A Desperate Decision: Slaughter at Gettysburg.

July 25, 2023

, courtesy - Alexander Gardner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

President Lincoln, Major General John A. McClernand and E. J. Allen near Antietam, Maryland, October, 1862 , courtesy – Alexander Gardner, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

In early July 1863, the losses of both Gettysburg and Vicksburg were the beginning of the end of the Confederacy. Time was running out for the South, and General Robert E. Lee was aware that the enormous disparity of resources between the North and the South would soon bring the collapse of the Southern cause. Within a year, bread riots would break out on the streets of Richmond, and the ranks of Confederate deserters would swell. Even Southern women would begin to turn against the war and write their husbands to desert and come home because they were starving. The war would go on for nearly two more years, but the tide began to turn at Gettysburg.

By late June 1863, two years into the conflict, President Abraham Lincoln was worried that the South was still holding its own and winning nearly all the battles. Despite fighting most battles on Southern soil and having the advantages of resources, the Confederate army could outfight and outmaneuver the larger Union. Many thought the Southerners had superior commanders. In April 1861, Lincoln even offered the highly respected Robert E. Lee the leadership of all Union forces. Lee had declined and accepted a generalship with the Southern army. Lincoln struggled to find good generals firing a list of Union generals, including five commanding generals.

Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia was sometimes referred to as “invincible,” as “Bobby Lee,” as Lee was affectionately referred to by Southerners, would magically lead his smaller army to victories in Second Bull Run, Fredericksburg, and Chancellorsville. Lincoln was acutely aware that Lee’s army would invade the North again, and the war would hopefully change and end. The previous year, Lee invaded the North at Antietam, Maryland; the result was the bloodiest single day in U.S. military history. Outnumbered 2 to 1, Lee’s army inflicted more casualties than the Yankee army, and there was no clear winner. Lincoln was not confident that his generals could defeat Lee, and the record favored Lee and not his generals. Lincoln was determined, however, to preserve the Union at all costs.

Lee understood that a battlefield victory in Gettysburg was his only chance of ending the war, and there was no time to delay. He was a practical man and recognized that compared to the North, the South’s lack of resources – men, money, and overall industrial strength, would ultimately bring its downfall. Lee knew that the battlefield did not win wars and that the South’s situation was quickly moving toward desperation. A decisive victory on northern soil could sway Yankee opinion enough for Lincoln’s administration to relent to a truce. Lee hoped this would lead to the recognition of the Confederate States of America as an independent nation.That new nation, however, would continue to perpetuate the horrors of a slave based economy, one that had existed in the South for over two hundred years.

Robert E. Lee, courtesy Library of Congress.

Cautiously, Lee led his army into enemy territory, crossing the Potomac River from Virginia into Maryland, realizing in Frederick that the Army of the Potomac was close behind; Lee then proceeded into Pennsylvania, organizing the many pieces of his army, and began looking for a battle site.

He ordered General Jeb Stuart to take his 4,000-strong cavalry division, deploy around the Union army, and report to him with intelligence of the enemy’s movement. Much of Lee’s battlefield success had been because of the reliable intelligence received from his trusted friend Jeb Stuart.

Because of the recent successful winter and spring campaign battles in Virginia, the Southern army was incredibly desperate for shoes and was short on supplies. Confederate General Henry Heth wrote,

“I ordered Brigadier General [Johnston] Pettigrew to take his brigade to Gettysburg, search the town for army supplies (shoes especially), and return the same day.”

These were not only Heth’s orders, but Lee had clearly stated that he was not ready to engage in a “battle with the enemy.” General Lee’s concern was the location, and he was unsure that Gettysburg would favor his army. Parts of General Meade’s Union army were also in Gettysburg. When a small detail of opposing sides accidentally met, tensions quickly escalated, and shots rang out. Lee’s men promptly overwhelmed the scattered Union soldiers chasing them out of Gettysburg. The front page of the highly biased Richmond Examiner excitedly proclaimed,

“Our Army Victorious at Gettysburg – The Yankee Army is Retreating.” and the Richmond Whig expressed an exaggeration by stating, “The army was in fine condition, full of enthusiasm for the coming battle, and confident of success” adding “The battlefield and their hospital in our hands.”

“Fine condition” is not how residents of Gettysburg described the Southern soldiers they saw standing in the streets of Gettysburg before the battle. Sarah Broadhead, age 31, of Gettysburg, wrote in her diary:

“They were a miserable-looking set. They wore all kinds of hats and caps, even heavy fur ones, and some were barefooted. The Rebel bands were playing Southern tunes in the Diamond. (Gettysburg town square). I cannot tell how bad I felt to hear them and to see the traitors flag floating overhead.”

