It was at one o'clock that two Confederate signal guns were fired, and at once there opened such an artillery combat as the armies had never before seen. As a spectacle, the fire from the two miles of Confederate batteries, stretching from the town of Gettysburg southward, was appalling; but practically the Confederate fire was too high, and most of the damage was done behind the ridge on which the Army of the Potomac was posted, although the damage along the ridge was also great. The little house just over the crest where Meade had his headquarters, and to which he had gone from Gibbon's luncheon, was torn with shot and shell. The army commander stood in the open doorway as a cannon shot, almost grazing his legs, buried itself in a box standing on the portico by the door. There were two small rooms on the ground floor of the house, and in the room where Meade had met his corps commanders the night before were a bed in the corner, a small pine table in the center, upon it a wooden pail of water, a tin drinking cup, and the remains of a melted tallow candle held upright by its own grease, that had served to light the proceedings of last night's council of war. One Confederate shell bust in the yard among the horses tied to the fence; nearly a score of dead horses lay along this fence, close to the house. One shell tore up the steps of the house; one carried away the supports of the portico; one went through the door, and another through the garret. It was impossible for aids to report or for orders to be given from the center of so much noise and confusion, and the little house was abandoned as a headquarters, to be turned, after the firing was over, into a hospital.
During the cannonade the infantry of Meade's army lay upon the ground behind the crest. By General Hunt's direction the Union artillery fire, with the exception of that of the Second Corps batteries, was reserved for a quarter of an hour and then concentrated upon the most destructive batteries of the foe. After half an hour both Meade and his chief of artillery started messengers along the line to stop the firing, with the idea of reserving the ammunition for the infantry assault, which they well knew would soon be made. On the other side, Alexander sent word to Pickett to come quickly, and the Confederate assault began.
Crossing the depression of the ground, a part of the Confederate line, after emerging from the woods, found a moment's rest and shelter, and then started toward the little umbrella-shaped clump of trees on the Union line, said to have been pointed out by Lee as the objective of the assault. On the left Pettigrew's division of four brigades advanced in one line, with Trimble's two brigades of Lane and Scales in the rear and right as supports. Pickett's division on the right advanced with the brigades of Kemper and Garnett in the front line and Armistead's brigade in rear of Garnett's on the left. Twenty minutes afterward the brigades of Wilcox and Perry were to advance on Pickett's right and repel any attempted flanking movement. The assault was made by eighteen thousand men. To cover the advance the Confederate artillery reopened, and when the infantry line appeared the Union guns were directed upon the ranks. Great volumes of smoke, however, soon obscured the field, and many of the Confederates could not see that there was a foe in front of them until they were within two hundred yards of the Union line. Under the artillery fire from McGilvery and Rittenhouse on Pickett's right his part of line drifted to the left, and thus, when the brigades of Wilcox and Perry marched straight ahead, as ordered, for the purpose of protecting Pickett's right flank, their course took them to far to the south to accomplish their purpose, even if the advanced line by that time had not gone into pieces. As Pettigrew had formed behind Seminary Ridge, his troops had to advance under fire a distance of at least thirteen hundred yards, while Pickett's place of formation was but nine hundred yards distant from the objective point. The start was made in echelon, with Pettigrew in the rear; but by the time the Emmitsburg road was reached both divisions were on a line, and they crossed the road together. Brockenbrough's Virginians, Pettigrew's left brigade, were disheartened by the flank fire of Hays' troops and Woodruff's battery after a loss of only twenty-five killed, and these troops either retreated, surrendered, or threw themselves on the he ground for protection; but the other brigades of Pettigrew, as well as those of Trimble, advanced to the stone wall, stayed there as long as any other Confederate troops, and surrendered many fewer men than did Pickett.
Out of the fifty-five hundred men which Pickett took into action, fourteen hundred and ninety-nine surrendered, two hundred and twenty-four were killed, and eleven hundred and forty were reported wounded. Pickett lost twelve out of fifteen battle flags. Pettigrew's division, in which there was one brigade of North Carolina troops , lost in killed and wounded eight hundred and seventy-four, and in missing five hundred. Trimble's two North Carolina brigades lost in killed and wounded three hundred and eighty-nine, and in missing two hundred and sixty-one. The two brigades of Perry and Wilcox together lost three hundred and fifty-nine. Pettigrew's brigade of North Carolina regiments, commanded by Colonel Marshall, lost in the charge five hundred and twenty-eight, of which number three hundred were killed and wounded; and the Twenty-sixth North Carolina of this brigade, which regiment suffered greater losses during the war than any other on either side of the conflict, went into this charge with two hundred and sixteen men, and returned with but eighty-four. The percentage of losses in killed and wounded in the assaulting column, taken as a whole, was not extraordinary for the civil war. The place assaulted was less formidable than Fort Fisher, which was taken later in the war by Union troops, and the assault itself was far less successful than that of Meade's division at Fredericksburg. Its complete failure was due to the thorough dispositions made to meet it, and it is improbable that the result would have been reversed if McLaws and Hood , whose attention was occupied by the appearance of the Union cavalry on their right, had participated in the assault. The tactical skill which had prevented the rout of the Third Corps from involving the whole army in a defeat on the second day of the battle, was exerted with equal success in supporting the center under attack on the third day.
At the center of Meade's position, were troops rank after rank, infantry division after division, line upon line, including even the provost guards, and, in rear of all, a regiment of cavalry waiting to shoot down the craven if he would discover himself. Against an army so disposed, in such a position, and so handled, its different parts thrown from point to point with certainty and promptitude, with every possible Confederate movement anticipated and provided for, the assault ordered by Lee was in truth the mad and reckless movement that Meade characterized it, and it accomplished no more than a slight fraying of the edge of the front Union line of troops.
Source: "General Meade" by Isaac R. Pennypacker published 1901