Pickett’s Charge

This book, published in 1959, is still very useful for students of the war. He begins by going over the general situation on July 3. “On this morning of the third day of battle the Confederates were still on the offensive. As Lee stated it, ‘The general plan was unchanged.’ On the Union right, Ewell had gained and still held an excellent position. On the Union left-center, Longstreet had almost broken through, but had finally been repulsed; still, his position was favorable for a renewed offensive. The plan, as part of which [Colonel Edward Porter] Alexander was placing his guns, was apparently this. … Longstreet was to drive ahead for the Taneytown road, not more than a thousand feet behind the main Union line. Simultaneously Ewell was to strike for the Baltimore Pike, having rather less than that distance to go. With the cutting of these two roads, the whole Union front could be expected to collapse in disaster. Meade’s army was shaken by two days of heavy losses. Another pole-ax blow, an hour’s fighting, and the war might be won! Like most plans this one had its weaknesses. One of these was, obviously, the Union army. It might not be as badly stricken as hoped. Moreover, the plan called for co-ordination in time, but communications were poor. The two points of attack were distant only about a mile by air-line, but by the route that a courier must follow they were at least five miles apart.” [p. 2]

That attack didn’t happen, though. “The charge must be conceived as a substitute for this early attack, not a part of it. As far as Longstreet was concerned, any practical possibility that he could launch a dawn attack had already vanished before midnight. Since no orders had been issued by that time, he would lack at dawn the essential element for a successful assault–a large and compact body of fresh infantry. He would lack, in fact, the third division of his corps, Pickett’s three brigades. … On the preceding day, to complete the concentration of the army, the division had made a forced march beneath a blazing sun, and about six o’clock had arrived at a point some three miles from the battlefield. The men were close to exhaustion. Ahead they could hear the crash of battle, as their comrades of Longstreet’s corps fought their way through the Wheat Field and attacked Little Round Top. Pickett sent an aide forward to report to Lee that the men, though tired, could still be pushed on, to take their part in the fighting. But Lee–strangely, it seems–replied that Pickett was not now needed, that his division could go into bivouac and be ready for action on the following day. Thankfully, the weary men collapsed into a grove of oaks at the side of the road. In miles, they were at no great distance from the point of intended attack. By time–according to the rate at which large bodies of men can march across country, make the necessary preparations, and finally go into battle–they were four hours away. To co-operate with Ewell in a dawn attack, the men should have been routed out, after an inadequate night, not later than midnight. Whatever plan existed for a co-ordinated battle thus miscarried sometime before midnight. Either Lee gave no orders for Pickett to break camp, or Longstreet failed to transmit them. But in the time of controversy, after Lee’s death, Longstreet maintained vigorously that he never received orders for an early attack, and no one proved that he had.” [pp. 3-4] The final nail in the coffin of the original plan of July 3 was the attack the Union 12th Corps launched on Culp’s Hill early that morning to regain the positions confederates had taken the previous day.

Lee thus had to change his plans. His first step was to take stock of his position. “As he stood there, Lee could reflect upon two days of fighting throughout which, as reckoned in the dark ledgers of war where all the entries are in red, he had operated at a profit. The Army of the Potomac had seven corps of infantry. Of these Lee knew that he had smashed the First, Third, and Eleventh. He had also damaged–rather badly, he could believe–the Second and Fifth. At this very time, Ewell was fighting the Twelfth, and he could be counted on to wear it down. Only the Sixth remained. Actually, Lee had no certain knowledge that the Sixth Corps had reached Gettysburg, but as a wise commander he could only assume that it had. Still, that corps was not invincible. In his own army, Lee had Pickett’s division intact, and several brigades that had not been heavily engaged. But the rest of the army had suffered severely–more, indeed, than Lee himself realized. This may seem an incredibility but more than once during this day, Lee’s ignorance of the state of his own troops is apparent. This can perhaps be put down merely to poor staffwork. More deeply considered, it may be connected with the romanticism of the Southern character, a refusal to face realities, an unwillingness to admit that the despised Yankees were really dangerous. At the same time, from a military point of view, this state of mind had much to recommend it. The Southern soldier was thus endowed with a feeling of invincibility. This high and serene sense of confidence should not, even for a moment, be forgotten in any appraisal of Gettysburg.” [pp. 8-9]

Once he’d taken stock of his situation, Lee then had to decide what to do. “On this morning, then, Lee faced the inevitable three possibilities for a general–to attack, to retreat, to stand still. The last had nothing to recommend it; Meade, with his lines of communication open, could win at a waiting game. Similarly, to retreat after two days of what could be counted success was unthinkable. Such action would present the North with victory on a silver platter. Besides, the prospect of a long and harassed retreat was not pleasant. Therefore, for a fighting general in command of a fighting army, there was only one choice–attack! Another factor cannot be altogether neglected. Lee himself was naturally aggressive, quick to take the offensive … Faced with the situation, having the inescapable three choices, any good soldier would–in some way or other–have attacked.” [p. 11]

