A great mass of soldiers, estimated at over 150,000 men and women, marched towards Pennsylvania in late June of 1863. Almost half were were led by General Lee, who had made it abundantly clear since the start of hostilities that he planned to push conflict deep into Union territory.
In 1861 Lee had turned down the offer to be a Major General in Washington DC. He instead returned to his home state to command forces in secessionist Virginia. Within a year his plans were to return north with Lt. Gen. Thomas J. "Stonewall" Jackson; they intended to lead a Confederate Army into Pennsylvania. Resources could not be spared at that time but by 1863, following aggressive tactics and success in the Battle of Chancellorsville, Lee convinced Confederate leaders to let him push forward.
The massive Rebel army was assembled quickly; it had to be made from unseasoned and less confident men than Lee had relied upon in past, which brought challenges in communication. Stonewall Jackson, for example, no longer was part of the plan. He had been gravely wounded by his own soldiers at Chancellorsville. Lee nonetheless hesitated little because of risk that his superiors would change their mind about his strategy.
Many books and articles have been written about the contributing factors to Lee's decision and his preparations. Whatever he really thought or said by July 1st many thousands of Rebels neared Gettysberg, Pennsylvania and Lee stirred up an urgency to defend the North. A first-person account by a school girl gives a colorful description of when the first ones arrived:
…a dark, dense mass, moving toward town…
"What a horrible sight! There they were, human beings! Clad almost in rags, covered with dust, riding wildly, pell-mell down the hill toward our home! Shouting, yelling most unearthly, cursing, brandishing their revolvers, and firing right and left.
"I was fully persuaded that the Rebels had actually come at last. What they would do with us was a fearful question to my young mind.
"Soon the town was filled with infantry, and then the searching and ransacking began in earnest.
"They wanted horses, clothing, anything and almost everything they could conveniently carry away.
"Nor were they particular about asking. Whatever suited them they took. They did, however, make a formal demand of the town authorities, for a large supply of flour, meat, groceries, shoes, hats and (doubtless, not least in their estimations), ten barrels of whisky; or, in lieu of this five thousand dollars.
The Rebels also were surprised to encounter nearly 10,000 Union men near there. The two sides had been estimating where they would battle when a decision suddenly was made. The importance of this small town elevated quickly and was not lost upon the commanders of the Union forces, as explained in a first-person account by a Union soldier.
Gettysburg was a point of strategic importance, a great many roads, some ten or twelve at least concentrating there, so the army could easily converge to, or, should a further march be necessary, diverge from this point. General Meade, therefore, resolved to try to seize Gettysburg, and accordingly gave the necessary orders for the concentration of his different columns there. Under the new auspices the army brightened, and moved on with a more elastic step towards the yet undefined field of conflict.
And so began escalations of historic proportions. Nearly 90,000 Union soldiers rushed ahead to hold the town against the 75,000 coming Rebels. Right from the start Lee's charge over his newly formed army, rife with misunderstandings and delayed communication, found itself unable to push through the right and left Union flanks.
July 1st ended in standoff as the Rebels did not fully engage. July 2nd, Lee pushed harder and increased the total dead count to more than 30,000, yet his efforts failed to break the Union line.
He then infamously ordered a full attack on the center. His next in command, General Longstreet, later claimed registering a strong objection:
General, I have been a soldier all my life. I have been with soldiers engaged in fights by couples, by squads, companies, regiments, divisions, and armies, and should know, as well as any one, what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no fifteen thousand men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.
Whether or not these words were said Lee did not back down from his aggressive plan for the third day and, believing two prior days of flank attacks had weakened the center, gave the order to attack. The plan failed miserably.
Artillery first was unleashed in the early afternoon to weaken the Union line. Ammunition was quickly spent.
About 150 guns opened up at once–the biggest artillery barrage in the history of the North American continent–and thundered with bone-jarring ferocity for nearly two hours.
"…Ammunition nearly out." Pickett read the note, then took it to Longstreet. "General, shall I advance?" he asked. Longstreet, with no confidence in the attack, could not speak, but merely nodded.
A Union cease-fire during the barrage, meant to conserve ammunition, also may have persuaded the Rebels to move forward. Brigades and regiments then were decimated as they advanced into heavy Union artillery and musket fire.
Within only one hour 7,000 new casualties lay on the battlefield. Lee was forced to withdraw.
When Lee asked [Pickett] to reform his division to repulse a possible counterattack, [Pickett] replied, "I have no division now."
A series of tactical battles and aggressive maneuvering in the South had brought him success yet Lee's strategy to bring pressure to the North failed on July 3rd 1863 at Gettysburg.
On July 5th, after a two day train ride from New York, a newspaper reporter arrived in Gettysburg to search for the body of his friend. He wrote home a description of the calamity:
The city is filled with wounded officers, all of whom agree that our loss was at least 30,000, and many estimate it as high as 50,000. I saw a Brigadier General for a few moments, who was wounded in the arm, and who says that his brigade lost 1,200 out of 1,600 men