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Four Attacks – Four Failures: The Third Day at Gettysburg
by Bryan J. Dickerson


The Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War is one of the most researched and written about events in world history. A great many historians have researched, interpreted, analyzed and re-interpreted what happened leading up to, during and after these three epic days of battle in the Pennsylvania countryside. Run a search through Barnes & Noble or Amazon’s websites on Gettysburg and you will find literally several thousand books on the subject. Historians, scholars, and persons from all walks of life have debated and argued over these three days like few other events in history.

The Battle of Gettysburg occupies a unique place in American history. Taken together with the surrender of Vicksburg, Mississippi on the day following the battle’s conclusion, Gettysburg marks a dramatic and decisive turning point in the Civil War. With Vicksburg in Union hands, the Confederacy was split in two and the Union now controlled the Mississippi River in its entirety. With defeat at Gettysburg, the Confederacy would never again be able to mount a major offensive in the East. The momentum of the war swung irrevocably against the Confederacy.

A great many historians have weighed in on the Battle of Gettysburg. So it is with much deliberation and careful consideration that I have decided to venture onto the field of Gettysburg scholarship. This is especially since I am predominantly a World War Two historian. Nevertheless, I hope that my efforts may offer some meaningful contribution to the historiography of the Battle of Gettysburg.

This paper actually began its life as a Professional Military Education (PME) class that I taught back in April 2010 for one of the Marine Corps Reserve units that I served with. I was one of five briefers who summarized the events of the battle to our group of officers and staff non-commissioned officers prior to our touring the battlefield.

Now as we approach the 150th Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, I have decided to re-visit my original April 2010 PME briefing and add to it some additional thought and analysis.

Pickett’s Charge almost exclusively dominates the popular perception of the third day of the Battle of Gettysburg. While this doomed charge proved to be the climactic event of this most famous of American Civil War battles, Pickett’s charge was one of four failed attacks to occur that day in July 1863. Each of the three days of the battle had its own unique features. Over the course of the battle, the tactical advantage progressively shifted from the attacker to the defender with the third day ultimately being dominated by the defense, producing a decisive impact on the course of the larger war.

Background to the Battle [1]

Having decisively defeated the Union Army of the Potomac at Chancellorsville in May 1863, Confederate General Robert E. Lee endeavored to take the war north into Pennsylvania. In mid-June, he started his Army of Northern Virginia north on his second such invasion. Unfortunately the fortunes of war had deprived him of his greatest subordinate –Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson who died of wounds suffered in an incident of “friendly fire” at the Battle of Chancellorsville. Ego and poor judgment deprived him of another key subordinate – Major Gen J.E.B. Stuart who took the Confederate cavalry on a pointless raiding expedition independent of Lee’s main force. Though Lee’s army struck north buoyant with the confidence of repeated battlefield successes, that army also went north without its cavalry vitally important for reconnaissance and with an untested command structure that had been re-organized due to Jackson’s death.

Once Lee’s movements had become known, the Union Army followed in pursuit. Extreme dissatisfaction with his performance and leadership prompted President Abraham Lincoln to replace Major General Joseph Hooker with Major General George Meade as commander of the Army of the Potomac. Meade was a capable corps commander but he had never commanded an army before. Fortunately for him, he was most ably served by many well-experienced and capable corps and division commanders. In the army’s psyche, the recent Union defeats were somewhat assuaged by the fact that they would soon be fighting to defend their own soil from an invading Confederate army.

Lee intended to forage and gather supplies for his army off the Pennsylvania countryside and to threaten the state’s capital at Harrisburg. As a result, his three corps were widely scattered. With Stuart off on his ego trip, Lee did not know exactly where the Union Army of the Potomac was. As June came to a close, he ordered his far-flung command to concentrate at the vital cross-roads town of Gettysburg in south central Pennsylvania.

Lee’s second invasion of the North created widespread panic in the North. President Lincoln directed his new army commander, Major General George Meade, to use his army to cover both Washington and Baltimore. Indeed to this end, Meade intended to assume a defensive posture along Pipe Creek in Maryland.

