Photo of map of Pickett’s Charge
On the third day of battle, July 3, fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill, and cavalry battles raged to the east and south.
All the battles were eclipsed by Pickett’s Charge, an assault by 12,500 Confederates against the center of the Union line on Seminary Ridge, the likes of which had never before been seen. The Union rifle and artillery fire caused great Confederate losses and Lee retreated.
Both armies suffered incredible loss of life with about 53,000 soldiers in both armies dead by the end of the three-day battle.
It was the turning point of the war for the Union who had been losing up until this point.
The ever-reluctant Longstreet was given command on June 3 and was ordered to assemble 150 pieces of artillery along Seminary Ridge, intended to cover a storming party of fresh troops in Major General George Pickett’s division reinforced by divisions from Pettigrew’s and Hill’s corps.
Longstreet misunderstood Lee again and thought it was meant to be an isolated assault, not one supported by Longstreet’s other two divisions and Hill’s remaining division.
Lee knew the Union center was weak. His plan was to engage in a massive artillery barrage, a charge with fresh troops, and a move around the Federal’s rear by the cavalry which had only arrived the previous evening.
General Meade saw it coming. General Hancock rode up and down the line without flinching as the shells ran out. A brigadier told him not to risk his life and he said, “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”
At 1 pm, Longstreet began the bombardment of Cemetery Ridge to prepare the way. Federals responded with 80 guns. It ended in about an hour when the Union guns fell silent. Meade was using a tactic to draw the Confederates out for the attack he knew was coming. The Confederates were fooled.
Pickett asked Longstreet if he should go forward. Barely able to speak, Longstreet nodded in the affirmative. The 38-year old Pickett was engaged to be married to his childhood sweetheart. Before he marched to his death, he scribbled one last note to her, “If Old Peter’s nod means death, then good-bye and God bless you, little on.” He gave it to Longstreet to mail.
It was a little after 3 pm. They thought all they had to do was march up Cemetery Hill and occupy it. They believed the battle was over.
Major General Pickett, the senior officer of the three Confederate divisions, led his men out of the trees along Seminary Ridge, the axis point, in what was to end up being one last courageous effort. It became known as Pickett’s Charge.
The 13,000 Rebels gathered in parade formation and began to advance at a brisk steady pace, one hundred yards a minute, to the amazement of the Union troops. Confederates were fully exposed to Union fire as they marched.
One Union officer remembered the charge:
“More than half a mile their front extends…man touching man, rank pressing rank…The red flags wave, their horsemen gallop up and down, the arms of  thousand men, barrel and bayonet, gleam in the sun, a sloping forest of flashing steel. Right on they move, as with one soul, in perfect order without impediment of ditch, or wall, or stream, over ridge and slope, through orchard and meadow, and cornfield, magnificent, grim, irresistible.”
One northern officer said it was “the most beautiful thing I ever saw.”
The Confederates were subject to relentless volleys from the Vermont regiment who decimated their right flank. Fire from Little Round Top, Cemetery Ridge and Cemetery Hill forced Confederates into bunches up to 30 feet deep as they approached the Union front line with their left flank exposed.
The Confederates fell ten men at a time. It was impossible to avoid hitting them.
An admiring Union private said they came in magnificent order, “with the step of men who believed themselves invincible…”
The Rebels kept coming. Battle yells, screams from the wounded, and gunfire pierced the air. The Rebels continued on.
Within 200 yards of the Union lines, a Confederate Lieutenant yelled, “Home, boys, home! Remember, home is over beyond those hills.”
The Union was calm and still atop the hill. Behind their wall, the Union held their fire. Finally, they were ordered to fire.
Confederates only reached the Union line at one point in the wall known as the Angle. General Lewis A. Armistead of North Carolina breached the wall with 150 of his men. He jumped over the wall waving his hat on his sword before he was shot down.
