What happened next was not what either Lee or Meade quite intended. For his part, Lee planned to make simultaneous attacks left and right at dawn of July 3rd. Then, considering the need to prepare the massive blow that Longstreet was to deliver, he sent a courier to Ewell to postpone his attack on the heights. Before that message reached its destination, however, Ewell found himself under artillery attack himself. As Slocum was riding to Meade’s midnight council of war, his two divisions, less the brigade already there, were marching back toward Culp’s Hill. By 3:00 a.m. they were forming up along the Baltimore Pike in preparation for an attack back up Culp’s Hill and the south-slope trenches they’d left yesterday afternoon. These trenches were of course now occupied by Johnson’s men, and Slocum was going to soften them up by an artillery barrage. Shortly before 4:00 a.m. guns from Powers Hill back on the pike and, soon after, Cemetery Hill to the west opened up on Johnson’s position, and, with no artillery support of their own, there was nothing for Johnson’s men to do but hug the earth and endure if they could. After an hour’s hammering, the guns fell silent and Slocum’s divisions prepared to jump off–only to find themselves beaten to the punch. Johnson, still acting on the presumption that he was to make a dawn attack, sent his brigades forward into a desperate battle for control of the Baltimore Pike. About this time Lee’s message to postpone the attack reached Ewell at last, but it was a moot point now as the contending lines were locked in combat. For five hours the lines surged back and forth, driving and being driven by turns. Help came up for Johnson, two brigades from Rodes and one from Early, but Slocum, reinforced himself by a brigade from Sedgwick, refused to quit. At last the weight of Federal artillery tipped the balance in the struggle, and by 10:30 Johnson’s fought-out men withdrew back across Rock Creek where they had started at dusk the day before. Slocum’s equally weary men returned to their trenches on Culp’s Hill.
With Ewell already engaged on the Federal right and the possibility of a coordinated attack vanished, Lee might have reconsidered the blow he intended Longstreet to deliver. Indeed, Old Peter continued to hope so. When they met that morning, Longstreet put his argument to his chief once more: “General, I have had my scouts out all night, and I find that you still have an excellent opportunity to move around to the right of Meade’s army and maneuver him into attacking us.” Lee, however, was not to be moved from his fixed purpose: “The enemy is there,” he reiterated, pointing to Cemetery Ridge, “and I am going to strike him.” What he proposed to strike him with was Longstreet’s whole corps. This proposal Longstreet also opposed. In the first place, he argued, two of his divisions–Hood and McLaws’–had been bled white in the fighting yesterday, a third of their number now casualties. In the second place, if he pulled them out of line on the right to strike the center, the army would be exposed to a Federal counter-stroke there. This much Lee was prepared to accept. Accordingly, he decided to shift the proposed attack slightly north, closer to A. P. Hill’s front, and make the attack with two of Hill’s divisions and Longstreet’s one fresh division, Pickett’s. Longstreet now made one last, grim, impassioned attempt to change Lee’s mind. Only Pickett’s division was at full strength, and it was the smallest in the army. Hill’s divisions were short-handed after two days of fighting. The attack force would muster perhaps 15,000 men. “General,” Longstreet argued, “I have been a soldier all my life . . . and should know as well as anyone what soldiers can do. It is my opinion that no 15,000 men ever arrayed for battle can take that position.” What was Lee thinking at this fateful pass? Perhaps it was his conviction that his men could go anywhere and do anything if properly led. One thing is certain: his answer was to order Pickett to bring his brigades to Seminary Ridge and ready them for attack. Long after the war, Longstreet said, “Never was I so depressed as upon that day.”
