During the night of July 1, and on into the daylight hours of the 2nd, Union troops poured onto Cemetery Ridge south of Gettysburg. Over 2 miles long, flanked by Cemetery Hill on the north and the Round Tops on the south, the crest was the center of the Union line. To the west, across 1,200 yards of cultivated fields and orchards, lay Seminary Ridge, the main position of the Confederate army. In the shallow valley between, much of the searing drama of the battle of Gettysburg occurred.
When the full-scale Confederate assault erupted late on the 2nd on the southern portion of the field, Union units on the ridge were shifted into the fight.
The Confederates, attacking to the north, soon moved against the Union center. Brig. Gen. Ambrose R. Wright's brigade of Georgians stormed through the fury, seizing a section of the crest before being repulsed. Wright's temporary lodgement convinced Gen. Robert E. Lee that a massed charge could crush the Union center.
The charge was planned for three Confederate divisions, commanded by Maj. Gen. George Pickett, Brig. Gen. J. Johnston Pettigrew, and Maj. Gen. Isaac R. Trimble, consisting of troops from Lt. Gen. James Longstreet's First Corps and Lt. Gen. A.P. Hill's Third Corps. Pettigrew commanded brigades from Maj. Gen. Henry Heth's old division, under Col. Birkett D. Fry (Archer's Brigade), Col. James K. Marshall (Pettigrew's Brigade), Brig. Gen. Joseph R. Davis, and Col. John M. Brockenbrough. Trimble, commanding Maj. Gen. Dorsey Pender's division, had the brigades of Brig. Gens. Alfred M. Scales and James H. Lane. Two brigades from Maj. Gen. Richard H. Anderson's division (Hill's Corps) were to support the attack on the right flank: Brig. Gen. Cadmus M. Wilcox and Col. David Lang (Perry's brigade).
The target of the Confederate assault was the center of the Union Army of the Potomac's II Corps under Maj. Gen. Winfield S. Hancock. Directly in the center was the division of Maj. Gen. John Gibbon with the brigades of Brig. Gen. William Harrow, Col. Norman J. Hall, and Brig. Gen. Alexander S. Webb. To the north of this position were brigades from the division of Brig. Gen. Alexander Hays, and to the south was Maj. Gen. Abner Doubleday's division of the I Corps, including the 2nd Vermont Brigade of Brig. Gen. George J. Stannard. General Meade's headquarters were just behind the II Corps line, in the small house owned by the widow Lydia Leister.
From the beginning of the planning, things went awry for the Confederates. While Pickett's division had not been used yet at Gettysburg, A.P. Hill's health became an issue and he did not participate in selecting which troops of his were to be used for the charge. Some of Hill's corps had fought lightly on July 1 and not at all on July 2. However, troops that had done heavy fighting on July 1 ended up making the charge.
Although the assault is known to popular history as Pickett's Charge, overall command was given to James Longstreet, and Pickett was one of his divisional commanders. Lee did tell Longstreet that Pickett's fresh division should lead the assault, so the name is appropriate, although some recent historians have used the name Pickett-Pettigrew-Trimble Assault (or, less frequently, Longstreet's Assault) to more fairly distribute the credit (or blame). With Hill sidelined, Pettigrew's and Trimble's divisions were delegated to Longstreet's authority as well. Thus, General Pickett's name has been lent to a charge in which he commanded about one third of the men and was under the supervision of his corps commander throughout. Pickett's men were almost exclusively from Virginia, with the other divisions consisting of troops from North Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee. The supporting troops under Wilcox and Lang were from Alabama and Florida.
In conjunction with the infantry assault, Lee planned a cavalry action in the Union rear. J.E.B. Stuart led his cavalry division to the east, prepared to exploit Lee's hoped-for breakthrough by attacking the Union rear and disrupting its line of communications (and retreat) along the Baltimore Pike.
Despite Lee's hope for an early start, it took all morning to arrange the infantry assault force. Meanwhile, on the far right end of the Union line, a seven-hour battle raged for the control of Culp's Hill. Lee's intent was to synchronize his offensives across the battlefield, keeping Meade from concentrating his numerically superior force, but the assaults were poorly coordinated and Edward "Allegheny" Johnson's attacks against Culp's Hill petered out just as Longstreet's cannonade began.
The infantry charge was preceded by what General Lee hoped would be a powerful and well-concentrated cannonade of the Union center, destroying the Union artillery batteries that could defeat the assault and demoralizing the Union infantry. But a combination of inept artillery leadership and defective equipment doomed the cannonade from the beginning. Longstreet's corps artillery chief, Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, was in effective command of the field; Lee's artillery chief, Maj. Gen. William N. Pendleton, played little role other than to obstruct the effective placement of artillery from the other two corps. Despite Alexander's efforts, then, there was insufficient concentration of Confederate fire on the objective.
