By the summer of 1863 the optimism of the early months of the Civil War that had torn America apart had long since vanished as no end to the increasingly bloody conflict appeared in sight. Despite some progress being made in the West the war in the Eastern Theatre where the capitals of the two antagonists were separated by barely a hundred miles remained in the balance.
Two previous attempts by the North to invade Virginia and advance upon Richmond had been repulsed and despite having earlier risked a near catastrophic defeat at the Battle of Antietam General Robert E Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia were acquiring a reputation for invincibility.
In early May 1863 at the Battle of Chancellorsville, Robert E Lee vanquished Joseph 'Fighting Joe' Hooker, yet another in an ever increasing list of Union Commanders, when, confronted by superior forces he defied military convention dividing his army and in a flanking movement confusing and panicking his opponent to such an extent he very nearly routed the Army of the Potomac.
But despite success elsewhere the Confederacy continued to come under pressure in the West where the vital city of Vicksburg on the Mississippi River had been invested and was under siege. If Vicksburg were to fall then the Confederacy would be effectively split in two and control of that vital river artery lost for the duration of the war.
The Confederate President Jefferson Davis was keen to send a large portion of Lee’s army south to relieve the city but Lee, buoyed by his brilliant tactical success at Chancellorsville believed this would be a mistake. It was vital, he said, to maintain the pressure on the Union in the zone of conflict where he believed the war would be won or lost.
He would take the opportunity offered by the disarray in Union ranks and within its High Command to once more invade the north. This he believed was the most effective way of relieving the pressure on Vicksburg - President Davis agreed.
On 3 June 1863, the Army of Northern Virginia marched into the southern sympathising State of Maryland where they were greeted enthusiastically even if few flocked to their banner especially when they requisitioned slaves for labour and took grain and livestock paying for it in worthless Confederate currency.
By late June they had crossed the Potomac River and were advancing across the Northern State of Pennsylvania but triumphant though they were the sight of this rag-tag army dressed in grey and butternut, in clothes from home, in a variety of headwear, and many without boots impressed few. Locals complained of the bad odour and general lack of discipline but they were not to be underestimated. This was an army of veterans, confident and self-assured, who were used to victory on the battlefield.
As Lee’s army advanced north the Union Army of the Potomac stumbled about desperately trying to locate and intercept them.
On 29 June, Abraham Lincoln frustrated by Hooker’s vainglory, ineptness, and apparent loss of nerve at Chancellorsville replaced him with yet another General, George Gordon Meade his sixth since the war had begun just two years earlier. Meade, a prickly, short-tempered, cautious professional soldier who was nicknamed “The Old Snapping Turtle” by his men and inspired little confidence was nonetheless considered a safe pair of hands in comparison to the brash bravado of Hooker that had led to the disaster at Chancellorsville.
It was not expected that he would have to fight a major engagement before a permanent replacement could be found and when the two armies did finally clash it was to be by accident.
At 5 am on 1 July, Confederate General Henry Heth dispatched two Brigades to the town of Gettysburg to forage for supplies it was thought that there was a warehouse full of shoes in the town. He did this despite knowing that Union soldiers had been sighted in the area and having been expressly ordered by General Lee not to engage the enemy but he dismissed the reports of a Union presence as being no more than a few Pennsylvania Militiamen.
It was in fact General John Buford’s Brigade of cavalry and suspecting that he might have stumbled across the Army of Northern Virginia he ordered his troops to take up defensive positions around the town and by midday what had began as a skirmish had developed into a full-scale engagement as Buford was reinforced by troops sent by Meade, and Heth committed more and more of his own men to the battle.
Now that the two armies had clashed Lee’s blood was up and he was determined to turn what had been a mistake into an opportunity to fight and defeat his enemy. By late afternoon after stubborn resistance the Union lines were broken and they were in full and hasty retreat to the hills nearby.
Lee had earlier ordered General Richard “Baldy” Ewell to take the high ground which at the time was virtually undefended if, he said, the General thought it was practicable to do so. It was by now early evening, darkness was beginning to descend, and General Ewell decided that it was not practicable.