The Battle of Gettysburg – Days One and Two

Events, however, took on a life of their own. On 1 July, Confederate forces from Lt Gen A. P. Hill’s corps approached Gettysburg from the west and ran into Union cavalry under the command of Major General John Buford. The Union cavalrymen fought a tenacious delaying action and successfully held off the Confederates until infantry and artillery reinforcements from Major General John Reynolds’s I Corps and Major General Oliver Howard’s XI Corps arrived. Reynolds took charge of the battle but was killed by a Confederate sniper. Lt Gen Richard Ewell’s corps arrived on the battlefield from the north. The Confederates were able to bring more troops onto the battlefield more rapidly than the Union could and thusly were able to collapse the Union defense. I and XI Corps were forced back through the town of Gettysburg where a strong defense was hastily organized by Major General Winfield S. Hancock on a grouping of hills south-east of town known as Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Nightfall ended the fighting as the two armies rushed to concentrate at Gettysburg.[2]

The Battle of Gettysburg began as a meeting engagement between the two armies. Both armies rushed to concentrate their forces. The battle took on a momentum of its own. Ultimately the offense prevailed with Confederate attacks sweeping the Union defenders from the western and northern outskirts of Gettysburg back through the town and onto strong ground south-east of the town. Controversy still rages to this day as to whether Ewell’s corps could have taken Cemetery Hill that night. Regardless, the offense ruled the day.

During the night of 1-2 July, more Confederate and Union forces arrived on the battlefield. The Confederates held the town of Gettysburg and Seminary Ridge. The Union forces were defending a hook-shaped line that ran from Culp’s Hill through Cemetery Hill and down Cemetery Ridge. Lee had not intended to fight here. However, having come close to complete victory on the first day, he endeavored to resume the offensive on the 2nd by sending his most trusted subordinate, Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, on a major attack against the Union left while also threatening the Union right at Culp’s Hill with Ewell’s corps.[3]

The Angle on Cemetery Ridge.

Longstreet spent much of 2 July maneuvering his forces on a wide march to gain the Union left flank. One of the great controversies of the battle revolves over Longstreet’s conduct during this day’s battles as he strongly disagreed with Lee’s decision to fight here at Gettysburg. Meanwhile, Major General Daniel Sickles advanced his III Corps without orders far forward from the main Union line to occupy a Peach Orchard and Wheatfield between the two armies’ lines. Accordingly Longstreet adjusted his plan and the Confederates struck Sickles’s exposed command with great ferocity. Union reinforcements were rushed in to save Sickles from destruction but ultimately Confederate attacks forced the Union back to Cemetery Ridge at great loss.

At the far left end of the Union line, the Confederates very nearly seized the vital high ground overlooking and flanking Cemetery Ridge. Two prominent hills – Big Round Top and Little Round Top – had been unoccupied by the Union save for some Union signalmen. Seeing the grave danger, Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren rushed Union soldiers to occupy Little Round Top. Heroic defensive stands, most notably by the 20th Maine, 83rd Pennsylvania and 140th New York Regiments, halted the Confederate attacks and secured this vital terrain for the Union.

At the far right end of the Union line, Confederate attacks late in the day and into the night seriously threatened to capture Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill. Fortunately for the Union, both vital positions were held.

The second day of fighting marked a progressive shift from the advantage of the offense to the defense. Longstreet’s attacks were successful in forcing Union troops out of the Peach Orchard, the Wheatfield and Devil’s Den. But as the day came to a close, the advantage was shifting to the defense. Confederate attacks at both ends of the line were now against more defensible terrain. This, coupled with tenacious Union defense, skillful tactical maneuvering by Meade and his subordinates and the exhaustion of Confederate attackers, swung the advantage to the defense. Again Confederate attacks had come close to overcoming the Union Army but had not been able to achieve the decisive result.

The Night of 2-3 July

More reinforcements arrived on the battlefield for both armies but the advantage in numbers had swung towards the Union Army. Belated, Stuart’s cavalry finally arrived and he received an uncharacteristically harsh rebuke from Lee. Now would be an appropriate time to examine the command mindset within the respective armies.

General Robert E. Lee had been in command of the Army of Northern Virginia since June 1862. Since then, he had fought a succession of dazzling victories during the Peninsula Campaign, Second Manassas, Fredericksburg and Chancellorsville. He was supremely confident in his own abilities and in the capabilities of his subordinates and his victorious army. But there was a serious flaw in the Confederate command structure. The death of Stonewall Jackson had caused Lee to re-organize his Army of Northern Virginia from the well-tested two corps scheme into an untried three corps scheme. Worse yet, of Lee’s three corps commanders, only Longstreet had experience in leading a corps in battle.

