As the sun rose on the morning of July 3, 1863, the Confederates at the Battle of Gettysburg were completing a plan of attack on the Union army.
Gen. Robert E. Lee intended that the Confederate attack would strike at the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, followed with reinforcements to break through and work their way in, with hopes of reducing Union batteries.
The goal of the extensive artillery barrage before the assault was to cause heavy damage to the surrounding infantry and to reach the rear of the Union defense. After the barrage, 12,000 Confederate soldiers were to launch into Pickett's Charge, the final chapter of the Battle of Gettysburg.
In a report to Artillery Headquarters of the Army of the Potomac, dated Sept. 27, 1863, Brig. Gen. Henry J. Hunt, chief of artillery for the Union army, writes of that day:
"At 10 a.m. I made an inspection of the whole line, ascertaining that all the batteries were in good condition and well supplied with ammunition. As the enemy was evidently increasing his artillery force in front of our left, I gave instructions to the batteries and to the chiefs of artillery ... to watch the enemy closely ... under all circumstances, to fire deliberately."
According to Hunt, the batteries were not only ready for a pending attack, but awaiting it.
About 1 p.m., Lee launched the artillery barrage. The Confederates advanced toward the Union line, where they put their attack in motion.
Hunt writes, "I had just finished my inspection and was with Lieutenant Rittenhouse on the top of Round Top, when the enemy opened, at about 1 p.m., along his whole right, a furious cannonade on the left of our line. I estimated the number of his guns bearing on our west front at from 100 to 120."
The Confederates were in position from Oak Hill on the north end to Peach Orchard, two miles south. They were met with strong resistance on the Union side, which was prepared with at least 80 guns.
Soon after combat began, the smoke emitted from the gunfire created a heavy, dark cloud over the battlefield. The smoking guns made it difficult to see very far in front of them, let alone far enough to hit their targets.
The Confederates' visibility was poor, and they struggled to maintain their side of the battle. The thick smoke resulted in their aiming their guns too high, overshooting all their targets.
The Union army was shooting well, and caused a large number of casualties on the Confederate side.
Within the next hour, Hunt, noticed that his men were running low on ammunition. According to his records, he ordered his soldiers to slow their shooting.
"About 2:30 p.m., finding our ammunition running low and that it was very unsafe to bring up loads of it, I directed that the fire should be gradually stopped, which was done, and the enemy soon slackened his fire also," Hunt wrote. Hunt's commands worked well, and 30 minutes later, the artillery barrage was over.
By 3 p.m., the Confederates had run out of ammunition. John S. Bowman, editor of the Civil War Almanac, writes, "The famous Confederate maneuver ... does little to save the South's army at Gettysburg. The battle ends with Southern forces retreating and attempting to regroup as a counterattack is expected, although it never occurs."
The soldiers immediately began forming columns to launch Pickett's Charge, from which the Union army would emerge victorious, thus bringing the Battle of Gettysburg to a close.
The artillery barrage is unusual because of the confidence displayed by the Confederates. The smoke from the guns was their downfall, and yet the attack was expected to be an easy victory, a way to push the Union army into retreat.
The Confederate offensive action should have made it easier for them to defeat the Union forces. The artillery bombardment was expected to catch the Union army off-guard, leaving it unprepared and, theoretically, vulnerable.
Craig Symonds, professor of history at the U.S. Naval Academy at Annapolis and author of eight books on the Civil War, concludes in his article "Ten at Gettysburg" in The Smithsonian Associates Civil War Newsletter, Vol. 4, No. 8, that Edward Porter Alexander of the Confederate army was a vital part of the artillery barrage. "Porter was a 28-year-old artillery commander who coordinated the artillery barrage.
"Alexander might have prevented Pickett's Charge had he followed [Lt. Gen. James] Longstreet's lead by telling Lee the infantry wasn't ready to proceed.
"The shrewd Alexander, knowing this was not his decision to make, remained silent. Instead, the infamous charge went forward, per Lee's orders."
Had Lee been aware that the Confederates weren't prepared to launch such an attack, failure could have possibly been prevented, Symonds believes.
Bowman says that, regardless of Longstreet's reluctance to launch the barrage, Lee was adamant in its implementation.
"Despite General Longstreet's feeling that a Confederate offensive is risky due to the larger federal force, General Lee is firmly committed to making an assault on the middle of [Maj. Gen. George G.] Meade's forces," Bowman writes.
Lee was set on launching the barrage, even though he was forewarned about the possibility of a negative outcome.
Speculation also surrounds just how active Meade, of the Union side, was. Sources differ on how involved he was with his soldiers before the attack; some say he was not present, others say he was with Hunt, checking the line of defense. In any case, with the assistance of Hunt, a skilled artillery adviser, he was able to strategize and command well.
Meade reportedly had a good rapport with Hunt, and their communication was strong, which could have been one reason the Union side was victorious.
Kristen Hampton is a senior majoring in journalism at Loyola College in Baltimore. This article was written as part of an academic internship at The Sun.