It would be difficult to exaggerate the magnitude of suffering and loss on that field. In the nine brigades that actually made the attack, half were dead, wounded, or on their way to the misery of prison camps. Add to those the men killed and wounded in the woods during the bombardment and those lost in Wilcox and Lang’s brigades after the attack had failed, and the total casualty list is nearly seven thousand men. In Pickett’s division all three brigadiers were shot as well as every one of his fifteen regimental commanders. In all, 38 stand of colors were yielded. Having seen them wave so often in triumph, some Federal officers, perhaps understandably, tied them to their horses’ tails and dragged them in the Pennsylvania dust. The Federals had done this awful work of destruction at a cost of 1,500 casualties. For them, the moment of crisis had been endured and now passed. For Lee across the valley, however, it appeared that the moment of crisis was at hand. Seeing his predicament from Meade’s point of view, Lee expected an immediate counterattack against his center, where the human wreckage of the failed attack were even then running, walking, crawling, or being carried back to the woods. It was exactly the blow Lee would have struck in that situation, aiming for destruction rather than mere repulse. Lee rode among the survivors now, to rally and encourage them. “All this will come right in the end,” he reassured them. “We’ll talk it over afterwards. But in the meantime all good men must rally. We want all good men and true now.”
To Pickett he went with encouragement and an order. He was to reform his division to the rear of the ridge and prepare to repel Meade’s counterattack. Tearful and unnerved, Pickett replied, “General Lee, I have no division now.” Long after the war Pickett would say bitterly, “That old man had my division slaughtered at Gettysburg,” having by then apparently forgotten his own eagerness to attack. Now the old man simply said: “General Pickett, this has been my fight, and upon my shoulders rests the blame…. Your men have done all that men can do. The fault is entirely my own.” This message he repeated up and down the line: “It is I who have lost this fight, and you must help me out of it the best way you can.” He repeated it once more to Longstreet the next day, adding this explanation: “I thought my men were invincible.” Longstreet of course had insisted all along that in the attack on the Union center Lee had asked the impossible of them. Now it was not clear if it were even possible for them to resist a counterattack. Half their number were casualties, and the survivors had perhaps endured all that flesh and blood could endure. They had been the target of artillery fury for the better part of two hours; then they had been that endless hour across the valley and back again in anguish. When a sketchy line was finally formed on Seminary Ridge, Federal guns opened up once more. Almost the first shells sent the Confederates fleeing up the ridge and down its western slope to safety. At last, however, Lee cobbled together some kind of line, pulling Law and McLaws back on the right to support his crippled center. But much to his astonishment–and the army’s immense relief–Meade’s counterblow never fell.
In fact, Meade had not even been witness to the attack Hancock’s men had so mercilessly broken. He had been driven from his headquarters by the opening salvos of the Confederate barrage, and he did not return to the ridge until the fight was over. His first evidence of his success actually gave him a fearful start. It was a crowd of Rebel prisoners that he first took to be armed men running amok in his rear. Presently though, it was altogether clear. His men were celebrating wildly, dejected prisoners were herded from the field, and the last of the fugitives were making their way back to Seminary Ridge. When Lee had seen his attack repulsed, his first thought had been to prepare for the inevitable Federal attack. Meade, likewise, immediately thought of attack, but he had it the other way around. His first thought was to reinforce, “as the enemy might be mad enough to attack again.” To a staff officer he instructed: “If the enemy does attack, charge him in the flank and sweep him from the field.” In a controversial decision that has echoed down the years, Meade chose to remain on the defensive. Then as now, some felt that Meade’s wisest move was, as Lee feared, counterattack. Meade’s aggressive cavalry chief, Alfred Pleasonton, put this proposition to him: “I will give you half an hour to show yourself a great general. Order the army to advance, and I will take the cavalry in Lee’s rear, and we will finish the campaign in a week.” The hero of the hour, Hancock, also argued for the offensive through the curtain of his pain. Meade, however, replied to Pleasonton with a revealing question: “How do you know Lee will not attack me again?” Then, apparently settling the matter in his mind, he added: “We have done well enough.”
