This WHATIF postulates what Day 3 of the engagement may have looked like following the Alternative History Day 2 rout of Longstreet’s flank attack by the addition of Fifth Corps to Sickles’ Third. (see Sections 25c and 25f)
On the morning of 3 July 1863, Meade’s defensive line would have looked more like a lazy-Z than the actual fishhook. Two full Corps would have moved up into a line anchored in the Peach Orchard and extending east to link to Second Corps on Cemetery Ridge. There would also have been a blocking unit astride the Emmitsburg Road extending out to the edge of Seminary Ridge. In the late afternoon of Day 2, Meade would have ordered Sickles’ Third Corps to shift forward and occupy the area of the Wheatfield, facing south to protect Fifth Corps from a rear area attack.
Sixth Corps would have stretched its line to occupy all of Little Round Top, replacing Third Corps. But since Sixth Corps was essentially in the rear area, they were now designated as the Reserve Corps. If anything, this Lazy-Z line was even stronger than the fishhook configuration. It would have had three anchor points. One at the Orchard, then the Cemetery and farthest east the breastworks on Culp’s Hill. Artillerymen would have been rushed forward from the Union reserve artillery brigade to man and operate the Rebel cannons captured on Day 2 in the orchard.
Lee’s forces, on the other hand, were scattered and misaligned. He had 9 divisions of troops, 3 each in 3 Corps. Johnson and Early’s Divisions of Ewell’s Corps were facing Culp’s Hill on the southeast corner of the town. Ewell’s third division under Rodes was on the southwest corner looking up into the cemetery. Anderson’s division of Hill’s corps was bivouacked in the protection of the wooded slope of Seminary Ridge just south of Rodes. Behind Rodes, with no place to maneuver was Pender’s division of Hill’s Corps and north of him was Heth’s battered division that was hardly combat ready after bearing the brunt of the fighting on Day 1.
Also on the slope of Seminary Ridge, south of Anderson was Hood’s division of Longstreet’s corps. This division had been rallied by its commanders and held in place on Seminary Ridge after their withdrawal from the area of the orchard on Day 2. His other two divisions were on the west side of the ridge. These were Pickett’s fresh division and the battered but capable division under McLaws. Since battles were normally fought by corps, Lee’s troops were out of position such as to prevent any coordinated corps attacks.
With his corps out of position, Lee seemingly had no good options for a continued attack. Any attack in that area of the battlefield that was actually the space crossed by Pickett in the actual Day 3 would have brought his men into a deadly crossfire from the orchard and the cemetery. His most promising venture may have been to have Early and Johnson attempt to seize Culp’s Hill. By doing so he’d threaten the entire Union rear logistics area, but throughout Day 2, Twelfth Corps had been working to strengthen their breastwork defensive position and there were now two tiers of breastwork running parallel across Culp’s Hill. Plus the entire Sixth Corps was available to reinforce any weak spots in the Union line. The middle anchor point of the Union line in the cemetery was also formidably defended such that Rodes or even a combined force of Rodes and Pender were unlikely to be able to defeat it.
Meade was still thinking defensively; let Lee make the first move. But some of his generals were urging him to attack. The two isolated divisions at the base of Culps’ Hill seemed to them to be the most vulnerable. But once again, terrain spoke against such an attack. Both Rebels divisions were on flat relatively open ground, but to get to them the Union troops would have had to descend the steep wooded slopes of Culp’s Hill and this would tend to break up a unified attack formation, particularly on the east slop facing Johnson.
While Rodes and Anderson didn’t have quite the concentration of artillery between them as the cemetery-orchard combination, any attack that Hancock may have launched (Pickett’s Charge in reverse) would have been subjected them to severe artillery pounding.
July third could have easily settled into a quiet stand-off with 70,000 muskets point at each other but the two armies; with each commander waiting for the other to make the first move.
At this point, with his losses moderate on Day 1 and minimal on Day 2, would Lee have been contend to concede defeat and withdraw? He’d likely send Heth’s battered division to accompany the wagon train of supplies and wounded retracing the route they took moving north. To avoid congestion on the path south, he likely would have sent Longstreet’s Corps south towards Emmittsburg and through the mountain pass in that vicinity. Pender, then Anderson would follow Heth. Ewell’s Corps would be the hardest to withdraw undetected since all three of those divisions were in direct sight of Union forces. Likely Early and Johnson would have transited through the city under the cover of darkness to escape detection. They’d have left their campfires burning to cover their movement. Rodes would withdraw last, acting as a rear guard. Could an attack on Rodes by Sixth Corps supported by First and Second Corps artillery have disrupted Ewells’ withdrawal?
Once Lee’s withdraw was recognized, Meade would need to decide how to respond. We know from the real battle’s aftermath that Meade was reluctant to split his army and pursue Lee on two fronts. Third and Fifth Corps could easily have pursued Longstreet towards Emmittsburg. All in, Gettysburg without Sickles’ salient would likely have been a 2-day battle, with each side claiming victory on one day. Lee, however, would be abandoning his objections of obtaining a military victory against the Union Army in their own territory and of forcing Lincoln to the negotiating table. But what other choices presented themselves?