Note: The annual anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg is this weekend. To commemorate that, we are posting, with permission, excerpts from Battlelines: Gettysburg, that describe aspects of the battle. Battlelines: Gettysburg contains the battlefield drawings of Alfred Waud and Edwin Forbes, the only two artists who witnessed the battle.
Lee’s original plan for the third day of battle was similar to that of the second day: attack both sides of the Union line. But early in the morning, instead of just holding his position, Meade ordered troops at Culp’s Hill to clear out the Confederate forces that had captured Union positions the day before. So, rather than storming Culp’s Hill – as Lee had planned – General Richard Ewell’s troops had to fight to hold their own position.
When Lee realized that Ewell’s troops were occupied, he changed his plans and told Longstreet to prepare of an attack on the center of the Union line. The attack would require soldiers to cross nearly a mile of open fields that gradually sloped up toward a copse of trees that stood just behind the center of the Federal forces. Longstreet argued against the assault, but Lee was a gambler and felt this was a chance worth taking.
By 11 a.m., Ewell’s troops had been flushed out of their positions at Culp’s Hill and could offer no support for the advance that would later occur. At 1 p.m. Confederate artillery opened up on the Union line, but many of their shots were aimed too high and fell harmlessly behind the lines. Union artillery answered for a while until the order came to cease firing in order to conserve ammunition. By not answering the Confederate fire, Union artillery units were able to conceal their positions in some instances.
Edwin Forbes’ painting of Pickett’s charge
After two hours of bombardment, the cannons ceased, and more than 12,000 Confederates advanced on Union lines in what has become known as Pickett’s charge. In addition to the field being open and often exposing the troops to direct and flanking fire, the troops had to cross fences that further exposed them to Union musketry. The center of the Union line held fire for a time, leading Confederate leaders to believe that the artillery bombardment had been successful.
They were wrong.