As the evening of July 2, 1863 approached, the massive Confederate assault on the Union left had begun to wane. Despite initial successes, Longstreet’s attack came to a halt as his units lost momentum due to their own losses and the impact of resistance from Federal reserves. Longstreet’s attack was to have been coordinated with an assault by Ewell’s corps on the Federal right. Ewell’s attack was to have functioned as a demonstration or diversion, which would become a major attack if the opportunity presented itself. Ewell planned his attack to move from left to right, with Johnson’s division moving up the steep, rocky slopes of Culp’s Hill, followed quickly by Early’s division assaulting the northeastern side of Cemetery Hill.
Unfortunately for Lee and his army, Ewell did not attack when Longstreet did and, in fact, his attack did not start until Longstreet’s offensive was over and darkness was quickly overtaking the battlefield. Johnson’s men made their attack on Culp’s Hill and became engaged in a protracted, vicious fight in the darkness that saw them make gains on the lower portion of Culp’s Hill, but nowhere else. The Federal forces on the hill, meanwhile, had been weakened by withdrawal of units needed to shore up the Federal left and center. However, the remaining Federals under the command of Brigadier General George Greene put up tremendous resistance and, eventually, the XII Corps units that had been pulled away returned to help stall the Confederate attack. Had Johnson attacked at the correct time, those units might have been unable to return in time to help Greene fight off the attack. Once again, as would happen throughout the battle, Confederate efforts had been blunted because their inability to coordinate attacks allowed Meade’s army to shift forces when needed.
When Johnson’s men were engaged on Culp’s Hill, Early began to move the brigades of Hays and Hoke against Cemetery Hill. While the Union defensive position there might have appeared formidable, they were not so strong as one might expect. First, the XI Corps units manning the defenses on the hill had been badly mauled by Ewell’s men on July 1 and, now, they had to ensure they defended both sides of the hill from attack. Next, the position was essentially a salient that pointed north towards Gettysburg. As such, it was vulnerable to simultaneous attacks from the west and east sides and, as noted by Confederate General Porter Alexander, it was especially susceptible to enfilading artillery fire. In fact, Alexander considered the position both vulnerable enough and strategic enough to have warranted the focus of Lee’s attack on July 3 instead of Cemetery Ridge.
It must also be noted that Cemetery Hill was, indeed, of great strategic importance to the Army of the Potomac. It was the anchor point for the north end of the Union line and its loss could have led to the collapse of the entire right flank of the army. In addition, Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill both were vital to control of the Baltimore Pike and, thus, Meade’s lines of communication and a potential avenue of retreat.
Given the hill’s salient nature, a simultaneous attack against the northeastern and western face of the Union defenses would have seemed the best chance for success. Apparently, there was some thinking in this direction as Ewell had intended for Rodes’ division to attack the opposite side of the hill. Once again, however, a Confederate unit was not in position when it should have been and, in this instance, did not even seem to attempt an attack. In fact, Rodes’ maneuvers could hardly even be referred to as a feint. However, Rodes was not entirely to blame. He was expecting Pender’s division from Hill’s corps to support his right, but Pender’s men never materialized despite pleas from Ewell. This sort of lack of cooperation was not unique within the Army of Northern Virginia, and, at Gettysburg, it was not only a typical problem, it was also a fatal flaw.
As a result, Early’s men attacked Cemetery Hill without support on their right, confining the attack to the northeastern side of the hill. The opposing XI Corps’ infantry were made more vulnerable when their division commander, Adelbert Ames, elected to shift the 17th Connecticut to the right, creating a gap in the line near its northern end. Early’s men took advantage of the gap and drove through it and up the hill towards the Federal artillery. Several of Ames’ regiments fell back and reformed to defend the guns, while other stoutly maintained their positions at the base of the hill. As the fighting ensued in darkness, XI Corps units from west of the pike along with Carroll’s brigade from II Corps were able to bolster the Union defenders and counterattack to drive Early’s men off the hill. Here once more, the lack of coordinated Confederate pressure allowed Union forces to shift manpower when they needed it most. That ability, combined with hard fighting by the defending XI Corps infantry and artillery, was enough to turn Early back and end the threat to Cemetery Hill.