Armistead fell mortally wounded along with most of his men. Armistead was a friend of the Union’s General Hancock and asked for him only to find out that Hancock was wounded and too ill to come. Armistead was distraught in his last moments upon learning of Hancock’s injuries. His dying wish was that Hancock send his personal effects home to his family.
The wall was defended by the 69th Pennsylvania.
Armistead and his men fought gallantly. Longstreet did nothing to support Armistead.
A survivor wrote later, “Seconds are centuries, minutes age. Men fire into each other’s faces, not five feet apart. There are bayonet thrusts, saber strokes, pistol shots…men going down on their hands and knees, spinning round like tops, throwing out their arms, gulping blood, falling; legless, armless, headless. There are ghastly heaps of dead men.”
One newspaper correspondent wrote, “The Southern lines waver. The soldiers of the front rank look round for their supports. They are gone fleeing over the field, broken, shattered, thrown into confusion…”
Pickett’s Charge ended in disaster with more than 7,000 of the best of the Army of the Northern Virginia left behind dead or captured as the remaining men retreated.
Neither army sought combat the next day.
Lee took full responsibility. On the evening of June 4, Independence Day, Lee began his retreat towards the Potomac and Virginia with his 17-mile long wagon train laden with casualties.
Lee was an extraordinary general but he was hamstrung by bad luck and the loss of his great general, Stonewall Jackson who was replaced by the reluctant Longstreet who had not the time to learn how to communicate with Lee.
The invasion of the North was over.
The only civilian to have died in the three day battle was a 20-year old woman, Jennie Wade. She was at her married sister’s home near Cemetery Hill looking after her sister’s baby. The house was out of the way and had suffered from little fire. But on July 3, while Jennie was making bread, a stray minie ball bored through two doors, hitting her in the back, killing her instantly. A few days later, news arrived that her finance, a Union corporal had died of wounds suffered in the Shenandoah Valley.
A remarkable Union veteran, John L. Burns. A veteran of the War of 1812 and the Mexican-American War, Burns tried to volunteer for the Civil War but at over 70 years of age, he was rejected as too old. He joined the fighting at Gettysburg and was thanked by many Union soldiers who ran across him during the fighting, including Major General Abner Doubleday who personally thanked him in his official report on June 1. Burns was captured by Confederates but released due to his advanced age. He had been wounded three times. He became a national hero with poet Bret Harte writing verses about his exploits and President Lincoln visiting with him when he went to Gettysburg. A statue was erected in his honor in 1903. he died in 1872.
On Novemer 19, 1863, President Lincoln dedicated the Gettysburg National Cemetery to honor the fallen Union soldiers and redefine the purpose of the war in his Gettysburg Address.
The featured speaker was Edward Everett, the former governor of Massachusetts and clergyman. Everett was known for his lush, patriotic oratory and Lincoln was only asked to offer a few “appropriate remarks.”
Six thousand people gathered to hear the speeches. Cookies, lemonade, canteens, buttons, dried wildflowers grown on the battlefield, and battle relics were sold at stands on the outskirts.
Everett spoke for one hour and fifty-seven minutes.
Lincoln worked on the wording of his remarks while Everett spoke on.
Lincoln rose to give his remarkable Gettysburg Address.
The Gettysburg Address
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But, in a larger sense, we can not dedicate — we can not consecrate — we can not hallow — this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it, far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain — that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
Lincoln was wrong. The world did note and will long remember his words.
After Lincoln spoke, he was very disappointed in his performance. He said “That speech went sour.” His friend Ward Hill Lamon heard him say, “It’s a flat failure.”
The reporter for the London Times said, “The ceremony was rendered ludicrous by…the sallies of the poor President Lincoln…Anyone more dull and commonplace it would not be easy to produce.”
Edward Everett felt very differently. “I should be glad,” he wrote to the President, “if I could flatter myself that I came as near to the central idea of the occasion, in two hours, as you did in two minutes.”
It isn’t the reporter from the London Times or even Edward Everett we remember, it’s Lincoln and one of the greatest political speeches every written.