“The enemy is there, and I am going to attack him there,” Lee said.
Longstreet obeyed orders, but he took his time organizing his men to attack the Union left. For decades thereafter, Lee’s defenders blamed Longstreet for tarrying and letting the Union army strengthen its line. The fighting on the second day — at the Peach Orchard, the Wheat Field, Devil’s Den, and Little Round Top — was some of the most furious of the war.
Late in the day, Union Gen. Winfield Scott Hancock realized that the center of his line on Cemetery Ridge was about to be overrun by Alabamians. Short of options, he ordered the 1st Minnesota, some 262 men, to charge the oncoming Confederates. More than four out of five of the Minnesotans were killed or wounded in the charge, but it was a tactical success, halting the rebels until the Union line could be reinforced.
On the Union left, rebels moved toward Little Round Top. A Union brigade, outnumbered, fought off repeated waves of rebels. Among the heroes of the battle were the men of the 20th Maine, led by a Bowdoin College professor, Col. Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. When Chamberlain saw that his men had nearly run out of ammunition, he ordered them to fix bayonets. The Maine men charged the surprised rebels, many of whom surrendered on the spot. Thus, the Union held on to Little Round Top, which would factor into the final day of battle.
The third day
Lee had pounded the Union left and right on the first two days. On the third day, he decided to strike the Union center. His battle plan called for a charge against the center, under Longstreet’s command, plus another attack on the Union right by Ewell’s corps and an attack on the Union rear by rebel cavalry. If numbers were not in his favor, he could count on Southern ferocity and valor.
Longstreet thought otherwise. Years later, in a memoir, he wrote: “[Lee] knew that I did not believe that success was possible; that care and time should be taken to give the troops the benefit of positions and the grounds; and he should have put an officer in charge who had more confidence in his plan.”
At the point of the spear would be a division led by the dashing Gen. George Pickett. When Pickett asked, “General, shall I advance?” the despondent Longstreet couldn’t speak. He could only nod his head.
At 3 p.m. the charge began. The men did not run. They marched, in a line roughly a mile long, almost as if performing a parade drill. At first, the Union soldiers held their fire.
Then the guns opened up — first the cannons, then the muskets. From Little Round Top came an enfilading fire. Perhaps in an earlier age such an advance could have succeeded, but the weapons of the Civil War were more accurate and devastating, and the rebels were shredded. Some units reached the crest of Cemetery Ridge and briefly pierced the Union line — the so-called High-Water Mark of the Confederacy — but the federals proved too strong. Of 13,000 men who charged that ridge, half were killed, wounded or captured. All of Pickett’s 15 regimental commanders were killed or wounded, as were all three of his brigadier generals. When Pickett returned to the Confederate line, Lee told him to organize his division.