The battle plan for July 3 was a straightforward product of the strategic mind of R.E. Lee. It called for a simultaneous attack at dawn on both the left and right of the federal line. with an intense barrage to pummel the union center. A low rise called Seminary Ridge had Alexander’s 75 guns strung out for a thousand yards along it’s crest. It paralleled the slightly higher ground of Cemetery Ridge. Three quarters of a mile. three high rail fences, and the Emmitsburg Pike separated the two armies. Fifteen thousand men were to assemble behind Alexander’s artillery.
General Longstreet was to give the order to advance on the Union position at the instant the maximum damage was achieved by the barrage. At the last moment Alexander received a note from Longstreet stating the he was to personally advise Pickett of the time to make the charge, depending upon the damage inflicted on the union position. A second note quickly followed telling Alexander to order the attack only, if in his judgement it could be made. The success or failure of the entire campaign was now placed on the shoulders of the 28 year old artillery colonel. The future of the Confederacy now depended on the quick decision that had to be made from a distance of 1300 yards through a screen of powder smoke. Alexander would have to solely rely on the amount of counter battery fire from the target area to assess the situation and give the order. Had had ammunition enough to keep 75 guns in action for less than an hour. The target area was the stonewall on the brow of the ridge. The guner’s elevation had to be perfect. They were shooting at a narrow horizontal line that would be invisible after their smoke rolled across the field.
The idea was sound but the problem lay with the execution. ” The problem isn’t going there . the problem will be staying there. The entire union army is there in a bunch.”
A heavy counter attack by Meade at dawn on the CSA left took the battle weary men in gray on the north side of the line by surprise and out of action for the day. The ragged firing brought the south end of the line to life, but they could make no progress due to the rugged terrain and heavy fire.
At the signal of two guns fired in the peach orchard, Alexander was to open the greatest artillery barrage ever seen in the western hemisphere. It was 100PM before the sound of the signal guns opening fire reached Alexander’s ears. He immediately gave the order to open fire and the Confederate lone erupted towards Cemetery Ridge. The blue troops laying fat had never seen anything like it. General Hunt had ordered his batteries not to return fire, as he knew something big was coming. However, a few union guns answered Alexander sporadically. Hunt had 18 guns at the critical point on the ridge and they were mostly untouched.
Alexander’s fire had gone high and much damage was done to the back side of the hill, exploding several caissons and killing a number of horses. With little fire coming from the enemy and several explosions visible. Alexander quickly sent a note to Pickett. It looked as good as it was going to get. Peering through the thick smoke with his powerful glass, he could see Hunt’s 18 guns being removed from the line and he fired off another urgent note to Pickett. “For God’s sake come quick. The 18 guns are gone.”
The time was 1:40PM. Longstreet wouldn’t answer Pickett’s request to advance. He turned in his saddle and looked away , so Pickett saluted and said ” I’m going sir.” He then raced to the head of his column to make his immortal charge.
Alexander’s guns were getting low on ammunition and by then they had fired 6000 rounds. AS Pickett’s passed through the gun batteries and formed up for the attack, they presented a spectacular sight. They formed up and moved out at a quick march. The lines were straight as on a dress parade as they advanced for a few hundred yards there was no firing from the Union line. The union line mesmerized by the bravery of the infantry marching into the face of death.
Then the rifled guns on Little Round Top opened fire from enfilade a mile away. Huge gaps were torn through the advancing gray line. Ten or more men blown apart with every shot, but they closed up and kept moving, eyes fixed on the clump of trees standing at the stone wall. The rail fences slowing their advance while they broke them down or climbed over under a withering fire approaching the level of a hailstorm. At the Emmitsburg road, they again formed the line for the final assault. By then intense musket fire was pouring from behind the stone wall and General Hunt had moved his guns back into the line with their chests filled with canister and grapeshot. The gunners set their sights low and they didn’t have to aim. It was impossible to miss as they fired round after round of double canister shot into the southerners. At about 50 yards a devastating volley of musket fire rattled the southern line to its core. At the stone wall the brutal fighting became hand to hand with bayonets and club muskets. For a ephemeral moment, the CSA colors waved at the crest of the hill, then vanished.
Alexander had placed nine smooth bore guns to supper the advance. But when he sent for them, they had been moved and couldn’t be found. Nothing was going right for the Army Of Northern Virginia this day. He rode to the south end of the line in time to discover a blue tide moving toward the flank of PIckett’s men. There happened to be a few of his guns in the peach orchard with enough ammo left to make a difference. They were quickly ordered forward and in no time they began cutting holes through the massed federal troops that scattered like quail.