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Gettysburg: The Fourth Day

Meade Counterattacks Lee

By David Atwell



Colonel Joshua Chamberlain could not believe it. After his glorious victory the day before, on Little Round Top, his 20th Maine Regiment had been transferred to the so-called “safest part of the battlefield” in the centre. Within a day, when Chamberlain thought that war could not get any worse, the 20th Maine was once more involved in the fighting during Pickett’s Charge. Although the 20th Maine was on the fringe of the horrific, yet famous Charge, Chamberlain nevertheless was witness to the battle. The Civil War, Chamberlain thought, had to end now otherwise it would just get terrifyingly worse.

Surely General Meade would counterattack & end the war, as the Rebels must have no more troops to join the fight. Looking around him, Chamberlain’s fellow Union men thought the same & were wanting to get at the Rebels as they chanted “Fredericksburg!” over & over again. The morale of the Union men was higher than ever. All wanted to charge the fleeing Rebels right now in a manner similar to that done by the 20th Maine only the day before. But this time it could be more than merely a regiment of the Rebel army captured - it could be the entire Rebel army itself. 

Yet, even veteran soldiers like Chamberlain, knew a counterattack by the Army of the Potomac just could not go charging across the field without some form, order, & above all, disciple. This required planing & that meant time. Any ill conceived attack would result in the same manner as suffered just now by the Rebels. Nonetheless, some Union units were getting impatient regardless of orders to hold fast. The E/Knap Pennsylvania Light Battery, commanded by Lieutenant Chas Atwell, had already lumbered & were eager to move forward without orders. “I’m off to Richmond boys, who’s with me?” shouted Atwell. He was, however, quickly ordered by Brigadier General John Geary to hold fast unless commanded otherwise. Atwell swore, as did several hundred other soldiers, but he obeyed his divisional commander albeit grudgingly.


The Battle of Gettysburg would go down in history as the largest battle ever to be fought by Americans on American soil. No other battle was like it previously, although several were rather horrific, & none have been larger than it since. It was, also, to have a more meaningful national significance than few other events in American history. Yet, at the time, instead of awe & wonder at this event, it was viewed with much pain & suffering. Few, in the United States, have ever known such things, & yet all should be grateful for the deeds that where done there, in those four days of July 1863. For, even though the two sides may have been enemies, they were nonetheless Americans, fighting for what they believed in; fighting for their freedom.

A Meeting of Captains

In the aftermath of Pickett’s Charge, Meade hesitated to order an immediate counter-attack. Union causalities at the Bloody Angle alone were about 1 500 troops. Hancock, nevertheless, in a message to Meade commented that Lee’s army was broken. There was little which Lee could do to repulse a Union attack here & now. All that was required was for Meade to order the V & VI Corps to attack.

Yet Meade was deeply concerned  about the welfare of his troops. They had been engaged in constant battle for three days now. Many units were disorganised & unsupplied. Furthermore his commanders had suffered too. Gibbon was wounded as was Hancock & Sickles, whilst Reynolds was dead. There was no knowing whether the Army of the Potomac could thus launch an immediate counter-attack.

Nonetheless, later that day, Meade called his commanders together for the most crucial of meetings. Meade well & truly understood that he could attack, & possibly end the war, but he was not prepared to act alone. Previous army commanders had attacked without consultation & had failed miserably. Meade was made of different stuff. Meade was open to suggestions.

Thus, it did not take long for Pleasonton to state “General, I will give you half an hour to show yourself a great general. Order the army to advance, while I take the cavalry to get in Lee’s rear, and we will finish the campaign in a week.”

Pleasonton immediately gained the support of most of the commanders present, especially Hancock, Doubleday and Howard. All of them argued that their troops were now of the highest morale & that an attack in the morning would succeed. They all, however, failed to mention that Pleasonton’s cavalry had missed much of the fighting & had not been as badly mauled as most of the infantry.

Meade, although wanting to accept Pleasonton’s position, was still wry of Lee’s uncanny ability to gain a victory from certain defeat. Lee had achieved this so many times in the past, that it had become legend. Meade replied to his generals “How do you know Lee will not attack?” There was no answer at first. Meade went on “We have done enough.”

“We have not done enough” spoke up Hancock.

“General,” Pleasonton cut in, “Lee’s army is clearly shattered. He is far from supply & low on ammunition. We can defeat him here & now.”

Pleasonton made an important point which made an impact on Meade. Meade replied to Pleasonton’s argument by inviting him & the others to view the battlefield & sum up the abilities of the Union soldiers. One thing became immediately clear - the Union troops wanted to attack, even though they realised it would be tough going. This morale of spirit would become the clincher for Meade.