The next morning, Lee ordered a second attack on Culp’s Hill. In all likelihood, Lee intended that this attack would take place at the same time as an assault by Longstreet on the right flank. But, once again, poor coordination and the inept Confederate command system resulted in problems for the Army of Northern Virginia. Pickett’s division, which was supposed to move up and be ready to attack at dawn, was not in place, and Ewell’s men were left to attack on their own.
Historian Jeffrey Wert states his opinion that Lee had no knowledge of the “tactical situation on Ewell’s front” when he issued the order. But, Ewell overrode the objections of his own commanders and supported Lee’s orders. Ewell should have known better but Ewell had never personally examined the terrain and Union defenses on Culp’s Hill. This lack of tactical awareness seems to have plagued the Confederate command structure at Gettysburg. At critical moments, there seems to have been a distinct lack of awareness by key commanders, including Lee himself, of terrain, of defenses, and of the overall tactical situation. This kind of awareness is what any modern soldier would term as the all-important “preparation of the battlefield.” Why it was in such short supply in the Army of Northern Virginia is a compelling question.
The XII Corps defenders were planning a counterattack to regain the lower portion of the hill when Ewells men struck. Despite the fact Ewell had doubled the number of attackers, the assault would fail. The Union field fortifications, the terrain, and the actions of the Federal defenders were simply too much for Ewell’s men to overcome. Despite three separate assaults by Johnson’s men, they would never really come close to breaking the Union line atop the upper hill and they were badly mauled by the intense rifle fire of the XII Corps. While the victory at Culp’s Hill was crucial for the Union’s position, the Confederate attack was probably a misguided and ill-fated effort. Even if it had been coordinated with an attack by Longstreet, it probably would have failed. The Union defenses were simply too strong and the forces on-hand were more than sufficient to turn Ewell’s men back. In the end, it was an unnecessary and useless waste of good men.
With Pickett’s men absent, Lee now considered his alternatives. He was determined to attack again and, again, he summarily dismissed Longstreet’s idea of a move around the Federal right. At first, he wanted Longstreet to attack the Union left as planned with McLaws, Hood, and Pickett, once the latter arrived. When Longstreet was able to talk his commander out of this idea, Lee began to focus on the Federal center, on the copse of trees on Cemetery Ridge that would soon become so much a part of the collective American memory.
When stripped down to its basic elements, Lee’s plan for what became popularly known as “Pickett’s Charge” was very basic. His concept called a large-scale infantry assault against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge, which was to be preceded by a massive artillery barrage. Once the leading infantry units broke through the Federal line, they would be quickly followed by supporting troops who would then exploit the breakthrough and turn down the Federal line, rolling up the defending Union infantry in the process. It was shock assault tactics at its most basic, relying on firepower and focused use of mass.
However, despite the fact that the plan was developed by a man regarded by many then and now as a tactical genius, it was badly flawed. The plan for the attack relied heavily on the ability of Confederate artillery to either seriously damage Federal batteries or force them to pull their guns back. This was a critical ingredient in the plan because Lee’s infantry would be forced to cross nearly a mile of open terrain where they would be within range of Federal guns almost from the moment they stepped off. Therefore, for the infantry, it was matter of exposure both in the sense of the terrain as well as in time and distance. Unfortunately, the Southern artillery was not up to the task. Its long-range ammunition was in short supply and much of it was of poor quality.
In addition, preparation of the battlefield was again lacking. Not only would the open, slightly undulating terrain expose the Southern infantry to Federal artillery fire, the point chosen for the attack could not have been worse in that it allowed virtually every battery the Army of the Potomac to be used to counter the attack. Not only would batteries on Cemetery Ridge come into play, but Federal guns on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top would be able to reach out and hit the attacking infantry. In fact, over 120 guns would eventually be deployed against the Confederate assault. Further, there were the fences along Emmitsburg Road. These would slow the infantry down and break up their formations just as they came within effective rifle and canister range of the Union positions. These factors should have been obvious to an experienced military engineer like Lee, but they were apparently either overlooked or dismissed. As Porter Alexander would later observe, “The point selected and the method of attack would certainly have been chosen for us by the enemy had they had the choice.”
