The high-water mark of the Confederacy refers to a location on Cemetery Ridge, outside Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. A high water mark denotes the highest level reached by a body of water. Here it refers to the deepest penetration by the Confederate States Army of the Union Army lines during Pickett's Charge of the Battle of Gettysburg during the American Civil War. The term does not imply that Gettysburg was the farthest north that Robert E. Lee's army had advanced geographically, but is a symbolic reference to the arguably best chance the Confederate Army had of achieving victory in the war. The northernmost engagement by Lee's Army was the Skirmish of Sporting Hill, in present day Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, on June 30, 1863.
This designation was introduced after the war when the monuments of the Gettysburg Battlefield were being erected. Historian John B. Bachelder used the phrase in a large bronze scroll placed at the "copse of trees" near the Angle, a right-angle turn in a low stone wall. Some historians have argued that the battle was the turning point of the war and that this was the place that represented the Confederacy's last major offensive operation in the Eastern Theater.
On the third day of the battle (July 3, 1863), Confederate General Robert E. Lee ordered an attack on the Union center, located on Cemetery Ridge. This offensive maneuver called for almost 12,500 men to march over 1,000 yards of dangerously open terrain.
Preceded by a massive but mostly ineffective Confederate artillery barrage, the march across open fields towards the Union lines became known as Pickett's Charge; Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett was one of three division commanders under the command of Lt. Gen. James Longstreet, but his name has been popularly associated with the assault. Union guns and infantry on Cemetery Ridge opened fire on the advancing men, decimating the Confederate ranks. Pickett's men were able to breach the Union lines in just one place, a bend in the wall that has become known as "the Angle." This gap in the Union line was quickly closed with any Confederate soldiers who had breached it being quickly captured or killed.
Lee's Army of Northern Virginia retreated the next day, leaving Gettysburg for Virginia. Even though the war lasted almost another two years, Lee launched few offensive operations during that time, none of them near the scale of the Gettysburg Campaign.
According to Jeff Shaara in his book Jeff Shaara's Civil War Battlefields, the actual "High Water Mark" may not be the one that is commonly associated with the term:
|“||I respect those who care deeply about paying homage to such noteworthy historical landmarks as the high-water mark. I speculate, however, that the copse of trees does not indicate the farthest advance of the Confederate troops that day. Drive just north, to the Bryan House. Walk to the stone wall on the left, peer over, and you will see the newest monument on the battlefield. This marks the spot where the battle flag of the 11th Mississippi was found as it lay across the stone wall. The 11th was part of the brigade commanded by Joe Davis, nephew of the Confederate president. By all information, a total of fourteen Mississippians reached this spot, farther into the Union position than the North Carolinians, at what is today labeled the high-water mark. The Mississippi regiment had four color bearers shot down, but the fifth made it, where he and the other survivors were captured. In a note of irony, this property was farmed by a freedman, Mr. Abraham Bryan. Thus did Davis's men see their assault end on the property of a freed slave.||”|
Historian Kenneth W. Noe has described the "high-water mark of the Confederacy in the western theater, no less important than the Angle at Gettysburg." In the Battle of Perryville, October 8, 1862, the Union Army withstood a lengthy assault by the Confederate brigade of George E. Maney. Although pushed back for over a mile with heavy casualties, the Union troops of Col. John C. Starkweather's brigade held their ground behind a stone wall on a steep ridge and the Confederates were forced to pull back. Perryville is sometimes called the "Battle for Kentucky", after which the Confederate invasion of Kentucky was abandoned by Gen. Braxton Bragg.
- Phillips, David, Maps of The Civil War, The Roads They Took, New York: Michael Friedman Publishing Group, Inc., 1998.
- Shaara, Jeff, Jeff Shaara's Civil War Battlefields: Discovering America's Hallowed Ground, Ballantine Books, 2006, ISBN 0-345-46488-5.
- Ward, Geoffrey C., Burns, Ric, and Burns, Ken, The Civil War, An Illustrated History, New York: Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., 1990.
- Military History Online
- Shaara, p. 114.
- Noe, p. 261.