It is not really difficult to understand Meade’s reluctance to take bold offensive action. Some factors he was ignorant of that fateful afternoon. He did not fully appreciate the extent of Lee’s losses, nor could he know how low on ammunition he was. Other factors he knew, and they were properly cause for concern. Jeb Stuart’s troopers were even then in a scrap with Pleasonton’s men three miles east of Gettysburg deep in his rear. Then, too, south and west of Round Top, two regiments of Union cavalry under Judson Kilpatrick ran into a skirmish line of Texas infantry, and a sharp fight was now under way. Though in the end Stuart was turned back east of the town, Kilpatrick would likewise be turned back with considerable useless slaughter west of Round Top. For the time being Meade was determined to await events, his thoughts no doubt prey to various cautionary considerations. He had been the commander of the Army of the Potomac for just six days now; three of them had been days of unutterably savage fighting that cost his army 23,000 casualties. His army had been more bloodied in victory than Joe Hooker’s in defeat. Across the way remained Robert E. Lee and that army that Meade could not yet entirely believe he had beaten. The boldest hunter is careful about pursuing a wounded animal in the bush, and Meade was not the boldest hunter in the Army of the Potomac. Thus, in the end Meade would be content with his victory and Lee would be allowed to make his way back to the Potomac.
Nor was it possible to exaggerate the magnitude of this victory in the hearts and minds of Northerners. George Templeton Strong, the New York diarist, no doubt spoke for millions when he rejoiced over this “priceless” victory: “The charm of Robert Lee’s invincibility is broken. The Army of the Potomac… has stood nobly up to its terrible work in spite of its long, disheartening list of hard-fought failures…. Copperheads are palsied and dumb…. Government is strengthened four-fold at home and abroad.” While the battle was raging at Gettysburg, Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens was on his to Washington to present a peace initiative to Lincoln. News of Gettysburg reached Washington before Stephens, and whatever hopes the Richmond government held for a negotiated peace were also a casualty of the battle. Stephens was denied safe passage through Union lines. The day after Pickett and Pettigrew’s brigades were broken on the stone wall was the Fourth of July, the very same day Pemberton was hoping to get generous surrender terms from Grant at the ramparts of Vicksburg. First Lee suffered his bloody reverse in Pennsylvania; now hard on the heels of that news came word that the Confederacy was a house divided by the Mississippi River. Confederate ordnance genius Josiah Gorgias confided grimly to his diary: “Yesterday we rode on the pinnacle of success–today absolute ruin seems to be our portion. The Confederacy totters to its destruction.” Across the Atlantic in London Henry Adam’s mood was as jubilant as Gorgias’ was despairing: “I want to hug the army of the Potomac. I want to get the whole army of Vicksburg drunk at my own expense. I want to find some small man and lick him.”
Lee’s army had been licked–but not destroyed. It pulled out of its lines on the fourth in a steady rain and made its weary way back toward the Potomac. A wagon train seventeen miles from head to tail carried his wounded, a vast progress of misery that did not include 7,000 more left on the field. Lincoln, as ever, urged Meade on to a swift and aggressive pursuit–especially when the Potomac rose and made its fords impassable for a time. But Meade’s pursuit, such as it was, was deliberate and wary. Ultimately, Meade reminded Lincoln, grateful though he was for the general’s victory, of an old woman shooing her geese across a creek. No, Lee’s army had not been destroyed, but it had been struck a crippling blow. His 28,000 casualties represented more than a third of those who crossed the Potomac with him on June 3rd. Further, Lee had said his men could do anything if properly led. But Gettysburg had been a holocaust for the officer corps. Of 52 generals in the Army of Northern Virginia, 17 had been killed, wounded, or captured; 18 colonels were also casualties. An astute British observer admired the Rebels’ aggressive, offensive spirit, but thoughtfully predicted that they would never again attack as they had at Gettysburg. “Don’t you see your system feeds on itself?” he asked Confederates. “You cannot fill the places of these men. Your troops do wonders, but every time at a cost you cannot afford.”
The human cost of the Battle of Gettysburg is relatively easy to number but difficult to conceive: some 51,000 men were killed, wounded, and captured here. Quiet, prosperous, uneventful Gettysburg had become both hospital and charnel house. In November, with the scars of battle still palpable, Abraham Lincoln came to Gettysburg to dedicate a national cemetery and in a few “appropriate remarks” try to articulate for the nation the meaning of so vast a violence. The tall prairie lawyer with the rigorously logical mind cast his brief address in the form of an argument. The nation had been born, his argument ran, not with the first musket-fire of Lexington and Concord, nor even with the framing of the Constitution. The nation was born “Four score and seven years ago,” in 1776, when Thomas Jefferson established its first principles in the Declaration of Independence: civil liberty and human equality. Now the nation was enthralled by a terrible test of those principles. This battle, this long bloody struggle, was the fiery trial which would ultimately affirm or deny that founding “proposition.” The dead men sleeping here had given their “last full measure of devotion” to that proposition. But from their deaths, Lincoln resolved, the nation would endure to see “a new birth of freedom.”