GETTYSBURG – When General Robert E. Lee formed his battle lines on Seminary Ridge, he assembled the largest Confederate army to appear on any battlefield of the Civil War.
Never before had Lee commanded so many men. And never again would he come within reach of such numbers to follow his orders as those men lined up for nearly a mile on that fateful field.
It was July 3, 1863. The United States was 13 years shy of its 100th birthday and was, perhaps, within hours of witnessing its demise as a result of its own bitter divisions.
Lee’s strategy, as he marched his army out of Chancellorsville, Va., in June, was to head north and seize Pennsylvania’s capital, Harrisburg, in order to win the war – not one battle or campaign, but the entire war – on Northern soil.
Backed by troops in high spirits, he set off for Pennsylvania to convince the North, through a decisive strike, that the Confederates could and would prevail.
He would go to his grave carrying the burden that he failed to fully explain his plan to his subordinates. That, in giving early orders on Day One of the three-day battle, he told his generals to take the high ground of Cemetery Hill "if practicable" – and, by using such an indefinite phrase, he failed to convey his intent to end the war on his terms, on that battlefield.
That was why his subordinates never behaved as if they were engaged in a high-risk strategy to win the war.
The attack started from Seminary Ridge with the men of Major Generals George Pickett and Isaac Trimble and Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew slowly marching eastward. Almost immediately, Union artillery from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top opened fire on the near-mile-long advancing line.
Despite the bloodied gaps ripped through their ranks by Union artillery shells and canister and by Union infantry rifles, the Confederates kept advancing. They attacked relentlessly – and Union soldiers fought back with equal ferocity.
So horrific was the Union artillery fire that it stripped the foliage from trees on Seminary Ridge, as if a tornado had passed through.
Lee’s men advanced toward the center of the Union line until bunching in a confused mass, nearly 30 men deep. Pickett ordered his division to link with Pettigrew’s to the northeast, but that immediately exposed his right flank to Union artillery on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.
At the same time, Pettigrew’s brigades fell under intense fire on their exposed left flank.
Outnumbered, cut off from reinforcement, those Confederates who were not captured or killed left a carpet of dead on the field and retreated back to Seminary Ridge.
Of the more than 13,000 men who charged with Pickett across the field, more than half lay dead between the two ridges. Thousands more limped or crawled, wounded and dejected, back to the Confederate lines.
Pickett lost nearly 3,000 of his division’s men, including all of his commanding generals, two brigadier generals and six colonels. Perhaps he also lost his appetite for the glory of war. As Pickett returned to the Confederate lines, General Lee ordered him to prepare his division against a possible Union counterattack.
"General Lee, I have no division now," was all that the shattered Pickett could reply.
Lee already knew that, of course. He had watched Pickett’s Charge from Seminary Ridge, saw his troops’ determined advance across the open field under murderous fire, their ranks steadily falling, the smoke and confusion as they began to shrink from the battle.
In the three days of fighting in and around Gettysburg, losses for both armies exceeded more than 50,000 souls – the bloodiest fighting ever on American soil.
The war would go on for two more years. The country would heal eventually, but not until many generations had passed.
At the time, news accounts were conflicted over who won the Battle of Gettysburg.
But the small farming town in Adams County, Pennsylvania, became the turning point of what remains, 150 years later, America’s worst nightmare – and it became America’s chance to start over, to get right what our nation stands for.
Salena Zito is a Pittsburgh Tribune-Review editorial page columnist. E-mail her at [email protected]