Lee’s next step was to assess the terrain and the Union position. “First of all, at that time of the morning, he may have noticed the many smokes from the little fires where ‘those people’–as he generally called them–were boiling their coffee. So also he may have noted puffs of white smoke where the two lines of skirmishers, in that ceaseless and often senseless activity which is war, were shooting at each other. But Lee studied, rather, the essentials, with the practiced eye of an engineer officer, trained in reconnaissance from the days of the Mexican campaign. The crest of the ridge was a good artillery position, and several batteries were in full view. But the slope was not steep enough to hinder the advance of infantry. Some trees and bushes, some low stone walls and a few scattered rocks offered shelter to the defenders, but there was no real entrenchment, not even lunettes around the guns. The top of the ridge, he would assume, was too rocky to permit digging. No, not a very strong infantry position! Even its height was not altogether in its favor; troops firing from an elevation are notoriously prone to overshoot. Moreover, it was in a small way a salient, and therefore offered the opposing artillery a chance for converging fire. Also–he may have looked more closely–the arrangement of the stone walls created an essential weakness. There was a jog, and for some distance, the little line of stones ran almost directly toward him, making an interior angle and an exterior angle. Any troops placed to hold the exterior angle would essentially be fighting with their right flank exposed. If a heavy attack could be launched at that spot–? Also of importance, the place had a plain landmark–a clump of smallish trees of peculiar form, umbrella-shaped. In the smoke and confusion of an assault, it is well to have an unmistakable point toward which to advance. As a careful commander, he must have remembered another detail. During the fighting with which the preceding day had ended, Wright had advanced his Georgia brigade close up to the stone wall. Even now, Confederate dead were lying on that slope. The Georgians had been repulsed, but they had shown that the way there was certain, unimpeded by sunken roads or by marshy land.” [pp. 12-14]

James Longstreet, as most students of the battle know, wanted to move to the right, around the Union left. Lee disapproved this course of action. “Being the commander, Lee had no need to explain himself. Yet, as an eminently reasonable man, he probably did so. The most obvious objection to Longstreet’s proposed flanking movement was that the Confederate line was already dangerously long. Moreover, though Lee may not have said this, merely to have forced Meade to retreat would have been nothing more than to win a victory. Gettysburg would have been only another Chancellorsville, as barren of results.” [p. 20]

At this point, Lee was still proposing to attack in the same manner as July 2. “As troops to be employed, Lee mentioned Hood’s and McLaw’s divisions, of Longstreet’s corps, which had done heavy fighting on the preceding afternoon. By thus using troops already in position without waiting for Pickett to come up, Lee could have launched the attack very quickly, in time to co-operate with Ewell. Now was Longstreet’s time to object. He came out flatly–his two divisions could not safely be taken from their present positions. They already faced strong forces; their removal would easily be observed from the hills. The maneuver would thus invite Meade to strike the Confederate right. Besides, the sounds heard during the night indicated that Meade, in expectation of renewed attack, was fortifying the position. In addition, the ground over which the Confederates must advance would be swept by the fire of the batteries on the smaller hill. Longstreet may not have felt it politic to present another reason. But his men had suffered heavy casualties, and were scarcely fit to resume the offensive. … The obvious evidence for the strength of Longstreet’s arguments is that Lee was convinced, and dropped the idea of using those two divisions. He also seems to have accepted the arguments against the place of the attack, and he now, we must assume, began to develop the idea of what would be known as Pickett’s Charge. This involved a considerable change of plan. First, the point of assault was shifted to the Union right-center. Second, all idea of direct co-ordination with Ewell’s attack was abandoned. Third, the troops to be employed were different. Pickett’s division was now definitely earmarked, and to this Longstreet could raise no objection. The other troops were to be drawn from Hill’s corps. Lee mentioned a total of three divisions, about 15,000 men.” [pp. 20-21]

