Starting to do a lot of reading on the American Civil War, which is interesting from a foreigners perspective.
I think everyone can agree that Picketts Charge didn't stand any reasonable chance of success.
But what should he have done instead?
Whats the verdict on the battle?
Short Answer: Lee made the right choice based upon what he knew.
I apologize for such a long reply but the OP is a difficult question to answer. I will try to be as brief as possible. Forgive me if I oversimplify a number of issues. We are gamers and don't necessarily put into prospective the problems of politics and logistics that concern those in command of Armies.
Up to and including the "Gettysburg Campaign" the intelligence reports for the both the Union and Confederacy were extremely flawed. Due to how the intelligence was gathered and disseminated the Union greatly over-estimated the strength of the Confederate Army while the Confederacy greatly under-estimated the strength Union Army. It is hard for us to understand that fact now that we "know" the real troop strengths but both sides thought the Confederate Army was numerically superior. By the "Gettysburg Campaign" both side we in the final stages of realizing how far off their intelligence reports were.
Today Robert E. Lee is a universally adored and loved personality in the South, in spring 1863 out-side of the soldiers of the Army of Northern Virginia he was not well liked. In the Confederate Government he only had one ally, Jefferson Davis I guess he is the only one that matters; the rest of the executive branch of the Government, especially the cabinet, held him in disdain and were active in looking to replace Lee as the commander of the most important Confederate Army. In the spring of 1863 James Seddon, the Secretary of the War for the Confederacy, requested the Jefferson Davis replace Lee with Longstreet. Davis refused.
Prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville the Confederate Government was planning the campaigns of 1863. In the last eight months of 1862 there were fourteen major engagements in Virginia, if 1863 followed suit than the war was lost before the first snows. The "Battle on their own ground" strategy was problematic for the south; while it allowed their inferior numbers to cope with superior numbers of the Union (they didn't realize that was the case) it played havoc with the Confederate ability to grow crops. The Executive Branch drew up objectives that they felt needed to accomplish in 1863. After many meetings the Cabinet drew up a series of objectives.
The primary objective was to pull the Union Army out of Virginia for the summer and early fall months. This would allow the crops to grow and be harvested without threat of the Union Army destroying them in field. It is important to remember that Virginia was the "breadbasket of the Confederacy" and that at least 1/3 of agricultural crops were grown in such a small section of the country. They needed that year's crops to survive as a nation that winter.
The second objective was to force the Union Army to redeploy on a grand tactical scale. Remember that the Confederate Army was believed superior in numbers and that because of Confederate forces defending Mobile, Knoxville, Charleston, Little Rock and dozens of other minor outposts they were more spread out. This is a much longer topic but for this discussion I am just paraphrasing what takes whole books to discuss in any detail.
The third objective was to relieve the pressure along the Mississippi Corridor. The Armies of Mississippi, Missouri, Western Louisiana, as well as Gardner's and Ruggle's Commands (in Port Hudson and Corinth respectfully) were all threatened by Grant's position in Southern Arkansas.
Multiple plans were presented including two competing plans by Lee and Longstreet. Lee suggests what becomes the Gettysburg Campaign while Longstreet plan suggesting taking his Corps from the ANV and create an independent army to streak at what becomes Burnside Command in Lexington Kentucky than moving Southwest and pushing Rosencran's between himself and Bragg. Longstreet's is the plan approved by the Cabinet but over ruled by Davis and Lee's plan is approved.
Lee understands the pressure placed on his position. Of course Lee's plans fall apart on May 10, 1863 when General Jackson dies of his wounds. Lee is forced to rework his plans and organization. However he has little time to rethink and replan as he is forced to move by the first week in June.
While I will skip the tactical movements from June 3rd to July 3rd I will talk a little bit about supply. The ANV was used to moving light and had three days of supplies at all times. This includes both food and ammunition. Every day foraging parties would return with at least another days worth of supplies while on the move. The Union Army had large amounts of supplies available in depots but not necessarily enough on the actual man. As an example it took a week to issue three days worth of supplies in early June to allow the AOP to start the full pursuit. This difference was amplified by the actions of J.E.B. Stuart cavalry as it disrupted the Lines of Communication in southern Pennsylvania and Central Maryland. This slowed down the movement of the Union Army allowing the ANV to get a much larger head start and more space than anticipated.
Between June 26th and when Meade assumes command the AOP, Jun 28th, the AOP stole a march on ANV. This movement of an additional 20 miles may not seem like much in modern terms but it is all that it takes to take the initiative away from the ANV. On the 28th Meade doesn't realize how much the last 48 hours have changed the course of the campaign.
Somewhere between May 10th and June 28th a new tactical aim was added to Lee's laundry list. He had to wreck the Army of the Potomac. In this era of Napoleonic ideas wrecking the opposing Army meant a titanic Battle in the mold of Napoleon's victory at Marengo or Austerlitz. However a more appropriate battle to examine would be Hohenlinden (Dec 3, 1800) in which French General Moreau catches the Austrian Army of Archduke John and is able to surround and destroy the Austrian Army in a piecemeal fashion. Austria sues for piece shortly thereafter.