When the attack began, Confederate artillery did unleash a seemingly impressive barrage. However, while noisy and spectacular, it did not achieve the desired results. Federal artillery was not silenced. In fact, it soon began to respond and gave back more than it received. Lee’s guns received effective counter-battery fire, which further limited their effectiveness. In fact, Porter Alexander, whose job it was to advise Longstreet and Pickett when the latter should move his infantry forward, was finally moved to do so primarily because he was running out of both ammunition and guns.
Picketts’ infantry assault is notable primarily for its bravery. The men went in as ordered and Federal long-range artillery began to take an immediate toll. By the time they reached the fences, their combat power was already beginning to wane. The effect of the fences was exactly as could have been predicted. Those who made it beyond the road were subjected to heavy rifle and canister fire as they moved up the gentle slope towards the stone walls on the ridge. They would actually pierce the Federal line at several points, but a staunch defense and localized counterattacks turned them back. It was all a matter of a poorly conceived and planned attack going against a determined, well-positioned defender. No amount of bravery would change the outcome.
While one might ask what would have happened if Pickett’s assault had succeeded, it is perhaps better to ask if it ever could have succeeded. First, it should be noted that exploring “what ifs” in past battles is a tricky and difficult task. Anyone who has ever conducted a postmortem examination of a military operation can tell you that it is a difficult thing to do, even if the battle was yesterday. The problem is that there are so many variables and so many nuances that could be influenced by a single change in events. This problem compounds itself as time passes, making “what if” analyses a practice that might be fun, but one that rarely produces much of historical value.
Still, when one examines Pickett’s attack, it must be said that, as planned, it had little chance and, as executed, it had even less. Confederate artillery was simply not up to the task it was given and, without it being effective, the attack simply could not suceed. Further, there is also the question of the use of supporting troops to exploit the breakthroughs made by Pickett’s men. Indeed, there was such a role planned for Wilcox and Lang’s brigades, but Longstreet, who opposed the entire concept for the attack, never sent them forward. If he had, one might wonder if they would have made a difference.
However, the answer to that question is that they probably would not have made an effective difference. Had they followed close on the heels of Pickett and Pettigrew’s men, they would have been subjected to the same long-range artillery fire, especially from the batteries along the Union flanks, which ceased to fire at the leading assault elements once they closed on Cemetery Ridge. In addition, the use of supporting troops to exploit a breach in the enemy’s lines was a difficult thing to accomplish during the Civil War. Follow-on units had a tendency to become crowded in with those in front of them and had problems trying to maintain a cohesive formation as they approached the point of attack. In this case, one can well imagine Wilcox and Lang’s forces, having been weakened by artillery fire as they crossed the field to Emmitsburg Road, simply bogging down as they crowded in with the surviving elements of the lead assault, before they too were subjected to a galling close range fire, and melted away at the stone wall.
Meanwhile, as Union defenders turned Pickett back, there was also some significant action occurring along the flanks by Federal Cavalry. On the Union right, General David Gregg’s men outfought Stuart’s cavalry in a fight for control of roads critical to the Union position. Had Gregg failed, Stuart could have easily threatened the Union rear and altered the character of the battle. Perhaps more potentially important, however, was the fighting along the Union left. Here, Kilpatrick and Merritt conducted cavalry operations that, while costly and disjointed, offered an opportunity to counterattack Lee’s army in the aftermath of Pickett’s defeat. When reading the accounts of Farnsworth’s ill-fated attack, one cannot help but wonder what the Federal infantry on the Union left was doing during this time. Here was a golden opportunity to drive McLaws’ and Hood’s men from the field and roll up the Confederate right, if only someone had ordered it. It raises question as to how much Meade knew about these operations as they were occurring. It would appear that, while he would later report these actions, he either knew little of them as they happened or simply did not see the opportunity they presented.
As it happened, Meade did not order a counterattack of any kind, even though men like Hancock recommended it. Some historians believe that Meade’s decision to simply take what he had won was a wise one and the only realistic option. It may have been so, but only because Meade seems not to have prepared for such an eventuality. He had mentally accepted the defensive role and had no contingency plan for anything but staying where he was or retreating. Swiftly organizing an offensive counterattack by a force committed wholesale to the defensive would probably have seemed an impossible and irresponsible thing to do to George Meade. Certainly, Ulysses Grant might have done otherwise if placed in the same situation, but that is yet another tantalizing “what if.”