Not taking the high ground was to prove a significant error of judgement for the Union Army with reinforcements arriving all the time now occupied it and dug in.
Lee had wanted to fight the Army of the Potomac on ground of his own choosing and when his forces were fully concentrated but had blundered into them because he had been manoeuvring blind. His army’s eyes and ears and upon whom he was dependent for intelligence gathering was General J.E.B Stuart’s Brigade of Cavalry. He had earlier been ordered to ride north, find the Army of the Potomac, and report back on its whereabouts, its size, disposition, and its logistics train but slowed down by wagons of supplies he had captured on his ride north he did not return for eight days.
Lee was furious with Stuart who had returned to camp proudly showing off his booty castigating him for the first time in his career but remained pleased with the result of the first day’s fighting, and he now determined to maintain the pressure on the second day with concerted attacks on both Union flanks.
Although both General John Bell Hood’s assault on Little Round Top and the Devil’s Den and General Lafayette McLaw’s attack on the Wheatfield and the Peach Orchard were repulsed Union casualties had been high and Lee believed the Union Army sufficiently stretched and weakened to make an all-out assault on the centre of their line the following day.
Not only was such an attack viable he believed it would be the decisive blow not just of the battle but possibly of the war.
Lee’s decision to attack the Union Army where they were at their strongest was a bold strategy but he knew a tactical or strategic victory was not enough the enemy had to be destroyed.
He was aware he did not have the capacity to conquer the North let alone maintain control of it once he had done so and that the Confederacy with scant resources and constantly diminishing manpower could not afford to play for time. Only a series of shattering and morale sapping defeats and the complete annihilation of their primary field army would force the North to the negotiating table. The opportunity for him to do so had now presented itself and he was determined to take it.
The plan was for three Divisions numbering 15,000 men (though there were in fact only 12,500 because of casualties incurred in the earlier fighting) to spread out in a long line and assault the Union centre before converging on a copse of trees where the breakthrough would be made before fanning out to roll up the flanks.
The left of the line was to be led by James Johnson Pettigrew’s North Carolinian’s. The 35 year old Pettigrew was not a professional soldier but prior to the war had been a noted linguist and member of the South Carolina State Legislature. He had always dreamed of serving his country as a soldier however, and had risen to a position of command proving himself worthy of his promotion many times over.
He was to be supported by a Division made up of troops from Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee commanded by the 61 year old Isaac Ridgeway Trimble who had replaced General Dorsey Pender at the last moment after he had died of wounds the previous day.
Trimble had previously served as a soldier but that had been 30 years earlier and he had since become a successful railway engineer. He was grateful for being given the opportunity to participate.
The right of the line was to be led by George Edward Pickett’s Division made up almost exclusively of Virginians.
George Pickett was one of the more colourful characters in the Confederate Army, a man of great self-regard and no little ambition. Born in Richmond, Virginia, on 16 January 1825 to one of the most prominent families in the State and had originally intended to study law but at the age of 17 had a sudden change of heart and enlisted in the United States Military Academy at West Point. Like another man from the Civil War not lacking in self-esteem, George Armstrong Custer, he was to graduate bottom of his class but he was to serve with distinction in the Mexican-American War where he was decorated for bravery.
Despite personally detesting the institution of slavery when Virginia seceded from the Union he resigned his commission to serve his State.
Pickett certainly liked to cut a dash, he rode a sleek black charger and wore an immaculately tailored uniform with two rows of gold buttons, long white gloves and with a French style kepi upon his head. His hair he kept in:
“Long ringlets which flowed loosely over his shoulders, trimmed and highly perfumed, his beard likewise was curling and it was said “gave up the scent of Araby."
Never short of a word and rarely seen without his riding crop Pickett would stroll around camp expressing his opinion on almost any matter worthy of discussion. He was popular with his fellow Officer’s and exuded confidence though his record as a commander might have suggested otherwise.
General Lee had wanted the assault to begin early on the morning of 3 July and certainly no later than midday but the organisation and planning of it had taken longer than expected.
The plan of attack was to be implemented by General James Longstreet in whom Lee had absolute faith and preceded by an intensive artillery barrage designed to silence as many of the Union guns on Cemetery Ridge as possible.
