On the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg, Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s last attempt to break the Union line ended in disastrous failure, ending the most decisive battle in the American Civil War.
In June 1863, after his masterful victory at the Battle of Chancellorsville, General Lee launched his second invasion of the Union in less than a year. He led his 75,000-strong North Virginia army across the Potomac River, through Maryland and into Pennsylvania, seeking to win a major battle on northern soil that would further deter the war effort from the Union and would encourage Great Britain or France to intervene on behalf of the Confederation. . The 90,000-strong Potomac Army pursued the Confederates in Maryland, but its commander, General Joseph Hooker, still stung in Chancellorsville and seemed reluctant to pursue Lee further. Meanwhile, the Confederates are dividing their forces and investigating various targets, such as Harrisburg, the capital of Pennsylvania.
On June 28, President Abraham Lincoln replaced Hooker with General George Meade and Lee learned of the Army of the Potomac’s presence in Maryland. Lee ordered his army to concentrate near the crossroads town of Gettysburg and to prepare to meet the federal army. At the same time, Meade sent part of his forces to Pennsylvania but intended to take up a position at Pipe Creek in Maryland.
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On July 1, a Confederate division led by General Henry Heth entered Gettysburg in the hope of seizing supplies but finding three Union cavalry brigades instead. Thus began the Battle of Gettysburg, and Lee and Meade ordered their massive armies to converge on the impromptu battle site. Union riders challenged the field defiantly against an overwhelming number until federal reinforcements arrived. The Confederates were later reinforced, and in the middle of the afternoon, some 19,000 Federals faced 24,000 Confederates. Lee arrived on the battlefield soon after and ordered a general advance which forced the Union Line to Cemetery Hill, just south of the city.
During the night, the rest of Meade’s forces arrived, and by morning Union General Winfield Hancock had formed a solid Union line. On July 2, against the Union left, General James Longstreet led the main Confederate attack, but it did not take place until around 4 p.m. and the Federals had time to consolidate their positions. Thus began some of the most intense fighting in the battle, and Union forces kept control of their strategic positions at high cost. After three hours, the battle ended and the total death toll at Gettysburg rose to thousands.
On July 3, Lee, having failed to the right and to the left, planned an assault on the center of Meade. A column of 15,000 men under the command of General George Pickett was organized and Lee ordered a massive bombardment of Union positions. The 10,000 federal troops responded to the assault by the Confederate artillery, and for more than an hour, the guns raged in the heaviest cannonade of the Civil War. At 3 p.m., Pickett led his forces into no man’s land and found that Lee’s bombing had failed. As Pickett’s forces attempted to cross the mile distance to Cemetery Ridge, Union artillery made large holes in their lines. Meanwhile, the Yankee infantry flanked the main body of “Pickett’s Charge” and began to shoot down the Confederates. Only a few hundred Virginians reached the Union line, and within minutes they were all dead, dying or captured. In less than an hour, more than 7,000 Confederate soldiers were killed or injured.
The two armies, exhausted, maintained their positions until the night of July 4, when Lee withdrew. The Potomac’s army was too weak to prosecute the Confederates, and Lee led his army out of the North, never to invade it again. The Battle of Gettysburg was the turning point in the civil war, costing the Union 23,000 dead, wounded or missing in action. The Confederates claimed some 25,000 lives. On November 19, 1863, President Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg speech at the inauguration of a new national cemetery on the site of the Battle of Gettysburg. The civil war effectively ended with the surrender of General Lee’s army from North Virginia in April 1865.