On this day 150 years ago, July 3, 1863, the grand and horrific finale of the Battle of Gettysburg would take place during the early afternoon.
After almost collapsing the flanks of the Union Army during the previous day's fighting, Confederate General Lee was convinced that reinforcement of the Union flanks had most likely left vulnerable the center of their defensive line. Lee instructed his subordinate, General James Longstreet, to plan an attack on the Union center. Longstreet chose a prolific copse of trees as the focal point of the planned assault, and determined that because the attacking infantry troops would be required to march almost a mile across an open exposed field on the way to the Union lines, a significant artillery barrage would be necessary to soften up the Union position prior to sending in the infantry.
At or about 1 in the afternoon, over 150 Confederate cannons opened up on the Union center, and would continue their rate of fire for almost 2 hours. The cannonade was easily the largest of the war, and could be heard in Washington D.C., 80 miles away. Unfortunately, the Confederates could not see that many of their shots were flying over the heads of the Union infantry, and were often exploding behind them.
At or about 3 in the afternoon, the Confederate artillery barrage ceased, and emerging from the woods on Seminary Ridge as if on parade were between 12,000 and 15,000 Confederate soldiers. The front of their lines of attack extended almost a mile from north to south. As the smoke of the Confederate cannonade blew away, it acted as a drawn curtain, revealing to the waiting Union troops a sight that was at once both magnificent and absolutely terrifying.
The Confederate troops began their march - known today as Pickett's Charge - across the almost mile-wide open field toward the Union center, and when they were within range, began to be mowed down by long-range shot and shell from Union cannons that had been largely untouched by the 2-hour Confederate cannonade. When the Confederates were within 300 yards, the Union infantry rose from behind a low stone wall and began pouring volley after volley of musket fire into the Confederate ranks. When the the Confederates were within 200 to 100 yards, the Union artillery opened up with canister rounds, which turn the cannons into giant shotguns. When these were fired, a Union soldier reported a massive, collective groan emanating from the Confederate ranks, along with a roiling cloud of dust from which flew knapsacks, limbs, and heads.
Finally, about 300 Virginians under the command of Brigadier General Lewis Armistead made it to the Union stone wall, but every one of them was either killed (including Armistead) or captured. The rest of the Confederate participants of Pickett's Charge walked, limped, or crawled back to their position on Seminary Ridge.
General Lee, upon observing the assault's failure, told anyone who would listen, "This is all my fault!"
The casualty figures commonly accepted for the Battle of Gettysburg were:
Union: 23,000 casualties, including 3,155 killed
Confederate: 28,000 casualties, including 4,708 killed
Recent research has found that those numbers of killed merely represented the number of dead on the battlefield. What was never taken into account were the thousands of wounded who made it off the battlefield but died shortly after, along with many of those designated as "missing" who were actually killed in the battle.
When these additional deaths are taken into account, the actual number of Union soldiers killed at the Battle of Gettyburg is closer to 5,300, and the Confederate dead was more likely upwards of 5,800.
The Confederate Army of Northern Virginia under General Robert E. Lee was badly mauled at the Batle of Gettyburg, but they were by no means knocked out of the War... not by a longshot. The War would go on for almost 2 more bloody years, and the Army of Northern Virginia would continue to engage the Union Army at such places as The Wilderness, Spotsylvania Courthouse, Cold Harbor, and Petersburg.