The cannonade was an integral part of Lee’s plan for the assault. It was important for driving Union artillery away so they wouldn’t be able to fire on the assaulting troops. There was also a possibility it would demoralize the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge, making it easier for the assaulting troops to break the line. “Its primary object was to dominate the Union artillery, and in particular to knock out, or drive away, the six batteries on Cemetery Ridge. … Any effect the cannonade would have upon the Union infantry would be a by-product. Gunners, guns, and ammunition being fallible, most of the shots would not hit the batteries, and some of these would inflict casualties upon the near-by infantry.” [p. 119] But there was a monkey wrench in the works named William N. Pendleton. “William Nelson Pendleton was to have an important, if negative, influence upon the momentous events of this day.” [p. 45] First of all, having given E. P. Alexander nine howitzers with which Alexander could advance along with the charge to provide artillery support, Pendleton seems to have changed his mind. “With the cannonade about to begin, Alexander decided to check on the nine howitzers which Pendleton had assigned to him that morning and which he intended to advance with the infantry. He sent back an aide, who could not find the howitzers where they had been left, or anywhere else. Pendleton, reconsidering, had withdrawn four of them, and the officer in charge, finding himself in the line of fire of some union guns, had moved the other five. Neither had informed Alexander.” [pp. 119-120] Also important if the artillery was to give support to the infantry was replenishing ammunition expended during the cannonade. “Pendleton, as it happened, had already given a command, and had succeeded in creating a complication by moving the ammunition train of Longstreet’s artillery farther to the rear. This may have been necessary to get it out of range of the Union guns, but the removal increased the time for caissons to bring up fresh supplies of ammunition. In addition, Pendleton had caused confusion by not informing the artillery officers what he had done, so that the men with the caissons lost much time in locating the wagons.” [pp. 154-155]

Most visitors to Gettysburg stand at the Virginia Memorial, beneath the large equestrian statue of Robert E. Lee atop that memorial, look across the field at the copse of trees and shake their heads, wondering what Lee was thinking. Anyone could see that was suicide–an impossible task, right? Shelby Foote, in tribute to the intrepidity of the confederate infantryman, said if he were there he would have said they ought not to make that charge. But the majority of the troops in the charge weren’t going to take that route. That route is not Pickett’s Charge. It’s the route of retreat from Cemetery Ridge. Pickett’s men, especially, did not take that route. “Having remained in position behind the ridge for several hours, Pickett’s brigades were advanced over the top, still shielded from view by the woods. In line of battle they came down the gentle slope, through the trees on the eastern side. Then the ragged lines of the two leading brigades broke from the edge of the woods, and were halted and dressed. A hundred-fifty yards ahead up an easy slope, sharp against the bright sky, the men saw the crest of a low rise. Where they stood, in the swale, they were concealed from the enemy, even from the lookouts on the tops of the hills. A little to their left a rail fence zig-zagged up the slope. In front of their center they saw a farmhouse and a barn against the skyline. Just under the shelter of this low crest a line of guns was in position; it was their own artillery, Dearing’s battalion. Again the men were told to lie down, and to do nothing that would attract the enemy’s attention. Because of the order of the march Garnett’s brigade was on the left; Kemper’s on the right. Armistead’s brigade, following, had halted in the woods behind. Thus, unknown to the Union army, Pickett’s division had been skillfully placed in a position from which to launch an attack.” [p. 47] Skirmishers and other advance units had already torn down as many fences as they could to keep them from being obstacles, although they couldn’t get to all the fences.

“Pickett began his advance from the bottom of a swale, and for several minutes his lines moved forward without anyone on Cemetery Ridge being able to see them. Almost at once, however, his two front brigades came under observation from Little Round Top, and the alert men of the Signal Corps sprang into action.” [p. 179] So Union troops knew of the advance before they could see the confederates, and therefore before they could fire on the confederates.

Looking across the field, one gets the idea that there is no cover at all for troops advancing on Cemetery Ridge. But one has to walk the ground to get the full picture. “Having advanced slightly over half the distance in about eight minutes, under artillery fire for half of that time, Pickett’s first line came to a point of shelter. A swale in the gently rolling terrain hid them from observation, and sheltered them from most of the fire.” [p. 187] As we can see, there was a great deal of planning and thought put into the charge to include considerations of terrain, fencing, buildings to serve as objects to block observation and fire from Union guns, and timing as well as troop movement. This wasn’t a case of Lee reacting animal-like with no thought. This wasn’t a case of Lee suddenly going temporarily insane. This wasn’t a case of Lee getting a shipment of drugs and ordering the charge while he was stoned out of his mind. This was a well-planned assault that happened to fail, and the failure of the assault is superbly chronicled in this well-written book.

The book is filled with terrific information, and it’s a great pleasure to read. While an older book, first published in 1959, it has stood the test of time and is still a wonderful primer on the charge. He even avoids the popular myth that J.E.B. Stuart’s cavalry was supposed to attack the Union rear simultaneously with the infantry attack. “The correspondence of time has led to the belief that Stuart attacked in co-ordination with Pickett, and that, if both had been successful, the two attacks would have met, thus cutting the Union army in two. Lee’s only reference to this engagement, however, is in terms of defense, that it ‘effectually protected our left.’ Certainly, in the event of a Confederate victory Stuart would have been happy, as he himself declared, to harry the Union rear. But there seems to be no good evidence that his movement was in any proper sense of the word co-ordinated with that of Pickett.” [p. 242] Stewart has done a commendable job, deeply researching the book and looking at all the aspects of the charge he could think of investigating. The book even includes appendices covering losses, artillery, the battlefield, and other key aspects of the story. Reading this book was a fun experience and I highly recommend it.

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