One the evening of the 28th Lee decides to assemble the Army near Cashtown PA, this movement moves all three corps from behind the Blue Ridge/South Mountain Ranges to the same side as Union Army thus removing his screen.
After Day 1 at Gettysburg, Ewell made a tactical mistake by note pushing the disordered Union defense at Culp's Hill. Any hope of regaining the initiative for the AVN is lost. Thus Lee must make a plan to attack on Day 2. Again it is important to remember Lee believe the Union to number to be at most equal to his own and maybe slightly less. If you ever play out the battle using Lee's estimates of Union Strength you understand why he had the grand attack on Day 2 and then the follow up on Day 3.
Another issue that is rarely brought up but is an important factor here, Lee was very solitary person and he rarely kept anyone fully in his confidence. On Day 2 Longstreet didn't know the exact plan for Ewell and vice versa. It can be argued that because he saw specters of failure and ultimately his replacement around every corner or if just didn't have the staff many of his orders were not recorded in the same fashion as that of the Union. We depend on the writings after the war by Generals like Longstreet to GUESS at what Lee was thinking. After the War Lee only wrote once on the conduct of the war and that was to defend Longstreet when southern writers were looking to blame someone militarily for the failure.
On Day 3 Lee had to make a choice. He was facing a force that he believed was his equal in numbers and had historically had short term supply issues. They were strung out over about 15 miles from Buford's command south of the Peach Orchard to Gregg's command five miles east of Gettysburg. His spies reported that the Union had reinforced the wings of the line. In the center he estimates the strength of not more than 5,000. 5,000 would have been the correct number had the AOP numbered only 75,000 not the 95,000 there really was.
All said if we had to make Lee's decision on the Third Day we probably would have made a similar choice because based on the information Lee had it is the best choice.
As a minor follow up:We don't know is exactly what Lee ordered Stuart to do when he issued his VERBAL orders on the morning of the 3rd. Stuart dies before the end of the War and there is no written record of the exact order. What we do know is that Stuart Cavalry which has had a running battle with the Gregg's Cavalry (Less Buford) since June 26th mounts up and moves against the extreme right of the Union. There are a number of books on the premise of what was supposed to happen, including "Lost Triumph" by Tom Carhart, the most recent that I am aware of. Whether it is by chance or fate or simply because the Confederate Cavalry hasn't slept more than a few minutes at a time in over a week, the attack doesn't achieve its objective. Whether it is supposed to be a break through or simply to force the Union to move reserves to the right flank or anything else that you can come up with; while we don't know exactly what the order was all we do know is it didn't work.
Thus as Sally Pickett tells us, Pickett's Division goes forward (along with two others) and the high-water mark of the confederacy is achieved.
Lee has a number of options on the fourth day of battle, one in which both sides stare down each other. Lee misses his last opportunity to regain the initiative as the AOP in the field has virtually no supplies. Many men were without ammunition, food was scarce and water was in short supply. Lee whose Army was still in good supply and was ready to take the fight to the Union again decided to withdraw. It takes the AOP two days to resupply and begin the pursuit.
When you move beyond the battle and beyond the Lee's retreat we are left to look at the objectives laid out by the Confederate Government.
1) Pull the Union Army out of Virginia. This was done with great success. It allowed the Confederate Crops in Virginia to harvest in the end of the summer stockpiling almost 16 months supply as estimated later in the year. It was a very prophetic answer since the Confederacy last only 16 more months in the east.2) Force the Union Army to redeploy. The union army was not forced to redeploy any units, not because the plan was wrong but because the intelligence used to generate the plan was faulty. By the end of 1863 both the Union and Confederacy remake their intelligence agency and reports and get more accurate numbers on their advisories.3) Relieve pressure in the Mississippi Corridor.The plan failed to remove any pressure from the Mississippi Corridor and Vicksburg surrenders on the same day that Lee decides to withdrawal from Gettysburg. This is of course is for a number of reasons, being too far east, too late and simply too little in terms of numbers.4) Wreck the Union Army. The AOP lost 25% of its strength hard not to call that wrecking, considering its noext major engagement is in May 1864 (The Wilderness).
However as the Army achieved the most important objective and Lee acknowledged his own mistake and accepted blame (as well as many of his contemporaries blamed Longstreet) Lee stays in command of the ANV until its surrender at Appomattox.
As Gamers' an interesting scenario would be to allow Lee to Attack on the Fourth Day (July the Fourth) and using some sort of supply rules to determine whether units in the AOP were supplied or not.
A number of people (both in this discussion and other works) have suggested that Lee move the ANP to the SW and attempt to get between the AOP and Washington.
The are at least two problems with that suggestion. There is no "north-south" movement. The road network is in a shape of an X and moves in a SW/NE or SE/NW pattern. Any movement by the ANV takes them further away from Washington and the AOP always will have a shorter route. Example: While it is about ten miles from Gettysburg to Emmitsburg and then another 10 miles to Tannytown it is only 8 miles from the Gettysburg to Tannytown. Unless you could steal a march (very tough to do in such close quarters) there is no way to out maneuver the AOP. The second problem is more problematic, after day one Buford's Cavalry is arrayed from the Emmetsburg road west cross country towards Fairfield. You'd have to fight your way and that blocks any chance of stealing a march.