Taking in a deep breath of this contagious morale, Meade turned to his commanders: “We’ll attack at dawn. But, General Pleasonton, I want you to go in with the infantry. When they get bogged down, and they will, I want a massed cavalry attack to break the Rebel’s lines.”

Pleasonton went pale in colour. As far as Meade was concerned, if this attack failed, the man who demanded a counter-attack would fail with it. And if Pleasonton died along with the failed attack, well that was just fine with Meade. He could have someone to blame other than himself. With any luck, Meade could hold onto command unlike so many others who had commanded the Army of the Potomac.

Dawn 4th July

In the early light, before dawn on July 4, the Union army took up its positions along Cemetery Ridge. It was a strange sight for American Civil War engagements. For the first time, the cavalry was to be involved in a battle en masse. On both wings, Pleasonton had positioned two large bodies of cavalry. On the southern wing, the 2nd Cavalry Division was positioned, whilst on the northern wing was positioned the 3rd Cavalry Division. The 1st Cavalry Division, that of Buford’s, was placed to the south of Benner’s Hill to ensure that Southern cavalry could not get behind the Union lines & cause trouble.  

In order to protect the northern wing, the Union counter-attack line started from Bloody Angle, where the 3rd Cavalry Division was located, & then down towards Little Round Top. Next in line was, thus, VI Corps; in the centre was XII Corps; & then to the south was V Corps. Finally, as mentioned, 2nd Cavalry Division was between V Corps & the base of Little Round Top. Supporting this attack were numerous artillery batteries, not only in the line, but also positioned on top of Little Round Top & Cemetery Hill. All told, some 22 000 infantry, 6 000 cavalry & 3 000 artillerymen were about to attack the Army of Northern Virginia. It was a force greater than Pickett’s Charge the day before.

Their first objective was probably the most critical, for if they could not achieve this, the Army of Northern Virginia could escape with relative ease. Hence, at dawn, the Union counter-attack commenced heading for Sherfy House on the Emmitsburg Road. The effect of this move would see Longstreet’s Corps cut in two. This location was also picked because, it was thought due to Picket’s Charge, that this area was probably the weakest point in the entire Rebel line.

Having said that, though, Meade refused to take any chances. As the Rebel artillery had done to the Union lines yesterday, now the Union cannons would open up in order to help the infantry with their attack. Although firing blindly, on the presumed location of the Rebel line, the smoke & dust thus created also limited any view which the Rebels may have had of the advancing Union troops. This was a factor as was the morale boost given to the Union troops from yesterday. And even though the Union bombardment was not as great as the Rebel one, the previous day, it was spectacular all the same.

The commencement of the artillery bombardment, of course, was noticed by everyone. Needless to say, the exhausted Southern troops began to rally & form their battalions &, obviously, their companies. Yet, throughout Longstreet’s Corps, there was a noticeable number of men missing. Nonetheless, knowing that a Union attack was probably heading in their direction, the Rebels were prepared to meet it as they had always done.

Whilst the Rebels were getting busy with their preparations, the Great Union Attack, as it would become known, began in ernest. Spread out across two miles, the Union troops advanced under the cover of the artillery which had already began their barrage. Southern Artillery, however, took some time to answer their opposite numbers, & this was besides the fact that they were low on ammunition due to yesterday’s events. Furthermore, Longstreet quickly contacted Colonel Alexander, commander of the Rebel artillery, & ordered him to reserve as much of the artillery ammunition as possible, & wait until the Union lines were close enough for grapeshot. In a round about kind of way, Alexander had already issued such orders as the circumstances more or less dictated this anyway.

The Defiant Rebels

Thus a kind of silence met the Union troops as they marched towards the Rebel’s line which had formed along the Emmitsburg Road. Longstreet, using much experience, guessed approximately the location of the attack & placed Hood & McLaws divisions to the left & right of Sherfy House respectively. In reserve, was the much reduced division of Pickett numbering no more than 2 000 men, which was placed behind Sherfy House where it could reinforce either Hood or McLaws.

Longstreet, though, was not the only Southern General busy this morning. Lee, when he had hard the Union cannons open fire, began to assess the situation. Getting reports from Longstreet & Hill, Lee ordered Hill to move his right flank division, Pender’s Division, to move further right & link up with Hood. In a similar manner, the rest of Hill’s Corps was to stretch out to the right to ensure that a continuous Rebel line ran all the way from McLaws to the town of Gettysburg itself.

