Camp-Fires of General Lee



IT will be remembered that at the close of the second day Lee had accomplished nothing in the way of piercing the Federal lines except on their right, where Ewell had effected a lodgment within the breastworks on Gulp’s Hill. This fact led Lee to strengthen Johnson, who was close to the elevation, with the intention of making his main assault at that point; but before the preparations could be completed, Meade during the night posted a strong force of artillery so as to bear upon Johnson, and at the earliest streakings of light on July 3, he opened a heavy fire, and a powerful force of infantry moved against the Confederates. A fierce conflict was instantly precipitated, and, though Johnson was outnumbered, he held his ground for four hours, when he was driven out and the Federal line re-established.

This disaster compelled Lee to change his plan of battle, and he now determined to make the Federal centre his objective point, hoping to break apart the two wings. These preparations consumed several hours, during which an impressive silence reigned over the embattled hosts, though the Federals saw their foe busily employed in massing his artillery. When the sun was directly overhead, Lee had one hundred and forty-five pieces of cannon on Seminary Ridge, opposite to Meade’s centre. Divining Lee’s purpose, the Federal commander lined the crest of Cemetery Hill with eighty pieces of artillery.

At one o’clock the Confederate batteries suddenly opened, and, a short time after, the Federal battery replied from the opposite heights. The thunder and flame and smoke of more than two hundred pieces of artillery made up the most terrific cannonade that can be conceived. For two hours the tremendous outburst continued, the earth quivering from the shock, while the whole valley fairly rocked with a thunderous outroar such as was never before heard on the American continent. The terrible enginery of war combined to give the scene a grandeur that was awful in its very sublimity and caused strong men leagues away to turn pale with terror.

Gradually the Federal fire slackened, and the crouching troops grasped their muskets with a tighter grip, compressed their lips and braced themselves for the more deadly shock that they knew was coming. From Seminary Ridge, a mile away, as the heavy bank of vapor lifted, debouched a column of five thousand men clad in Confederate gray, their red battle-flags flying and the gun-barrels and bayonets gleaming in the sunlight. They marched with the beautiful even tread of a dress-parade, but the fire of deadly determination was in their eyes, and they meant that no mortal power should check their advance upon the Federal position. This was Major-General Pickett’s division, formed in double line of battle, supported by Heth’s division, of Hill’s corps, under General Pettigrew. Pickett had only arrived that morning, but his command was the very flower of the Confederate army, every man a hero and all under the leadership of heroes seasoned in the flame of many battles. Heth’s division was composed principally of new troops from North Carolina. General Wilcox’s brigade was also designed to cover Pickett’s right flank during the advance, the assaulting column numbering about thirteen thousand, all under the command of General Pickett. Kemper’s and Garnett’s brigades were in front, with Armistead close behind; Pettigrew marched on the left, and Wilcox with his troops in columns of battalions following on the right. The two armies were silent, all eyed fixed upon the impressive scene. The splendor of that advance compelled murmurs of admiration from tens of thousands of enemies. It was magnificent and thrilling beyond description. It was like a vast machine working with absolute precision and perfection.

With the same even, unvarying, beautiful step the line swept forward until the Emmettsburg road was reached, when the Confederate batteries stopped their thunder, for the infantry was coming within their range. When they were about halfway between the two armies, the Federal artillery opened and mowed down scores; but the gaps were immediately closed up, and the line advanced still faster and without a tremor until within musketry-range, when the crest of the hill outblazed with the fire of the Federal infantry, and the deadly sleet was driven in the very faces of the assailants. Pettigrew’s division, despite the efforts of its commander, was hurled backward, leaving two thousand prisoners and fifteen standards in the hands of the Union army.

As Wilcox had fallen behind, Pickett and his heroes were left alone to breast the awful tempest. With the same marvellous precision they delivered a volley at the breastworks in their front, and then with their resounding yells rushed up the crest of Cemetery Ridge and took possession of the works at the point of the bayonet. But at what fearful cost! Garnett was dead; Armistead lunged forward, mortally wounded while cheering on the breastworks; Kemper was helpless; the dead and dying were everywhere, and the triumph was of only a few minutes’ duration. The Federals rallied on their second line, against which Pickett’s men dashed in vain, and a converging fire was poured upon them against which nothing with the breath of life could. Looking around for his support, Pickett saw that he was alone, and it was death to every one of his command to attempt to hold his works. The order was given to fall back, and sullenly and reluctantly the survivors withdrew from a charge that was as sublime in its true heroism and daring as that of the immortal Six Hundred at Balaklava.

Of the five thousand men who advanced with such proud bearing under Pickett, thirty-five hundred were killed, wounded or prisoners in the hands of the Union army. Of his three brigade commanders, Garnett was killed, Armistead dying and Kemper frightfully wounded. Of the fourteen field-officers who were in the advance, only one came back. The Federals paid dearly in killed and wounded for their victory, among the latter being Generals Gibbon and Hancock, though the latter remained on the field until the issue was decided.

Standing on Seminary Ridge, General Lee, with his glass to his eyes, watched the-wonderful charge, fight and repulse of Pickett. When he saw the broken masses reeling back, he rode among them and by his cheerful words and manner did his utmost to comfort the brave fellows. They cheered him in turn, and showed their faith in his prowess was unshaken. But Lee realized that it was impossible to break through the Union lines. There was some apprehension that Pickett’s repulse would be followed by a general attack on the part of Meade, but he was too wise to incur such a risk, and quiet reigned for the rest of the day.

That night the corps of General Ewell was withdrawn from the town and posted on Seminary Ridge, where the entire Confederate army entrenched itself. The Federals occupied Gettysburg the next morning. Finding he was in no danger of attack, General Lee began removing his wounded and his arms from a portion of the field. The retreat was begun at night by the Chambersburg and Fairfield roads, which lead through the South Mountain range into the Cumberland Valley. As usual, a severe storm came up in the afternoon and lasted through the night, making the retreat laborious, slow and painful.

The second Confederate invasion of the North was ended.

The Union loss at Gettysburg was two thousand eight hundred and thirty-four killed, thirteen thousand seven hundred and thirty-three wounded, and six thousand six hundred and forty-three missing, making the dreadful total of twenty-three thousand one hundred and ninety. The Confederate losses cannot be given with accuracy, but, owing to the circumstances of the battle, they must have been considerably greater. General Lee left most of his wounded in the hands of his enemy, who claimed a capture of thirteen thousand six hundred and twenty-one prisoners.


Return to Reference Shelf