In preparation for the infantry assault against the center of the Union line on Cemetery Ridge, General Lee ordered a massive artillery barrage. It would be the largest of the war.
Nearly 150 guns from all three Confederate corps would participate. With any luck, the concentrated fire of all these weapons would damage the Union guns and cause the infantry to flee in panic. It would have to be perfectly executed, as the Confederates had little ammunition to spare.
Lee gave Longstreet overall command of the attack, and he assigned the artillery portion to Col. E. Porter Alexander, the I Corps artillery chief. Alexander was a brilliant up-and-comer in the Army of Northern Virginia, and had the ability to look at situations very objectively. Before the day was out, he’d be placed in a very awkward situation.
150 years ago right now, the firing commenced. It didn’t take long for the Union guns to respond. With both sides blasting away, the area around Gettysburg became a loud, smokey mess – so loud in fact that the barrage was heard as far away as Washington, DC and Pittsburgh, PA. It was impossible to see what the enemy was doing through all of that, and whether your own fire was having an effect.
Despite this fog of war, it also didn’t take long for the Brig. General Henry Hunt – Chief of Artillery for the Army of the Potomac (and the man who literally wrote the book on artillery before the war) – to recognize that this wasn’t merely an artillerist’s duel. This was the clear prelude to an infantry assault. The Rebels would charge across those fields as soon as they thought they’d inflicted enough damage – Hunt was sure of it. He ran around to each of his battery commanders and told them to slow down. The infantry commanders were furious – the artillery should be returning fire vigorously!
There was a method to Hunt’s seeming madness. Not only would slowing down conserve ammunition for the coming infantry attack, it would lull the Confederates into thinking that there was a steadily decreasing number of guns firing back at them – perhaps they were damaging the Union defenses!
After an hour and a half of this, the Confederates were running low on ordnance, and were taking too much damage from the Union return fire. The Rebel artillery was going to be forced to stop soon.