopers, he could have make a mounted dash at the rear of the Federal center at the same time that Pickett made his frontal assault. This resulted in the most important calvalry action of the War. The clash on East Calvalry Field saw the largest mounted charge and counter-charge of the War. [Wittenberg, Protecting.] Lee without effective scouting by Stuart was not fully aware of the strength of the Federal forces he now faced. More Federal units arrived on both the first and second day of fighting. Longstreet and Lee discussed the next step. After the fighting on the Federal left, Longstreet was convinced that the Federals were too well entrenched to dislodge. He advised disengaging and moving the Army between Gettysburg and Washington. This would force Meade to abandon the Fish Hook defense and attack the Confederates. Lee's blood, however, was up. He had been repulsed by the Fedral right and center, which rarely occured in previous battles. Lee looked at the Federal center--Cemetary Ridge. He became convinced that Meade must have weakened his center to support his flanks. Lee was also concerned about protecting his supply wagons. Lee against Longstreet's strong advice, decided to fight it out there and then. Longstreet protested, "General, 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 any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position." Lee was, however, committed to battle. He decided to strike at the Federal Center, what he saw as a weakened sector. This was an assumption and not based on scoutiung reports. Lee concentrated his artillery and ordered a cannonade, the most intense of the War up to that time--a 2 hour pounding. It made it obvious that Lee was preparing an assault. The Federal guns responded, but were then ordered to cease firing to convince Lee that they had been disabled. All the cannon fire had created a veil of smoke which meant that the Federal lines could not be observed. Lee then ordered Pickett's Division, some 12,500 fresh soldiers forward. Pickett's Division, part of Longstreet's I Corps was intact having just arrived on the battlefield. Because Hood's and McLaw's Division had been mauled, Lee ordered A.P. Hill's III Corps to support Pickett. The charge toward the Federal center had to move forward over open ground. The rest of Longstreet's Corps was to support Pickett when he broke through. 'Pickett's Charge' is often seen as the high tide of the Confederacy. When Pickett's Division plunghed into the open field in front of the Federal line on Cenmetary Ridge, the largely undamaged Federal artillery opened up. Pickett's men fell in heeps. One Fderal artillery officer later said, "We could not help hitting them with every shot." The Division was shatered by the Federal artillery and met by Hancock's largely untouched II Corps well-entrenched on Cemetery Ridge. Mede had not weakened his center as Lee believed and the Confederate artillery barage had done little damage. Defending a portion of the Federal line were II Corps Indianians commanded by Brigadier General William Harrow. Harrow braced his men who had fought attacking Cionfederates to a standstill on day two. Harrow's Indianians helped repel Pickett's Charge. Hancock, the II Corps commander, was seriously wounded. The surviving Virgnians were forced back after suffering catastrophic casualties and failing to breach the Federal lines. Lee met the survivors on Traveler as they straggled back to Confederate lines. He was not at first aware of the dimensions of the defeat in part because the field was obsured by all the artillery smoke. He told Pickett to rally his division for a second assault. Pickett replied, "General Lee, I have no divisionn now." Lee is generally seen as the greatest field commander in the Civil War. He ceratinly was audacious. [Alexander] Given his inferority in men and material, he was often forced to gamble. He had gambled in the Seven Days Campaign (1862) before Richmond, at Second Bull Run (1862), and at Chancellorsville (1863) and won. His gamble with Pickett at Gettysburg failed and so with it the last chance of a Confederate military victory.


McPherson, James M. (Crown Journeys, 2003).

Wittenberg, Eric J. Gettysburg's Forgotten Calvalry Actions: Farnsworth's Charge, South Calvalry Field, and the Battle of Fairfield July 3, 1863 (2011).

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Created: 11:56 AM 10/8/2016
Last updated: 5:20 AM 8/30/2018