Longstreet’s artillery commander was Colonel Edward Porter Alexander who though only being 28 years old was both experienced and highly thought of. He had 160 guns at his disposal and unleashed a furious two hour barrage but Cemetery Ridge was atop a low-lying hill at the end of a series of long undulating slopes and made a difficult target.
Unable to satisfactorily get their range most of the Confederate shells fell in the rear areas of the Union formation so much so that General Meade was forced to abandon his headquarters but they inflicted little damage on their intended target, and many of the shells failed to detonate due to the poor standard of Confederate fuses.
The Union guns responded in kind and the Confederate troops massing for the attack in the hollows around Seminary Ridge were exposed and vulnerable and the longer Longstreet delayed the attack the more casualties they endured.
Longstreet was disinclined to order the assault to begin until he had firm evidence that the Confederate barrage had taken a significant toll of the guns facing his troops on Cemetery Ridge. He had never been in favour of the assault in the first place, believing that it would be little more than a massacre and had expressed his view in a meeting with Lee where he had proposed an alternative flanking movement that would force the Union Army to abandon Cemetery Ridge and withdraw to confront the threat it posed. But this was not the decisive blow that Lee was seeking and he was overruled.
As the afternoon progressed, the Union Commander of Artillery Henry J Hunt ordered his guns to cease firing so as to save ammunition for the attack he knew was coming. Longstreet wanted to know if this cessation was a result of the damage inflicted by the Confederate guns but Alexander was unable to confirm that it was and it almost seemed as if Longstreet wanted him to order the advance to begin. Instead Alexander told him with some desperation and in no uncertain terms that he was running out of ammunition and to:
“Come quick or my artillery will not be able to support you."
Still Longstreet could not bring himself to give the order and it wasn’t until General Pickett arrived and animatedly demanded to know if he should order his troops forward that still unable to verbally do so he merely nodded his consent.
General Pickett returned to his division exuding confidence and with a wave of his sword ordered the advance to begin.
His division was split into three brigades, the right of his line was led by General James Lawson Kemper, a Virginia lawyer who’d had little military experience prior to the war but had proven to be determined in battle and personally brave.
The left of the line was to be led by Richard Brooke Garnett who had been facing a Court Martial prior to Gettysburg after being accused of neglect of duty by Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson, though the inference was cowardice. Following Jackson’s death at the Battle of Chancellorsville the case was quietly dropped but the accusation weighed heavily on Garnett and though he had been wounded earlier and could barely walk was determined to lead his men into battle and clear his name. Having to ride his horse would make him an easy and obvious target.
Bringing up the rear of Pickett’s line was Lewis Addison Armistead who came from a distinguished Virginia family though he had actually been born in North Carolina. He was best friends with the man who would be commanding the Union troops defending the wall at Cemetery Ridge, General Winfield Scott Hancock. The fact that they were now mortal enemies hurt him deeply but he remained committed to the Confederate cause. As his men lined up and fixed bayonets he addressed them as he always did before a fight:
“For your wives, for your sweethearts, for your homes - for Virginia!”
He then said a short prayer and pointing his sword in the direction of the enemy he ordered them forward.
The delayed attack began at around 3 pm and the Confederate troops had three-quarters of a mile to march uphill on what was a hot, humid day with temperatures as high as 87 degrees Fahrenheit.
The troops had been ordered to march slowly towards the enemy to maintain good order and they were to neither stop to fire or to give the “Rebel Yell” until they were within a few hundred yards of the Union line when the charge proper would begin and with banners flying and the sun glinting from their bayonets the Confederate advance made an impressive sight.
The Confederate columns came under intense fire from the Union batteries almost from the outset and a brutal cascade of shot and shell burst within their ranks but they showed remarkable discipline as the gaps blown in their lines were quickly filled.
They were also slowed by a series of fences in their path but the momentum was maintained as the Union troops sheltering behind the wall on Cemetery Ridge looked on nervously and with some admiration. Union General Carl Schurz wrote:
“The alignment was perfect. The battle flags fluttered gaily over the bayonets glittering in the sunlight. Now and then a cheer went up from our lines when some of our shells struck right among the advancing enemy scattering death and destruction. But the brave rebels promptly filled the gaps and unshaken and unhesitating they continued their onward march"."
