On this day in 1863, determined to wrest a victory from the war’s biggest battle at Gettysburg, C.S.A. Gen. Robert E. Lee attacks the Union center on Cemetery Ridge and is soundly repulsed. In what became known as Pickett’s Charge, 12,500 Rebel soldiers stepped off toward glory; a mere handful made it three-quarters of a mile to the Union line, whilst the ground behind them was littered with the wilted and the dead. Witnessing casualties for that maneuver alone nearing 7,000, including 1,123 dead, Lee finally cut losses and the Army of Northern Virginia never set foot in the North again.
Fresh off of his success at Chancellorsville in Virginia in May 1863, Gen. Lee led his army through the Shenandoah Valley to begin his second invasion of the North; the Gettysburg Campaign. With his army in high spirits, Lee intended to shift the focus of the summer campaign from war-torn northern Virginia and hoped to influence Northern politicians to relent on the larger war by penetrating as far as Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, or even Philadelphia.
Elements of the two armies initially collided at Gettysburg on July 1, 1863, as Lee urgently concentrated his forces there, his objective being to engage the Army of the Potomac under the new command of Gen. George Meade, and destroy it. Low ridges to the northwest of town were defended initially by a Union cavalry division under Brig. Gen. John Buford, and soon reinforced with two corps of Union infantry.
However, two large Confederate corps assaulted them from the northwest and north, collapsing the hastily developed Union lines, sending the defenders retreating through the streets of the town to the hills just to the south.
On the second day of battle, most of both armies had assembled and taken up positions. The Union line was laid out in a defensive formation resembling a fishhook. In the late afternoon of July 2, Lee launched a heavy assault on the Union left flank, and fierce fighting raged at Little Round Top, the Wheatfield, Devil’s Den, and the Peach Orchard. On the Union right, Confederate probing escalated into full-scale assaults on Culp’s Hill and Cemetery Hill, yet all across the battlefield, despite significant losses, the Union defenders held their lines.
With the third day of battle ending disastrously for Lee, he apologized to his men for his perceived failure to prevail, and perhaps, win the war on the eve of Independence Day. However, with casualties numbering nearly a third of Lee’s total force of over 70,000 men and the loss of six generals, the C.S.A. had reached its high-water mark; Britain rejected further entreaties to assist the South, Grant scored a stunning victory to the west at Vicksburg, the Union was further galvanized and the slow, bloody and inexorable Northern victory was now in sight.
Dedicating the Soldiers’ National Cemetery at the battlefield that Fall, Lincoln declared “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.”