Furthermore, Lee, concerned that the Union may drive through Longstreet, sent orders to Ewell to withdraw from his position opposite Culp’s Hill to a position behind York Pike. Never before had Lee volunteered the surrender of ground without a fight, but he feared that he could lose an entire corps if such a manoeuvre had not been ventured. This would serve Lee well as events unfolded throughout the rest of the day.

The Union advance had, until now, taken place with the minimum of causalities before it had marched to Trostle House. It was at this point, about a quarter of mile from the Rebel’s lines, when Alexander’s artillery opened fire with much force. The Union line, however, was hardly touched as the men in Blue continued forward with the same determination & bravery as they had shown at Fredericksburg. This time, however, the Union men were convinced that the Southerners would give way. After the carnage of yesterday’s Pickett’s Charge, few Union troops believed that the Rebels had enough troops left standing in order to repel this morning’s attack.

Onward the Union troops went as if they were on a marching parade. But soon a small number of troops in the front line began to fall. It appeared that the Rebels had more troops than first realised. Meade, looking on from Little Round Top, began to fear the worst as Southern artillery began to cut holes in the Union lines. Matters only appeared to get worse as the Union troops began their rifle fire & started shooting at the Southern lines some 100 feet away. Now it came down to several salvos of rifle fire as regiment after regiment poured bullet after bullet into each other.

Without a doubt, the exchange was horrific. From a distance, little could be seen & Meade could only hope that the Union officers & troops could hold their ground, in the face of such hardship, & force their way through the Southern lines. Fundamentally, he prayed that this attack was not to be another Fredericksburg. He could never live with himself if he knew he would be responsible for the death of 10 000 men for no gain whatsoever. It was a time on a battlefield any decent general felt ill. And Meade was a decent general.

Meade’s plan, however, was merely beginning to unfold. Much of it was based around two things. The first was the Rebels were bound to put up a good defence, even if greatly outnumbered. And the second was Longstreet’s Corps should have lost a significant number of troops, due to the previous days fighting, & that a determined effort, by a large number of Union troops akin to the current attack, would be enough to gain victory. It had, though, one important part, which required the officers in the thick of battle to do, & that was attack at the opportune moment.

And this moment was soon coming. For twenty minutes, now, both armies stood opposite each other & blazed away with their files & cannons. The Union troops were giving as much as they took. But it was not the infantry which Lee began to be concerned about, as he watched on from Seminary Ridge, it was the Union cavalry. So far in the battle, the Union cavalry remained in their positions, on the flanks of the infantry line & out of the battle. Even the Southern infantry ignored their presence as they were too preoccupied with their opposite number. But Lee wondered what their purpose was, as so far, it appeared that they had no purpose at all.

Still, Lee could not take the chance that the Union cavalry would still remain out of the battle. Orders were soon sent out to JEB Stuart to bring as much of his Southern cavalry to the location of the current battle &, if need be, counter whatever moves the Union cavalry carries out. Although the orders went out as fast as possible, the only problem is it took some time in order to reach Stuart. Being on the extreme left of the battlefield, the Southern cavalry was located around Benner’s Hill. As a result, the orders took about an hour to reach Stuart, & it was another 30 minutes before the Southern Cavalry division was mounted up & on the way to their new location. As events would unfold, the Southern cavalry was about 30 minutes too late.


Whilst Stuart was getting his orders, other generals were likewise getting their orders. It was now Pleasonton’s time. Having kept a careful eye on the battle before him, as he was there in person, Pleasonton had orders from Meade to intercede in the infantry battle when it appeared that the Rebel’s resistance began to fade. This took some time, in fact it was almost an hour before there was a noticeable reduction in the Rebel’s firepower, yet even then it was still deadly. The Union causality rate amongst the infantry was rising towards 5 000 & still the Rebels had not withdrawn. This strong Rebel resistence took place for a lot of reasons, but one of them was Longstreet’s presence in the front line, not to mention the fact that each Rebel knew exactly the consequences should the Union men win.

Still, although  Pleasonton wanted to attack earlier, he nevertheless stuck to his orders. This was soon to change, & when the Southern artillery began to run our of ammunition, Pleasonton  quickly sent word to David Gregg, commander of the 2nd Union Cavalry division, to watch Pleasonton’s lead & attack when the 3rd Union Cavalry division did so. Pleasonton made it quite clear, too, that nothing was to be held back. Victory or defeat now rested with the Union cavalry.