The Confederates had won the first day at Gettysburg and had mauled two of the Union corps that they faced that day. On the second day, the Confederates had mauled another Union corps and nearly rolled up the Union left flank. Based on the progress of the battle thus far and with high confidence in himself and his army, Lee decided to resume the offense on 3 July with attacks on Culp’s Hill, and Cemetery Ridge and a wide encircling attack by Stuart’s cavalry to gain the Union rear. The primary effort of the third day’s attacks would be a massive attack against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge by Major General George Pickett’s division of Longstreet’s corps plus two divisions of A. P. Hill’s corps. Lee’s decision was further pressed by his army’s declining logistical situation.

Lee alone made this decision – a decision which his most trusted lieutenant, James Longstreet, vigorously opposed. Longstreet wanted to fight a defensive battle and make the Union attack them. But this was Lee’s decision and Longstreet’s objections were overruled. As Longstreet recalled in his post-war memoirs, “’No’ he [Lee] said, ‘I am going to take them where they are on Cemetery Hill. I want you to take Pickett’s division and make the attack. I will re-enforce you by two divisions of the Third Corps.’”[4]

The command situation within the Union Army of the Potomac was in great contrast. Major General George Meade was a very capable division and corps commander. But he had only been placed in command of the Army of the Potomac a few days earlier. The Army of the Potomac had suffered a series of serious defeats stretching back to First Manassas two years prior. His army had thus far been roughly handled here at Gettysburg.

But Meade enjoyed several advantages that Lee lacked. First, his army occupied strong defensive positions on interior lines. Second, Meade did not have to attack Lee. His logistical situation was much better than Lee’s. Remaining in place actually worked in Meade’s favor as Lee’s logistics situation worsened with every day that he remained at Gettysburg. Third, Meade’s soldiers were fighting on Union soil and this factor was a major boost to their morale. Lastly, Meade was most ably served with many competent corps and division commanders in his army. Remember, only a few days before Meade had been a corps commander and thus been a colleague of Oliver Howard, Winfield Scott, George Sykes, John Sedgwick and the other Union corps commanders. Meade trusted their judgment and experience, and called a Council of War to decide what to do on 3 July.

Late on the night of 2 July, Meade gathered his seven corps commanders, his Chief of Staff Brigadier General Daniel Butterfield, his Chief of Engineers Brigadier General Gouverneur Warren and several other key officers at his Headquarters on Cemetery Ridge to decide a course of action for the following day’s battle. All present voted to remain in place and not retreat from Gettysburg. All present voted not to attack Lee. There were mixed opinions as to how long to wait to attack Lee if Lee did not attack first.[5]

The Council of War concluded with the Union commanders fully expecting a major Confederate attack the following day. As the meeting ended, Meade said to Major General John Gibbon, “If Lee attacks tomorrow, it will be in your front because he has made attacks on both our flanks and failed, and if he concludes to try it again it will be on our center.” Gibbon commanded the division of Hancock’s II Corps that occupied the very center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge.[6]

The First Failed Attack – Culp’s Hill [7]

Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill anchored the Union right. Culp’s Hill actually had an upper (north) summit and lower (south) summit. The Union defenders of the Culp’s Hill were initially from XII Corps. At the direction of Brigadier General George S. Greene, strong breastworks were constructed to fortify the position. Later the Culp’s Hill defenders came to include a mixture of units from I, VI, and XI Corps. On the afternoon and evening of 2 July, Confederate forces from Major General Jubal Early and Major General Edward “Allegheny” Johnson’s divisions had attacked Cemetery Hill and Culp’s Hill but had failed to carry these two key positions. Nevertheless, Johnson’s troops remained on parts of Culp’s Hill through the night, posing a serious threat to the Union far right.

On the morning of 3 July, the Confederates planned to resume their attacks to seize Culp’s Hill. Overnight, Lee had reinforced Ewell’s corps with three more brigades. Capture of Culp’s Hill and a subsequent advance to the nearby Baltimore Pike would have been disastrous for the Union Army and would likely have forced Meade to retreat from Gettysburg.

The Confederates began their attacks early in the morning. The fighting was intense. Ultimately the Confederates made three major assaults to carry Culp’s Hill but were repulsed. The Union soldiers on Culp’s Hill were not passive defenders as they counter-attacked at various times to regain lost ground. Towards the end of the battle, two Union regiments were ordered into a disastrous attack on the far right. After seven hours of furious fighting, the Confederates withdrew from Culp’s Hill, leaving it in sole possession of the Union.

During the fighting on Culp’s Hill, the advantage clearly rested with the Union defenders. They enjoyed a strong position on defensible terrain which they strengthened by erecting breastworks from the ample rocks and trees on the hill. Possession of interior lines aided the Union defense as units were rapidly shifted to bolster the lines.