The assault on the centre was intended to be just one of a series of attacks all along the Union line but they had been badly coordinated. By the time the rebels advanced from the woods at Seminary Ridge the attempt to capture the high ground at Culp’s Hill had already petered out and an attempt to turn the Union flank by Jeb Stuart’s cavalry had been halted by George Armstrong Custer’s Michigan Brigade.
There could be no support for the troops now advancing on Cemetery Ridge what they might achieve they would have to do on their own.
The flanks of the Confederate line were now being raked by fire from the hills and high ground that General Ewell had previously declined to occupy.
On the left Pettigrew’s North Carolinian’s were already taking heavy casualties when they were surprised by a fusillade of musket fire from the 160 men of the 8th Ohio Regiment that had out-flanked them.
Colonel John Mercer Brockenbrough’s Virginian’s who had taken the brunt of the assault now broke and fled, as they did so they crashed into General Trimble’s division coming up behind taking many of his men with them and it was only with some difficulty that he prevented panic taking hold.
The next brigade to be devastated was Joe Davis’s Mississippian’s hit by a thunderous cannonade that Lieutenant-Colonel Franklin Sawyer of the 8th Ohio graphically described:
“They were at once enveloped in a dense cloud of smoke and dust. Arms, heads, blankets, guns and knapsacks were tossed and thrown into the clear air. A moan went up from the field, distinctly to be heard amid the storm of battle.”
The Confederate assault on the left of the line had stalled as troops huddled together to exchange fire with the Union troops on Cemetery Ridge and those attacking them from the flank but they were to advance no further still hundreds of yards from their intended target.
As Confederate casualties mounted and men continued to fill the gaps that had been created the line became squeezed reducing the line of the attack from a mile to less than half that distance. It meant that the Confederates were now being out flanked and attacked from the rear.
At 400 yards the Union artillery changed from solid shot to canister fire, canisters full of nails and ball-bearings designed to shatter and cut swathes in the enemy lines.
All hope of success now rested with Pickett’s Virginian’s who continued to make good progress but they were under an intense barrage and taking heavy casualties. General Kemper’s brigade was now being fired upon in both their flank and rear and had virtually come to a halt. By contrast Garnett’s brigade, were closing in on their target and he was seen to rise in his saddle to exhort his men to ever greater efforts. It was the last time he was seen alive.
Following closely behind Garnett was Armistead’s brigade and as they began to close panic seemed to set in as Union troops could be seen deserting their posts on the wall. General Winfield Scott Hancock who had been a significant presence throughout the attack continued to ride his horse up and down the line calling upon his men to stay strong and keep firing. When a subordinate worried that he was making himself a target begged him to dismount he replied:
“There are times when a Corp Commanders life does not count.”
Soon after he was seriously wounded in the thigh but refused to be carried from the field until the battle was either won or lost.
As Armistead's 2,000 or so remaining Virginians began to close in on a part of the wall known as The Angle the 71st Pennsylvanian defending it inexplicably fled creating a dangerous gap in the Union lines and as the Confederates began scrambling over the wall the Union Commander of Artillery Henry Hunt could be head desperately shouting to Lieutenant Alonzo Cushing in charge of a battery:
"Give them double canister, Cushy! Give them double canister!"
He did as ordered and the Confederate line immediately in front of him simply disappeared in an explosion of cordite, smoke, and dismembered limbs.
Cushing was killed shortly afterwards shot multiple times through the mouth.
Another Union Officer was seen to be firing his pistol time and time again even though it was clearly unloaded and heard shouting hysterically:
“They’re coming! They’re coming!"
Lewis Armistead was at the forefront of his Brigade throughout the attack and with his hat perched on the tip of his sword he waved it in the air urging his men forward, exhorting them to one great final effort.
As his Virginians began to pile over the wall he ordered them to turn the captured guns on the enemy only to find them out of ammunition. When the troops ordered to fill the position vacated by the 71st Pennsylvanian refused to budge it seemed for a moment as if the entire Union line was in imminent danger of collapse and a fierce hand-to-hand struggle now ensued as with no time to re-load their rifles soldiers fought with bayonet, club, and fist.