Thus, with sword drawn, Pleasonton yelled “Charge!”. Due to the noise over the battlefield, however, only his nearby comrades heard him. But it was enough. The bugler  heard his order & began to play “Charge”. It was not long, only a mere second or two in fact, before 3 500 horsemen began their attack. Pleasonton headed straight for the middle of the Rebel’s line, that being Sherfy House, as per his orders. Not long afterwards, again as per their orders, Gregg gave the order to charge. Within a few seconds hence a further 2 500 horsemen charged the Rebel line, again heading towards Sherfy House.

The Rebels could not believe what was happening before them. Lee, on the other hand, had feared this possibility & had tried to compensate by having Stuart’s cavalry present. But, like for the first two days of battle at Gettysburg, Stuart was no where to be seen. Much of the Rebel’s defeat would be blamed on him, although to be fair, Stuart moved as fast as he could, once he received his orders, which, it must be said, took about an hour to reach him from Lee.

Having said that, the Union cavalry conducted the only such charge in the American Civil War. In an earlier time & place, cavalry charges were common, but, with the advent of the rifled musket, they had fallen out of favour. But not today. Today was a very different day. And the Union cavalry was ensuring victory this day, for as the cavalry charged, the Southern infantry forgot all about their opposite number & began to concentrate on the cavalry instead.

As a result of this, the Union cavalry began to take casualties in quick time. Yet they charged on. Through explosions, through fire, through death, the Union cavalrymen, & their horses, charged the centre of the Rebel line. Southern soldiers became desperate in their bid to stop the cavalry charge. Even the artillery men, now that they had no ammunition for their cannons, nevertheless, picked up a rifle & began firing at the hoard of horses & men before them. Yet nothing would stop the cavalry attack.

Within a minute, the Union cavalry crashed into the Rebel lines. Men & horses tumbled everywhere, whilst some Rebels where trodden under foot. Guns, pistols, swords & bayonets clashed in a climax to the battle. The noise was deafening. Madness swirled around everywhere as desperate horses & men struggled to survive the carnage of war. And just as it seemed the climax was reached, the Southerners were in a very rude shock.

For as the Union cavalry had entered the fray, the Union infantry, now free of the burden of gunfire, also charged as a second wave to the cavalry. Thus the sacrifice of almost 2 000 horsemen ensured that 15 000 infantry could now advance & take revenge upon the Rebel infantry. There was no hope for it now. Longstreet well & truly knew that his line could not hold the Union attack any longer. For his 8 000 troops, including Pickett’s depleted reserve, could not hold back the Union tide. He thus began to issue orders to retreat one second, whilst firing his pistol the next in defiance.

Rebels Without a Cause

Longstreet’s withdrawal, however, was as professional as always. Using Pickett’s reserve line as a shield, Hood & McLaws divisions could withdraw, whilst Pickett acted as the rearguard. Lee was now placed in a difficult position. There was no doubt that his right flank had been smashed & was in threat of being cut off from any retreat. Thus Lee issued the orders to both Hill & Ewell to begin the withdrawal down Hagerstowns Road as fast as possible. Lee also had new orders for Stuart to shield the army from the Union, which was now moving from Sherfy House towards Seminary Ridge, in an effort to cut the Army of Northern Virginia off from any roads heading south.

Lee’s withdrawal, though, started to become a mess just as it started. Ewell, who had moved earlier that morning, was still in transit to the east of Gettysburg. Having missed the battle so far this morning, Ewell’s Corps began to withdraw through Gettysburg, after Lee’s new orders arrived. Ewell’s Corps, however, began to get caught up with Hill’s withdrawal, although part of Hill’s Corps, Pender’s Division, was now starting to get involved with the left flank of the Union advance. As such, it had to defend the approaches to Seminary Ridge. If it did not, then everything in Gettysburg, & to the east, would be cut off.

In the middle of all this mess, Stuart’s Southern Cavalry division arrived on Seminary Ridge. Stuart needed little instruction from Lee to see where the great danger lied. For even though Longstreet’s fighting withdrawal was slowing up the main Union advance, Longstreet was not slowing the Union troops down fast enough. Clearly Stuart, with Lee’s consent, had to charge headlong into the Union centre in order to stop the Union troops getting to the top of Seminary Ridge & from their cut Hagerstown Road.

So, in another first in the American Civil War, the Southern Cavalry made a large scale cavalry attack upon the Union infantry. Or so they thought. For still with the Union infantry, the Union cavalry had reformed & kept guard over their infantry comrades just in case JEB Stuart was lurking around out there. Pleasonton, who had survived the Union charge earlier, saw Stuart’s movements, along with the Rebel deployments, & knew Stuart would charge. As a result, at the same time as Stuart was giving the order to charge, likewise Pleasonton give the same order to the Union cavalry.