The July 3 bombardment was likely the largest of the war, with hundreds of cannons from both sides firing along the lines for almost two hours, starting around 1 p.m. Confederate guns numbered between 150 and 170 and fired from a line over two miles (3 km) long, starting in the south at the Peach Orchard and running roughly parallel to the Emmitsburg Road. Confederate Brig. Gen. Evander M. Law wrote, "The cannonade in the center ... presented one of the most magnificent battle-scenes witnessed during the war. Looking up the valley towards Gettysburg, the hills on either side were capped with crowns of flame and smoke, as 300 guns, about equally divided between the two ridges, vomited their iron hail upon each other."
Despite its ferocity, the fire was mostly ineffectual. Confederate shells often overshot the infantry front lines, and the smoke covering the battlefield concealed that fact from them. Union artillery chief Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt had only about 80 guns available to conduct counter-battery fire; the geographic features of the Union line had limited areas for effective gun emplacement. He also ordered that firing cease to conserve ammunition, and Alexander interpreted this to mean that many of the batteries had been destroyed. (Hunt had to resist the strong arguments of General Hancock, who demanded Union fire to lift the spirits of the infantrymen pinned down under Alexander's bombardment. Even Meade was affected by the artillery—the Leister house was a victim of frequent overshots, and he had to evacuate with his staff to Powers Hill.)
The day was hot, 87 °F (31 °C) by one account and humid, and the Confederates suffered under the hot sun awaiting the order to advance. But they suffered from the Union counter-battery fire as well. When Union cannoneers overshot their targets, they often hit the massed infantry waiting in the woods of Seminary Ridge or in the shallow depressions just behind Alexander's guns, causing significant casualties before the charge began.
From the beginning, Longstreet opposed the charge, preferring his own plan for a strategic movement around the Union left flank. He told Lee that he did not think there were "15,000 men on earth capable of taking that [the Union] position." Longstreet looked for ways to avoid ordering the charge by attempting to pass responsibility to young Col. Alexander, but he eventually did pass the order himself non-verbally; when Alexander notified Pickett that he was running dangerously short of ammunition, Longstreet nodded reluctantly to Pickett's request to step off. For Pickett, there was virtually no Confederate artillery with ammunition available to support his assault directly.
The entire force that charged against the Union positions consisted of about 12,500 men, marching deliberately in line with Pettigrew and Trimble on the left, and Pickett to the right. The nine brigades of men stretched over a mile-long (1,600 m) front. The Confederates encountered heavy artillery fire while advancing across open fields nearly a mile to reach the Union line. The ground between Seminary Ridge and Cemetery Ridge is slightly undulating, and the advancing troops periodically disappeared from the view of the Union cannoneers. As the three Confederate divisions advanced, awaiting Union soldiers began shouting "Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg! Fredericksburg!" in reference to the disastrous Union advance on the Confederate line during the 1862 Battle of Fredericksburg. Murderous fire from Lt. Col. Freeman McGilvery's concealed artillery positions north of Little Round Top raked the Confederate right flank; fire from Cemetery Hill hit the left. Shell and solid shot in the beginning turned to canister and musket fire as the Confederates came within 400 yards of the Union line. The mile-long front shrank to less than half a mile (800 m) as the men filled in gaps that appeared throughout the line and they followed their natural tendency to move away from the flanking fire.
On the left flank of the attack, Brockenbrough's brigade virtually evaporated, decimated by artillery fire from Cemetery Hill. Davis's brigade, on the left flank of the charge, was subjected to the direct attention of the artillery and to a surprise musket fusillade from the 8th Ohio Infantry regiment, which had moved out from its position on the Emmitsburg Road to envelop Davis's left.
Pickett's Virginians had been subjected to the least fire in the beginning of the charge and wheeled to their left toward a minor salient in the Union center. This position of the lines was marked by a low stone wall taking a short right-angle turn known afterwards as "The Angle." They marched in two lines, led by the brigades of James L. Kemper on the right and Richard B. Garnett on the left; Lewis A. Armistead's brigade followed closely behind. As the division wheeled to the left, its right flank was exposed to the front of Doubleday's Union division on Cemetery Ridge. Stannard's Vermont Brigade marched forward, faced north, and delivered withering fire into the rear of Kemper's brigade.
The Confederates partially breached the Union's first line of defense but were forced back soon after as Union troops gathered on their right flank and stabilized the center of the line. The charge lasted less than an hour. The supporting attack by Wilcox and Lang on Pickett's right was never a factor; they did not approach the Union line until after Pickett was defeated, and their advance was quickly broken up by McGilvery's guns and by the Vermont Brigade.
The attack began with over 100 Confederate guns opening fire along the Union lines. The Confederate shells tended to land over the Union lines and land amidst the rear. In fact, Meade was forced to relocate his headquarters to Power's Hill. Col. Alexander, commander of the Confederate I Corps, noticed that the Union batteries were momentarily withdrawing from their positions . Alexander gave his opinion that the charge should proceed.
The attack started from Seminary Ridge with Pickett's and Trimble's Divisions and slowly marched eastward. Union batteries from Cemetery Hill to Little Round Top immediately opened fire on the advancing line, opening temporary gaps in the units. The Confederates kept coming and after 15 minutes, reformed their lines after crossing Emmitsburg Road. When the Confederates were within 400 yards, the Union artillery began firing canister and were also within Union rifle distance. The 2 wings of the Confederate advance converged as Pettigrew moved to the right and Pickett to the left. The line now compacted to about 1/2 mile long.
