On the final day at Gettysburg, two old friends fought to the death for the future of their country.
July 3, 1863, dawned overcast and hot. The bulk of Robert E. Lee’s army was amassed in the trees at the bottom of a hill, looking up across a mile-wide expanse to see the Union army arrayed on Cemetery Ridge. On the previous day, Lee had attacked and heavily damaged both of his enemy’s flanks. Lee guessed (correctly) that his enemy would have moved many soldiers from the center to reinforce the wings, and Lee surmised (incorrectly) that the Union center would therefore be weak and prone to attack. In addition, an entire division of over 6,000 confederates, led by George Pickett, had arrived late to Gettysburg on the night of July 2, and they were fresh and eager for battle.
At an hour past noon, Lee opened fire with the largest battery ever assembled on the North American continent, 150 guns. The Union artillery initially responded, and then went quiet, giving Lee the impression he had successfully knocked out his opponent’s guns. But it was a false hope. The southerners were aiming too high, and most of their shots had carried harmlessly over the Union lines. The federals held their fire and saved their ammunition for the assault yet to come.
At 3PM, it began. Pickett’s division, along with two others, stepped out of the trees and began their ascent of the ridge. Though history has romantically dubbed it “Pickett’s Charge,” it wasn’t a charge at all. It was a long, slow, hot, sweaty, brutal, bloody, merciless uphill slog over open ground, through and around several twisted fence lines, on and on and on, right into the teeth of the Union defense. The federals opened fire first with a murderous artillery barrage, and later with a storm of rifle fire, pouring two years of their frustration into the heart of the confederacy.
The South never had a chance. Many of the confederates made it only halfway across. The only senior confederate officer to even approach the Union line that day was Brigadier General Lew Armistead. He led his forces across the field by ostentatiously waving his hat atop his saber. Somehow he and his brigade gained the summit of Cemetery Ridge, crossed a rock wall at a place called “The Angle,” and engaged in hand-to-hand combat with the enemy. Historians call this moment, “the high water mark of the confederacy.” But it only lasted for an instant. Armistead was shot three times by soldiers under the command of Winfield Scott Hancock, who had been Armistead’s good friend before the war. As he lay wounded, Armistead asked that his effects be given to Hancock.
Hancock was nearby. He had spent the battle on horseback, crisscrossing Cemetery Ridge, directing and encouraging his troops. About the time Armistead’s brigade was struggling over the wall, a bullet shattered the pommel of Hancock’s saddle, and entered his right thigh along with fragments of wood and leather, and a bent nail. He dismounted, applied a tourniquet, removed the nail and said, “They must be hard up for ammunition when they throw shot such as that!” But he would not leave the field, and received the news of his friend Armistead while lying in a surgeon’s stretcher.
Pickett’s charge was the signature moment of the Battle of Gettysburg, a confederate disaster, and the turning point of the Civil War. Of the more than 12,000 southern soldiers who walked out onto that field, more than half didn’t come back. Pickett’s division was essentially wiped out: all 3 of his brigade commanders, all 13 of his regimental commanders, and 26 of his 40 field officers were lost. As the survivors straggled back to camp, Robert E. Lee rode out to meet them, proclaiming, “This is all my fault.”
The next day, the 4th of July, the confederates began a heartbreaking retreat south in a punishing rain.
On July 5, Lew Armistead died of his wounds in a Gettysburg hospital.
As for Winfield Scott Hancock, somehow he survived. He left Gettysburg, recuperated at his home in Norristown, and then rejoined the army in the Spring of 1864. He would have a new boss, Ulysses S. Grant, and together they would chase Robert E. Lee to Appomattox.