Finally, the Irish Brigade of the 72nd Pennsylvanian came up to support those Union troops still manning the wall.
Outnumbered and hemmed in the Confederates began to look around for reinforcements but there were none. Still they fought on but when Armistead was shot through the chest their spirit was at last broken and with no senior Officers left to command them or even order a retreat some began to flee while others simply laid down their arms and surrendered.
Pickett’s charge was over and General Lee’s great gamble to alter the course of the war at a single stroke had failed.
As the shattered remnants of three Confederate Divisions limped and crawled their way back to the relative safety of Seminary Ridge, General Lee rode out to meet them saying:
“It is all my fault, it is all my fault.”
Of the 12,500 men who had begun the charge an hour earlier 1,123 were left dead on the field, 4,019 lay wounded many of whom would die later, and a further 3,750, captured. Union casualties were 1,200 killed and wounded.
These figures may be conservative however, with many of the remains little more than limbs and torn flesh that could have constituted one or a dozen bodies. General Lee was also eager to keep the casualty figures as low as possible for the sake of morale.
General Pickett had lost two-thirds of his Division and all of his 13 Regimental Commanders. When General Lee asked him to reform his Division for the expected Union counter attack, he replied:
“General Lee, I have no Division."
Lewis Armistead who had led his men with such courage and had come within a hairs-breadth of victory that day was taken to a Union field hospital where it was at first thought his wounds were not mortal but he soon fell into a coma and never regained consciousness dying two days later.
Following his death General James Longstreet sent Armistead’s Bible and personal belongings to his old friend Winfield Scott Hancock’s wife, Almira.
Despite the events of the day General Lee, as he had done before when facing disaster at the Battle of Antietam, refused to vacate the field. It was a bold thing to do for his army was in no fit state to sustain the fight and had General Meade ordered an immediate advance there seems little doubt that he would have swept the Army of Northern Virginia from the field and the road to the Confederate capital Richmond would have lay open.
But General Lee thought he knew his opponent and that even now caution would dictate his actions, he was right, and over the next few days the Army of Northern Virginia re-crossed the Potomac River into Maryland relatively unmolested.
General Meade had marshalled his troops effectively during the Battle of Gettysburg had nonetheless been on the defensive throughout and despite superior forces had never taken the initiative. He was to be criticised following the battle for not pursuing the Army of Northern Virginia with vigour and sweeping it from the field. Had he done so then the prospect of an end to the war would have real.
Following the retreat from Gettysburg Robert E Lee took full responsibility for the defeat and offered his resignation which President Davis declined.
The fighting at the Angle that 3 July would become known as the “High watermark of the Confederacy.”
They would never come so close to victory again.
As Lee’s army retreated news began to filter through that Vicksburg on the Mississippi had fallen and that the Confederacy had been cut in two.
Over the years many different people have been blamed for the failure of Pickett’s Charge and the Confederate defeat at Gettysburg: There was Richard Ewell’s failure to take the high ground early in the battle when he could easily have done so; the failure of Jeb Stuart’s cavalry to provide the reconnaissance and support expected of it throughout the campaign; then there was James Longstreet’s lack of enthusiasm and tardiness in ordering the charge to go ahead.
George Pickett also did not escape blame and has since been criticised for not personally leading his men into battle, though it was not unprecedented for a Divisional commander not to do so.
Finally, many people have since blamed Robert E Lee for simply asking his men to do more than they could possibly deliver.
The debate goes on but whatever the outcome the events of Pickett’s Charge left an indelible mark on the Southern psyche that remains to this day.
The famous Southern author William Faulkner was to write of it:
“For every Southern boy, fourteen years old, not once but whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that July afternoon in 1863, the brigades are in position behind the rail fence, the guns are laid and ready in the woods and the furled flags are already loosed to break out and Pickett himself with his oiled ringlets and his hat in one hand and his sword in the other looking up the hill waiting for Longstreet to give the word and it’s all in the balance."
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