The scene which followed could have been taken out of any large Napoleonic battle. Two large groups of cavalrymen charged at each other between the lines of the opposing infantry. Thankfully, though, for the cavalry, both sides artillery, at this point, were out of the battle. For the Southern side it was because they had run out of ammunition & were rapidly withdrawing, whilst for the Union, their infantry & cavalry had outpaced their artillery support. Hence, when the cavalry met in a thunderous clash of men & horses, the entire cavalry battle took place only between cavalrymen.

In many respects, the numbers involved in the cavalry battle, were somewhat even at about 4 000 troopers each. The Rebels had some advantage, that is they were fresh to the battle, but the Union had the euphoria that comes with victory. Having, about 30 minutes ago, overrun the Southern infantry positions in a glorious charge, the Union cavalrymen gave as good as they got from Stuart’s Rebels. The battle favoured one side, then the other, & there seemed little in it. For almost half an hour, the cavalry battle endured, until Stuart, noting that Union infantry was beginning to outflank the cavalry engagement, decided to retreat to Seminary Ridge.

One thing saved Stuart’s men, at the time, & that was the Union cavalry were exhausted. In truth, so were Stuart’s men, yet they had held up the Union advance for a precious half hour.  In a similar fashion, so did Pickett’s Division, but it could not hold out forever. When it was obvious that his division had no hope of keeping back the Union advance, as Union artillery now joined the infantry in large numbers, Pickett’s Division collapsed & was routed.

Much to Lee’s dismay, the Union V Corps managed to slip through a gap between Herbst’s Woods & Seminary Hill. As a result, Hagerstown Road was now within their sight. For Longstreet, ironically, this action no longer affected him as his troops were already on the road & heading south, albeit in much confusion. Likewise, most of Hill’s Corps, except for Pender’s Division, had also escaped down Hagerstown Road. But it would not be so for Ewell’s Corps or Lee for that matter. Instead, Ewell’s Corp had to be content with escaping down Chambersburg Pike & then making its way south as best it could. Pender’s Division, however, was sacrificed in a desperate rearguard action, so that the Army of Northern Virginia could survive.


The Army of Northern Virginia managed to get back to friendly territory, but only after a horrible ordeal. Longstreet’s Corps was more or less smashed. Its original strength of 21 000 troops prior to Gettysburg, was down to 8 000 by the time it reached Virginia. Hill’s Corps, which started the campaign with 26 000 troops, was slightly better, but Pender’s entire division of 6 600 men was stricken off the Army List. In addition to this loss, a further 6 000 troops of Hill’s Corps were casualties of the fighting. In a similar manner, Ewell’s Corps of 20 000 troops also lost 6 000 troops as casualties from the fighting at Gettysburg, but a further 2 000 were lost in the gruelling retreat which followed. Only Stuart’s cavalry gained any glory from the retreat as it acted as the rearguard to Ewell’s Corps during the retreat.

All in all, the Union won a stunning victory at Gettysburg. It had, more or less, reduced the Army of Northern Virginia’s overall strength by about 50% over the battle which lasted four days. Of course, Meade was criticised greatly for allowing the Army of Northern Virginia to escape, yet in all fairness, Meade threw everything at Lee, yet Lee managed to escape nonetheless. But far more importantly, even though the Confederacy was still in the war, the victory had great emotional & psychological effects. Having won such a great victory on 4th of July gave new meaning to the Union cause of, not only preserving the Union, but also in its efforts to free the slaves.

Yet the most important aspect, to have come out of this most dreadful battle, was President Lincoln’s address. It would become the most eloquent & fundamental statement ever to be made:

Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth.



Arnold, J. & Wiener, R. Gettysburg 1 July 1863 - Union: The Army of the Potomac, Oxford, 1998

Arnold, J. & Wiener, R. Gettysburg 1 July 1863 - Confederate: The Army of Northern Virginia, Oxford, 1998

Krick, R. K. The American Civil War: The war in the East 1863-1865, Oxford, 2001

Smith, C. Gettysburg 1863, Oxford, 1998

Ward, G. C. Burns, R. & Burns, K. The Civil War, London, 1991.


Gettysburg, directed by Maxwell, R. F. released by Turner Pictures, 2002.


Military History Online, (http://www.militaryhistoryonline.com/)

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