At dinner, the other night, I discussed the battle of Gettysburg with a foreign-born friend, who observed: "The way you describe the battle of Gettysburg, if Pickett's charge had succeeded on the third day and the Confederates had won the battle, they would still have lost the war, because they would have run out of ammunition, and been sitting ducks for enemy attack. They needed to win the battle of the first day" (when they could have chased one-third of the Union army off Cemetery Ridge, with most of their ammunition left).

I know a couple things about the campaign, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gettysburg_Campaign, first that both Confederate and Union soldiers used the bayonet during Pickett's charge because they were low on ammunition, and second, that the Confederate line of communications was a precarious one extending to Virginia through Winchester and Harper's Ferry, and hostile Union territory in West Virginia and western Maryland.

How robust were the Confederates' resupply capabilities, especially for ammunition, while in Pennsylvania? My guess is that they could "commandeer" all the food and clothing they needed. If they were low on ammunition, could they send what they needed from Virginia? If not, could they reasonably expect to capture sufficient supplies from the enemy? Or was my friend right when he said that they would have lost the war by "default" if they had run low on ammunition deep in enemy territory?

2 Answers 2


Confederate resupply capability at Gettysburg was virtually nil. The North even had units near Frederick and Harper's Ferry on the line of communication. These were no match for the army, but could interdict a wagon train.

So a indefinite stalemate at Gettysburg would have required a Confederate retreat. At the end of the battle, there was still ample food, and small arms (rifle) ammunition for more fighting. Artillery solid shot was virtually out in the 1st and 3rd Corps batteries that bombarded the Union position, so they could not have repeated that. They had ample canister which would come into play if the Union attacked their position in turn.

With the army concentrated, foraging for food was limited, and the ammo would not last forever, but there was some left, especially for defense. But Lee would have to retire towards the Potomac absent a crushing victory for resupply sooner rather than later.


The battle grew from an initial reconnaissance by Hill's corps to determine if the shoe factory in Gettysburg had sufficient quantities to resupply several Confederate units with boots (or shoes).

I think that completely summarizes the Confederate supply situation for most of the war: not just pillaging for food, but pillaging for footwear (arguably second only to his rifle in importance for an infantryman, and challenged only by his spade) because the Confederacy was unable to supply any.

The notion that both sides used the bayonet during Picket's charge because they were low on ammunition borders on absurdity; they used the bayonet because they were in close physical contact, and a bayonet is much faster in close quarters than reloading to fire a bullet. No-one stops to reload in a bayonet fight and lives to tell the tale.

Update: I do not mean to imply in that last paragraph that the units on Cemetery Ridge, of both sides, had ample ammunition. The troops on the ridge were undoubtedly low, having fired most of what each carried in a cartridge box while closing to contact. And after nearly three days of battle, both armies had to be running short on ammunition at hand, the Confederates likely worse off then Meade. That fact is irrelevant to the tactical situation on Cemetery Ridge; having closed to contact, both sides were forced into a bayonet duel.

The point of closing to contact is to defeat the opponent with the bayonet.

Both commanders likely expected that if successful in closing to contact, the Confederates would win out unless very badly outnumbered; due to their greater morale, their greater experience on average, and their greater desperation. Unfortunately for Lee, the casualties incurred in mounting Cemetery Ridge, combined with Stuart's inability to swing around the Union right and Meade's prescience the evening before, resulted in just such an outnumbering.

  • 1
    If you can find a link backing up the last paragraph (ought not to be too tough, I'd think), this would be good enough for an upvote from me.
    – T.E.D.
    Commented Sep 10, 2013 at 14:24
  • @T.E.D - Maybe not, the Union forces could take it in ways the Confederates couldn't begin to imagine. The Iron Brigade! Inept officers squandered this until Grant took over, and Southern commanders mistook poor leadership for poor morale too often... I don't think a bayonet charge would have impressed anyone in the ranks fighting for the North. Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 3:10
  • 1
    @RISwampYankee: There were certainly crack Union units, but the weakest Confederate units were nearly on par with average Union units until late in the war. Also, the Union practice of creating new units from green recruits without cadres was a distinctly bad practice, and was very wasteful of manpower. And poor leadership made a weak situation worse, as a weak leader's unit always has poor morale; for obvious reasons. Commented Sep 11, 2013 at 3:14
  • The Union army had held its own the day before in the hand-to-hand fighting around Devils Den. And on Little Round Top, the UNION won the day with a bayonet charge, as depicted in the Killer Angels. On all days, the Confederates were charging uphill. So there was no guarantee of a Confederate victory with a bayonet fight, only a lesser certainty of defeat than against superior Union firepower.
    – Tom Au
    Commented Sep 12, 2013 at 0:32
  • 1
    The initial foray into Gettysburg was by AP Hill's 3rd Corps, not Longstreet's 1st Corps.
    – Oldcat
    Commented Jan 10, 2014 at 0:15

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.