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Pickett's Charge proved to be one of the most significant--and, for the South, disastrous--actions of the entire Civil War. It culminated Robert E. Lee's dream of taking the fight from Virginia onto Northern soil. Fresh off the Army of Northern Virginia's victory at Chancellorsville, Lee determined that the time was right to invade the North, hoping to capture Philadelphia and Baltimore before moving south on Washington--and perhaps force an end to the war. But he was attacked first in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, and Lee determined to carry on after an indecisive first day of action. After unsuccessful attacks on the Union left and right flanks on July 2, 1863, Lee decided that the Union would draw from its center to reinforce the weakened flanks. Lee decided to hit where he thought the Federals would be weakest: at its center. However, new Federal commander George Meade correctly guessed where Lee would next attack, and he reinforced it accordingly. The Confederate attack was planned by Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, who tried to talk Lee out of the assault--one Longstreet deemed impossible. Whether Longstreet gave his all to the preparation is debatable, and he hoped that Lee would eventually call off the attack. (Longstreet proposed a strategic retreat that would force the Union to attack entrenched Confederate troops.) The charge was led by the untested division of Maj. Gen. George Pickett, along with divisions led by J. J. Pettigrew and Isaac Trimble. In all, more than 12,000 men made the assault, which would prove to be one of the largest single attacks of the war. The Confederate assault was preceded by the largest artillery contest of the war; aimed to weaken the Federal center, it was largely unsuccessful and failed to dislodge the waiting Union troops, led by II Corps commander Winfield Scott Hancock, one of the Union's most able leaders. Longstreet unhappily gave his friend, Pickett, the order to attack, and the Confederates stepped out in a line that extended for one mile. They also had to march one mile through open fields before reaching its goal: a small stand of trees and a low stone wall on Cemetery Ridge. Union artillery reduced the Confederate ranks almost immediately, though the Southerners closed the gaps and marched on. Union artillery also raked both flanks, further reducing the attackers' numbers. When Federal infantry opened fire, huge holes grew in the Confederate lines, but they marched on. Federal infantry attacked on the left flank, causing many Confederates to break and run. However, most of Pickett's division continued on, with a few hundred reaching the stone wall before being overwhelmed by Federal infantry. In all, the Confederates lost well over 50% of its attacking force. More than 5,000 Confederates were killed or wounded, with more than 3,500 being taken prisoner. Most of Pickett's brigade and regimental commanders were killed or wounded. Union casualties were light by comparison. Pickett's Charge was important for several reasons: It was the first time a Southern force had been badly beaten by the Federal army, and it was Lee's first decisive loss (Antietam being considered a strategic draw). It came at a time when the Army of Northern Virginia was at its peak, and it signaled the end of Lee's dominance over the Federals on the battlefield. Pickett's Charge is also considered the "Confederate High Water Mark"--the furthest advance onto Northern soil by a Southern force.
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