Brig. Gen. James L. Kemper's Brigade formed Pickett's lead right-front brigade. To his left was Brig. Gen. Richard B. Garnett's Brigade followed by Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Armistead's Brigade. Pickett ordered his men to turn to the northeast in order to link with Pettigrew's Division. This exposed his right flank to the artillery on Little Round Top and the southern portion of Cemetery Ridge. This allowed the Union artillery to fire along the Confederate line with little chance of missing a target.
Col. Robert Mayo's Brigade, Pettigrew's left brigade, was attacked by artillery of the XI Corps on Cemetery Hill. This now exposed the remaining Pettigrew Brigades to flanking fire.
Pettigrew now linked with Pickett and both continued steadily eastward up the slope. Hays' Division formed behind a stone wall and waited until Col. Birkett D. Fry's Brigade was within 200 yards. Now that Mayo's Brigade had fled the field, Hays was able to overlap Pettigrew's left. Hays ordered his right to overlap Pettigrew's left and face southwest. On the right flank of the Confederate advance, the exact same maneuver was being initiated by Brig. Gen. George J. Stannard's Brigade. Stannard was able to fire upon Kemper and inflict huge casualties with impunity. This caused Kemper's men to crowd to the north away from Stannard's fire.
The Confederates began to bunch near the center and became "a mingled mass, from 15 to 30 deep." Opposite the main assault was the "Angle" - a point in the Union line where it formed a 90-degree angle. Positioned in the Angle, behind a stone wall, was the 71st PA Regiment of 250 men. To their left, was the 69th PA, supported by 5 guns. As the Confederates pushed forward, the men and artillery in the Angle poured devastating fire into the approaching units. Still, the Confederates came, this time reaching the stone wall of the Angle. Armistead led the Confederate attack with a group of about 200 men and overran most of the Federals before reaching Cowan's Battery.
The Confederate advance stopped and forced many of them to seek cover behind the western side of the stone wall. Hand-to-hand fighting raged in the Angle and Webb ordered a charge. Col. Devereux's 19th MA Regiment and the 42nd NY Regiment rushed into the Angle to drive the Confederates out.
The Confederates were now outnumbered and cutoff from any reinforcements. Soon, anyone left in the Angle was either captured or killed. The remaining Confederate units near the Angle slowly retreated and made their way back towards Seminary Ridge after realizing no reinforcements were to come.
Pickett lost nearly 3,000 men, over half of his Division. He lost all 15 regimental commanders, including 2 brigadier generals and 6 colonels. When Pickett returned to Lee, he was ordered to prepare against a possible Union counterattack. Pickett then replied, "General Lee, I have no division now."
Pickett's Charge was a bloodbath. While the Union lost about 1,500 killed and wounded, the Confederate casualty rate was over 50%. Pickett's division suffered 2,655 casualties (498 killed, 643 wounded, 833 wounded and captured, and 681 captured, unwounded). Pettigrew's losses are estimated to be about 2,700 (470 killed, 1,893 wounded, 337 captured). Trimble's two brigades lost 885 (155 killed, 650 wounded, and 80 captured). Wilcox's brigade reported losses of 200, Lang's about 400. Thus, total losses during the attack were 6,555, of which at least 1,123 Confederates were killed on the battlefield, 4,019 were wounded, and a good number of the injured were also captured. Confederate prisoner totals are difficult to estimate from their reports; Union reports indicated that 3,750 men were captured.
Command losses were also horrendous. Pickett's three brigade commanders and all thirteen of his regimental commanders were casualties. Kemper was wounded, and Garnett and Armistead did not survive. Garnett had a previous leg injury and rode his horse during the charge, despite knowing that conspicuously riding a horse into heavy enemy fire would mean certain death. Armistead is known for leading his brigade with his cap on the tip of his sword. His brigade made the farthest progress through the Union lines. He was mortally wounded, falling near "The Angle" at what is now considered the High Water Mark of the Confederacy. Of the 15 regimental commanders in Pickett's division, the Virginia Military Institute produced eleven and all eleven were lost—six killed, five wounded. Trimble and Pettigrew were the most senior casualties of the day; Trimble lost a leg, and Pettigrew was wounded in the hand and died on the retreat to Virginia. Pickett has received some historical criticism for surviving the battle unscathed, but his position well to the rear of his troops was command doctrine at the time for division commanders.
Stuart's cavalry action in indirect support of the infantry assault was unsuccessful. He was met and stopped by Union cavalry about three miles (5 km) to the east, in East Cavalry Field.
As soldiers straggled back to the Confederate lines along Seminary Ridge, Lee feared a Union counteroffensive and tried to rally his center, telling returning soldiers and Gen. Wilcox that the failure was "all my fault." General Pickett was inconsolable for the rest of the day and never forgave Lee for ordering the charge. When Lee told Pickett to rally his division for the defense, Pickett allegedly replied, "General Lee, I have no division."