Pickett's Charge, July 3, 1863. Gettysburg, Pa. Courtesy to Public Domain - Encyclopædia Britannica
Pickett’s Charge, July 3, 1863. Gettysburg, Pa. Courtesy to Public Domain – Encyclopædia Britannica

The battle was to begin early in the following day. Still, General Longstreet delayed complying with Lee’s orders until 3.30 in the afternoon, complaining that the enemy might be too strong; other reports suggest that Longstreet misunderstood the orders, and other historians say that Lee’s orders came late. Regardless, the strong-willed James Longstreet had a history of questioning orders, even Lee’s. Some historians suggest that Longstreet’s delay was paramount in Lee losing the battle. Most of this criticism was fueled by General Jubal Early, the late Stonewall Jackson’s replacement. Early was also criticized for his lack of aggressiveness, which may have contributed to the Confederate loss. This encouraged the “if Stonewall Jackson had been at Gettysburg” argument. Jubal Early simply fell short of filling Jackson’s shoes and was later sacked by Lee. Jeb Stuart finally arrived on the evening of July 2 after missing nearly two days of battle. Referred to as “the eyes and ears of the Confederacy,” Stuart arrived just too late to provide valuable reconnaissance for Lee; Stuart’s delay added another reason for Lee’s ultimate defeat at Gettysburg.

Still, Lee’s forces pushed the Yankees from their positions, and they retreated to higher ground on Cemetery Hill. By the end of day two, Lee was unaware that his army would soon be overwhelmed by the stream of Union reinforcements entrenching and fortifying their positions on Cemetery Hill. Nonetheless, the reporting from the Richmond Examiner claimed,

“Our army again victorious – Meade’s army annihilated – 40k prisoners enemy taken.”

The headline was misleading and utterly false regarding the number of captured Yankee prisoners. At best, neither side could claim an advantage. Despite the mounting problems for the Southern army, July 2, 1863, the day has become famous with the historical references to the battle of Gettysburg – The Wheatfield, The Peach Orchard, The Slaughter Pen, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top.

Lee was known as a risk-taker who gambled that his three-pronged attack would destroy General Meade’s army on the third day. Lee was gambling, but his actions seemed more determined by the quickly deteriorating resources back home. He was hurrying to end the war before his army had dwindled to nothing. The activities of the day, however, were disastrous for the Confederates.

Fighting resumed on Culp’s Hill as Union troops attempted to recapture ground lost the previous day, and the Confederates began their assault on the right and left flank. An artillery bombardment goes on for over two hours, supposedly softening the center of Cemetery Ridge before the third infantry assault begins. General Lee gives General George Pickett of Virginia the mission to take the center of Cemetery Ridge. He is betting it all on this risky strategy. Lee planned to overwhelm the enemy at Cemetery Ridge with his “Invincible” men led by Pickett; Lee was confident that the Yankee center on Cemetery Ridge was their weakest defense spot.

Pickett’s charge included a division of experienced Virginia infantry and could be considered the defining moment of the war. If the battle had gone according to Lee’s plan, Meade’s weakened center line on Cemetery Ridge would retreat, and the struggle would be over. Lee had placed his bet on two things: that his army was invincible and that the 2 hours of bombardment had left the center of Cemetery Ridge without any Yankee defense. His plan, however, was based more on fiction rather than facts.

At 2 pm on July 3, 1863, Pickett’s Virginia division and two other divisions on the right and left flank began advancing to Cemetery Ridge. It was a blistering hot day, and Pickett’s men marched over one mile of unprotected farmland. The preceding heavy bombardment on the ridge had done little to loosen the enemy’s grip; many canon shells had shot over the hill, and others had defective fuses. The Union forces were well-protected and unloaded their firepower on the targets coming at them.

“Remember, you are from Virginia,” Pickett shouted to his men as they were about to be slaughtered.

Pickett’s division represented about half of Lee’s attacking force and, within the hour, had sustained casualties approaching 60 percent. Only one Confederate brigade reached the top of the ridge, and, for only a brief time. The enemy killed, wounded, or captured them. It was referred to as the High Watermark of the Confederacy. Repulsed by close-range Union rifle and artillery fire, this time, it was the Confederates who retreated.

3 Confederate prisoners after Gettysburg - courtesy of Library of Congress July 1863
Three confederate prisoners after Gettysburg – courtesy of Library of Congress July 1863

Lee withdrew his army from Gettysburg late on the rainy afternoon of July 4 and struggled back to Virginia with his wounded and severely reduced ranks of battle-weary men. Lee and his Southern army would never be the same, and Robert E. Lee’s hope of ending the war on his terms was over.

The reporting by the Richmond newspapers suggests the distorted efforts made by the Confederate government to put a positive spin on the battle. Lee resented the lies that were starting to be used to prop up the faltering Confederacy. He seemed tired and lacked his old talents from previous battles, leaving it up to his staff to pursue the enemy and even writing vague commands to Early stating “if he found it practicable, but to avoid a general engagement.” There was a lack of direction and clarity from Lee. Pickett’s charge was a high-stakes disaster, an insane decision made by a desperate man. All the arguments for the loss amount to little, as it was Lee’s responsibility.


U.S. Park Service
Gettysburg National Military Park
Archives of Richmond Examiner and Richmond Whig newspapers.
“Altars of Sacrifice”. Drew Gilpin Faust

More about Allen Cornwell

Allen Cornwell is a self-employed business owner and an adjunct American History professor at a small college. He lives in rural Virginia and enjoys history, sports, old movies and visiting all types of museums. Cornwell has had a number of American history articles published and he earned his M. A. degree in American History from Virginia Commonwealth University. He can be contacted at: allencornwell@mac.com

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