Lee and Longstreet spent the next three hours studying the landscape that was to be etched forever into the American imagination. Between Seminary Ridge on the west and Cemetery Ridge on the east was an open shallow valley. Three-quarters of a mile from the fringe of woods on Seminary Ridge was the crest of the opposite ridge. Holding a thousand-yard stretch of that ridge were the officers and men of three Federal divisions, six brigades in all, and on them Hill and Longstreet’s attack would fall. Hays’ division was posted on the Federal right, Gibbon’s in the center, and Doubleday’s on the left. In all there were not quite six thousand Federals on this front. These were supported by II Corps guns as well as artillery on Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top. In overall command was Winfield Scott Hancock. In front of much of the length of the position ran a low stone wall with a right angle near the center. Just to the Federal left of the angle was a small copse of trees that would be the aiming point of the attack.
By mid-morning the men who would make the attack were forming up in the woods of Seminary Ridge. On the right were Longstreet’s men, the three Virginia brigades of George E. Pickett’s division with two more from Anderson’s division in Hill’s corps in support on their right. Pickett was a 42-year-old West Pointer with a good deal of the dandy about him, from his perfumed curls to his polished boots. Despite graduating 59th in a class of 59, he’d won early glory for gallantry at Chapultepec, but he hadn’t had much of an opportunity in this conflict and he was eager for one. His abilities as a division commander were in doubt, however, and, though he was a favorite of Longstreet, staff officers noticed that Pete kept a sharp eye on him. One thing was not in doubt: Pickett was as enthusiastic about leading this wing of the attack as Longstreet was depressed by the whole idea. On the left were six brigades from Hill’s corps, the four of Heth’s division and two from Pender’s. Neither division commander would be on hand to lead them, however, since both were out of the fight with wounds and Pender would die of his before long. Indeed, death and wounds had much depleted both divisions on the first day of battle, and these losses might have given Lee pause about their fitness as shock troops. As he rode among one outfit that morning, he saw many walking wounded in the ranks. “Many of these poor boys should go to the rear; they are not able for duty,” he said. Then he added, “I miss in this brigade the faces of many dear friends.” Many of the missing friends were the officers who should have been on hand to lead the attack they were to make today. In addition to the two division commanders down, four of the six brigade commanders were lost as well. Johnston Pettigrew would lead Heth’s men and be responsible for the left wing of the attack. Slim, scholarly, well-traveled, Pettigrew was the army’s intellectual. He had left the practice of law to follow the profession of arms when war came. Issac Trimble would lead Pender’s two brigades, although he’d come along with the army mainly as an aide to Lee. As he prepared a desperate attack on which hung the fate of his army, Lee was improvising. More ominous perhaps, if Lee had done the arithmetic, he would have discovered that the attack that Longstreet believed could not succeed with 15,000 men would be made with closer to 13,000.
If the attack could succeed, and Lee believed it could, artillery would have to bear a share of the burden. Lee intended to hammer the Federal infantry and break up their supporting batteries with a powerful artillery bombardment preceding the assault. The 80 guns of Longstreet’s corps were posted now on the right with 63 more from Hill’s corps on the left. Hill’s guns, however, went to work rather sooner than Lee intended. About 11:00, shortly after the racket of Ewell’s fight to the north died out, a scuffle broke out over possession and use of a house and barn midway and in the center of the contending lines. Rebel sharpshooters there were making it hot for the bluecoats on the ridge. Two Federal regiments had been sent to drive them out, and did so in short order. Once in possession, though, they found themselves the object of a furious half-hour bombardment from Hill’s guns. The Yankees in turn withdrew, first setting fire to the house and barn that were the source of the trouble in the first place. Not a great deal had been accomplished–except to expend a lot of valuable artillery ammunition. It was noon now and a deep silence like the stillness between the heaves of a storm settled on the field. For the attack force it was time for the awful waiting, each of the many thousands sequestered in his own thoughts. In the woods Pickett and Pettigrew’s men waited, in one place playing oddly like boys, tossing green apples at one another. In another place, a rabbit bounded through the brush. “Run, old hare,” said one. “If I was an old hare, I’d run, too.” Across the way on the ridge Hancock’s men endured heat and hunger as best they could, waiting likewise for the next heave of the storm. “I strive to make my plans as good as human skill allows,” Lee later said, “but on the day of battle I lay the fate of my army in the hands of God.”