Brigadier General George Greene’s brigade from the XII Corps occupied a strong position in the center of Culp’s Hill. Initially his brigade bore the brunt of the defense on 2 July and was in the midst of some of the fiercest fighting this morning as well. “Of the disastrous consequences to the Union Army, had Lee succeeded in penetrating our lines and placing himself square across the Baltimore Pike in rear of the center and right wing of the entire army, there can be no question,” Greene later wrote of the two days of battle on Culp’s Hill.[8]

The Second Failed Attack – Stuart and the East Cavalry Field

Upon arriving at the Gettysburg battlefield late on 2 July, Major General J.E.B. Stuart had been chastised by his army commander for his prolonged absence. As part of his grand assault on the Union center, Lee intended to send Stuart and his cavalry around the Union right to strike at the Union center from the rear.[9]

Lee had hopes of Stuart supporting the main attack against Cemetery Ridge. Instead Stuart’s cavalry ran into Brigadier General David Gregg’s Union cavalry about three miles east of Gettysburg. This battle was marked by dismounted fighting, artillery duels and cavalry charges. Stuart attempted one last climactic charge which was met head on by a counter-charge by Brig. Gen. George Custer and the 1st Michigan Cavalry Regiment. A brutal melee ensued. Another force of Union cavalry got behind Stuart and forced him to retreat.

The two cavalry forces were fairly evenly matched. As the battle proved, however, Union artillery here was superior. The task of the Union cavalrymen was straight-forward: prevent the Confederates from gaining the Union rear areas. The Confederates had the more difficult task of either breaking through the Union cavalry or forcing them to retreat. The Confederates were unsuccessful in doing either and retreated after a vicious battle.

The Third Failed Attack – Pickett’s Charge

The main Confederate attack of 3 July was to occur against the Union center on Cemetery Ridge. The attack would be preceded by a prolonged artillery bombardment under direction of Colonel Edward Porter Alexander, Chief of I Corps’s Artillery, and involve nearly 150 guns from First and Third Corps. When satisfied with barrage, Alexander was to notify Longstreet who would launch the attack by the divisions of Major General George Pickett, Brigadier General J. Johnston Pettigrew and Major General Isaac Trimble. These three divisions would converge on the Union center to achieve a breakthrough.

Col Alexander's guns failed to knock out the Union artillery on Cemetery Ridge.

Under Colonel Alexander’s direction, the massive artillery bombardment began at around 1 pm. Despite his impressive array of artillery, Alexander had his misgivings about the impending assault. “It seemed madness to launch infantry into that fire, with nearly three-quarters of a mile to go at midday under a July sun,” he later wrote.[10]

Opposing Alexander’s artillery bombardment was Meade’s Chief of Artillery, Major General Henry Hunt. Hunt had 77 artillery pieces, primarily those of II Corps, with which to counter Alexander’s nearly 150 pieces. Shrewdly, Hunt ordered his batteries to cease firing one by one so as to create the impression that his guns were being silenced by the Confederate fire. In reality, however, he was conserving his ammunition for use against the expected Confederate infantry attack.

With Cemetery Ridge obscured by smoke and a noticeable slacking of Union return fire, Alexander mistakenly believed that his artillery was knocking out the Union guns. In reality, the Confederate artillery fire was largely ineffectual. “Most of the enemy’s projectiles passed overhead, the effect being to sweep all the open ground in our rear, which was of little benefit to the Confederates – a mere waste of ammunition, for everything here could seek shelter,” Major General Hunt later wrote.[11]

In time, Alexander’s guns began to run low on ammunition and he communicated this fact to Longstreet. Against his better judgment, Longstreet acquiesced to launching the attack. At around 2 pm, some 12,500 Confederate soldiers emerged from their lines and formed up for the attack. The attack went forward against Union artillery which had resumed firing with deadly effect. The thrust of the attack was directed against the center of the Union position on Cemetery Ridge – an area which featured a Copse of Trees.

The area around the Copse of Trees was held by Major General Alexander Webb’s Philadelphia Brigade and Lt Alonzo Hereford Cushing’s Battery A, 4th U.S. Artillery. The Philadelphia Brigade included the 71st Pennsylvania Regiment, whose ranks included Private George Batzel. Batzel had joined the regiment at the onset of the war at the age of 40 and fought in most of the major battles in the East. 150 years later, one of Batzel’s direct descendants would write this paper on the Battle of Gettysburg.[12]

The 71st Pennsylvania's monument on Cemetery Ridge.