In Gettysburg a professor of mathematics from the local college with an eye–or rather ear–for precision noted that the silence was broken at seven minutes past one o’clock. It was Longstreet’s signal gun followed in a moment by a second. Then the storm broke as the greatest exchange of artillery fire ever heard on the continent was unleashed. John Gibbon across the way on the receiving end of the barrage said simply that it was “the most infernal pandemonium it has ever been my fortune to look on.” It raised a vast concussive roar that people heard as far away as Pittsburg. Soon the ridge was obscured by a thick, swirling curtain of powder smoke and yellow shellbursts. One consequence of the intensity of the Rebel fire was that the battle smoke was soon too thick for the gunners to see what they were shooting at. Now their fire lifted just a hair high, and instead of pounding the ridge and its forward slopes where Hancock’s men were earnestly hugging the earth, the fire was falling on the rearward slope. This, as it happened, achieved at least one of Lee’s intended purposes. For there the shells fell on Hancock’s artillery reserve and forced the gunners to limber up and move a half-mile south of the sector Lee was about to strike. The shells also fell on the cottage where Meade made his headquarters and drove him and his staff effectively out of the battle for a time, all the way to Powers Hill back on the Baltimore Pike. At the front, however, was Hancock the Superb, and perhaps nowhere was he more so. With the air howling with deadly iron, he was riding a big black horse with deliberate calm up and down his line. Neither his staff who rode with him nor the skittish horse under him seemed to think it a good idea, but it was an example that stiffened his men. One brigadier went as far as to rebuke his chief: “General, the corps commander ought not to risk his life that way.” Hancock thought otherwise: “There are times when a corps commander’s life does not count.”
The gunners on the Federal side of this fury were not going to be passive victims, however. Alert and intelligent Henry Hunt, former instructor of artillery at West Point and now Meade’s chief gunner, was on Little Round Top observing the Confederate barrage with a professional’s appreciation. “Indescribably grand,” he pronounced the Confederate fire, and then set about the business of suppressing it. Hunt had on hand, between Cemetery Hill and Little Round Top, 101 guns in twenty batteries. His plan was to maintain counter-battery fire from the high ground at either end of the line, one battery firing from Little Round Top and six from Cemetery Hill. The thirteen batteries along the ridge itself would remain silent, saving their ammunition for the infantry attack he was sure must follow the Confederate barrage. It was a good plan, but it was promptly countermanded by the II Corps commander himself. Hancock, still riding the ridge on his black horse, thought that outgoing artillery fire would be even more encouraging to his men than the example of a single horsemen and ordered the guns on the ridge to answer the Rebels across the valley. Now for the next ninety minutes guns on both sides kept up mightily the work of destruction. On the Federal side guns were dismounted, caissons exploded, horses butchered. So many gunners were shot that infantrymen were obliged to step up and work the guns. As it happened, Federal artillerymen firing into that roiling smoke shot high that day also. Thus, instead of bringing the weight of their fire to bear on the batteries along the Emmitsburg Road, the better part of it fell mercilessly on Confederate infantrymen waiting in the woods behind. One Rebel there, waiting in the roar and heat and powder-smoke, was succinctly eloquent: “It was simply awful.” By 2:30 it was clear to Hunt that, although his batteries had been badly hammered, they were still going to be in position in sufficient strength to maul the attack Lee intended. In fact, he began to wonder if Lee, seeing the ineffective results of his bombardment, might even reconsider and call it off (precisely what Longstreet himself hoped). Alternatively, perhaps an order to cease fire all along the line would persuade Lee that his artillery had achieved its purpose and he would send his infantry forward. In any case, about 2:45 the Federal guns, battered but still ready, fell silent. Ten minutes later the Confederates, believing that they had in fact knocked the Federal batteries out, ceased firing themselves. Thus, the greatest artillery duel ever to shake the continent came to a strangely indecisive end.