Despite appalling losses to Union artillery and rifle fire, the brigades of Brigadier Generals James Kemper, Richard Garnett and Lewis Armistead made it to the Copse of Trees. Heavily outnumbered, the 71st Pennsylvania gave way and several other Union units buckled. Confederate soldiers surged into the Union position. However, Webb rallied reinforcements from his own brigade, and together with other Union reinforcements, the brief breach in the Union line was restored. Other Union regiments attacked the Confederates from the flanks. The Confederates were forced to retreat back to Seminary Ridge, where General Lee took responsibility for the disaster, telling them, “It’s all my fault.” [13]

Pickett’s Charge was the most dramatic and devastating of the failed attacks on 3 July. The Confederates lost over 50% of their attacking force or over 6,500 killed, wounded or captured. Fifteen regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Armistead and Garnett were killed and Kemper was seriously wounded. Union losses were 1,500 killed or wounded. Both II Corps commander Major General Hancock and 2nd Division commander Major Gen John Gibbon were severely wounded. The Confederates had no real hope for a successful attack against Cemetery Ridge. Confederate artillery failed to knock out the Union guns and soften up the Union defenses. The attack had to be made across ¾ of a mile of open fields into the teeth of massed infantry and artillery fire. The fact that the Confederates made it to the Union line is a testament to their courage and tenacity.

At this point, Meade could have counter-attacked the retreating Confederates. Lee expected Meade to do as much and hastily tried to re-organize his men to defend against such an attack. Meade, however, wisely chose not to attack. His army had suffered serious casualties during the three days of battle and his center had been disorganized in repelling Pickett’s Charge. An attack by Meade at this point would very likely have similarly been repulsed with heavy losses.

The Fourth and Final Failed Attack – The Union Cavalry at the South Cavalry Field [14]

The fourth and final failed attack of the day occurred when Union cavalry attacked Lee’s extreme right. The engagement occurred on what’s now known as the South Cavalry Field.

Union Cavalry commander Major Gen. Alfred Pleasonton had sent units of Brigadier General Judson Kilpatrick’s division to cover the army’s extreme left flank and had given him wide discretion in carrying out his orders. After Pickett’s Charge, Kilpatrick ordered one of his brigade commanders, newly promoted Brigadier General Elon Farnsworth, to attack the extreme right of Lee’s line with part of his brigade. Farnsworth, seeing the absurdity of a mounted cavalry attack against infantry over rocky terrain, objected. A heated exchanged ensued but ultimately Farnsworth agreed to lead the charge under the condition that Kilpatrick take responsibility for it. Thereafter, Farnsworth led the ill-fated charge which succeeded only in the needless loss of about one-fourth of the charging Union cavalrymen and the death of Farnsworth.[15]

The final attack of the third day at Gettysburg was thus a needless waste of lives and further evidence of the primacy of the defense. The terrain was unsuitable for mounted operations and strongly favored the Confederate infantry defending it. The result was a foregone conclusion.


The Battle of Gettysburg had begun with a heroic defense by Union cavalrymen and infantry against massed Confederate infantry on terrain that favored the attackers. Ultimately they were overwhelmed by superior numbers and forced to retreat. Once established upon more defensible terrain and with adequate reinforcements, the Union soldiers were able to successfully withstand repeated Confederate attacks over the successive days. Though Confederate attacks on an exposed salient in the Wheatfield and Peach Orchard were successful and they nearly succeeded in capturing key terrain on the left end of the Union line, the offense and defense were practically stalemated by the end of the second day of fighting.

The third and final day of the Battle of Gettysburg was a day in which the defense decisively prevailed. Lee launched three major attacks against the Union Army, the most spectacular of which was Pickett’s Charge. The Union Army enjoyed the important advantages of defensible terrain and interior lines. As a result, all three of Lee’s attacks failed with the Army of Northern Virginia losing over 8,500 men in total that day. Similarly, an ill conceived Union cavalry attack late in the day also failed. While the third day at Gettysburg is most often remembered for Pickett’s Charge, the day was also significant for the other three attacks that failed as well.

Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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© 2023 Bryan J. Dickerson

Published online: 06/15/2013.

Written by Bryan Dickerson. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Bryan Dickerson at:

About the author:
Bryan J. Dickerson is a military historian specializing in World War Two and a Navy Reserve veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He earned a Masters of Arts in American History from Monmouth University in New Jersey in 1999. He is the former Editor of Cold War Times - the online newsletter of the Cold War Museum in Virginia.

* Views expressed by contributors are their own and do not necessarily represent those of
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